Trying to Reason with a Seven-Year-Old
“Auntie. You’re trying to make me look like a baby,” my seven-year-old nephew whined at me. “That’s a baby’s car seat. I don’t want to ride in it.”
“I understand your frustration. I really do. But the law is that you still have to ride in a booster seat and I don’t have anything else.”
I had expected an objection. My sister-in-law had asked if I could pick him up at the last minute, and the car seat, meant for my three-year-old niece, was all I had.
“I’m going to look like a baby.” He cried, over and over, and refused to get in.
You think it’s the car seat that makes you look like a baby?! I thought, but didn’t say. I may not be a parent, but if he’s ultimately shamed into suppressing his feelings, it won’t be my fault.
Ultimately, I had to wrestle him into the car seat as he employed every limb to avoid it.
In the car, his crying and complaining continued. Since empathy hadn’t work, I tried rationalization: “Who can even see you in the car seat?” He pointed to people on the sidewalk and in neighboring cars.
Seriously? “They can’t see you or the car seat.” Regardless, his yelling continued.
Since I had nowhere to put him in a time out to help him calm down, I tried ignoring it. I turned on the radio and rested my arm on the passenger seat with my hand on the back of the headrest. He punched my hand like machine gun fire.
I pulled it away. “Hitting is not okay. I understand you’re frustrated about the car seat, but we have no choice. You can keep crying and complaining if you want, but you do not get to hit me.”
“Auntie, you’re a butt _____.” I wish I could remember what he called me; I only remember my response.
“That’s awesome. Very clever. I’m king of the butts!” I probably should have told him no name calling, but his creativity was funny.
“Auntie, I’m just trying to not call you an asshole.”
My first instinct was to laugh because its kind of funny hearing kids use swear words and because his persistence in trying to push my buttons was so transparent.
I’m the Adult, But I’m As Stubborn As You Are
Instead though, I shed tears. “That really hurts.” Tears are one of my go to alternatives for getting angry. Because if I can’t yell at or shame him for acting like a baby, then the reasonable alternative is, of course, a guilt trip. Oh the drama of this fifteen minute car ride: tears, yelling, laughing, rationalizing, ignoring, guilting. It was like a soap opera.
But I was hurt. I had to cancel other plans to pick him up and didn’t have much time until I had to be elsewhere. While I didn’t expect him to show appreciation for it, I hadn’t expected to spend the car ride with him beating me up either. And these tantrums seemed to be happening a lot lately.
“Well you’re mean. You’re making me look like a baby.”
“It sounds like you don’t like me very much. That makes me really sad. This is the best I could do when your mom asked me to pick you up at the last minute. But you’re hurting my feelings. And if you don’t like me, then you must not want to sleepover at my house on Friday.”
Classic mistake. I threatened a punishment I knew I couldn’t follow through on. But I’m as obstinate as he is so I couldn’t back down now.
At his house, I tearfully explained to his mom what happened. She had an event on Friday so she’d have to find someone else to watch my nephew. He stood there, quietly, head down. My sister-in-law said nothing. I’m pretty sure she didn’t take me seriously. Damn her.
The Reckoning of Two Persistent Personalities
I felt nauseous by the time I got back to my car. Good lord, my behavior is no better than a seven-year-old. I couldn’t leave my sister-in-law in the lurch and I didn’t want him to think I’d abandoned him just for one temper tantrum.
So the next day, I called my sister-in-law who told me, “you’re overly worried about it. He’s fine.” But she said I could pick him up after school so we could talk.
When he saw me the next day at school, he walked up with droopy, puppy-like eyes, “I’m sorry Auntie.”
“I’m sorry too,” and I hugged him. “I’m picking you up so we can talk for a few minutes when we get home, okay?”
At his house, I tried to get him to talk about what was underneath his being upset the day before and why he’d been having so many tantrums with me lately. After a minute of sitting next to me on his bed, though, he got on the floor and started grabbing toys off the shelf. His disinterest in talking about his inner-most feelings similar to past boyfriends.
Talking with a friend about it, she referenced her own struggles with her kids, “it hits so hard sometimes that these relationships with your kids are not going the way you envisioned.”
Wow. I had always imagined myself as the fun auntie that took them to do things, spoiled them, and was the adult they could talk to when they couldn’t talk with their parents. But instead, I was disciplining and dealing with temper tantrums. I didn’t see it coming and I kept trying to make our relationship the one I wanted it to be instead of the one it was. I wasn’t their parent, but I was still a frequent loving authority figure in their life. And I didn’t just get the good times.
Becoming a Parenting Expert. Or, Learning that I Too Am a Spirited Kid
So, as I do, I bought some parenting books** to research the heck out of it. I may not have kids, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be an expert. I knew my friends and family would love getting my parenting tips as much as they loved getting a cavity filled.
