I am going to tell you a little story, and it is going to help you understand why co-regulation is at the heart of Positive Parenthood, and why parental calm can (almost always) save the day, and also, why parental stress can (almost always) ruin the day. It is a true story. I took my three little girls to a play-space. When we first arrived, my littlest was dead asleep, and so while the big girls played I settled into a rocking chair and basked in the sweetness that is heavy baby sleep. I stuck my purse in one of the cubbies near the rocker. I watched my big girls jump on the trampoline. The baby woke up, and I followed her around. And then I told my littles we were going to be heading out: first we had five minutes, then three minutes, then one minute, then a countdown. We put our shoes on. One child started crying. I implored her to put on her shoes. She did.
And then I reached for my purse and realized my keys were no longer in it.
Had I taken them out? I scanned the rocking chair area – had they fallen out in the cubby? I circled the play area once, then twice – had I dropped them? Left them in the bathroom? My sensitive child noticed and started asking “Mama, where’s our keys? Mama? Mama? We gonna have our keys? Mama?” Because exactly what you need after you’ve spent what feels like forever preparing your children to leave the playspace and swing by the grocery store is to freaking lose your keys and have your child ask you approximately four hundred and seven times if we are going to find them. The others moms started helping. One dove into the ball pit also known as germ pit to look. The employee swore she’d seen the keys on the bright blue lanyard. We all looked. Two of my children resumed playing. The third – yah, that sensitive one who’d already asked four hundred and seven times if I was going to find my keys- gripped my hand and wrinkled her forehead. “Mama, they in the caaar? Mama how we going to our caaar? Mama we go to store now? You find your keys? We going mama? I help you look? They fall out of your purse?” She was basically narrating all of my worry, which I wore on my face and in my heart. Finally I called my husband. And worried child asks “Mama is Papa coming here? Is he here? Is he driving? Where is Papa? We going in Papa’s car?” Another mother swore she saw a child wearing the keys around her neck. I begged the employee to call everyone who’d been there, and beg the parents to search their diaper bags. I called the car dealership, who informed me I’d have to tow the car and pay like, thousands of dollars to have a new key made. I’m like I f*cking hate FOBs and I wish I had a regular key and technology sucks and I suck and if I’m gonna spend a couple thousand dollars I want a vacation and a babysitter and I am probably going to be paying off the stupid f*cking mistake for like ever because how could I have lost the damn keys, and some assh*le parent let their kid take my keys out of my purse and I f*cking hate this whole situation. And there piped up my worried three year old “Mama we going home? You no find your keys? They are lost? The kids do it? They not in the balls? She looking? Lady calling the mamas because someone was playing with keys?” This child hears every freaking thing every single person ever says, and sometimes she hears it even when we don’t say it. She must be telepathic. So then I called my mom, because I realized that three carseats wouldn’t fit in my husband’s car, and we’d need two cars to get home. My husband arrives and starts looking.
My mom arrives and sits down in the lobby and not three minutes later stands up and says “I found them.” Two hours of searching and my mom finds them in three minutes. Of course. We went out to Thai because it was way past dinnertime, and my worried child continued to be worried- as evidenced by the wrinkles on her little forehead. Her twin, the one who’d happily gone back to playing, started to whine. She wanted to sit on my lap and wrap her arms around my neck. She did not want to sit with her Papá, or her grandmother. She teetered on the edge of tantrum. I was like really?!?!? Now?!?!? Have you ever felt like that, like on the one day where you’re like I just really need them to be good because I cannot take anymore they are the absolute worst? It’s called co-regulation, and it’s the reason our kids lose it every time we have a horrible day. Did you see how my worried little one gripped my hand, tighter each time I made another lap around the play-space, turning over buckets and lifting up cushions? Did you see how she entered a state of hyper-alert awareness as my stress grew, and her little ears picked up every single word I said, and she tried to use her little three year old mind and language to understand what was happening, “Mama we no have keys, mama you lose your keys, mama is papa coming?” She didn’t just read my words, though. She’s only three, but she’s got a super-power that allows her to feel me like she’s telepathic. Some people call it heart-reading. That’s why even if I hadn’t said a word, she would have known. And the truth is, her telepathic heart-reading was accurate. She could feel what I was thinking, which, remember… went something like this: I f*cking hate FOBs and I wish I had a regular key and technology sucks and I suck and if I’m gonna spend a couple thousand dollars I want a vacation and a babysitter and I am probably going to be paying off the stupid f*cking mistake for like ever because how could I have lost the damn keys, and some assh*le parent let their kid take my keys out of my purse and I f*cking hate this whole situation.
You probably are thinking, “dude, she needs to go to therapy and I never get that stressed.” But I’m gonna call your bluff. If you actually listen to the voices in your head, what, actually, are they saying? And if you’re really, really honest, how often do you think your little ones feel the feeling you’re having, without being able to articulate what is going on? The prone-to-whining twin has heart-telepathy too, she just shows it differently. She doesn’t ask a million questions, she doesn’t help search, she doesn’t wrinkle her little brow… she clings, she falls apart, she tantrums. She comes to what she knows is secure – in this case, me – and holds on tight. And her little eyes fill up with tears and her chin quavers and she demands whatever she wants, and panics when she can’t have it. And here’s the rub: now she needs security and consistency but I’m stressed out myself and can’t really give it to her, and so she gets more stressed, which makes me more stressed, which makes her more stressed, which makes me more stressed… which is how we ended up with a whiney tantrum just as the green curry was being set on the table. What I want to say here, is that this is a practice. We’re all going to get stressed.
What I could have said was… “Sweetie, mama is really worried right now, isn’t she! Gosh. I bet we’ll find our keys. Can I have a hug?” I bet if could have articulated to them, in an age appropriate way, that I was having a rough go, they would have looked at me and said “It’s ooooo-k” in the same sing-song way they do when they’re well-regulated and the goldfish spill on the floor. What matters is that we practice staying calm, that we reflect on our experiences and share that reflection with our kids, so that they can witness how we deal with our stress, and through that witnessing become little beings with extraordinary ability to move through whatever life throws at ’em… even lost keys in a toddler play-space.