Sunday Night Scaries – Toddler Style

Rethinking Behavior as Communication

Keener had a case of the Sunday night scaries on Sunday night. The same ones you and I sometimes get… It started after dinner and continued until he (finally) went to bed. It displayed as whining, but I knew there was something else going on.

Preschool is in full swing, he started a new swimming class, and my husband had been traveling for work. He had a lot on his mind and was not able to express that he was feeling overwhelmed. No wonder he told me “No” when I asked him if he wanted to sign up for soccer this fall.

I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional regulation since my epiphany last week comparing toddlers to the bachelors seeking love on Bachelor in Paradise. But the real truth is, we all have emotions and feelings, and sometimes they are hard to identify and therefore control. They are complicated, multi-layered, and can change quickly.

Kids also experience strong emotions and feelings and need to know what they can do about it. I gave some language examples last week of what works for Keener. This week, I have continued to think about how to help Keener regulate his emotions.

At church on Sunday, my pastor said that anxiety has passed depression as the leading mental illness. According to anxiety.org, “Anxiety is the mind and body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. It’s the sense of uneasiness, distress, or dread you feel before a significant event. A certain level of anxiety helps us stay alert and aware, but for those suffering from an anxiety disorder, it feels far from normal – it can be completely debilitating.”

Keener was showing signs of uneasiness and distress, and it was debilitating. We took a walk after dinner on Sunday night and the whole time, he was whining about anything and everything. My wonderful husband initially did not recognize the whining as anxiety and was growing increasingly frustrated. I wouldn’t say I was enjoying the whining, but I knew Keener was trying to express his feelings, just not knowing how.

I spent some extra time at bed time snuggling with him to help him calm his troubled mind. I didn’t want to “lead the witness” too much but I also was trying to figure out what I could say to help him. “I don’t want to sleep. I want to sleep in your bed. I’m not tired.” He was trying anything he could. It sounds like you have something on your mind. Want to talk about it? “Yes.” Usually Keener is really happy and goes to sleep right away. What is your mind thinking about? No response. He is 3 and clearly wasn’t able to articulate what was bothering him. In fact, he might not have even known himself.

In The Yes Brain, the authors explore the idea of pushin’ and cushion, and I just love this. I tend to default to the pushin’ side by saying things such as You are so brave. It might feel scary at first but trust yourself and give it a try. I needed this reminder to sometimes be a cushion. When children are “…facing an obstacle too big or a challenge they simply can’t address by themselves,” they need our support. In this instance, Keener needed me as a cushion.

I didn’t want to give him a plethora of ideas of what might be on his mind or harp on potentially anxiety inducing topics. In that moment, I realized he just needed me to love on him. When met with “Why do I have to sleep? Can I wake up now? Why do you have to go to work? I want to play with my toys,” I answered his questions honestly and calmly. You do have to go to sleep now. Mommy is going to go to sleep as well. We go to sleep to recharge our batteries, just like we have to recharge the battery on our tractor. Sleeping gives us the energy we need for tomorrow so we can run, play and climb!

I then touched on the work aspect. Mommy has to go to work to help teachers and students. Keener wanted to know exactly who I was helping so I told him the names of colleagues and students. This information helped put his mind at ease.

Lastly, I connected the importance of sleep to a book we had read earlier in the day. You know how the boy, Josh, had a hard time sharing his toys and controlling his frustration? I bet he was tired! When you are tired, it is much harder to be a problem solver and builder (his teachers just told me how much he loves building). If you don’t get enough sleep, it will be a lot harder to think clearly tomorrow. If you are building and something goes wrong, you might forget that you can say, ‘It’s ok! I’ll just build it again!’ When you are tired, it’s easy to forget how to problem solve and you might get more frustrated.

Mommy is going to go now. Let’s take some of the breaths that Josh took in the book to help your body feel calm and ready for sleep. Smell the flowers, blow out the candles. Let’s do it again. I can see your body is nice and calm and ready for sleep. I love you bud and I’ll open your door in the morning.

And with that, I walked out. I could tell he felt more at peace about his situation and would be able to fall asleep. A good reminder that all behavior is communication. Instead of focusing on the whining, hitting, noncompliant, or energetic behavior, we need to think about what their behavior is telling us in terms of lacking skills. Keener needs to be taught how to handle big, anxious feelings instead of whining.

Ideas to try:

  • Use other people/characters from books to talk about and relate to issues your child may be dealing with. It’s always easier to identify what is going on and what can be done when is doesn’t involve you/your child.
  • Choose the right time to talk about big feelings. Don’t shy away from it, but be mindful of the time of day. Bedtime was not the right time for us to dive into things that may be bothering him. Focus on what your child needs in that moment (i.e., Keener needed help to lessen his anxiety before going to sleep).
  • Validate the emotion. I think you might be feeling worried or nervous and that is OK, Mommy feels nervous sometimes too. Everyone feels worried sometimes.
  • Be mindful about leading the witness. If you can tell your child is worried and you ask her if she is worried about going to school, she will likely say “yes” whether that is on her mind or not. Instead ask questions about how they feel. How does your body feel? Is your heart beating fast or slow? Are you feeling energetic or tired? Mommy wants to help you get back to a calm body.
  • Be on the lookout for your child communicating in other ways. Are they whining more? Yelling more? Showing less patience than usual? Try and remind yourself that they may be trying to communicate something that is on their mind. It is our job to teach them more appropriate ways of expressing their feelings.
  • Talk while playing. I have no idea where I read this but I read that boys, in particular, are much more willing to open up if you talk to them WHILE they are doing something. So strike up a conversation while playing trains, Play-Doh or Legos, and you might get more out of them than “sitting down to chat.”

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