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The lesson of the ice cream cone: how it started

What do you do when you bring your A-game as a mom, and it all blows up in your face?

What do you do when you do your absolute best, with patience, creativity and support, and your child’s behaviour just gets worse?

I had an experience like that yesterday. I’m writing about it here and sharing it with you, because even though it’s a little embarrassing, we came through it, and I learned something I will never forget.

When you do your best, and your best is not enough

We started our day with hugs , snuggles, and funny songs. We ate breakfast together, and it all seemed to be going well. Then I noticed that something was a bit strange about my older son’s behaviour. He was buzzing around the kitchen a little erratically, picking up sharp objects, putting them down, picking up another one… I gently re-directed him and suggested that we go upstairs to get dressed.

He started to make a strange noise, and it sounded a bit like this: SCREAM-HONK. I tried to figure out what it meant. Maybe he was annoyed? Happy? Over-energetic? Worried? I asked him how he was feeling. I offered him some gum to chew, and checked if he needed to use the bathroom. More SCREAM-HONK. 

I reminded him that I have a hard time with loud noises (when we talk about stress, we refer to “turning on the angry robot,” like in this blog post about self-regulation.) I asked if he’d like to sing a song instead. SCREAM-HONK.

I sat on the bed, and asked if he would please stop making that noise. Please. Stop. SCREAM-HONK. I felt my stress levels starting to bubble up and spill over like a glass of Coke poured too quickly into a glass. I covered my face in my hands.

Bruised best intentions: how do you parent when you are hurting inside?

I didn’t want my son to see me getting emotional, so I tried to collect himself. I reminded him: “I love you. All the time.” Too late. He turned his back to me, shrugged me off, and marched downstairs. I heard him declare loudly to his father: “I’m sure glad to be done with HER!” 

Ow. My heart. I felt pretty bruised, and frustrated with myself. I wished I could understand all that buzzing and scream-honking was about. I wished I could repair that connection with myself and my son. I knew it was probably hard to think straight and problem-solve under stress, so I made sure to add some self-care in among the day’s tasks (for me, that’s yoga and painting watercolours.)

 You can’t pour from an empty cup

I wanted to make a fresh start when I picked the kids up from school, but I don’t think I was quite ready. I arrived a bit late. I rushed into problem-solving and trying to figure out the morning’s conflict, and within minutes, I was feeling a flood of emotions welling up again. I overreacted when my son ignored simple instructions. He started complaining and rebelling in more obvious ways. By dinner time, we could barely be in the same room without him snapping at me. I responded with all the grace and kindness of an irritable hippopotamus.


    Here’s one behaviour strategy you won’t find in the textbooks

    All I wanted to do was run upstairs to my office, lock the door, and declare myself off-limits until after bedtime. However, I didn’t want to abandon my family, or leave my younger son stranded in a tornado of grumpiness. I was tired, hormonal, on edge, and out of ideas.

    How to disrupt a pattern of resentment and exhaustion

    So, I did something I’ve never suggested in my role as a behaviour therapist. I put on my coat, walked to a nearby store, and bought a box of wrapped ice cream cones. I bought EXACTLY enough so we could all have one (and no fighting over the leftovers.)

    When I walked in the door, I could already hear my son grumbling about me. I just about turned and ran straight out the door again, but then he saw the box of ice cream in my hand. I placed it on the table. He ran to me, hugged me, and yelled “Thank you! Thank you! I’m sorry! Thank you!”

    We sat down and ate our ridiculous, messy ice creams. We looked at each other and we laughed.

      What lesson did I teach my kids by handing them an ice cream cone?

      If you’re wondering why I didn’t punish my son for his rude behaviour, I completely understand. Long story short: I have learned that when our family is not working as a team, and I am at my wits’ end, I’m not able to communicate clearly and set up a consequence that will be helpful for learning. You can check out some articles on punishment here and here.

      I didn’t really expect this to be a lesson for me, let alone anyone else. I was a little embarrassed about having to resort to a trip to the grocery store when I couldn’t understand my child’s behaviour. All I wanted to do was to survive the day, and say goodnight without bitterness or a sense of failure.

       Drop a LOVE BOMB, and watch for the ripple effects

      The next day,  I woke up feeling positive, but expecting more of the same challenges. Sure enough, the SCREAM-HONKS happened again. However, this time, I was able to react with patience. I got myself out of the way before my stress-levels spiked.

      Reducing stress and finding new insight

      I asked my husband for his advice about what the screaming might be about, and he suggested that it could be just “some extra sensory input.” This seemed like a theory worth testing! I put on some loud indie-pop music, and guess what? The scream-honks stopped. The music seemed to satisfy his need for noise, and we headed toward the door without missing a beat.

      Forgiveness, unconditional love, and grace

      The best change, however, happened as we were walking down the stairs. My son turned to me, his eyes bright, and said “I STILL can’t believe you GAVE US ICE CREAM while we were FIGHTING!”

      Instead of remembering the feelings of frustration, or dwelling on the failures of communication, my son was trying to wrap his head around the idea that I could love him EVEN when he was at his most prickly and offensive. That’s a lesson I want him to hang on to for the rest of his life.

      Forgiveness. Empathy. New ideas. Connection. All for the price of an ice cream cone. I think that was a pretty good deal.