Tiny body, big feelings.

January 31st, 2014 | by TJ |

I don’t remember where I left off, so let’s start from right here.

I’ve spent a lot of the last… recent amount of time – and here I should say that I haven’t been keeping track of time in any sort of real, measurable way. I actually wear a watch sometimes – I mentioned I might like a watch for Christmas, and Phil bought me three, each more exactly in line with my tastes than the last – and I was wearing one yesterday at Ulta and I had to do something for fifteen minutes, that’s a story for a whole different day that both you and I know probably won’t be tomorrow, and the woman who was involved with doing the thing with me said, “What time do you have?,” and we both peered into my watch and I said, “I don’t actually know, I just like the way it looks.” And it’s been kind of like that recently, in that time has been going by and I have had the ability right at hand to measure how much of it has passed, but not really the desire or oomph of effort required to really do it. So it’s been some amount of time that I have spent, recently, in preparation for PJs at TJ’s, which starts, officially, three weeks from today. Are you coming? I’m so excited to see you. Are you not coming? I’m so bummed you can’t make it this year. I’m really looking forward to seeing you next year, especially if it’s our triumphant reunion/first meeting ever. Both of those would be equally exciting for me. If next year is going to be your fourth visit, I’ll point you to the trash bags and dip bowls. You know what to do.

To be honest, though, at this point, most of the planning for PJs is shopping, and a few years in, I have gotten slightly wiser and more of the shopping is done from a chair than in previous years, so that leaves… all the rest of the time, however much that has been. A lot, I assume. It feels like it’s been a lot. What, a year or two, at least? I’ve (well, we, in case anyone thinks I’m not giving my husband credit for his share of parenting, I totally do, but as I’ve said many times before, a person who would like his side of the story fairly represented is a person who maybe should stop registering domain names and then not actually writing his own blog, maybe) been dealing with Penelope and her big feelings in her tiny body.

I know you didn’t think the title was about me – my feelings are small and more than adequately housed in what we’ll call luxury accommodations. They’re in there, they’re comfortable way down in there. I think they’re the same size as when I got them. I think I was probably born with the same size feelings I was going to have for my entire life. I think that makes sense, because I think Penelope has got the same size feelings now as I’ve probably got. Maybe bigger, but it’s hard to tell, since she’s so much smaller.

So she’s got these feelings – happy or sad or whatever, a whole range, really, almost definitely as nuanced as yours or mine but much easier for her to explain or for me to explain to her in broader categories like happy, sad, angry, ascribing to her about four or six feelings in total when in reality, there’s probably about 75 million or so – and they’re very big and she’s very small. Eventually, her body will be in line, size-wise, with her feelings, but for now, she’s got the full set in one size fits all, and that is almost never true, but that’s how they come, so that’s how she’s got to deal. Or how we’ve all got to deal, rather, because she’s having them all, but her small casing is not enough to hold them.

But that’s not really the problem, right, because we don’t expect people to hold their feelings. Well, some people do. I don’t know, if that’s your way, that’s fine, I guess, if that’s how you want to do things, I say, using the most judgmental sentence form possible in order to demonstrate without actually saying that I totally don’t agree with your way of doing things and think it’s kind of weird. No, instead, in general, we expect people to release them or work them out or handle them in some way, and everyone has their ways (except, I guess, if you don’t, which is fine, I GUESS), except for toddlers. Who have feelings, big ones, and tiny bodies, with no little release valves on them. They haven’t developed their ways.

Not, for example, like me, with my small feelings in their luxury accommodations, that are not only totally comfortable, but have beaten a well worn feelings-path out (hint: it’s through my mouth – “YOU ARE A SHIT, YOU ARE A TOTAL SHIT, YOU ARE THE REASON I CAN’T STOP SAYING SHIT.” (Someone won’t stop turning on the air conditioning in the house at night.)) and also a well worn feelings-path back in (hint: it’s also through my mouth).

