Tess Donohue Photography - GEN MUIR family

It’s not about the banana!

Gen Muir looks at dealing with big emotions and challenging behaviour in kids in her new bookLittle People, Big Feelings

Little people,Big feelings book

When I was around 10 days postpartum with my fourth child, my third son, Tom – who was 2 years old and obsessed with Batman – was underneath me as I was cooking dinner.

My newborn was in a baby carrier and it was 5 pm. I had my older two children tearing around the house with a few extra kids from the neighbourhood. Tired was an under- statement and it was exactly at this moment that Tommy asked me for a banana. Even though I was about to serve dinner I was not about to rock ANY boats, so I gave him a banana.

Then Tom asked me if I could ‘peel it’ for him, so I did . . . And as I was peeling that banana, I did what you should never, ever do to a toddler. I accidentally BROKE IT IN HALF.

My son was devastated. He was rapidly declining into the biggest meltdown I had ever seen him have. He was screaming over and over: ‘Banana broken, I want a new banana.’

I didn’t have another banana.

I initially tried to console him with logic: ‘It tastes just the same.’ Then facts: ‘I don’t have any more bananas.’

He remained on the floor screaming with tears running down his face: ‘MY BANANA BROKEN!!!!!’

Then I tried to fix it: ‘I could chop it up?’ Then solve it: ‘Or pop in a bowl with a spoon?’ (I would have offered chocolate sauce at this point if I thought it would have helped.)

I tried distraction: ‘What about some TV?’

What was becoming increasingly clear was that my son was NOT going to be consoled – he was screaming so loudly I wondered when the neighbours would call the police, and in this moment, I was struggling, struggling to find my calm, my compassion, my anything! I felt so lost, so angry at my husband for not being home yet. I thought, ‘If Tommy is going to be like this, I can’t manage four kids’ and I could feel this huge, unmistakable desire to scream, ‘GO TO YOUR ROOM!’ rising very quickly within my body.

I knew sending my son to his room wasn’t the answer, but in that moment it almost felt like the only choice. I was going into fight or flight fast, and then I remembered this: ‘I don’t need to fix this, I just need to let him know I get it.’

I took a deep breath, I sat down on the floor in our kitchen next to my son and I said three things:

  1. ‘Your banana broke.’ (‘Yessssss,’ he replied, through his giant sobs.)
  2. ‘You DID NOT want it to break.’ (Sniffing and gulping, he nodded.)
  3. ‘You are really sad about this.’ (‘Yes, banana broke.’)

Within 3 seconds, my son’s head was leaning against my shoulder. Within 5 seconds, he was eating that bloody banana . . . The world spun back on its axis, I could breathe again, and I sat in silence and awe about how well it can work, and how good it can feel, to just accept the flipping feelings.

Here are the three main observations I had in this moment:

  1. How quickly genuinely acknowledging feelings can help to calm kids down.
  2. While we can ‘know’ what kids need at a cognitive level, finding this compassion and creativity under pressure remains one of the hardest parts of parenting.
  3. It was NOT about the banana.

Yep, only after I put my gorgeous Batman-obsessed son in his cot that night did it click. I had a baby only 10 days ago . . . I’d gone away for 5 days to have the baby, and that was the longest my son had ever been away from me. While it’s a fact he was upset his banana broke, it’s likely that he was also processing the recent monumental change of becoming a big brother.

I tell this story to parents often because I think it highlights where our brain and the instinct to go into fight, flight, or freeze will take us in the moment. How despite knowing how we want to respond on paper, our underlying programming, our fear and our emotions can really block our ability to see clearly when our child is losing it.

I tell it because I think stories can help us better in the eye of the storm than stats or facts and because I want parents to know when they can’t find that calm parent they so want to be, they are not alone and we all struggle with this stuff. No one, I mean no one, rides the parenting emotion bus for free – this struggle is in all of us.

This is an extract from Little People, Big Feelings by Gen Muir (Macmillan Australia, RRP $36.99) 

Parenting expert and mum-of-four Gen Muir has helped thousands of families to navigate strong emotions and challenging behaviour in young kids. In her debut book – Little People, Big Feelings – Gen shares her tried-and-tested techniques to help you through some of the most difficult moments of parenting – public meltdowns, bedtime struggles, school refusal, new sibling rivalry – without losing your own mind or quashing your child’s spirit.