For the last several days, Polly has been in a tonal funk. Everything she says seems to come out with an edge of shrillness, whininess, or disdain. Her attempts to be funny come off as mean. Her patience for anything that does not go her way exists somewhere in the range between very limited and non-existent. She has teared up at not having as much pepperoni on her pizza as she might have liked and has complained frequently about being tired or cold or hungry - though not for the food that’s in front of her. And she’s been pushy about being right, making an issue of silly things such as the time being 6:47 instead of 6:45. On the whole it’s been a rather unpleasant week.
This kind of harshness is symptomatic of a person who feels a bit off, and Polly has certainly had her share of annoyances to manage. To start with, she has a tooth in her bottom jaw that is exceptionally loose. For the past week, it’s been flopping around in her mouth and jabbing into her gum whenever she tries to bite into something. At least once at every meal she’s been giving a small yelp of pain and having to swish blood out of her mouth. On top of that the replacements for the two front teeth she lost a couple of weeks back have started to push their way into view. While this kind of cutting doesn’t keep her awake at night like it did when her baby teeth came in, it seems to be enough of an irritant to disrupt her sleep from time to time. She got up in the middle of the night last Thursday to use the bathroom, something that she never ever does, and spent an hour or so after that rolling around trying to get back to sleep.
On top of the pain from teeth going out and teeth coming in, Polly is also dealing with a case of the sniffles. She had a mild fever during the middle of the week and a hacking cough towards the end that led us to keep her home from school on Thursday. (We dealt with an extended cough this past spring and wanted to head this off before it got too established in her lungs.) The cough hung on throughout the weekend, and Polly still felt off enough on Saturday to skip out on her gymnastics class.
Lastly, amidst all the off-kilterness of being sick and having a mouth in pain, Pip had his last two soccer games of the season. Polly enjoys the idea of going to watch Pip play soccer, but I think she feels left out as well. It isn’t an immediate or conscious reaction because she gets excited for him and asks to go to the games. However, I think the waiting around and watching, the feeling of being outside of the main action of the day, wears on her in subtle ways that wind up making her feel unfulfilled and anxious. As a result she often gets snippy and short towards the end of a soccer day. When you combine this with an already volatile situation, it can make for a very unhappy child.
This is not the first time we’ve cycled through such a situation with either kid and in the process we’ve found that the only real solution to all of this irritation is patience. The loose teeth will fall out. The new teeth will come in. Her cough will subside. Pip’s soccer games will end. Polly will get a couple of good nights of sleep and she will return to being the happy, effervescent sprite who draws animal pictures for friends and sprints joyfully out the doors of school each day.
The challenge is what to do in the meantime. The habits of making mean faces and using harsh words have a tendency to hang around long after the irritants that initially triggered them are gone. If you’re not careful they can become normalized to the point where no one in your immediate circle even realizes how ugly they are. At the same time, we know that constant correction only grinds everyone down and runs the risk of grounding in a child the idea that they just don’t do things right. This latter result is the worst of all worlds in that the child may stop even trying to do what you ask of them because at some level they’ve come to believe they’re incapable of it.
Being aware of this balance Ava and I have made it a habit to frequently tell Polly that she’s a “good kid” even in the midst of another line of whiny complaints. We work with her to come up with non-inflammatory ways of correcting unwanted behavior such as asking her to tell us what kind of signal we should use when she’s doing something wrong. Her current choice – a single finger tap on our chin - is a good one because it’s wordless and allows us to smile at her while also providing the necessary reminder about how we want her to act. We’ve also used taps to our noses and talked about throwing a hurtful phrase or negative attitude “out the window.” She seems to particularly like this image.
How much of this effort really matters in the long run is difficult to discern. As with any parenting technique, we don’t have a control group against which to measure the true effectiveness of any of these interventions. At the same time, it feels better to be doing something positive than just sitting around waiting and wondering when things are going to get better. Perhaps keeping ourselves from grinding down is what really matters in the long run.