When Your Child is Really Mad: A Lesson on Bearing Pain

We recently fell into a pattern where my eight year old was consistently staying up too late. We have 3 kids, and there are only 2 of us adults. If you do the math, this puts us at a bit of a disadvantage at bedtime. I go with my youngest and by 8:30 pm, I’m totally spent. I tend to fall asleep. My middle child needs some books and songs before bed, which my husband does. And by the time we get to my oldest, well. It gets late. He is also, at 8 1/2, at a stage where he had just previously become totally oblivious to adult’s questions and requests, setting in to place some not so great habits.

We decided it really was time that he goes to bed at a more reasonable time. We prepped him the night before. Actually, several nights before. We’ve been telling him we are going to do this. Last night we said the next night would start an earlier bedtime routine. We went to do it, and well. He was really mad.

I can dig in and be uncompromising about things sometimes. I feel this is affecting his health, and Mama Bear doesn’t stand for that. He WOULD be going to bed at an earlier time tonight.

He sat on the couch and stewed. My husband noticed. Dad started rubbing his back. He probed him about how he was feeling, etc. Eventually my son threw himself under a blanket, on the couch.

My conversation with him went something as follows, “Honey, I really care about your health. I want you to be well rested. You are having headaches and stomach aches lately. We got a new humidifier to help. You get nosebleeds in the winter and this can cause headaches. But one of the best things you can do for your health is sleep. I want you to be healthy and feel good.”

This didn’t do a whole lot. He still stewed. Instead of lecturing, I decided to get a gauge on his feelings. My son is very analytical. He sizes things up with numbers. A long while ago, we learned about emotions, putting them on a scale. If you are “annoyed,” this is about a 10 on the “Angry” scale.” If you are enraged, it is a 100. Anyway, I asked him, “On a scale of 1 to 100, how angry are you?” He growled, if I remember right. I joked, “So. Like. A 5?” Ok. I’ll stop being patronizing. I asked, “Are we talking 100 or 1000?” He hand signed that it was 100. I said “That’s good. That means it’s still on the scale. That means you can bear it.”

Then I told him, “You know one of the best skills you can have in life is being able to handle when you are really angry. Whenever you are really angry or sad, you sit through that pain. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but on the other side of it is something better. And that really is what will happen here. You’ll get more sleep. You’ll wake up earlier. You’ll have more time to do other things. And you’ll feel a lot healthier.”

He didn’t budge. He wasn’t growling or throwing himself under the blanket, but he wasn’t moving either. I continued, “You know, what we are dealing with is addiction. You are on the computer at night. This sucks you in and you want to keep doing it. Also, the blue light compromises sleep. This is why it’s good to stop using the computer some time before bed. Most humans never had to deal with all these lights and electronics. It really, really affects our health.”

To make my point, I went and turned off every light in the house. I had asked him to imagine that everything was dark because we didn’t have electricity, but I decided all involved needed to feel it, on a visceral level. It makes a big difference to be sitting there in the dark versus sitting there with almost every light on.

Earth Hour 2021 will be Sat March 27. See https://www.earthhour.org/

When I got back from turning off all the lights, there was a noticeable calm to everyone. The dark does that. I noted it. I said something like, “It’s hard to not be still at night. In truth, you might be worried that you will step on a rock or disturb a bear. You naturally become still.” I was joking about the bear thing, by the way.

I had previously mentioned that most humans didn’t have to deal with electricity in the past. When it got dark, they just fell asleep. No books, no songs, no pleading, just sleep. But I wanted to make my point in a more pointed way. So I said, while calm in the dark, “How long have humans been around? Like 200,000 years? Some think it was 300,000 years. Anyway, when was electricity invented? 1880? And it probably wasn’t even used until 1900. So electricity has only even been used for 120 years. This really is not that long. Otherwise, this is what nighttime felt like for most humans. It’s dark and it makes a big difference. And I can’t even turn off every light in the house.” The clock on the microwave, the router, etc. were all emanating light. “It’s now impossible to turn off all these lights. Even if I turned off the electricity to the house, there are lights outside and street lights. You know this has a really, really big impact on our health. In the 1940s, virtually no one was overweight. Now, most of us are. We think we’re advanced but we are some of the most unhealthy humans to ever live. We’re zombies now. And electronics aren’t a bad thing. But we need to be mindful of our health needs. I want you to enjoy computers. I’m not trying to take them away. But I want you to be healthy and strong and enjoy modern technology.”

He was pretty floored by everything being dark. He was noticing how doors looked different at night. He marveled, “You wouldn’t even be able to turn off all the lights?” Yup. Virtually impossible. I asked him on a scale of 1 to 100 how mad he was now. He said, “I’d say a little over a 50.”

He still wasn’t going to bed. We promised we could read to him a little bit before bed, etc. I told him, “You know, as your parents, we have a bit more perspective about things. It’s our job sometimes to help you make good decisions.” I have been thinking about this lately: younger more inexperienced people often don’t have the experience or even reasoning capability to make good decisions. It is the job of older people to help them with that; in fact it is also the job of the yet older generation to help even us parents yet still. We’ve totally lost that. And while I am in total favor of leaning into a child’s development and giving them ample freedom, I can appreciate this argument for why parents sometimes give children “boundaries”: that the child by nature cannot have the full perspective on what would be good for them yet. Particularly when unnatural, toxic influences abound, such as electronics. So I just bluntly said, after he was not budging yet calmed down, sitting there in the dark, “I am going to insist you go to bed now.” And he did. He just walked upstairs and went to bed.

As I type this, it’s the next day. He got up earlier than normal. He was amazed by it. The day wasn’t wasted away simply by sleeping. And he was planning what he wanted to do. “I am allowed to be on my iPad until X but I’m not going to be on it that long. I am going to put it down after Y.” This sort of self-imposed discipline has been characteristic of him lately. Hence why I attach this story to a milestone at age 8 1/2. He was also excited to have gotten 9 hours of sleep. He did the math of what time he went to bed to what time he woke up. He wanted to repeat it. He wanted to read with me for an hour at night before bed. The good new about these ages and stages is they are dual natured. Yes, he wouldn’t respond to our requests to go to bed for a short while. But now he is engineering his bedtime routine. This is characteristic of this milestone which I named “Disciplined Habits.” So while his own natural stage presented the problem, it always offered the cure. He himself wants regimen to his bedtime at night.

I was especially glad that I got to talk to him about bearing anger. He saw it live. He was angry. He calmed down. He went to bed. And something better came: he was able to get up earlier the next day.

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