Look closer, stuff is happening.
A preschooler comes home from school; he is edgy and vulnerable. Maybe something happened at school. Maybe a friend made him sad. Maybe the work was hard. We may never know. But we do know that he is poking and prodding and pushing and pulling. We can feel it rise. We are on guard. If we only look at the surface, we may try to shut down behaviors: “Don’t do that.” “Be nice to your brother.” “Find something to do.” We engage in reactive parenting with the goal of avoiding a meltdown, of avoiding our own discomfort. We are focused only on the immediate behaviors we can see on the surface.
But look closer, stuff is happening. When we observe more closely, we may see sadness or tenderness. Our preschooler doesn’t have the words to express deep complicated emotion. So he moves his body around, waiting to crash into something or someone, emotionally or physically, that can help him “get it out.”
Inevitably, if we don’t look closer, if we can’t make space for the bigger, deeper issues, it will happen. And sometimes, even if we see that there is more there, it will happen anyway. Explosion. Sometimes a kid just needs to blow up.
If we react to the surface behaviors, we may miss the real action.
Look closer, stuff is happening. Children’s behavior is not random. It is the physical representation of what they are feeling and thinking. Just like adult behavior. Just like you and just like me.
It’s our job to use the child’s behavior as clues. Use their actions to remind us to look deeper. What is happening? What are they telling us? What do they need?
Our preschooler starts throwing stuff around the room. Our instinct tells us to stop him. But instead we look closer. We see that he is actually choosing objects carefully. Things that won’t break. He is making a mess, but not doing damage. He looks angry. He looks lonely. He looks sad. He is, also, very much in control.
We choose not to stop him. Instead we say, “You look angry, you look lonely, you look sad. I am here if you need me.” We step back and give him space, watching closely and prepared to intervene if the behavior becomes more out of control or unsafe.
He continues to throw things, clearly choosing carefully. The mess is pretty big. We control our own instinct to intervene. Messes make us uncomfortable, but that’s our process, not his.
We wait, keeping the house quiet and still, keeping ourselves available from a distance.
Eventually, he comes to us, saying, “I need a hug.” “I can see that,” we say and wrap him in our arms. The living room is a mess. He melts into our arms and cries and cries. We can feel his sadness. Life is hard. It really is. Sometimes, we just need to explode. His body changes, but he isn’t done yet.
Look closely, stuff is happening.
“That’s a pretty big mess you made in there. You were really angry. What happens next?” we ask.
His crying escalates. “I have to clean it up!!!” he wails.
“Seems like the right thing to do. When I break stuff or make a mess, I like to leave things better than I found them. It helps me feel better,” we say.
“No one will help me! I have to do it alone!” he sobs.
“Seems like it, I know you can do it. I have faith. I will be right here if you need me.”
His sobbing continues as he slowly moves to the living room. Bit by bit. Block by block. Game piece by game piece. He struggles to put everything back in order. He is crying loudly. Sobbing. But we look closer, stuff is happening. He is taking meticulous pride in putting things in order. He is organizing things that he didn’t mess up.
He works. And works. And cries and cries. Every few minutes, he comes back to where we are sitting and asks for a hug. We give them freely. There is no time limit. This is his process. There is no need for him to be calm or be quiet or do things our way.
The mess is cleaned up and he is breathing deeply and slowly. He sits down in the middle of the room and looks around. “I think I will clean the windows.” We smile. “That would feel good I bet. Leaving things better makes me feel good, too.” He cleans them and then pushes a candle into the center of the table. He stands back and smiles.
Look closer, things are happening. It is his living room. It was his mess. He went from angry and furious to sad to calm and proud.
We may never have any idea about what he worked through in that time. But he worked through some feelings that were pretty big. A closer look allowed us to interact rather than react. It allowed us to give him space, to stay close and supportive without interfering.
Look closer, things are happening. All the time.