Why Does Change Make My Child So Unreasonable?
When you have children, a change isn’t as good as a rest. It’s exhausting.
Last week, we visited my family up in Scotland. It’s a pretty long drive with 2 children but I’ve done it numerous times and have perfected the ‘activity bag’ and snack box for maximum entertainment and minimum whingeing. There was much excitement from both the girls before the trip but Little Brown Eyes really struggled with being away from home and in unfamiliar places which resulted in some pretty challenging behaviour.
I’ve noticed since Lockdown, that she finds unfamiliar people and places really unsettling. We visited a friend’s house for the first time a few weeks ago and although she knows the friends, she hasn’t been to their house before and her reaction was unexpected. She became almost silent as soon as we got there, only speaking to me in whispers. She refused to play with any toys unless I accompanied her; wouldn’t eat and didn’t eat more than a few crisps the whole afternoon.
So what’s the point in telling you this? I suppose it’s to highlight that even a seemingly confident, articulate child can become anxious in unfamiliar settings. She needed time and reassurance to overcome her feelings of discomfort about the uncertainty that new people and places creates for her.
I resisted the urge to chivvy her along and encourage her to play with the others as I can remember feeling the same way as a child. The feeling often occurred at a play area or party — an environment I ‘should’ have enjoyed but I didn’t. I preferred the safety (and boredom) of sitting with my parents rather than face the unknown of unfamiliar people and places. I remember feeling like my stomach was going to come out of my mouth if I had to eat anything or play with someone I didn’t know.
Sometimes anxiety doesn’t look like anxiety.
So flash forward to our long weekend in Scotland, but this time the anxiety didn’t always look like we all expect, at least not at bedtime. Now you all know my thoughts about bedtimes, but last weekend, Beautiful Brown Eyes took things to a new level and I’ve been pondering about why. I think the answer is change.
For those few days, everything changed: her bed, her routine, the people around her, the whole environment. And she did not cope well with it at all. But rather than become clingy and quiet, my strong willed girl became loud, aggressive and seemingly out of control. Now, I’ve got to confess I’m not at my best at bedtime. I’m a morning person so by about 7pm, I’m heading for a nap on the sofa with a cup of hot water and the tv controller. So this is not the time when I am at my most empathetic and calm.
I tried not to lose my shizzle while she kicked and thrashed and screamed about how much she hated everything (and everyone) and I tried hard to look beyond the behaviour to the feelings lying beneath, but wow! It was hard.
Why does anxiety look like anger?
I often describe it to my young clients like this: Anger is like a body guard. It feels strong and powerful which can make it easy to hide our more vulnerable feelings behind such as fear or anxiety or even sadness. Anger is often described as a secondary emotion because there is another feeling causing the anger.
In the case of Little Brown Eyes at bedtime, it was fear and anxiety that was causing her anger. She found the room creepy and didn’t want to me to leave her alone. If only she could just tell me that! But we don’t always know how we feel, especially as children, so we rely on the adults around us to translate our behaviour into feelings and words. I don’t remember being told that in ante-natal classes, do you?
So the next time you feel angry, consider what other feelings might lie beneath: fear, embarrassment, shame, sadness, anxiety? It’s not always obvious, especially in children, but it helps to understand the behaviour better if you can see the feelings behind it.
I know that my own anger with her anger (these emotions are all very contagious aren’t they?) was borne out of fear: Fear that I wasn’t in control (which I wasn’t, but neither was she); Fear that she would never go to sleep (which she did); and fear that bedtimes will always be like this — hellish (this is called catastrophising and is not based on reality). Once I noticed the fear and took my foot off the anger pedal, I found it easier to stay calm (ish). It takes practice to tune in and respond rather than react but it makes family life calmer.
The reality is that she went to sleep every evening and although it felt like it took hours to calm her down, it didn’t really. Everything is amplified when emotions are running high. I suspect that my feelings of fear and being out of control were in parallel with Little Brown Eyes’ feelings hence the level of rage. As someone who will happily sleep anywhere, it’s hard to understand why going to sleep in a different house would generate these feelings but our experiences are unique.
Thankfully as soon as we got home, she settled back into her usual bedtime routine and slept like a baby all night. Unfortunately, Beautiful Blue Eyes then picked up the hellish bedtime baton and ran with it…I guess you can’t win them all, but I’ll celebrate the small wins along the way.
I wonder if I have noticed the impact of change more acutely owing to Lockdown and how long we were forced into a very familiar routine in a familiar place with familiar people. It’s understandable that our children (and ourselves) may need a period of adjustment to all the changes that are going on in our lives. Allow yourself and your children to feel the discomfort of uncertainty and change and know it will pass. Be gentle with yourselves.