I had to pop a pill the last time we went to Disneyland — the kind that makes you feel calm when you’re feeling anything but calm. Anyone over the age of 30 is not shocked by this revelation. The four hour waits so that your wide-eyed little girl can curtsy for Elsa and Anna, the 9,000 little girls dressed as Elsa, dodging strollers and personal people movers for nine hours, “It’s a Small World” on repeat in your head — it’s enough to have you rummaging through your efficiently packed backpack full of snacks and hand sanitizer to find your secret stash of sedatives and knock one back with a swig from a juice box.
But I’m a Disneyland veteran. I grew up in Southern California and have been visiting the park my whole life. And now we have season passes and visit both Disney parks frequently. I don’t usually mind the crowds, I can deal with the blazing sun and lack of shade, I’ve made my peace with the overpriced food and I dig “It’s a Small World.” So it wasn’t the Disney experience that had me self-medicating. Rather, it was the week I had been having with my daughter — and now we were having it among 40,000 people.
Hailey had been angry the week leading up to Disneyland — fists clenched, red-faced, screamingly — angry. Every task and activity sparked a battle, from brushing her teeth to getting her in her car seat, from dinnertime to taking her to school. I was worn out and confounded at this change in my normally easy going kid. Each day when I finally, finally won the car seat battle and strapped her in, I’d close the car door and rest my head against the window for a few glorious seconds of peace and quiet. As the week progressed, Hailey started lashing out physically towards Josh and I, kicking and hitting when she was frustrated. Bedtime was the worst; a routine that usually took a half hour was stretching to two hours or more a night and usually ended in tears. By the end of the week, Hailey, Josh and I were all hanging on by a thread. That thread broke on a Sunday night. Hailey’s emotions were so explosive she seemed frightened by them; she was lashing out at both Josh and I. We tried every parenting technique we knew, and even when we did get her to calm down, she refused to get in bed. Sometime after midnight that night she fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, curled up like a kitten in my lap, looking nothing like the raging 4-year-old she had been for the past three hours. Josh and I spent the next couple of hours consulting parenting books and discussing Hailey’s anger. Our Disneyland trip was scheduled for the next morning, a surprise early birthday gift to Hailey. We considered canceling the trip since Hailey didn’t know about it anyway, but grandparents, an aunt, uncle and a cousin were meeting us at the park, some of whom had taken off work to join us. So we got a couple of hours of sleep and headed to Disneyland the next morning — three exhausted, emotionally wrecked people headed to the happiest place on earth.
As you could imagine, Hailey’s behavior improved once she was at Disneyland having a grand time surrounded by her favorite people. She was still having many more meltdowns than usual, so Josh and I were on pins and needles all day, bracing for the next tantrum and trying to avoid anything that might set her off. When we waited in the long lines for rides, Josh and I would give each other pep talks, “We can do this!” “We’re good parents!” we’d say while rubbing the stress knots out of each other’s shoulders. Sometimes we’d just sit in a shady spot and grumble to ourselves as we watched Hailey ride the carousel with her Papa, all smiles. Oh Papa, if you only knew. I looked around at the other families, wondering if they had come to Disneyland under happier circumstances, but the parents all looked like we felt and the kids seemed overstimulated and exhausted. Perhaps all parents were just bracing for the next meltdown, I thought.
We’re now a month away from that Disneyland trip and my sweet, easy going kid has returned. It took a lot of patience and consistency on our part. We’re not sure if we ever identified the cause of Hailey’s anger; maybe she didn’t even know. Our best guess was that she was missing Josh, who has been working later and spending more hours on the road commuting. We consulted many books, moms, friends and a couple of professionals and below is the advice we collected and have been practicing consistently.
1. Notice I said “consistency” twice in the above paragraph. It is essential. Whatever your parenting style, practice it consistently. If you flip flop, it will confuse your child, and a confused child is an angry child.
2. Make sure you and your co-parent are on the same parenting page. If parent 1 enforces bedtimes but parent 2 is lax, again, you will have a confused child.
3. Don’t raise your voice. When asking your child to do something, say it lovingly but firmly.
4. Stick to the routine. Kids thrive on routine. Yes, things come up and kids have to learn to be flexible like we all do. But for the most part, try to stick to a routine, the bedtime routine being the most important.
5. Reward the good behavior. Reward, reward, reward. Hailey likes visuals so we put stars on a chart whenever we feel she has earned a reward for things like listening well, being cooperative or helpful, going to bed easily and on time. Once she has earned a certain amount of stars, she gets a reward we all agree on.
6. Have consequences for negative behavior. There is a sad face chart right next to the star chart. Fortunately, we put very few sad faces up, but if Hailey is doing something she shouldn’t be, she gets a sad face sticker. These represent a consequence that is enforced. Note: Dole out your consequences incrementally; you don’t want to take everything away at once because then you have nothing to bargain with. Hailey gets 20 minutes of iPad time per day. I used to take the iPad away as punishment until I was advised that I was taking away my bargaining chip. Now I take it away in five minute increments.
7. If both parents live together, your child needs time together with both parents, but he or she also needs individual time with each parent.
8. Never leave the room as a punishment for your child’s negative behavior. Time outs are one thing — a cooling off period for you and your child. But if you flee the room when your child is in the middle of a meltdown, they see this as you abandoning them at a time when they are experiencing huge emotions that are scaring them. Children need you to be there to tell them it is okay to have these feelings. Emotions are allowed. Bad behavior is not.