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.


Nathan said...

It's great to learn from your learning. Thanks for going through the difficult process of expressing it cohesively. You've done a good job reflecting.

Gretchen said...

Ariana, your thoughts really made me think about how I respond to Anders crying and the screaming he has been doing lately. Of course it is embarassing to have a screaming child and I'm torn between "well this is what toddlers do" and "I am such a bad mom for having a toddler who screams!" I've tried everything and I'm not done trying ways to help him use his "hushy" voice. But I understand that it is frustrating to be a 1 year old who can't talk and yet knows what he wants. It must be painful to have 4 teeth trying to burst through your gums. So, I appriciate your view on being empathetic and letting the emotions be heard.
Each child is so different and it sounds like what you are doing for Amelia is what she needs.

Bethany said...

The book sounds really interesting. I will have to see if I can get it from my library. I have been thinking about this again a lot lately as I have a nearly 8 year old who still cries much more than I think he needs to, and I am trying to figure out what the issues are. Though it doesn't happen all the time, both of my kids have used crying, and yelling style crying as a manipulative tactic or to punish those who didn't give them what they wanted. It just makes it so complex to sort out what is necessary expression and what we should put limits on.

Since both of our kids are old enough to dialog with, I try not to just "make them stop" but try to talk to them about how we can express our emotions in socially acceptable ways. Our culture probably needs to change what it sees as socially acceptable. But I hope that teaching it to them anyway, will help them later in life. I really agree with the idea that the family needs to be a place where you can express those emotions and feel acceptance. I want to try to do that more, but also know that too much crying, screaming, and "repetitive noises" drain my resources and turn me into a very unloving person. I am always praying that God will both continue to change me, as well as compensate for the many ways I am not a perfect parent.

Your paragraph on wanting to use attachment parenting methods reminded me of how much I wanted to demand feed my baby girl when she was an infant. It sounded perfect, but it didn't work with her because she would only eat enough to not starve and then wouldn't be interested again until she loudly demanded to be fed 15 minutes later. Five minutes of feeding, ten minute break, five minutes of feeding, ten minute break was obviously going to drive me to the brink of insanity. So I had to change strategies, but felt so blessed when Ethan came along and demand feeding seemed to suit him perfectly.

Anyway, sorry for the long comment. You brought up so many interesting points. I am so glad you guys have found something that is helping all of you. And thanks for the book recommendation. It is an area that doesn't come natural to me, so I can use all the help and insight I can get!

doro said...

friend, i'm so glad that you have found a way to help the three of your process through your needs together. just this morning on my way to work i heard about a study (on NPR) that was conducted on mothers who had a stressful pregnancy and the sleep pattern of their babies. i was thinking a lot about you and then read your blog!

what i think is also very important about children (especially dear amelia) being able to express her emotions is that women in particular are not allowed to express anger and frustration in our society. i think that it is a sign of strength that many women have to learn in adulthood, and are not supported in the process. how much more wonderful for ameila that she will be learning to express these feelings now in a supportive environment!

Leslie said...

Thanks for sharing this, Ariana! I have definitely contributed to the negative attitude towards crying children in stores, restaurants, etc. I never once stopped to think about how that particular child might be "feeling" at the moment, or to even give validation to his/her emotions. I always thought that I'd be "cursed" with a bratty, horrific child - one reason why I am actually terrified to have children. Ha, ha. I'll be calling upon you when the time is right!

ShackelMom said...

Wow, what an excellent review of all you are learning! I never had to deal with a baby that cried so much, so I feel so much for you and Amelia and am glad you are finding help and inisght. I can see how accepted crying would change the picture. I hope you give us more updates!

Unknown said...

Thanks, everyone, for conversing with me about this. I am always interested to hear what others think about parenting and cultural issues that affect how we approach children. Feel free to keep adding thoughts, though-- I'm not closing the topic!

Bethany-- you may want to look for the book Helping Young Children Flourish. I haven't read it, but it is for an older age group that the one I mentioned.

Leslie-- I'm sure most of us are guilty of judging other parents for the behavior of their children, especially when it makes us start sweating or wanting to scream ourselves! But it's good to broaden our perspective on these things. Thanks for speaking up!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing what you have been through and what you are learning.I don't remember having too much problem with our girls,but I agree emotions should not be punished.I learned somewhere the rule "Teach their mind,suport their emotions,correct/discipline their behavior" But some parents see expression of emotions as a "bad attitude"and treat it as behavior.My, parents surely need God's help in knowing the differance. I'm so glad God provided that book for you. I enjoyed reading all the comments too.God bless! Love Grandma

Dennis Family said...

After talking with you and needing a different approach with Violette, we have seen some positive changes. My fear has been that we would push her away because we didn't know how to deal with her emotions. Coming at her from a different place really makes sense though I'll admit it isn't what comes naturally and we have really had to make an effort to love her in a different, less selfish and selfconcious way. I can see it making her a happier more peaceful girl because she can let it all out and be loved and accepted at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Very well written, Sweetheart! It's great you could not only learn from all you and Jeff have been through with Amelia, but could communicate it in a clear and sensible way that will help others. As supported by all the comments so far! Thankful for the breakthrough with Amelia and proud of you. --Dad

Nathan said...

look at that cutie! she is a lucky girl to have such compassionate parents!


Anonymous said...

Ariana, thanks for explaining all that you're doing and thinking about with child rearing and loving Amelia. It's so interesting and I'm sure it's healthy to love each child for who they are and where they are and to try to see things from their point of view! I've been thinking about it alot since I read your well-written piece and I can see it's making all of us think in new ways. I'm so glad that it may really be a breakthrough for your family as well... I know we're all pulling for you on the sidelines!
Lots of Love...

Heidi said...

Very interesting blog, Ariana. I really agree with the need to release emotions through tears. I started calling tears "liquid emotions" a while back, since, as a Seelye, I don't even need to have negative emotions to cry. Or the red nose that goes with it. I have found that crying makes me feel way better, and it's also very healing, especially for releasing old pain that I didn't realize was still there. Thankfully, Amelia is young, so the "old pain" is still new. But I think the book you've read applies to adults as well as children very well. Blessings on you and Jeff both!

Will De Hart said...

Ariana, I really agree. I am from the CIO group--most of the time. It's been harder for me with Sam, because I seem to internalize his emotions easier. I loved your pictures.

Isn't it fun to write on controversial issues? I think its fun to have a voice, and I really appreciated yours.

Team ed. said...

This post really resonated with me. I see that even the expression of tears through adults could use some of this perspective. It seems that our society does a poor job of facilitating a safe environment for tears--maybe it's because we're conditioned to that as really young children.

Thanks for your honesty. It's lovely.

Unknown said...

Hi, Liz, Thank you for stopping by and adding your thoughts. And I agree that these attitudes seem to carry through to adulthood. We all need to cry in order to process and heal through our experiences in this world!

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