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It both is and isn’t about the chocolate chocolate muffin
A New Year's lesson in building our emotional selves, brought to you by my misery-stricken toddler
I don’t just mean the sweet, gooey richness of the muffin itself, though that is obviously a deal-making quality, but the whole ritual of seeing me pop it into the microwave; hearing the “beep” that signals the hot, steaming goodness about to be placed on a pink plate before her (the pink plate is non-negotiable); pulling open the wrapper all by herself, when she can manage it (or else handing it to me for an assist); blowing on the muffin gingerly until it goes from “hot” to “warm”; poking little holes in the muffin and cheerily announcing that she has done so—all before she has even taken her first eager bite. If ever I needed a living exemplar of mindful eating, this would certainly be it.
I describe this fond ritual bittersweetly, because for the past 3-4 mornings, Alice has been having “a very hard time” (her words)—usually starting around 1am, when we hear the first panicked sobs and incoherent howls of desperation issuing from her sleep monitor, followed by bouts of inconsolable wailing and violent flailing through the night as we try everything in our power to sooth her back to sleep. More on our attempts to diagnose and intervene on these bouts of nighttime misery below, but suffice it to say that they leave their mark on Alice’s disposition come breakfast time; and her chocolate chocolate muffins have somehow become the face of the enemy. The sound of the microwave “beep” has become an affront to her ears, a dreadful harbinger of unwelcome heat (“no, I don’t want it to be hot!”); the wrapper has invoked only futile rage and hostility, further amplified by my meager attempts to offer assistance (“no, I don’t want you to do it!”); by the time we’ve somehow managed to negotiate its removal, if at all, the muffin has become too “warm” (read: not steaming hot enough), or too “broken,” or otherwise too infuriatingly defective for anything other than an angry, disappointed shove away from her, followed by even angrier wailing at the injustice of having been robbed of her breakfast.
So what’s all this about? How could the very same set of sensory inputs that so delighted her on every prior morning have suddenly become so noxious and traumatic? Surely it’s not really about the chocolate chocolate muffin?
Well, it is and it isn’t. Though we’re still trying to figure out what exactly is driving these fraught morning moods in our usually joyful and even-keeled girl—and odds are we’ll never fully untangle the gnarly mess of contributing factors, from scary dreams to holiday schedule disruptions to mild lingering cold symptoms to small yet compounded limit-setting failures on our (ok, mostly my) part—the upshot is that she wakes up feeling out of control and unable to meet her own needs. So instead of joyfully asserting control over the preparation, placement, and consumption of that nourishing treat that would have so satisfyingly filled her tummy and heart on a happier morning, she sees every step in the process through the filter of that “I’m helpless and can’t get my needs met” emotional lens. Every obstacle looms insurmountably large, and the elusive memory of her muffin, her way seems impossibly, infuriatingly out of reach.
It’s “about the muffin,” because the situation wouldn’t bother her so much if it didn’t involve an object of real remembered joy and need-fulfillment for her. And yet it’s not simply about the muffin, of course; rather it is about the helpless futility of which the muffin has become, in these moments, the latest instantiation.
This same dynamic takes on an even more intense pitch when it’s my affection that becomes the object of helpless futility. As when, amid these recent 2am bouts of panicked misery, I’ve managed to calm Alice for a while by snuggling her just right, and then I take the risk of repositioning myself slightly (for context, I’m 37 weeks pregnant, so there is NO SUCH THING AS A JUST-RIGHT SNUGGLE POSITION or anything even remotely approaching it for my purposes, least of all in a tiny toddler bed overflowing with stuffies)—and trigger a 20-minute wailing lament punctuated by brief, frustrated attempts to wrestle her way back into the fragile perfection of that maternal embrace of which I’ve now apparently robbed her forever. (Here I’ll admit to the significant chance that I might be projecting my own fears and lingering attachment issues on Alice to some extent. But I maintain this is still a reasonable working hypothesis as to her mental state.)
Mind you, Alice also gets frustrated and moody sometimes during her regular waking hours; but those episodes are of an entirely different quality. For instance, she might get momentarily angry that we’ve run out of her favorite dinner rolls, or that one of her beloved toys has gone missing (as they so often do). But in all these instances, she has the wherewithal to know why she’s upset, at least on some level. And that means she can reason about the upset’s causes and effects (“I’m frustrated because I can’t find my toy,” “I kicked those blocks because I’m frustrated”); she can join us in problem-solving both (“where do you want to keep this new toy so you won’t lose it?”; “how can you show your frustration without kicking?”); she can localize the upset, rather than let it metastasize into an entire default worldview (it’s about the dinner rolls, not about anything and everything she has ever valued or might ever value again). In sum, she can exercise agency over it.
But not so with the undifferentiated upsets that strike the half-awake, barely-coherent Alice in the wee hours of the morning.
Part of what I find so illuminating (if gut-wrenching) about these spiraling toddler meltdowns is that they offer a window into how the human affective system operates by default—absent the higher-order faculties by which we learn to regulate it as we get older (or when we’re simply more awake and alert, as in Alice’s case). For instance:
Inconsequential circumstances (a break from routine, a lingering cold, a hard-to-open muffin wrapper) can trigger consequential changes in our moods. The less we consciously recognize these changes, the more consequential they can become, in virtue of the invisible meaning-filter they place over everything and everyone we interact with.
