breakdown, breakthrough ~ part two
For part one (breakdown), read this. This is a long one.
By the time we reach the car, I’m still wondering how to handle this. What caused this outburst? What’s going on in our daughter’s little head and heart? What, if any, are the consequences? How can we avoid this again?
But she’s got a swim lesson in 20 minutes and I have to decide whether she can still go. I don’t want to risk her getting hurt at the pool. Yet take her home and she might just explode in fury or collapse in sorrow. A moment ago she was out of her mind. Now she’s asking about swimming.
I take a deep breath before opening the car door. Once more I explain that such behavior is unacceptable. I ask why she’s acting this way. I don’t know, she says. I don’t know why either, but we need to figure it out together.
By this point I’m on the verge of tears myself. The intensity of the outburst mixed with her rage and my exhaustion leave me unsettled. I make her look me in the eyes as I tell our daughter there is nothing she could do or say that would make me stop loving her. Ever. But you can not act this way, I tell her. We don’t use our words or hands to hurt people. We need to be safe with our bodies and with others. You know this.
She seems surprised to see a hint of tears in my eyes, and I tell her yes, that’s right, you hurt me and it’s not okay. Why were you doing those things, I ask again. I don’t know, she says. And I believe her.
Once more, gently. What are you upset about, honey? Did something happen at school? Is something bothering you? Is something making you sad? Do you feel angry? Are you frustrated about something? Can you tell me, baby? Mama’s here to help you find your words. Leaving plenty of space for her to begin to talk, I tell her again how much I love her, how much we love her. I tell her that talking can help make us feel better.
Jaye, are you sad about something? Are you angry?
I don’t know, she says. Maybe…
It’s OK to be sad, I tell her. It’s OK to be angry. It’s not OK to hurt people because you feel that way. We need to think about how you feel and talk about why. Mama and Dada are here to help, honey. We’re here to help figure things out. We love you and nothing you can do or say will make us stop loving you. We need to talk about why you’re acting this way though. You can’t do this, sweetie. Mama loves you so much, but you just can’t do this.
Why were you trying to hurt Mama? Again, I ask if something is making her sad or angry. I think so, she says. What do you think it is? I don’t know, she says. Is that why you were doing those things, because you feel angry or confused about something? Sometimes, she says, my brain tells me to do things, “bad” things. Deep inside I begin to worry. What kind of things? Why do you think your brain is telling you to do them? I don’t know, she says through tiny tears.
I really don’t want to pressure her. She’s still distraught, though calmer now. Still, I can’t let her go swimming until I know she will listen and be safe. She tells me she will, but I don’t know that yet.
I buckle the carseat, hug her tightly and tell our daughter she is not a bad person, that we love her even when she does things we don’t like. I tell her we’re here to help her become the amazing awesome person she is. I tell her again that it’s OK to feel sad or angry, that she might feel better if she can talk about it. Mama and Dada may not have all the answers, I tell her, but we will always listen and try to help. We will always love you no matter what.
Then she tells me how a boy at school upset her and that’s why she is sad. But I know that’s not it. What else then?
Her rage was directed at me, which tells me something. If she was upset about something concerning her baby sister, her target would have likely been different. She has acted out that way before, like many siblings. This is not merely some form of rivalry, not this time.
I think I need to back off a bit. So I get in the car and begin driving slowly. It’s about an 8 minute ride from preschool to the pool, with our house on the way. She thinks we’re going home and she’s upset. She tells me she’ll listen to her swim instructor, that she just didn’t want to listen to Mama. I explain that’s not how it works.
As we’re driving, our daughter tells me what I assume she thinks I want to hear. She says she was upset all day because she missed me, but that when I came to pick her up she didn’t want to go, so she felt confused. Intuitively I know this is not the case. Her teacher said she was fine all day. Until I got there. Yet there is something in her words. She says she was missing something.
Part of me thinks I need to pursue this, yet maybe I should let it go and not push, not this time. I wonder if I should just say that Mama and Dada will figure out some appropriate consequences for her behavior. But it doesn’t feel right. What are the consequences for such an emotional outburst? No, she needs help sorting through her emotions. Clearly she needs a way to process (and release) her feelings. She needs to know that we can work through whatever it is, that we’re here to support her.
I’m trying to be a good parent here, yet I’m perplexed. I want her to feel love, yet I know she needs firm boundaries. While I don’t intend to engage in a battle of wills with a 4yo, she will push. She will test me. I am safe. Still, while I know not to take it personally, I am devastated. A bit of my heart broke with her hurtful words, and when I saw that look of rage in her eyes. Yet I know it is she who must be hurting to act this way. This was not just a freakout over preschool pickup.
In my mind I start to go there. Is she really old enough to begin processing what it means to be an adopted child? I believe our daughter is now beginning to feel what that means for her. She’s just four years old. Four seems about the age when questions begin, though more comprehensive understanding of her adoption is unlikely for a few years. Yet here in this car, I feel my child’s heart is aching. She can’t articulate why she’s sad or angry, but she is. I don’t want to presume or put words in her mouth — or ideas in her head — yet I want to help her connect with her feelings, whatever they are. By naming her emotions she may begin to feel some control over them. I don’t really want to lead down this road just yet, but if she’s already there I want her to know she is not alone. So I need to go there. My baby is hurting and while I may not be able to fix it, I need to be there, even if it means being her target, her trigger. I need to help her find ways to deal with some overwhelming and likely confusing thoughts and emotions.
She says she is missing something. She says she feels sad and angry. She doesn’t know or can’t say why. You said you missed Mama today, honey. Do you miss Dada when you’re at school too? Yes, she says. Do you miss other people we don’t see so often, like (naming her two closest grandmothers)? Yes, she says, I do. And other people too, she says (naming her closest cousins who she longs for when they’re apart, a new friend she wants to play with, and more members of her birth family). And Kaye, I ask? Yes, she says, Kaye too. Now I’m watching in the rear view mirror as she’s nodding, like she’s relieved to have said it, or at least that’s how it feels to me. Oh sweet girl, of course you do. I miss her too. We all love Kaye so much and we miss her when we don’t get to see her so often, I explain. Kaye is a very special part of our family. It’s OK to miss her, I tell her. It’s OK to love her so much, like Mama and Dada do. All the while, she nods through soft tears.
My heart is breaking for her, with her. Yet I’m so grateful for what feels like a significant breakthrough.
When we park in front of the pool, I look to the rear view mirror and into her eyes and tell our daughter how many people here on earth love her so, and how we’re all here to help her grow into the amazing girl she is inside. I tell her once again how we all became family the day she was born, joined together by so much love. I tell her that even though Kaye isn’t with us every day, she is still such an important part of our family. I’m your mama, sweet girl, and Kaye is your birth mama and we both love you so very much. We all love you so much. Too much to count.
I think she hears me. I think she’s listening.
I know this is just the beginning, but for the moment, she seems content.
Can I have my swim lesson now, Mama? Yes, honey, yes. Let’s go.