It happened one day – the scream. An ear-busting, high-pitched, gleeful, minute-long scream. In the middle of a busy cafe. The sound bounced off the cafe walls, broke on the raised cutlery of shocked patrons and reverberated throughout.
I looked at my toddler, surprised. He gave me a grin, shoved some bacon in his mouth, took a long breath and screamed again. This time louder. I winced, partly from the noise, partly from the thought that he might choke on his bacon. Seeing the wince, he screamed LOUDER and LOUDER.
And then I realised, with a flush of panic, that I hadn’t yet armed myself with a toolkit for handling this newly acquired ‘skill’.
In my first year of teaching, I prided myself on learning all that I could about the kids I had in my class. I would spend endless hours reading about strategies and discussing them with colleagues. I began to develop some confidence in the fact that I could handle most situations, and keep my head cool and my words gentle.
My classes developed a pleasant equilibrium. My students knew what to expect of me and I knew what to expect of them. We bumbled along fairly happily. There was one kid, however, who I could not reach. She stared at us from underneath her side-sweeping fringe, purple sparkly earphones permanently in her ears; angry, even before anyone said anything.
I was at an absolute loss as how to manage her challenging behaviour. She fought every instruction, actively attempted to disrupt others and would give me a massive grin whenever I was forced to address her behaviour. Consequences did not matter, ignoring the behaviour caused her to up the ante, taking her aside and gently talking to her made no difference and being stern (never my forte) failed.
I started to dread the interactions we would have, because I felt like I had failed in my duty as a teacher to bridge the gap and build a relationship with her that was positive. I was fractious, I was annoyed and pushed to my limits.
One day, after a particularly cheeky episode in which she had deliberately painted on another girl’s uniform with glue, and flicked paint in someones eye, I took her aside to talk to her. I’m not sure what was different about that day; perhaps she was tired and for once her guard slipped. Behind that facade, the glowering look and the cheeky grin, I saw it. It was a flicker – blink and you’ll miss it. It was pain. A look that said: ‘I’m still a little kid; I want you to SEE ME; I want you to like me; I want you to connect with me because I don’t know how to connect with you’.
That brief look changed my teaching forever. It helped me to meet her behaviour with empathy and to actively seek the person behind it. It made me realise that, as a teacher, it’s not my job to change behaviour – there are no winners to a challenge – but to uncover the child beneath the behaviour. I stopped fighting, and started looking.
So, when I had my own child, my thought was, ‘this will be a piece of cake after handling classes of up to 30 hormonal teens’. Somehow, however, teaching skills don’t always translate when dealing with your own kid. Because your kid gets used to you. Because you are sleep deprived. Because your child knows which buttons are best to push, and keeping your cool is actually not as simple.
The SCREAM became ever present. It disrupted dinners, and embarrassed us in public, sending us apologising to those with split ears. I tried everything: ignoring, asking him nicely to stop, re-directing him, creating consequences to the action, talking him through it and removing him for some quiet time. Each time, I was met with a smile and the SCREAM got louder and more persistent.
I was told it was typical toddler behaviour: that it was attention seeking, and I should not bow to it. I was told by many that I should ignore it. Yet somehow, this advice didn’t sit right with me. It made me feel uneasy, and while I could not put my finger on why, I felt anxious about it all. Aside from anything else, my ears hurt!
And then one day, after a particularly challenging morning. I saw it – the look. Beneath that smile I saw him. I saw the pain. Something was missing for him. Despite our efforts, and our boundless love, he felt a lack. And he was telling me loud and clear that this was so.
I stopped pouring my tea, looked directly at him and said, ‘do you need something?’. He stopped abruptly mid-scream and looked at me. With his face pale, and his cheeks flushed from his yelling efforts, he locked eyes with me and nodded slowly. I could see it in his eyes, ‘perhaps, maybe, perhaps she will SEE me’. I could also see the fear I had witnessed in that girl, so long ago. The fear that I wouldn’t understand.
‘Do you need water?’ Shake of head ‘no’. ‘Do you need something to eat?’ Shake of head ‘no’. ‘Do you need attention’. A pause; I could see he was thinking. I could tell that he was not sure he knew the word, but had an inkling of what it may mean. I almost missed it, but there was the slightest nod.
‘Do you need me to talk to you?’ A slightly more emphatic nod followed. ‘Do you need a hug?’ A nod. I picked him up and hugged him.
‘I want to give all these things to you. How about when you feel like screaming, you say, “Mummy, I need your attention”’. He nodded and smiled and we practised saying this new phrase while we cuddled.
Days later I had pause to almost regret my new strategy. Somehow I felt the point was missed when he started yelling ‘MUMMY I NEED ATTENTION’ and banging his cutlery loudly. But we persisted. Every time he yelled, we asked him what he needed and he got a little better at telling us.
Then one day, at dinner, while my husband and I talked. My son put down his spoon and climbed down from his highchair. Crawling into my lap, he put his arms around me, placed a gentle kiss on the tip of my nose and whispered, ever so quietly into my ear: ‘Mummy, I need your attention’. I held him tightly, so proud that he had learnt a skill that many adults (including myself) have trouble with.
I’d like to say that the screaming has completely stopped, but we are in the real world and I have a TODDLER. However, we are no longer locked in stand-off about it. When he is reminded to tell me what he needs, he looks at me every time, with a newfound sense of empowerment. It has opened a dialogue that we did not have before. I can’t always give him attention straight away, but at least I can acknowledge that need, and show him I SEE him. This often seems to be enough, and he seems to trust more that I will come to him afterwards.
So there’s another tool in my toolkit, as a mother, and a lesson I hope I don’t forget soon.