No, she has got big feelings on the inside and there are no preferred feelings-paths beaten down yet for her. She wakes up from her nap sometimes so weepy. Just can’t stop crying. I ask her, “Are you having sad feelings?” and she wails, “YES!” and I ask her, “What do you think will help?” and she doesn’t know. So I offer her this or that and some things make her cry even more and some things sometimes help and sometimes don’t. Sometimes a hug will help, sometimes it’s the WORST THING EVER. Sometimes she needs to be left alone to gather herself, sometimes I’VE ABANDONED HER and NO ONE LOVES HER. Seriously, she will lay there and rattle off a list of who doesn’t love her, from me right down to our dogs, by name. No one she has ever met has ever suggested for half a second that they don’t love her, just for the record. Anyway, sometimes she just wakes up very sad, and while that happens to everyone, the thing about it that makes it so tough is that she’s just as confused by it as she is sad. And of course we eventually work her out of it and cheer her up and life goes on.

Other times, though, she’s angry. Or excited or worked up. Or upset for some reason. And those less calm big feelings have gotten to be very tough for us. And you should understand that I’m not saying any of this like I think it’s unique to Penelope. No, instead, I often remind myself – and Phil – that this is the age, not our child. I mean, of course she’s our kid, but this is not the entirety of Penelope, this isn’t who she is and who she’s going to be. She’s two and a half and this is what two and a half is (and please, this is not the type of post where you tell me in the comments the horrors of three and four and teenagers, that’s not helpful or kind), and it’s beneficial for us to remember that when we’re coping with this stuff – that what we’re dealing with definitely is not unique to her or to us. That big feelings, tiny body is happening in mini-explosions all around our neighborhood right this second. And with all the parents we know. So I’m not writing this in a “listen to the very special snowflake unique struggles that I’m having with my especially difficult child” way. I’m just telling you what’s happening. And tomorrow (probably not tomorrow), I’ll tell you about what I’ve been doing – pretty successfully – with a kind of difficult dry skin problem I’ve been dealing with. You know those flaky peelies that crop up when you try to put foundation on when your skin looks normal otherwise, right up until you applied the foundation? Yeah, that. Ugh. Awful. Been working at it for a while, really pleased with how it’s coming along.

Anyway, I was talking about when Penelope gets angry or worked up or agitated. That’s when we really struggle with her not yet knowing how to handle her feelings in a more constructive or positive manner. There’s lots of shrieking. Just a wordless shriek at whoever she is mad at. Sometimes she’s not even mad at someone, though. Just mad. There’s also lots of throwing. Dangerous throwing, even. My reflexes are really improving, although as you have probably surmised, I was pretty lithe and catlike to begin with, so there was hardly room for much betterment there. Of course she hits, too, and kicks. I don’t mean to make her sound like a demon. This behavior isn’t constant. She’s actually a fairly good listener for her age, and her public behavior is on point most of the time. It’s just that when she becomes overwhelmed with some feeling, she just can’t control herself. At a point where some people would work through their feelings by talking it out, or exercising, or eating a box of donuts, or saying shit a lot, she just starts behaving in the only ways she knows, all of which are extremely physical.

Obviously, that’s not good. Ideally, we’d figure out why she was angry and address the situation. Ideally. But most of the time, she doesn’t know why she’s angry. We don’t even know for sure if she is angry, or if it’s something else. Upset at something else? Just really excited about something? Luckily, Penelope is extremely verbal (I actually will brag about her for a second on that one, she’s out of control and outstrips every kid her age we encounter with the talking) and I’m getting better at trying to get her to explain what’s going on, but a lot of times, it’s hampered by a trip to time out, because I’m sorry, I just can’t take a kick to the face and then sit and talk calmly about your feelings, because right then my feelings are that I just got kicked in the face and I want to say shit a lot and I’m trying not to do that. In front of Penelope. As much.

