My child is not giving me a hard time. They are having a hard time.

Sometimes we all need reminders in parenting – glimpses of the reality that we know to be true but can so easily forget in the moment. I’m firmly committed to connected parenting, and I believe in giving my kids the benefit of the doubt and being gentle with them – but even so, I still have moments of frustration and feeling like my kiddos must be working against me.

Yesterday morning Matt made a Lego truck for Atticus, who was thrilled. But the truck broke just as Matt was pulling out of the driveway on his way to work, and Atticus was inconsolable. He firmly believed that Matt, and only Matt, had the power to fix his truck, and he was devastated by the idea that it would be hours before Matt was home again. A full-blown meltdown ensued.

I already had a “to do” list a mile long, and my interest in spending 30 minutes working through a tantrum was so low. I engaged halfheartedly, though, and just as I was starting to feel defeated, that nothing I was saying or trying was helpful, he curled up on the chair and said, very sadly, “Mommy, I’m going crazy.”

Immediately I stopped. And I remembered the quote I have seen so many times before and wholeheartedly believe to be true: My child is not giving me a hard time. They are having a hard time.

My little guy’s meltdown wasn’t a manipulative attempt to ruin my day; it was an expression of the overwhelming emotions he was feeling. At four years old, he doesn’t have the self-regulation skills to know how to calm himself. He knew his feelings were big, too big for him to handle alone, and his meltdown was a reflection of that, and he needed help to work through it and through his feelings.

I went and sat down on the floor near him. “Oh, buddy, you’re not going crazy,” I told him. “But I know you’re feeing a lot of feelings, and they can be big and overwhelming, can’t they?”

“Mommy, I AM going crazy!” he insisted.

“You feel like you’re going crazy?” I asked. He nodded. “You need Mommy to help you with those feelings?” Another nod.

“Let me get some flowers. We’ll smell them together,” I suggested.

“Will that help with the crazy feelings?” he asked.

“Yes, yes, it will,” I told him.

We leaned in together, breathing deeply in the smell of our flowers, then slowly letting out those deep breaths.

A few minutes passed, and he said, “Mommy, also I would like some chocolate milk.” I refilled his cup for him and asked if he wanted me to hold his hand while he drank it.

“No, Mommy, I want you to sit with me,” he said. He curled up on my lap and drank his chocolate milk.

And then, calm, he told me, “Mommy, I love you.” And he was able to strategize with me about what we should do about his Lego truck. We texted Matt a picture and asked where to put the pieces that had fallen off, and he texted back a response. I replaced those pieces, and Atticus was good to go.

Note his truck on the windowsill behind him!

This is what parenting is. This is the mom I – far too often – am not but the mom I always want to be.