She had collapsed in on herself and was sobbing at the table. I patted her on the back in that awkward way which precisely conveys, “I don’t know what to do, or what to say, and I want to run from this emotional Hazmat scenario as fast as I can but I’m required by law to suffer with you.”
I waited an appropriate and painful amount of time, and then wandered over to the stove and stared into a pot of boiling water. This is a super effective parenting strategy. For snakes.
Two everlasting minutes later my 10-year-old ran upstairs to her room and slammed the door. For the first time. Category five meltdown over a new chore list? It made no sense to me, but I’m a compassionate person. When people lose their shit, even if they’re 10, I try to put myself in their shoes. How would I feel if someone sat me down and gave me a list of responsibilities, had already decided my compensation and bonus structure, and none of it was negotiable? I would feel like an employee. Wait. Nevermind. I could see why at her age she would feel powerless and not very motivated to cooperate.
Option 1: Go upstairs and punish her for slamming the door, say the list is final, and tell her to get over it.
Message: Expressing anger is bad, she should always do whatever she’s told, and her feelings aren’t important.
Result: She resents the chore list and rebels quietly as much as possible, which is a fantastic pain in my ass that leads to more negative consequences for her and everyone is unhappy. Awesome.
Also, what does that message look like when she’s 18? Is that course of action preparing her to be a self-assured individual who thinks for herself, values her own opinion, and knows how to express herself? The only thing that really needs correcting in this situation is the door slam.
Option 2: Calmly address the door slam, and don’t make the situation worse by applying logic to her emotions.
This is a brand new tack for me. Thank you, smart people who wrote How to Talk so Kids will Listen & How to Listen so Kids will Talk. My first parenting book – yay! No hurry.
Fact: Emotions freak me out. My typical reaction to someone feeling like their world is coming to its natural end is to interrogate them relentlessly until I have all the details, offer a reasonable solution asap, and then disappear. As you can imagine, people find this approach very comforting and helpful.
I’m working on it okay? It takes DECADES to become a good parent, which is the REAL reason everyone wants grandchildren. They’re human do-overs.
Anyway, here’s what happened when I entered the valley of emotional darkness.
Me: Hey that was a pretty good slam. I respect it. Doors aren’t for slamming – there’s a better way to express yourself – but I’m glad you did. Now I understand you’re not sad. It seems like you’re angry. Is that right?
Btw a door slam is huge progress for a child who guards her feelings like someone is trying to steal them.
She nodded yes.
Me: Is it because you feel like you have no say in the chore list?
Me: I understand – it would upset me, too…I bet you wish you could tear that chore list into a 1,000 pieces huh?
Me: And set it on fire?
She stopped crying and looked at me like I was a little bit crazy.
Me: And then maybe PEE on it?
She laughed out loud and her eyes lit up.
Me: Wow, you’re really angry!
Anna: [Still laughing]: I know!
Me: Like super mega wicked pissed.
Me: Does it help to know the list is negotiable?
Anna: What do you mean?
Me: The list isn’t final – I’d like to go over it together so you can give me your input. We can make changes as we see fit and I’ll reprint the list. Afterward you can show that list how much you hate it.
Anna: Burn it and pee on it?
She ran down the stairs and started studying the list.
We went over each line together and she made notes on a separate piece of paper outlining our modifications. In the end there were only a handful of minor changes. She just wanted to be part of the process. Her attitude shifted from despair to a confident kid eager to do her part. The situation turned from a sobbing nightmare to Fairy Tale Negotiations on the Rainbow’s Edge™ in 27 minutes. Win!
True to my word, I let her burn the original list.
And then put the ashes in the toilet so she could pee on them.
I probably could have stopped at the pyro shenanigans, but I’m inappropriate like that sometimes.
We moved on to a spelling dance-off, and then she ran upstairs to make sure she got everything on the chore list done before bed. Peace was restored, the chore chart will be seamlessly implemented, and we both went to bed happy.
Turns out that honoring emotion is actually totally LOGICAL. Who knew?
Have you ever solved a problem with fire? Urine? How about urine that’s on fire?