Behaviorus Interruptus

RU was like a stuck record yesterday. A record with the needle continuously skipping back to the same whining, unhappy lyric until you forget that the rest of the album is actually pretty good, one of your favorites even, because you can’t get to those other songs. You just hear the same phrase cried out over and over and over. (And why do you have vinyl, anyway, in a house with three young children? They’ll just tear those fragile discs up. Are you crazy?)

The rule is that the girls need to have a rest time, typically right after lunch. They don’t have to sleep (though that’s always the hope), but they do have to rest quietly in bed. Well, RU didn’t want to rest.  She kept getting up out of bed — every 7.5 minutes — thus restarting the 20 minute rest time count down.  She began rest time au natural but halfway through the ordeal she had put on a twirly dress from the clean laundry. By the end, she was back as nature intended.  Grandma and Grandpa stopped by during rest time and even their allure was not enough to equal 20 minutes of quiet, laying down.  After much redirection and reminding she finally laid down and ended up falling asleep anyway. She was, after all, tired. (You can tell when she is because she will say, “I’m not tired!”)

RU woke up just before dinner, still feeling cranky. Whether her nap was too little, too late or too much, it left her all too easily upset. Grandma and Grandpa had gone home and so she began to cry and whine that she wanted them to stay. We’d just discovered that MeToo must have ransacked both her and RU’s boxes of jelly beans, spilling what hadn’t been eaten, so when RU saw us throwing the empty boxes away, she switched gears to grieving about that. When presented with dinner (the Wife’s attempt to make homemade ramen noodle soup, which was terrific), she flopped around, repeating that she did not want it.

Sing along, everyone:

This is the tantrum that has no end
Yes it goes on and on my friends
This kid started crying not knowing how or why
And she’ll continue tantruming forever just because
This is the tantrum that has no end…

When RU gets like this, it’s clear that she’s mostly just stuck in a bad mood. The problem isn’t really that the grandparents have left or the jelly beans are gone or whatever is for dinner; they just provide something for her unhappiness to crystallize around. However, she manifests this moodiness by repeating the same plaintive cry over and over and over.

“I want Grandma and Grandpa to stay!”

“Honey, they’re already gone.”

“I want Grandma and Grandpa to stay!”

“They are back at their house, sweetheart.”

“I want Grandma and Grandpa to staaaay!”

We try to be thoughtful, empathetic parents who remember that our kids are human beings (and, on the whole, good ones). But in this state, RU will drone incessantly, often demanding something that simply can’t happen. She can’t be reached by appeals to either reason or emotion and her endless repetition grinds away at one’s sympathy until there’s none left.

“I want my jelly beans!”

“They got spilled. We had to throw them away.”

“I want my jelly beans!”

“There aren’t anymore. I’m sorry.”

“I want my jelly beans!”

“RU? RU, can you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“Can we eat the jelly beans if they’re gone?”

“No.”

“Are you really just upset that they had to be thrown away?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s okay. I was unhappy about that, too. But can you say that instead of just saying you want your jelly beans? It’s fine if you feel sad but going on and on about wanting jelly beans isn’t helping.”

“I want my jelly beans!”

Once all your patience has been eroded by this, RU is no longer your lovely child but a constant, noncompliant annoyance. This is when you’re tempted to resort to threatening her with consequences. Or to try shocking her out of her well-worn groove by responding emotionally.

In this particular case, there were complicating factors that added extra pressure.

“RU, you need to eat your dinner. You have soccer practice tonight and your body will feel bad if you don’t have food.”

“I don’t want this.”

“You haven’t even tried it. It’s really good!”

“But I don’t want to eat it. Can’t I just go put my soccer clothes on?”

“No. Whether we’re eating or not, you have to stay at the table while we’re having dinner. And if you aren’t going to eat, I don’t think you can go to soccer practice.”

Our policy has been that if RU doesn’t go to practice, she can’t go to that week’s game. We missed the first three or so practices while traveling already.

On the other hand, RU’s made a commitment to her team. It’s important that she honors that and supports her teammates. Therefore, we change the terms: she will go to soccer practice. If she hasn’t eaten, she will sit out and watch her team practice. She will then go to the game this weekend, but only to cheer them on.

For my part, it was particularly frustrating at this point to think that RU would probably feel better (and therefore behave better) if she just ate. And the food was delicious! She just needed to try one single bite and all the problems would solve themselves. (At least she was saying she didn’t want her dinner instead of doing that thing where she says, “I don’t like this” without having even tried it.)

The time frame where we could get ready and make it to practice on time came and went. I wanted to give her as much time as possible to make the right choice and eat, but was getting antsy thinking about how late we would be after spending 10 minutes or so getting ready and into the van and then 20-25 minutes driving to the soccer field. RU, in turn, was getting upset about not being able to have dessert.

Then, the Wife has an idea. “You know what? Let’s do this: RU, you’re going to soccer practice.  You’ve made a commitment.  When we get back home tonight, you will have to sit back down at the table and eat your dinner.”

Sometimes, as she pointed out, you just have to interrupt the behavior chain.

It worked. RU was eager to get dressed and go. She was happily compliant when the Wife dropped her and I off at the soccer field. We got there halfway through and although she didn’t always hustle and tended to zone out, that’s normal for her. After practice, she and I had a good time kicking the ball around for a little while.

Once we got back home, it was back to the table for her to eat dinner. RU started to balk and fuss again. Inwardly groaning, I began to wrangle MeToo upstairs to get ready for bed. This was going to be a long evening, it seemed.

Then, RU must have actually tried a bite of the cold ramen soup because from the table I hear:

“Wow, mom, this is real good! You always make the best food. Thank you!”

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