Okay, right away I admit my title may be a little misleading. I don’t really have any magic tricks to relieve a parent’s bad day. The old standby’s like massage, cocktails, sex (preferably with someone, like a spouse), chatting with an empathetic friend, exercise, or a shopping spree can work in a pinch, but they all require either time, money or energy –sometimes all three.
Every parent experiences days from hell when a baby cries incessantly or a toddler has an interminable meltdown. All we want is to calm our child by any means necessary, but it’s impossible. In that moment, it is difficult to feel like a successful parent. My secret — perspective. (I know. I hear your groan. But stay with me here!)
What I have learned is that these frustrating, demoralizing episodes are actually prime parenting days. When we allow a child to have tantrums and release feelings, we are not failing. In fact, we are ‘knocking one out of the park.’ With a little perspective, it’s easier to see it that way.
Crying may come from the chronic discomfort of infant colic, teething, or as the aftermath of an exhausting, over-stimulating day. A toddler’s tantrum may seem to us like an overreaction when we say, for example, “I can’t let you play outside right now,” but that is because it carries the baggage of a host of toddler preverbal frustrations. Life can be stressful for all of us, and sometimes we all need a good cry.
The expression of feelings is vital to emotional health. When we use rocking, bouncing, ‘shushing,’ pacifiers and other distractions to quiet a baby, and when we give in to a toddler’s demands or threaten to punish to discourage his outbursts, then the child does not have the opportunity to freely release his feelings. Worse, he receives the message in our well-meaning “don’t cries” that some of his feelings (parts of who he is) are unacceptable to us.
When we are certain that a child’s basic needs have been met, all that is left for us to do when he cries is listen, acknowledge his feelings, and give calm support. It is not easy, but it is the way a baby, toddler, teenager, spouse or dear friend would wish to be treated. We don’t want our feelings to be ‘fixed.’ We want them to be heard.
One of my favorite Magda Gerber mantras was, “We are putting the therapists out of business.” When children cried in her classes, she often reassured the parent by saying, with a twinkle in her eyes, “Now they won’t have to go to primal scream therapy when they are older.”
So, like Magda, when parents in my classes express alarm at a child’s tearful reaction to a bump or fall, the setting of limits, or a struggle to achieve a new skill, I gently remind them of all the future psychotherapy bills they may be avoiding. And when, minutes later, the child finishes crying, leaves his parent’s arms and returns to exploring, refreshed and renewed, I congratulate the parent for weathering another storm.
My magic secret for parents is the knowledge that our hardest days are also our most successful ones. Bravely enduring our loved one’s cries to invest in his long-term emotional health is reason to celebrate. And if it sometimes seems impossible to find cheer at the end of a fiercely bad day, never underestimate the benefit of a parent’s good, long cry. (And congratulate yourself for allowing it.)