Q&A: twins, anger after naps, and loving your kids the way they need it

Anonymous writes:

"My twin boys are turning three, but this is not about being three -because it's been an issue all year long.  Of all the things I've grappled with, some have gotten better, some have gotten worse, but this one stays the same: right after nap is the worst part of my day. 

One of my boys wakes up from his nap crying incoherently, and nothing I do soothes him.  He wants to be held, but he doesn't actually seem to derive comfort from me: he doesn't cuddle or even relax his body - he thrashes around, or holds himself rigidly a little away from me.  He doesn't want me to sing, he doesn't want me to ask him what's wrong, he doesn't want me to offer him anything.

This can go on for half an hour or more, if all I do is keep trying to comfort him.  Meanwhile his brother is a little groggy and cranky too, and would love to be held for a minute in any case, but certainly gets more anxious to be held when he sees his brother hogging my lap.  If I try to hold them at the same time, they both get angrier.  If I try to put one down and pick up the other, they both get angrier.  Even though I know it will be over sooner or later, it's awful for me. 

Some of my most ridiculous moments as a parent have been in this scenario.  Like the time we were at my in-laws, and the boys were napping upstairs but I needed to bring them downstairs when they woke up, and neither one would walk down the stairs OR let me carry the other one downstairs first.  So I put one on each knee and bumped down the stairs on my tush.  It took a long time.

Anyway.  Sometimes reading a book works; at first he's still screaming, but as the book goes on he gets interested despite himself and quiets down.  But often he goes right back to crying when the book is over.  The only thing that really works to distract him is to ask him a question where he really needs to think, either to remember something, or to work out the answer.  He immediately stops crying and answers in a normal voice. 

So my biggest question is <i>why don't I do that first.</i>  I mean, granted, I can't always think of a good enough question.  But the fact is, it's also not my first instinct.  I want to comfort him, even though I know he won't accept it from me, and I keep trying.

On some level, I should understand all this.  He has always been intense, very reactive to distress, just wired in general.  Sleep has been especially tough for him, and probably he's just disoriented or doesn't feel good when he first wakes up.  And physically he's a bit rigid too.  He was born with torticollis, and although it's gone now, some overall stiffness remains.  It's not just me he won't relax against.

He also had colic and undiagnosed reflux, and I spent most of the first year of his life knowing I was powerless to comfort him.  I actually started to believe I was the one making him miserable, because he would be smiling or laughing with someone else, until he saw me and cried to be held.  He always wanted me to hold him, but he would keep crying in my arms.  At the same time, I felt so guilty for hardly ever being able to hold his brother.

So I know these half-hour episodes bring back a lot of that anxiety and sadness for me.  I'm guessing, also, that I've been interpreting his rejection of physical comfort from me as a rejection of my love, when it's really nothing of the kind.  If that's true, then what I'm doing is to keep on trying to make him accept my love on my terms.  Not what I want to do at all, and yet I can't help it.  Physical comfort is a big part of the language of love for me. 

How common is it for a child to wake up inconsolable like this?  How do I break free of this perception of my relationship with him that was set in infancy?  And how do I learn to give and accept love in the language my child needs, not the one I need?

p.s. I know this problem will probably go away when he drops his nap, but I'm really hoping that doesn't happen anytime soon.  I don't think my son is capable of sleeping more than 10 hours in a row, so it seems to me he still needs the nap.  And in any case, I think the underlying emotional issues will still be there, if not so blatantly."

Yet another problem that could be solved with a Trained Monkey Assistant. I'm just saying.

Seriously, though, it sounds to me like you've always been the one he could trust. He could cry and be sad and angry at the world or his intensity or his pain and know that it was safe to be upset in your arms. So you got the release while other people got the smiles.

And, you're right that the most immediate manifestation that's causing problems for you is the nap wake-up, but the emotional issues aren't going to go away just because he drops his nap. There's the issue of why he gets so upset in the first place, and also the mismatch you feel between what you're offering and what he seems to need.

I think it's super-common in our culture to want everything to be OK. And we're really, REALLY not comfortable with expressions of anger (or distress, but mostly anger). Especially from women and children. So you combine those things and we've been trained to try to comfort babies and fix things for them.

It sounds to me like your son is angry. And that he's got a lot of that anger stored in his body, and it triggers when he wakes up, because that's kind of a groggy, pooky time before your brain engages fully. Which is also why asking him a question to engage his brain then makes him forget about crying.

I think you don't think to ask a question first every time, because you're trained to try to comfort, because we all think a crying child needs to be comforted (emotionally, but also physically).

Maybe over the long-term, though, what would give him the most comfort is working at it from the other direction by letting him be angry and helping him express and release that anger. If he's encouraged to express his anger enough, eventually he'll get it out of his system enough that it doesn't overwhelm him physically when he wakes up.

Then, if he does have more anger temporarily and go into a post-nap crying jag, you can use the deep-question technique to stop his crying and get him some space by engaging his brain, but know that he needs more release.

I would also use this as a time to think about whether you were allowed to be angry when you needed to. If you weren't, maybe you can use your son's experience to help allow yourself to be, too. Maybe it's just my own experience with this exact issue (and my second son), but it seems like sometimes feeling such a strong disconnect and not knowing how to bridge it can expose needs in ourselves that were never met, and once those become obvious the connection takes care of itself.

Are there parents of multiples or closely-spaced siblings who could talk about dealing with the feelings that you're not meeting your kids' needs because there are two (or more) of them and only one of you? I feel this way sometimes as a mom of two, but know it's nothing like having had two from the get-go. Anonymous definitely needs some support.