Tuesday, September 18, 2007
How does a crying child make you feel?
I am not usually one to write about controversial topics, but this one is so close to my heart that I feel like I need to share my experience with not only anyone who will listen, but many people who may have faced some similar issues and could use the insight that I have found so valuable.
If you have read much of my blog, particularly posts from about a year ago, you will know that my introduction to parenthood has been pretty difficult. Amelia came into the world through a very stressful pregnancy, and very difficult delivery and then couldn't seem to sleep or stop crying (actually it was more like yelling, usually) for at least six months. Although her daytime temperament improved considerably with some helpful ideas from my acupuncturist, sleep has always been really difficult, and it had become much, much worse after our move up here a couple of months ago-- she was waking up every hour or two for at least a month!
Jeff and I both really appreciated the perspective of attachment parenting (AP) and wanted to respond to her every time she cried in her early months. Somehow, this resulted in her waking up every 45 minutes. I wore her in a sling all day, and bounced her on an exercise ball most of the times that she was awake, since this is the only thing that would help her stop crying. It was a really difficult process for us to realize that the way WE wanted to parent might not be what she needed. We realized that maybe she needed to cry.
A lot of our friends and family had done the babywise method that encourages parents to let their children "cry it out" (CIO.) While we both really hated the idea of CIO, we felt we didn't have any other options, since we were so exhausted and sleep deprived, and getting to the point where we were afraid we would hurt her if we had to keep bouncing and shushing all day and through the night. We tried various graduations of letting her cry, from sitting in her room and patting her back while she was in her crib, to checking in every five then twenty minutes. One night, we learned that she could yell for at least six hours without wearing out. We didn't need to know more than that, we had to try something else.
We worked really hard on her bedtime routine and consistent bed and naptimes, and things really improved. However, although she went out like a light, she usually woke up a few hours later, and was often either inconsolable or sociable as soon as we walked in her room and hysterical as soon as we tried to put her back down. There were many nights when we just gave up and pulled out the futon in the living room and tried to sleep through her yelling and screaming. I usually just laid there feeling really awful and wondering what on earth I could do differently. I tried every homeopathic, herbal and folk medicine remedy in the book. I took her to see all sorts of different health practicioners. Some improvements here and there, but her sleep (and ours) was still really poor.
I made an appointment here with a naturopathic doctor, hoping he would tell me that she had a wheat allergy or something that could be fixed and miraculously solve our problems. No luck. However, he sort of diagnosed her with birth trauma (I have not mentioned a whole other set of intriguing and bizarre behaviors), recommended someone who might be able to help with that, and also suggested that I may need a different perspective on what Amelia's needs are. He said that parents of colicky children often get stuck in a pattern of pacifying the child, and trying to keep them from being upset. The result is a very clingy, whiny child, among other things (Amelia was displaying those very behaviors-- way more than usual-- during our entire visit!) He gave me a reading assignment.
OK, this is where it gets exciting and controversial. The book is called Tears and Tantrums, written by Aletha Solter. Basically, the theory is that children (as well as adults) really do need to cry, as all the CIO people tell us; however, they need to experience full acceptance of their feelings. In other words, babies and children release tension and stress by crying and even raging, but need to be held and accepted during the process. Rather than trying to make a baby stop crying, which further contains their stress and overall tension, they need to be held as they cry, scream or yell (also called crying in arms, or CIA.)
The first night that I did this with Amelia, she cried, fussed screamed and wailed for about an hour, displaying quite an array of emotions. Then she slept for four hours. Then she woke up, cried a bit more-- but not long-- and slept for four more hours. Then she slept in. This has been a huge turning point for us. She has been crying as needed, but is sleeping MUCH better and is just so happy and pleasant all day. Very very content, not whiny or demanding. Today, she had a hard time with her naps and was slightly fussy at one point, so I expected her to wake up tonight and need to cry for a while-- which she did.
The really interesting thing about this is that my perspective on her crying has changed so much. The first night, I sat with her and thought about all the stress of moving, sleeping in different houses, not getting as much attention with all the stuff we've had to do. Plus all the inate, unknown difficulties of just being a baby. I felt so much compassion for her, and was glad that she could express all of that. I didn't feel in a hurry for her to finish up and go to sleep, and I appreciated that she could express those things in my presence. I read a list of all the things that cause stress or trauma in babies, and I realized that Amelia experienced many of those very things in utero and during her first couple days outside the womb. I felt sad that I had tried to get her to stop crying all year, when she really needed to heal from those experiences through expressing those negative feelings.
Not only have things with A. changed, but this book has really challenged my thinking about how we respond to emotional outbursts, particularly in children. I think that most people grew up being taught that it was "bad" to let out negative feelings, and "good" to be very in control of their emotions (supression!) However, what spouse would try to discourage the one they love from crying about something that was painful for them, or even expressing anger that was bottled up inside?
I don't know how many conversations I've overheard where someone is lambasting that "lousy" mother in the grocery store whose child is screaming or tantrumming. "She needs to nip that in the bud." "Why didn't she just spank that kid then and there?" Or worse! And I think many of us were actually punished for crying! Others were sent away from the family to express negative emotions, and couldn't be with them until they could stop crying and/or put a smile on their faces. There is this understanding in our culture that a pleasant child= good parents. I remember during Amelia's calmer phase, a couple of women came up to me and commented on how happy she was, and that I must be doing a great job! I was able to accept the encouragement, but had to wonder if I'd been a bad mom all of the other times, when she was so unhappy!
I think that particularly in religious communities, there is a lot of judgement of parents based on their ability to control their children. It seems to me that many of the discipline decisions that are made are based on fear of what other people will think of them as parents and good people. This is NOT to say that most parents are not doing their very best to raise their children! It is more a cultural issue of what a parents' role is in helping the child develop, and how we believe that should be done. And of course how WE as parents feel about crying ourselves or whether or not it is OK to express anger or frustration has a huge impact on how we handle these expression in our children.
Let's switch to a strictly physiological point of view. As a massage therapist, I am continuing to learn about the effects emotions have on the body. Emotions are chemicals, and when they are not expressed or worked out of the body, they remain in the tissues. These compounds end up causing all sorts of complaints and illnesses, from bowel problems to arthritis to rigid muscles and poor posture. Interestingly, the chemical makeup of tears actually contains forms of cortisol-- the stress compound-- and crying is a way of pumping it out so it doesn't stay in the body! Other releases include exercise, sweating and laughing, but very small children don't have a lot of options. After people cry or even rage, their blood pressure is lower, the presence of cortisol in their blood is much lower, and they generally sleep well and just feel better!
Then there is the relational aspect. Children learn to hold in their emotions if parents do not respond to or are uncomfortable with them expressing them. There is something special to me about having the sort of relationship with my child that accepts all of her feelings, whether positive or negative. I will feel honored when she shares with me into adulthood what is happening in her life and her heart, and not only do I want to set the stage for that, but I want to know those things about her now, as well. Being attentive to your child DOES NOT mean being permissive or "spoiling" them-- oftentimes, it's a limit that is being enforced that provokes the tears. Although I'm sure I'll feel mortified at times in public, I hope that I can respond to Amelia in ways that allow her to process the traumas of life-- big and small-- and allow her to grow into an emotionally healthy little person! I know my explanation of this philosophy has not done the book justice, but I'd like to encourage you to read it, even if you don't have small children of your own, but intend to, or if you work with them.