These meaning-filters color everything, in proportion to how much it matters to us. So if we’re walking around feeling aggrieved or disappointed by the world without realizing it, it’s to our loved ones, our closest colleagues, our most treasured personal projects, that our filter is most likely to get applied. Not because they’ve actually done more to aggrieve or disappoint us (though this is certainly possible), but because it would mean more to us if they had—and it’s much easier for us to notice, remember, and even invent ways in which they might have, and much harder to notice and remember any of our knowledge or experience to the contrary.
This also means our meaning-filters become self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating in ways that make them progressively harder to shift or see past, make them more a part of us, the longer we let them run in “default” mode.
Over time, these meaning-filters solidify into what cognitive therapists call core schemas and what attachment theorists call internal working models: internalized perspectives on ourselves and the world we live in.
With all this in mind, my #1 priority in parenting Alice through these emotional challenges is to help her get out of “default” mode and into “conscious agent” mode as early and often as possible. This is even more fundamental, to my mind, than lifting her spirits or making sure she’s well-slept and well-fed, though we may sometimes need to intervene on these latter as a means to restoring her agential powers in the first place. As I recently opined in this long Twitter thread where I re-interpret the research on attachment styles, it is by supporting a child’s agency over how she interacts with the world—versus putting those interactions at the mercy of either the child’s unaccountable moods or ours—that we, as parents, most directly influence the fundamental worldviews she feeds and reinforces in herself over time.
One way we’ve attempted to restore some conscious agency in the distraught and sleepy Alice during these nighttime episodes is simply by reflecting, as accurately and empathetically as possible, what we observe her to be feeling: “You’re very frustrated,” or “sad,” or “scared” (or more often some mix of all 3). And although this doesn’t always get much response in the moment, we’ve already noticed the benefits accruing in subtle ways. For instance, consider the dialogue that spontaneously ensued between Alice and me a couple of evenings ago, while she was in her after-dinner happy place of rewatching The Nightmare Before Christmas for the gazillionth time.
[To give you an idea of just how happy a place (this is from a couple of weeks ago, well before the onset of the nighttime bouts)]:
Anyway, here’s the conversation from 2 nights ago:
Alice: “I’m thinking about something.”
Me: “Oh, what are you thinking about?”
Alice: “I’m thinking about how I was frustrated before.”
Me: “Oh, yeah… Why do you think you were frustrated?”
Alice: “Because… I needed a hug.”
Me: “Oh, that makes sense… And did you feel better once you were able to get a hug?”
Alice: “Yeah… I did.”
Mind you, I had in fact made numerous offers of hugs during the nighttime bouts in question, all of which had been rebuffed with furious shoves and dejected cries of “I don’t want a hug!” So whatever Alice is “remembering” here belongs to some fantastical alternate universe of her own design. And yet, sure enough: during one of her (significantly briefer and less intense) crying spells the following night, she somehow found the wherewithal to ask me for a hug, and was able to calm herself back to sleep shortly thereafter.
Some wider takeaways
So what does all this have to do with Building the Builders? A few things, actually. My interactions with Alice have reinforced for me some broader truths about how best to understand and deal with (and how not to deal with) the emotional tantrums we sometimes encounter in ourselves—and in each other—as adults. When we find ourselves interacting with someone in the throes of an ill-regulated mood state, a lot of the intuitive ways we might “try to help” are likely to backfire. That’s because what the emotionally overwhelmed person often needs and lacks, in that moment, is not whatever concrete assistance or proposed solutions we might throw at them, but rather a way to see through or around the meaning-filter itself.
For instance, when trauma survivors get stuck re-experiencing the horror and helplessness of their traumatic experience every time something reminds them of it, the temptation may be to try and shelter them from all future reminders (“trigger warning”-style); but this turns out to be the opposite of what they need. What they actually need, as ample trauma-focused treatment research has now borne out, is to bring greater attention and awareness to the traumatic memory and their feelings about it, so they may separate out the experience itself from the implicit meanings their affective system has attached to it (like “I’m not fit for this world” or “no good deed goes unpunished”).
This is also part of the reason that accurate empathy and reflective listening can be such powerful interventions when someone is distressed: by explicitly naming what someone feels and why they are feeling it, we offer them visibility into their own current meaning-filter, giving them immediate agency over how they engage with that filter and how much credence they choose to lend it.
Finally, all the same insights apply in spades to how we interact with—and ultimately (re)build—our own emotional selves. This is the basic premise behind the “self-coaching worksheet” I sometimes recommend to clients and others. The worksheet begins with an “Observe and Describe” section (an exercise in “reflective listening applied to yourself”, to sharpen your awareness of what you’re feeling and why), and proceeds to an “Assess and Decide” section, which scaffolds the process of applying your agential powers to the situation.
An update and a New Year’s wish
As I return to this post 1 day later, I’m pleased to report that Alice is more-or-less back to her normal, happy-go-lucky self, having slept through the night with no parental intervention and soothed herself back to sleep on several occasions. Here she is cheerfully partaking of her chocolate chocolate muffin this morning, having even embraced the novelty of a blue plate when I explained that the pink ones were all in the dishwasher (“I like blue plates!”). In a poetic turn of events, she is singing along to her current favorite Nightmare Before Christmas number, “Poor Jack,” which she loves precisely for the way the initially dejected Jack “cheers himself up” over the course of the song—largely by reminding himself of who he is: “That’s right, I am the pumpkin king!”
Happy New Year, friends. And may you all find the inner wherewithal to cheer yourselves with the knowledge of who you are—and who you’re building yourselves to be—in 2023!