When Earbaby was just a toddler going to daycare and then preschool a few days a week, she didn't have bad days at school. After her initial days of getting used to being "abandoned," with her starting to cry when we turned onto the street of her first daycare place, she gradually warmed to playing with her friends and was eager to go see Michelle and Jordan, two girls her own age. We had to go through another adjustment period when we changed daycare facilities, finding the first one lacking in both activities and the ability to keep good teachers. When her fourth or fifth really good teacher left and her activity sheet consistently read "watched Barney on television," I knew it was time for a serious upgrade.
With her new place, the director hated planting the kids in front of the television, the teachers took the kids out in the play yard every day, or out for a walk to a nearby park, her preschool teacher was Montessori trained and the kids at the age of four could say the Pledge of Allegiance, knew who the President of the United States was, and were pretty spot on on shapes and colors, things some kids would be learning for the first time in kindergarten. EB loved her new school, and her teacher said she never had a bad day.
Then we learned of the 6 p.m. meltdown. That's when your happy little preschooler has been good all day and waits until you come to finally let out all the stresses of the day. Some parents see it when their kid starts crying just as they arrive. That's actually a good thing -- it's not that they're not happy to see you, it's just that they've been having such a good time, they're not ready for it to end.
EB was always glad to see us. Many times it was her dad who picked her up after he got off work, but if there was a meltdown, it would come after her time with her friends ended. The same way adults need to decompress after a tough day at the office, kids also need time after a full day. They just get to cry it all out. If adults did that after their shift ended, eventually someone would suggest some kind of psychiatric intervention. So we end the day with a walk, a veg-out session in front of the television, or a glass of wine. But it's still a bit of a 6 p.m. meltdown.
I naively thought those toddler days of meltdowns after a tough day were over. I've since come to put two and two together and realize about half the fights between EB and me (or her dad) are the teenage version of the 6 p.m. meltdown.
We have been marveling (sometimes in horror) her ability to turn on a dime. She can go from happy to sullen in 60 seconds or less. And while you have the patience to deal with a toddler or preschooler who just needs to calm herself, it is downright exasperating to deal with a teenager who just decided to get outright nasty because you don't have the time, energy, or money to take her for a brand new wardrobe at that minute, or stop by the drugstore for the 12th time that week so she can try yet another hair product her friend recommended to make her hair look the way her friend's hair does.
The ridiculosity (urban dictionary) of trying to guess the mood changer is angrifying (yes, urban dictionary word too). Toddler meltdowns are expected and usually after a time they can be distracted and soothed. Teenage meltdowns can last for hours, or even days, and they can be more verbally violent than the worst tantrum thrown by a three-year-old. A three-year-old saying I hate you hurts. A 14-year-old saying it just makes you thoroughly ticked off.
Granted, teenagers are pushing the envelope all the time. They are toddlers with better verbal skills, more freedom than they can handle, hormonally challenged and unbalanced, too much reliance on and influence from friends, and yet, strangely, a total lack of cognizance of consequences for their bad decisions.
Earbaby didn't have many tantrums when she was younger, although that could be my amnesia kicking in. I do remember when she used to kick up such a fuss over having to leave the park, I was beside myself, until my sister suggested I prepare her by saying, we're leaving in 10 minutes, and then counting down. It worked and she would come along easily, having learned how to transition from one activity to another.
It worked at four, it doesn't work at 14. When I say it's time to go, or give her a time limit on when to come home, she pushes back. The teenage meltdown is negotiation, cajoling, defiance, tantrum and then sullen acceptance. By the time it's all over, everyone is angry and exhausted, too many bitter words have been spoken, forgiveness seems almost an impossibility, and then -- she turns on a dime, sits in your lap for a hug (!) and tries another tack to get her way.
Consequences are just another negotiation tool. When EB was grounded for outright defiance, she refused to accept her culpability, instead turning it into an attack of the rules and the whole parenting dynamic. She didn't become contrite, she became contrary. This meltdown lasted for the better part of a week before the realization dawned that throwing a tantrum wasn't going to work, it only made me angrier and more resistant to giving her a break. And that apology for being openly disobedient? Well, let's just say I'm not holding my breath.
The one thing I am sure of with this whole new phase of defiance and irrational behavior, is that it will only get worse before it gets better. I remember when EB was little and having a tough day and I would tell myself that, one, these days would pass, and two, I would miss her at that age. Both of those things are true.
But should I (and she) survive these teenage meltdown years, I'm betting I won't miss these days. At all. But I do wish the one thing all mothers wish for their children. I hope she has a daughter one day -- who is just like her.