I've spent the last week getting over this notion & trying to get my daughter to wrestle with me. Why? Well, let's go back to last Tuesday. That day marked The Tantrum. The biggest, most epic freak out Nia's ever had. It started in the middle of dinner and went until she finally crashed out for bed around 10p. It just went on and on. Right when she seemed to be calmed down, something else would set her off. It was extremely challenging. Joe and I tried being understanding yet firm, we tried ignoring it, we tried being irritated, we tried taking time-outs for ourselves, we tried holding her... We tried all we could think of. Finally, exhaustion and being read to for over an hour won out.
I went to bed that night exhausted myself, wondering, "What the f-- was that?!"
Sure, sometimes emotional outbursts are caused by being overtired. Sometimes it is a nutrition defecit. But this felt like something else. I turned to my dog-earred copy of Playful Parenting for some ideas and found it almost immediately: Tantrums are a mega release of energy. While exasperating to parents, Lawrence Cohen points out that the kids usually feel 100% better afterward. Doh! Of course. Earlier in the day, I remembered, Nia had been really stressed out while wanting to play with a friend, but being afraid of their puppy jumping up on her. No amount of telling her the puppy wasn't interested in her could get her to relax. Instead, I got annoyed, and she got grumpy with her friend. After the playdate ended, we had a nice afternoon/evening, but then in the middle of dinner, all those pent up feelings of frustration, fear, stress came exploding out.
So, how could I help release some of the energy created by daily stress without it needing to come out via a tantrum during dinner? Here's where the wrestling and roughhousing comes in.
By "wrestling" I mean a couple things: Classic wrestling where I'm on the floor and say, "Ok, use all your strength to pin my shoulders to the ground." Or another version we've been playing is, "I'm gaurding this bean bag. Use all your strength and smarts to get past me on to it" (or visa versa, "try to get off this bean bag.").
Obviously I'm stronger than my 35 lb daughter and she could never really pin me, or get to the bean bag if I didn't want her to. So it is an interesting balance of giving her enough resistance to feel strong and powerful and expell energy, but also let her win sometimes and feel triumphant -- without it being obvious that I let her win. I play up the goofy factor big time: When she does get past me on to the bean bag, I am shocked and sad and angry and even more determined to keep her off the next time.
One thing Lawrence Cohen says frequently in Playful Parenting is to "follow the giggles." Let the giggles be your guide if you are doing the game right (but tickling doesn't count). If she is laughing and into it, keep at it. If she's not really laughing, then change the strategy. Likewise, if during wrestling there is no eye contact, something is up and you might need to take a break to arm wrestle or something that fosters connection.
For us, this week, these games often turned into other games: Racing, Tag, Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, Hide n' Seek -- all great ways to blow off steam, get some exercise, make a connection between us, and also let Nia explore her mental & physical competence.
In all of this I can see that she is pushing through layers of built up emotions. Sometimes she's gritting her teeth and I have to remind her that biting/pinching/hitting is not allowed in wrestling. Other times she isn't really putting her strength into it and she's more of a rag doll, so we change the game till she's ready to feel strong. Sometimes she suddenly grabs me and is hugging me and telling me she loves me. And sometimes all of this is happening within 5 minutes of initiating play.
I'm finding myself cycling through emotions too while we play. Sometimes I'm present, sometimes I'm thinking about what to make for dinner. Sometimes I'm laughing, too, while other times I'm frustrated because she wants to take the game another direction from what I intended. So it is good for me, too. I'm blowing off my own steam from the stresses of the day.
And we've not had any tantrums since last Tuesday -- either one of us!