My daughter is intense. She feels deeply, rages madly, loves freely. As I watch her expressive face quickly transform from joy to pain, I marvel at the speed with which she bounces from one extreme to another. Her moods are mercurial, flashing before me. Sometimes, I feel like I’m running behind her, trying to catch up, collecting the detritus of her anger—hurled words, thrown objects--that lies strewn within her wake.
In the lower moments, I blame myself: I haven’t modeled appropriate modulation of emotion. I am reactive, myself, and she’s taking her cues from me. My impatient, aggravated responses to her outbursts only further antagonize her, leading to an escalation in her anger.
But I also know that her intensity is one dimension of her temperament. Sophia was born to feel, it’s stamped on her DNA. And with this temperament comes the gift of great sensitivity. When she was only two, she already understood that feeling “touched” meant wanting to smile and cry at the same time. She recognizes my own feelings, and reaches out to me in empathy, hugging me when I’m sad, bringing me cards when I’m sick. She stops to help younger children when she notices they’re hurt. She cares.
I know this about Sophie. I have learned that there are ways of easing her into things. I know that I have to choose my moments to push her, avoiding those when she’s tired or hungry. She, herself, has come to learn to tell me, “Leave me alone mommy. GO AWAY. I just need to calm down. I can’t calm down if you keep talking to me.”
And she will. But first, I have to listen.
But still there are those times where I don’t. A necessary evil. If I didn’t, how else would she learn to cope?
Take last night.
Sophie had about a pound and a half of homework. She has an enthusiastic kindergarten teacher who hands out a folder each week with five activities, allowing families to tackle them at their leisure. We get a new packet on Friday that is due the following Thursday. I am not a big fan of homework, particularly if it’s busy work. But Sophie enjoys it, and its nice to have her coloring or writing at the kitchen table while I’m making dinner in a Norman Rockwell kind of way.
But, as we had been away the previous week, Sophie had acquired two weeks worth of homework that I was trying to get through in three days. We had been doing about a page a day, until I realized that we had one night and four more pages left. She did one and I tried to encourage her to do another.
“I want to do it after dinner mom! Can I please? I want to watch Wild Kratts!”
“Do you promise you’ll do it after dinner?”
“Yes, Mom! That’s what I said.”
“Okay, I’m just making sure we have an understanding.”
Kevin set her up with Wild Kratts, while I finished making dinner.
After dinner, Kevin was feeling a little ill and went to lie down. Sophie jumped into bed with him. “I love you daddy,” she said curling next to him.
“I hate to break up this scene,” I told them, “but Sophie needs to finish her homework.”
“Go finish your homework,“ Kevin told her.
“Okay! I was going to!” Sophie snapped back. She was to color certain parts of a picture brown, so that ultimately, a gingerbread boy would emerge from a mosaic of shapes. She had already given the gingerbread boy a glitter nose and eyes and mouth with some healthy squeezes of glitter glue.
“Mom, can you trace around his eyes, nose and mouth so I don’t get the marker in the glitter glue.”
It was a fair request, so I did it. But, she proceeded to get the marker in the glitter glue, and then it didn’t work anymore. “I’ll try to wash it off.” I told her.
“No I will!” She said, grabbing the marker and running to the sink.
After she held it under the stream for a minute, I came over. “Okay, Soph. That’s enough.”
“I want to do it!” I eased the marker out of her hand and gave her a colored pencil.
“Why don’t you give me some homework to do,” I suggested. “We can do our work together.”
Sophie put a great deal of care into creating a homework sheet for me. She wrote “name” at the top and left a long line for me to write my name. Then, she created a grid for me to practice writing the numbers 1-5. She gave it to me, and I set to work.
She immediately began popping up to “check my work.”
“Good! Nice job!” She told me. “I have to circulate to make sure the class is doing their work.” She was channeling her teacher now. She tip-toed around the kitchen, checking the worksheets of phantom students. “Good, good, good,” she whispered.
“Sophie, you need to sit down and finish your own work. You can get up and check mine when you are done.”
But no, she popped up again. And again. Until finally, I said. “Sophie, enough! Either you finish this worksheet or you’re going to bed!”
“NO I’m NOT! All you want to do is punish me all the time. You don’t let me do anything fun!”
“Make a decision. 1…2….”
“You can’t tell me what to do! Stop it! Stop counting! I’m going to go to the couch to calm down.”
“No. I said you either finish your work or go to bed.” I was raising my voice now too.
Kevin came out of his room, looking groggy. “What’s all the screaming about?”
I explained the situation. “This has to stop right now,” he said. “Sophie go to your room.”
“NOOOOOOOOOO!” Sophie shrieked. Kevin warned her that if she didn’t go, he was going to take her there himself. He began to count and she flew up the stairs.
A few seconds later she was out again. “Get back in your room,” Kevin thundered in the stentorian voice only a father is capable of. It reminded me of my own father’s ability to vocally intimidate. She went back, but popped out a third time. He sent her back. Then it was quiet.
I cried tears of frustration in Kevin’s arms. He suggested we go sit outside in the hammock for a few minutes. It was a warm evening, one of the last of the season. It was soothing to feel my back against his chest. But soon I had an uneasy feeling. Sophie, I knew, was not in her room.
“My spider sense is tingling,” Kevin said. “She’s looking for us.”
“Mine too. I was just thinking the same thing.” We got up, just as we were walking towards the back door, Sophie’s silhouetted figure merged in the doorway. She was heaving, her eyes were swollen and tear stained.
“I looked all over for you,” she sobbed! “You were gone!” Her anger was replaced by terror. I felt a twist of guilt.
I scooped her up and reassured her that we were just outside, getting some air. She sobbed into my neck.
“I thought you drove away to a hotel,” she gasped.
“No, Soph, no. No matter how angry we get with your behavior, we wouldn’t leave you. “ I brushed away the strands of hair that were plastered to her forehead with sweat and tears.
“I’m hungry.” I could feel something akin to regret or contrition radiating off of her. It was a good time to talk.
Kevin sat down with her at the kitchen table. I kept my back to them, chopping away at a watermelon. A sweet, cold, soothing fruit.
From behind me, I heard his voice, gentle now. “Some people,” be began, “only have one scoop of emotion. They feel happy and sad, but less strongly than other people. Then there are people who have two scoops. They feel things a little bit more. And then,” he said grandly, “there are the people with three scoops.”
Sophie studied him, her hand under her chin.
“People with three scoops get really, really angry very quickly. They can also feel very very sad.”
“Or very very happy?” Sophie suggested.
“Like me. I have three scoops.”
“You do,” Kevin nodded. “And people with three scoops have to be extra careful, because they can hurt other people with their feelings. They can be quick to yell at other people and say things they don’t mean to say.”
“I know! My friends Emma and Livy only have one scoop! They never get upset.”
“Can you think of anybody else who has three scoops, like you?” I asked, bringing over a bowl of the watermelon.
Sophie didn’t hesitate. She pointed to both Kevin and me stretching out her arms in opposite directions.
“That’s right,” Kevin acknowledged, “And sometimes I get really, really angry, but I have to be careful that I don’t take it out on you or mommy.”
I smiled at Kevin, gratefully, my eyes wet. He’s worked very hard on his temper over the years. As I have had to fight my tendency to resort to tears and withdrawal.
There should be too many scoops among us. But without them, I don’t think we’d be able to touch each other quite so deeply.