In the moment when something is being thrown at you, or you’re being repeatedly hit while you say, “No hitting, no hitting,” it is very hard to remember that the tiny person in front of you might not be doing those things because she is a crazy person with no sense of boundaries or self control (actually, a lot of times it is exactly that), but instead because she has not spent 30+ years perfecting the string of rage-filled invectives that she personally finds instantly calms the feelings and prepares the mind to deal with the underlying cause of said feelings. Rather, the tiny person is just stuffed full of unidentifiable feelings jabbing pokily at a too-small host body with no positive (okay, questionably positive in some cases) way to come out. And it can be really hard to discern the two – crazy/boundary-less vs tiny/jabby feelings – when you’ve just had that frippin frappin toy train whipped at your head AGAIN. And then even once you do have it reliably figured out, then what? EVEN THEN, THEN WHAT?

Penelope is delightful. She is so funny. She will blow you away with her talking, and don’t think I’m not going to demand that the people who come to PJs back me up on that, because I could just BLOW UP ALL OVER THE PLACE with how proud I am of her when people’s mouths drop open in shock. When she and I are talking, if she doesn’t know how to say something, she says to me, “Mama, I can’t say the word, help me say the word,” and then we try words back and forth until we figure out what she’s trying to say BECAUSE SHE’S A GENIUS AND I’LL DELETE YOUR COMMENT IF YOU SAY SHE’S NOT.

It’s just this one part, and it feels big, because it’s important, because I care a lot about helping her express her feelings appropriately, and it also feels big because these loud and throwy periods, even when the incidents themselves are short, expand in my mind to sometimes feel like that was my whole day. But it’s not. I can hear her right now, playing with Phil, and they’re laughing and having fun and these outbursts are not all of her or all about her, or even a giant part. They’re a hard part and I think about them a lot, but like I said about – this isn’t all she is or unique to her, this is just a phase and it’s the one we’re in, and it’s what I’m thinking about today, because it feels important to me. Maybe – probably – when she’s 25, I’ll look back and I’ll realize that how I handled the development of how she handles her own feelings really meant nothing in the grand scheme of parenting, I overthought this and underthought something else. So be it, it’ll probably happen again, too.

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13 Responses to “Tiny body, big feelings.”

  1. By Susie on Jan 31, 2014

    I had a tiny body, big feelings issue when I was growing up, and reading this has me brimming over like I’m some too small vessel again. I know my parents struggled with my tiny body, big feelings, unpredictable release patterns for a long time, and somehow reading this is like a little window into what that might have been like for them to reason through.

    Penny is a lucky kid. (A lucky kid with seriously exceptional verbal skills – I thought that a year ago when I met her, and I am sure I’ll be astounded anew when I see her in three! weeks!)

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  2. By A'Dell on Jan 31, 2014

    Claire was like that with the crazy talking, that made strangers open their eyes very wide, and also with the feeeelings. She’s STILL like that. It is so fun and also straight up torture to imagine them when they’re older. She’s so great, K. Get it all on video.

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  3. By LifeofaDoctorsWife on Jan 31, 2014

    It is so hard, every day, to be faced with something and to have to choose how to handle it, when there is no (real) The Right Way or The Best Way. And to not be able to know if it was right or even good until YEARS have passed.

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  4. By Delicia on Jan 31, 2014

    I have never encountered a more perfect description of the behaviors at this age, ever. I also would like a time machine, so that I can go back and use your techniques with my kids because damn you have your shit together. I know it may not feel like it all the time. You never cease to impress me with your parenting approach.

    oh and p.s. Penny is obviously a genius.

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  5. By Claire on Jan 31, 2014

    What an awesome Mom you are. She is lucky indeed (and so are you, to have such a great kid).

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  6. By Melissa on Feb 1, 2014

    Yes! You perfectly describe my 6yr old daughter She still does that frustrated screech of anger but only with her family so there is progress. Learning to express/control emotions is so important, I just hope we are getting it right too.

