beneath a child’s anger

Breakfast oatmeal was greeted with enthusiasm and bright eyes today in anticipation of the warm and creamy oats, shredded apple, maple and butter, cinnamon.

Unfortunately, said breakfast oatmeal was still flaming hot off the stove and Little Boy was ready to eat it “right now!!”

Patiently he tested it on his tongue, blew on it, tested, blew, gave it far more attention cooling it down than normal.  But the bite that made it past his lips was still too hot, and he became ANGRY.

Okay, so parenting books suggest staying present, reflecting your child, etc.  “Oh I see you are so angry that the oatmeal is too hot to eat.”

While others rave about this technique, for reasons that mystify me, reflecting my son’s anger has always done nothing but feed the beast.  If, when a bout of screaming rage subsides, an attempt is made to reflect that stubbing your toe on a corner really does hurt and I see it makes him angry, I am not met with bright eyes of validation but rather a fresh torrent of tears and wails. What’s a mom to do when she is incapable of comforting her child?

Something deeper is lying beneath that anger though.  Anger is the surface emotion that compensates and leads our bodies to action.  Anger is the symptom.

Beneath our angers can lie our fears.

When my child is screaming in a public place I become angry, but really I am fearful of how others will view him, my ability as a parent, and myself.

When my Little Boy tries to put his shoes on and can’t and begins yelling and throwing them in frustration he is angry, but really he is fearful that he is failing at this simple task he sees others do every day.

When Little Boy romps around, gleefully skidding along the rocks with a tricycle’s loud plastic wheels I become angry, but really I am fearful that he will wake the tired baby who finally fell asleep in the van.

When the Littlest comes near Little Boy and he freaks out, shoving all of the toys away he is angry, but really he is fearful that the Littlest is coming to grab, drool on, or rearrange his projects.

When two children are in distress simultaneously I must play triage on them which can anger one or the other and sometimes I become angry, but really I am fearful that I cannot meet the needs of both of the small needy beings whom I love and rely on me.

To recall our angers and then backtrack them into fear is intriguing.  It is also not just for kids.

Fear of judgment, fear of incompetence, fear of worthlessness, fear of failure.  That’s heavy stuff.  I get why he’s screaming now.

Baffled by my red-faced son at the breakfast table, mind racing trying to grasp for some semblence of helpful offering, I recall the power of fear.

“Are you afraid the oatmeal would burn your lips?  Your tongue?  Are you afraid that you won’t even be able to eat your breakfast because it is so hot and you’ll be hungry all day?  Are you afraid that you are doing something wrong and for all the patient effort to cool it down the oatmeal is still hot?”

Tears instantly stopped with the surprised wide-eyed look I’d left for lost years ago.  “Yes.”

A wash of relief is a physical experience.   My son could be reached through finding his fear.

He cried a minute more connecting with those fears and then moved on.  Breakfast as usual.  One empty bowl.

I will remember today.

I will remember the power of our fears, and the value of acknowledging them.

Copyright Ginger Payton 2010 all text and photos

This post is inspired by an article in the November/December issue of Mothering Magazine, “Tame Your Temper: Managing Mama Rage”.  It also addresses many other facets and resources for addressing the anger mothers (and fathers) can experience.

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5 responses to “beneath a child’s anger

  1. I like your child-centered parenting, Bee. The alternative is parent-centered, which is doing what’s convenient for you rather than what’s in the child’s best interest. I like that you are finding out what works for your child, and sharing your discoveries with us, as we explore how that might fit into our world as well. LY, PapaR

  2. You are very wise, Bee. You found that golden door that opened to Austin’s heart, and you were able to walk through it and communicate at a heart level. Nothing short of awesome.

  3. Is the concept you are investigating the same as ’empathy?’

    Reading your story, which is precious, conjured a memory of an incident that happened to me at this age. It happened to me and a buddy as I recall. It was bitter cold. Minnesota cold. Bone chilling frostbite inducing dangerous cold. The back steps of the house had a round steel railing leading to the door. For whatever reason, the need to place our tongues on that rail overwhelmed us. Like a moths to a flame we decided to apply our tongues to that cold steel railing simultaneously. We were both cemented to the railing instantly. No amount of screaming seemed to matter. Eventually, our terror mustered the courage to simply rip our tongues from the steel. Ouch!

    Mom came running at what must have sounded like limbs being ripped from our tiny bodies! It was her healing response that I remember vividly. Mom is a nurse you know. A quick examination of the tongues indicated that we would at least be able to taste hot peppers and curry. But the terror and crying persisted. What better cure than a band-aide? Yes, my mother placed a band-aide around our tongues. Needless to say it was an awkward diversion. The sticky on the Band-Aide didn’t work well. But the diversion worked! I’m fairly certain the treatment got spit out in a few minutes. But I was cured!

    So was it the band-aide? Of course not. It was my mother expressing compassion for a really stupid mistake that can only be learned this way. No amount of preaching or warning or threats could have possibly alerted me to the pain involved with placing my wet tongue on a +5F steel pipe. Lesson learned? Ah… don’t do that!

    I think your analysis can be summed up in the word empathy. Mommy kiss it and make it better actually does work you know. When you vocalized their fears, you were demonstrating to them that you have empathy for their frustration, which they process and move on.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Uncle Ford

  4. good thoughts! I hope to remember that it’s fear that is driving my child wild next time and get to that root problem.

  5. Nels was an incredibly good-natured and compliant little boy. If I asked him to do something, he usually did it without complaining.

    Enter Garth. He was willful, and could “outlast” me in any situation that called for stubbornness. At first I bit, and we would spend so much time with the whole, “Do as I say because I say so!” Oh, yeah, well he was going to show me. It finally occurred to me that he had a very strong need to control his own destiny, and I was simply teaching him to be a bully. Enter Phase 2 of my plan. I now started to negotiate with him. When he demanded I read him a story NOW, I would respond with, “I have to finish the dishes now. I’ll meet you in the living room in 15 minutes and I’d be happy to read you a story.” It gave him choices; he could either spend 15 minutes throwing a tantrum, or he could find something else to do and wait until Mom was available. It started to work! He became calmer in general, and it focused his attention away from the anger he was feeling because he knew there were be a payoff soon. And when I say “soon”, about 10-15 minutes was his limit and then he’d find something to get upset about.

    Now he’s a great young man with a calm demeanor. I’ve often wondered what he’d be like if I hadn’t been paying attention.

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