What kinds of things do I do to protect her? Let's walk through a few!
1. Tell her that I love her no matter what. I recently read a great book called The 5 Love Languages of Children, and I highly recommend it for every parent. It stresses that each child has different ways that they feel loved, and it's up to us parents to recognize those needs and consider how our actions will make our children feel. Some children have many love languages; some have 1 or 2 that really speak to them. Kimmy has some of them all, at least right now.
The main theme of the book, though, is this: your child needs to know, hands down, unequivocally, fully, always, that you love her...no matter what. It's not tied to actions, behaviors, physical things, money, mood, stress, or any source of outside influence. Kimmy loves to talk--not just to talk, but to engage in back-and-forth conversation with question after question fueled by her curious little mind and often even if she already knows the answers. That lets me know that one of her love languages right now is words of affirmation. I tell her frequently that I love her. Even if she's mad or I'm mad or something's not going right. I let that little sentence--"I love you, Kimmy."--stand all by itself.
2. Give her structure and a solid routine. I can't control what goes on outside our house, but I can control our home. Toddlers are emotional little beings, full of fluctuating levels of feeling understood, appreciated, and confident. I happen to be blessed with an incredibly articulate little girl who is low on the mood swing and tantrum spectrum. (In lamen's terms, she's an old soul and has this amazing aura of emotional maturity that very few toddlers have. So cool to witness!)
However, as a child of custody and visitation and being passed back and forth and having her comfort disrupted, she is susceptible to deep unsettling feelings on the inside. I see it when she bursts into crocodile tears once in a blue moon when I come home for lunch and have to leave to go back to work. I see it when she stalls at bedtime and bolts up to ask in a slight panic, "Am I staying at Kimmy's house tomorrow?", "What am I doing tomorrow, Mommy?", or "What time/day is it? Do you have to work tomorrow, Momma?" At our house, she is safe and secure. We have rules and bedtimes and regular meals. We have playtime and talking time; reading time and praying time. Kimmy and Mommy's house is safe and sound.
3. Give her thoughtful surprises! This is my favorite thing to do as a mom. Every time Kimmy comes back home from being at her dad's, I make sure to do a little something to welcome her home and let her know how happy I am to see her again. It's not about gifts or spending money; it's about being present in my daughter's life--showing her that her heart, time, thoughts, ideas, and actions are safe with Mommy. I don't want her to ever be spoiled or to expect things, so I mix it up a lot and make sure that I'm giving her a wide array of little surprises and activities. The point is to make her feel loved and to welcome her back into quality time with me with open arms.
Here's a list of some of the things I've done so far:
- Pick up a fresh stack of books from the library
- Grab a donut with chocolate and sprinkles (Kimmy's favorite kind)
- Get a decaf Frappuccino and pour some in a kid cup, then scoop all the whipped cream on top just for my little lady
- Clean her room and lay out a favorite pair of PJs to wear at bedtime
- Write her a card and let her open it when she gets home
- Bake cookies or muffins and have them ready for her
- Go straight to the playground when we get home
- Set up a coloring station on the dining room table to spend time talking and coloring
- Visit the grocery store, let Kimmy push the cart (seriously, Kroger and Sam's Club are her 2 favorite places on earth right now), let her carry in a bag when we get home, and let her put the items in the bag away. (Okay, I'm aware this one sounds lame, but she loves doing this. I can tell it makes her feel so important, and she knows she will have yummy things to eat at her house when we arrive!)
- Put out all the ingredients for dinner and let her help me cook a meal (even if it takes 4 times as long and my hair turns gray in the time it takes for dinner to cook)
- Tell her a surprise (like plans I've made to do a future fun thing...in this case, Disney) and spend time looking at pictures and videos of said fun place online
- Give her my phone to play with for a little while when we get home. Those eyes light up, and she always feels so special that she gets to use something of mine!
I imagine this could get hairy if I ever surprised her with something drastic like re-arranging the living room or getting rid of half her toys. That would kind of defeat the purpose of welcoming her back to a safe place. For a more drastic surprise, I would probably have to create a longer period of easing her into it...or just un-surprise it and let her help me with whatever the drastic thing is. More on this later, I guess. For now, those happy smiles and excited words at all the little surprises are all my heart needs to know I'm doing something right.