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  7. By Tric on Feb 1, 2014

    Her super awesome verbal skills (Hooray Penny btw) might actually be making her outbursts worse. She is probably super frustrated because she has words, she likes her words, but in fits of emotion she can’t get to (find) her words because she is two and a half. So not only is she having the random spree of emotion she can’t control, she also lost an ability that she knows she has which is a whole new level of frustration/fear.

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  8. By shin ae on Feb 1, 2014

    Oh, good grief. Yes. That age, and learning to deal with feelings, is very difficult. I remember the screaming and throwing very well. Terrible.

    It is easy to see, even from here (as a stranger looking through the computer), that Penelope is funny and smart and sensitive and wonderful. At my house, we all love to hear about her. And, I appreciate you writing about these issues because even though I don’t have such a little one, it helps me think through what I’m doing now, and it helps me process what happened to me during the toddler years, because ugh.

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  9. By Veronica on Feb 1, 2014

    Oh, the BIG FEELINGS. The overwhelming nature of toddler feelings. It sounds like you are doing an amazing job with Penny. Josephine is finally getting better about knowing what to do with her feelings, and Genevieve decided 18 months was a fine age to start having outbursts of emotion so overwhelming she must throw herself to the floor and flail, but she also refuses to talk, whereas at this age Josie had a pretty large vocabulary already. Oy.

    At any rate, it will get better, you are doing an amazing job, and Penny is clearly a genius. And for the record, I don’t think you’re overthinking it. This is an area I wish I had thought about even more and been more consistent with. If they end up being adults who have violent outbursts over, I don’t know, papercuts, I will feel like a failure.

    Maybe my worst comment ever, so let me reiterate: doing a great job, Penny is a genius.

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  10. By cindy w on Feb 1, 2014

    So, yeah, toddlers are hard, and I’m dealing with a lot of the same with my own 2 1/2 year-old. And even though all kids are different, I have to remember that this IS a finite thing. It helps that I can look at my 7 year-old, who went through her own “big feelings in a tiny body” phase, and now she’s basically awesome and relatively easy. And the toddler phase was a lot harder with my oldest, because… well, because it’s just really hard when you have one kid and that’s your only frame of reference. Now it’s more just “oh yeah, I remember this from last time.” And it’s still hard, of course, because you still have to deal with them and try to teach them to not be a shitty human being.

    I guess I’m kind of the opposite of the horrible “just wait” people – I’m not going to tell you how bad it gets, just that the toddler stuff eventually passes and gets easier.

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  11. By Erica on Feb 1, 2014

    TRIUMPHANT REUNION. Sigh.

    Two has been pretty rough around these parts. Twice now.

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  12. By Brooke on Feb 3, 2014

    Oh Penelope. I witnessed some little bit of her emotion today at lunch, and it was heart-breaking. She was just so sad, and as someone who’s not around wee ones much and who doesn’t experience that on the regular, it was quite baffling that it seemed to come out of nowhere (some fatigue aside). She was SO sad, it appeared. But I will say that I do really admire your thoughtful approach to it – I’d never heard someone speak about a toddler’s feelings the way you did. So, thumbs up, lady.

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  13. By Tara on Feb 22, 2014

    Three weeks after your post, I’ll write a comment about how awesomely ridiculous the 2.5-3 age has been, in my experience. Eriana turned 2.5 *right* after we moved to Oregon, and it has been AMAZEBALLS seeing how much she’s changed and grown.

    The sheer volume of emotions is incredible. HOW do they fit so much into those little heads and hearts? It’s incredible. The 0-90 speed at which the emotions change is what gets to me. Oh, you’re on top of the world, so happy, and then you’re crying and telling me how sad I just made you? Oh, you’re SO ANGRY that I turned on the show you asked for? It’s incredible.

    I love that Penny has been talking so much. It’s so lovely to be able to carry on conversations, isn’t it? Eriana was an early talker, but a late… sentencer. It’s a thing, right? I love being able to talk to her, to have conversations, and to hear her try to form words and speak properly. LOVE it.

    Someday, K, someday we’ll get together again. Hopefully we can get our crazy girls together someday, too.

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