The parenting books taught me more about myself than about how to interact with my niece and nephew. My favorite of the books focused on “spirited” kids. As I read about kids that were extra-sensitive, persistent, intense, perceptive and uncomfortable with change, I saw my nephew, but I also saw me. Oh my gosh, I’m a spirited kid!
My nephew’s inability to let go of his concern about looking like a baby and raising it as loudly as possible was an awful lot like my reaction to the construction worker blocking my driveway that I wrote about in Construction Fury, or following the woman who threatened me with a bat in Self-Compassion at the Wrong End of a Bat.
Seeing myself as I would see a child, I suddenly realized that there was nothing “wrong” with me. I was born like this – a highly persistent, intense, and sensitive person who processes externally. But these characteristics, like a coin, have two sides.
My persistence brought me success doing development work in Botswana and Ethiopia and as a lawyer. But as a lawyer, I had been accused in both good and frustrated ways of being like a Rottweiler with a bone. I was a zealous advocate for my clients, but sometimes I had a hard time letting go of issues that weren’t mine to deal with.
Learning to Let Go Amidst My Persistent Personality
Persistent Thoughts Come Unbidden
And through this lens I started seeing how my high sensitivity and persistence made it hard for me to let certain events go, well after they had passed. Recently, someone double parked and blocked me in. I waited for over five minutes and no one came. I didn’t want to honk because it was late and I didn’t want to wake neighbors up, but my blood started zooming straight to my heart telling me to act! I just wanted to go home and go to bed. I tried to tell myself that the driver was probably helping his elderly grandmother up to her apartment to get situated and it was just taking a little time. What I really thought, however, was that it was some guy who’d run up to his girlfriend’s apartment to get laid. Rude!
Fortunately, I was able to drive my car up on the curb and turn it just enough to back out between the car blocking me in, a light post, and the car parked behind me. I had a burning desire to kick his car door a bit, but I’m proud to say I resisted that urge. I did, however, write a sarcastic note in the dirt on his rear window thanking him for blocking me in.
So I was free, but days later, I kept thinking about it, especially about how he got away with it. I’d wonder what I would have done had I not been able to free myself. Would I have called the cops? Been inconsiderate to sleeping neighbors and honked my horn until he got there? Eventually, I’d realize how silly my thought process was – I got free, why can’t I let this go? I was just like my nephew complaining that he looked like a baby when no one but me could see him.
Learning to Let Go
I suddenly realized that I’m not asking for these thoughts. I can want to be a person who easily lets things go and often I am, but sometimes I’m not. I understood that these thoughts are one way my persistent personality manifests itself. In reaching this understanding, I could now accept that I was doing my best, as I wrote about last week in, We Are All Doing Our Best. Now What?. I accepted the reality of who I am instead of beating myself up for not being a person who could easily let go. From that moment, whenever I had the recurring thought of the guy blocking me in, I laughed. Haha. That’s just Jen. And then I could move on to whatever I was doing. I knew the thought would be back, but I didn’t have to ruminate on it.
Discovering My Unmet Need
Talking with a friend about my newfound realization, she asked, “what need isn’t being met that you keep having these thoughts?”
“What do you mean? My car got out so I got my need met.”
She persisted though, and as I thought about it, the lightening bolt of understanding struck. My needs hadn’t been fully met. I got the car out, but I wanted the guy to apologize.
Letting Go With Empathy
Knowing the why doesn’t change how I react to the thoughts – I acknowledge and accept them, and then move on. I can’t get the apology I wanted from the driver and may not have received it even if he had come back. Recognizing that this is an important need to me, however, helps me learn more about myself and adds a more empathetic tone to how I acknowledge and accept the thoughts. I’m still trying to understand why I have a persistent need for apology or acknowledgement of a frustrating situation, but I trust that will come to me in time. Until then, I’ll keep acknowledging and letting go of the persistent thoughts.
Thinking back to the argument with my nephew, I can see that he too was struggling with an underlying unmet need that he couldn’t let go of. But he also wasn’t yet able to articulate it and I wasn’t meeting it despite my best intentions. But I’m able to appreciate that we were still able to meet one need for each other by apologizing for our behavior.
The more I’m able to recognize and acknowledge the reality of who I am, the less I ask the question, what’s wrong with me? I can appreciate the positive side of my qualities, but also see that I’m doing my best when exhibiting the challenging side. More and more, I can let go. Letting go though isn’t a magical place where nothing bothers me anymore, which is what I imagined it to be. Rather it is a place where I acknowledge what does bother me, do what I can, and then accept that I may keep getting pestered by a thought I don’t want, but I can let it go, again, and again, and again.
** The parenting books I read and found incredibly helpful were Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles and Raising Your Spirited Child, both by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka.
Also published on Medium.