Filling up her cup

I want to write about more about Playful Parenting but I worry that if I try to sit down and write a big post about it, it will never get done. So I’m just going to write about it in fits and starts when I can and I hope it’s helpful to others, and to the future me.

I’m only 19% done with the book Playful Parenting but already I’ve learned so much and it had been so helpful. Most of it isn’t actual strategies but instead it’s a way of thinking. It’s a way of understanding my daughter and her behavior that helps me respond to it more appropriately. It really has changed our relationship in a huge way.

One of the metaphors the books uses is “the cup.” The cup is where each of us stores our emotional reserves. If we’re feeling safe and nurtured our cup is full. When we are stressed or upset our cup is closer to empty. Throughout the day our cup becomes more empty or more full, depending on our experiences. When our cup is full we’re better able to handle difficult situations. We feel good and we don’t need much from others. If our cup is empty we act irritable, we seem frustrating, and we need others to show us love, patience and understanding.

Toddlers have cups too. In fact, they have a harder time ignoring the state of their cup. If it’s full they are agreeable, happy, even jubilant. If their cup is verging on empty they are irritable, demanding, absolutely impossible. Not only are toddlers more susceptible to the state of their cup, but their cups are more easier filled and emptied. They are more sensitive to what is going on around them.

It used to be, when Osita was being impossible, all I could think of was how annoying it was, how I had to set the right precedents, how I thought she should be able to behave better.

Now when Osita is being impossible I know it’s because her cup is empty. I don’t think about how I can get her to do the thing I need her to do, or what precedents I need to set to ensure future compliance, instead I think about how I can fill up her cup–how I can give her what she needs to reconnect and feel more secure. This has fundamentally changed the way I interact with my daughter. Instead of making sure she knows what is expected of her I focus on making sure she knows she is loved. When she is angry and upset, I hug her. When she won’t get dressed in the morning I offer to play. When she refuses to eat her dinner I suggest we read her a book.

And usually, after I give her what she needs for five or ten minutes, she is able to give me what I need from her. Like yesterday, she really didn’t want to get dressed for school. I tried to make it a game but she didn’t go for it. So I just sat down and played princess dolls for her. We put on all their dresses and did their hair. And the five minutes later she got dressed with absolutely no problems. She was happy to do it.

My daughter is having a rough time right now. Her world has been turned upside down. She needs us to be understanding of what she is going through. She needs to be reassured of how much we love her. And I always knew that, but what I didn’t know was that I couldn’t expect her to respond to my attempts at showing her how much I love her. Me saying, “I love you,” a million times doesn’t fill up her cup. She needs me to play. She needs me to read her books. She needs me to make getting dressed into a game. She needs me be patient when she asks to go to the bathroom for the third time before bed. She needs me to dance around with her even when I’m tired.

And that is what I’m trying to do. When she shows me that her cup is empty, by ignoring or defying me, by blatantly disregarding the rules, by pushing me to my limit, I don’t respond with anger, but with love. Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes it feels damn near impossible. But afterward, after we’ve reconnected through play, we both feel so much better and I almost always believe the effort was worth it.

I’m not saying things are perfect now, far from it. But they are better. Much better. I don’t always know how to respond to my daughter’s cries for love. I don’t always have the energy to give her what she needs. But the longer I see things this way, the easier it is to respond with to her needs instead of her behavior.

This concept has been so eye opening for me, I’m even using it to help me better accept Mi.Vida’s behavior. When he is being pouty and I just want him to get over himself I remind myself that his cup is empty and he needs to do what he needs to do to fill it again. And so I do. Again, it’s not really a way of dealing with things differently, just seeing them differently.

Sometimes seeing things in a new way makes all the difference in the world.

6 responses

  1. I remember reading once that to understand how a toddler/preschooler feels when they’re upset, to think about how upset we are when something goes seriously wrong in our lives: the loss of a job, a break-up, a death in the family. That’s how upset they are, even over something we deem to be trivial, since like you said, they don’t know how to handle their cup emptying. The suggestion for dealing with it was what you seem to be doing now, helping her to understand why she’s upset and responding with love not anger. So great job mama!!

  2. I don’t remember how stumbled on your blog (stumbled…ha) but I have a 7 month old and a 3 year old and your post just blew my mind. It’s like a massive light bulb in my brain turned on. Thank you.

  3. Very intriguing, I’d love to hear how you feel about the book when you’re finished. I absolutely see this need in my own daughter, I hate that it is so hard for me to fill it for her sometimes. Must keep trying.

  4. Oh! That makes so much sense! They talk about filling up you cup in the 5 Love Languages too. I know I had heard before to play with a child for a while before you wanted to get something done. Like if you want them to play while you fold laundry, go play with them first, then they will be more likely to play with themselves, but I really didn’t think about it like it was “filling up their cup.” I will definitely need to pay more attention to this. Thanks for sharing. I would definitely love to here how you’re feeling about everything when you’ve gotten through the whole book.

  5. Thank you for writing this post – I so needed to read this right now! Stella just burst into tears b/c we both jumped on her for pushing the baby’s swing. It’s so easy to forget she’s only 2 and her world is turned upside down…

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