When my daughter was around 13 months old she started screaming. It happened a lot in the mornings when I was busy getting ready to leave the house. I knew that she was feeling disconnected because I was rushing around, trying to get ready, but it was unavoidable! I needed to make her breakfast, and then get dressed so we could go out.
I found the noise extremely triggering, it made me feel like screaming! Each time she screamed I felt more and more stressed. My usual response was just to try and meet my daughter’s needs. So if she was screaming because the breakfast wasn’t coming quick enough, I’d grab some fruit to give her. If she was screaming about not being able to open her toy cupboard or get a lid off a box, then I would open it for her. But the screaming continued. She seemed to be getting more and more impatient, turning into a grumpy toddler in a matter of days. I began dreading the mornings. I would usually rush to leave the house with the kitchen still a mess, and everything in chaos!
She began screaming about things that had never bothered her before, for instance, running water going into her bath, or people talking loudly on the train.
I couldn’t understand what had changed in our relationship, and why we both felt so off-track. At this time, I was learning more and more about the healing power of tears, and that disconnected feelings can lead to the kind of off-track behaviour that pushes our buttons; screaming, whining or aggression are all ways that our children signal that they need connection.
I was training to be a Parenting by Connection instructor and Patty Wipfler explained to me that children often scream because they are afraid. It may be that the situations they are screaming in seem totally normal and innocuous, but that they somehow trigger earlier times when our children felt really scared. For a newborn baby there may be many situations that are fearful. It could be that their birth was difficult, that they experienced early medical interventions, or just the many situations that can seem completely overwhelming to a newborn. When we perceive we are in danger, our bodies go into fight or flight response, releasing stress hormones. Crying is one way that we naturally release these stress hormones, when we feel safe again, and tears cried for emotional reasons are actually found to contain cortisol.
Babies and children naturally release stress from fearful experiences by crying, after the event, when they feel safe and connected to us. And sometimes, they might not fully release the feelings and carry around a ‘backlog,’ which is what causes off-track behaviour.
I realised that perhaps I was interpreting my daughter’s screams all wrong. That she wasn’t screaming because she wanted her breakfast quicker or for me to do things for her, that she was screaming for connection.
I got some listening time to release the stress that had been building up in me about the screaming. I got to moan, and complain, and scream a bit about how irritating it was in the mornings when I was trying to get ready and my daughter was screaming the whole time!
I was amazed to find that the day after my listening session I wasn’t bothered by the screaming anymore. It just seemed like a completely neutral sound!
Now I knew that there was a deeper reason beneath the screaming, I stopped rushing around. Instead when she screamed I moved in slowly, , and carefully, pick her up, sometimes in the cradle position, and offered eye contact and connection. I was surprised when she arched her back, and immediately started to cry, letting out the tension in her body. For the rest of the day every time she screamed I would do the same, pick her up slowly being sure to connect first. She had lots of little cries spread out through the day. In between the crying she played happily and independently. This was an added bonus. My daughter had been clingy for so long, that I had forgotten that when she was younger she did play by herself, exploring, and confident that I was close by if she needed me. I had resigned myself to the fact that babies are just ‘clingy’.
The next day she only screamed a couple times, and continued to play independently. We had a wonderful day of feeling close and connected, even as she explored and I tidied and cooked. I had such a strong feeling, that this was ‘right’, this was how it was meant to be, that we should have alternating periods of independent work/play, and then close connected interaction, rather than her always desperate for my attention, needing to be picked up and not being interested in exploring. In the evening my husband and I ate dinner for ten minutes while she played in a cardboard box on the other side of the room!
Her screaming immediately reduced, and within a few days of moving in close to connect it disappeared almost completely.
This period of screaming really helped me understand what it means to closely connect, to stop the rush of trying to get things done, and trying to just meet the needs of our children. This way of slowing down to connect, was something I really had to relearn, in the rush of our busy lives, this deep, mindful connection doesn’t always come easily, especially when our own feelings get in the way. But it’s what our children need, to feel safe to show us their feelings.
It’s kind of like when an upset friend comes to tea, and if we used all our attention, being busy and distracted rushing around the place focusing making the tea, and getting biscuits, but not on actually listening to what they are telling us, then they don’t get a chance to tell us their feelings. And if we sit and listen carefully with a lot of focus, asking if they’re okay, then our attention is what allows them to open up, and maybe cry.
It’s really all about finding that moment after our child does something off-track that signals to us that they need connection, and moving in close, and just being there. Maybe they’ll laugh, maybe they’ll cry. But it’s that moment, in the midst of an emotional upset, and our response which is where real connection happens.