the berlin wall of emotion

Any parent of children knows that there are many emotions involved with the gig.  Not only processing the emotions we have ourselves while navigating this world, but also being the souls responsible to guide our children into their own emotional intelligence.  Moments and expressions the rest of the world would scorn or prickle at are given to us from our children to help through, ready or not.

It is ironic to me though.  When amidst company and a baby begins to cry, we pass the babe back to mom (or dad) with a look of both compassion and relief.  Compassion for the parent who is the final go-to during the moments of not-happiness as they guess to figure out how to address the dissatisfaction, and the relief that you are not that person for that baby.  It is accepted socially as “normal.”

As a child grows, we less and less feel the compulsion to “allow” negative behaviors.  There grows a sense of fear and horror when your child has an outburst, like that behavior is going to leak out and our friends and family are going to judge us as bad parents because of it, or that somehow a young child exploring real/pretend who lies is on the road to moral decay, or that a child who expresses a horrifying statement like “I hate you!” attached to a strong emotion is destined to become a sociopath if it is not nipped in the bud right now.  This is especially difficult when it happens or is witnessed in your home, the trenches where all this stuff is hashed out in a safe place to start with but is then given an audience.

A small child stubs his toe, or feels threatened his brother is going to take a toy and hurts his finger in the great rush to safety.  He begins to cry.  After thinking about the indignation of the situation for a moment, he realizes he is not only in pain, but also angry.  Angry at the pain, at ineptitude, at the demeaning nature of having an audience in his blunder, at things out of his control.  When you ask if he is okay or whether you can comfort him, the anger is turned on you and you are met with a contorted face and fiery angry eyes and attacked with a vicious scream, “I’m going to HIT you!”

What would your response be?

Uhh…can I pass him off now?

Nope.  This is it.  There is no great pass-off, no comfortable seat on the sideline from where you can assess the volleys back and forth righteously.  You are the parent.  You are it.

As an advocate for the premise behind Positive Discipline and Attachment Parenting, I have been deeply perplexed and troubled.  Hurting my child to teach him the lesson that he may not threaten to hurt me seems…incompatible and illogical.  But, the challenge given to me these last few months has been exactly that, “I’m going to HIT you!!!”  repeated…repeated…repeated.  Said with spit flying, this has knocked me off my feet.  An emotion and declaration so violent in nature and so socially unacceptable and personal has instantly put me on the defensive and placed me squarely in the hot seat.  If simple reflection doesn’t work (you are angry?) then we need to contain and treat this unacceptable behavior.  Right?

*sigh*  The saying goes, “The more you resist, the more it persists.”  I’ve racked my brain deep into the night trying to do the mental gymnastics of how to not resist this verbal attack.  Nothing.

I’ll spare you the details of every attempt to “teach him a lesson” I pulled (none violent in nature, rest assured).  The rage would only escalate.

Fortunately, I only write this because of an intense epiphany and it’s subsequent waves we’ve been enjoying the last two days.

A conversation with a good friend spurred finding a serendipitous passage in a book about children saying “I hate you” which gave me pause.

“Part of your child’s development is learning how to recognize, label, and express his emotions.  He needs to learn that it is okay to have strong negative feelings, including anger.  Your child isn’t stopping to think, “How will Mommy feel when I tell her I hate her?”  ….Forbidding the use of the expression “I hate you” sends the message that it isn’t okay to have those strong feelings.  Even when you suggest that he find another way to express himself, the child gets the message that his feeling was not okay.  But all feelings have to be acceptable.  They are feelings, not actions.  …As your child matures, he will learn the power of his words and the effect they have on others.  That is part of his growing emotional intelligence.  But children under six are not there yet.  They are all about themselves….here is the good news about children who say “I hate you.”  …Not only is he becoming aware of his effect on other people, but he is also learning to use his words and not his actions to express his feelings.” (Just Tell Me What To Say, p 118).

The wash of relief was energizing.  For weeks I’d been fretting whether it would be best to physically restrain him “to protect myself,” place him somewhere alone safely with me on the other side of the door until he was capable of expressing his anger in “acceptable” ways, empathizing, attempting to reflect, etc.  It only escalated the situation to baffling intensities.   No longer did I feel hopelessly backed into a corner with this situation.  I had options!!  How freeing!  Bring on the intense emotions!

That next morning I drew from this new information and the seven scripts I’d committed.  Previously my tactic had been a variation of “You are angry you stubbed your toe?  (explore appropriate methods to express anger).  I choose not to have that kind of talk around our family.  You’ll need to be in the (room) if you’re going to attack me with your words until you can speak kindly to me.”

Sure enough, my opportunity to change tactics was presented.

Toe stub.

::screaming escalated…here it comes::  “I’m going to HIT you!!”

“Wow.  You stubbed your toe and that made you so angry, you feel like you want to hit me?”

His body stuttered a second before continuing.

“I’m going to HIT you!!”

“That’s really angry.  When you’re so angry you want to hit someone you love, that’s pretty intense.  That’s pretty heavy.  You must be very angry”

“I’m goi…I want to HIT you!”

“You’re so angry you want to hit me?  Man, that’s really angry.”

repeat some more, and then, “yeah.”  mumble mumble.  the end.

Are you freaking kidding me?!?!  We just took a power struggle for what I perceived to be a legitimate need to teach my son appropriate expressions for his anger that would typically ruin whole mornings or afternoons down to ten freaking minutes!!!?!?

I got to thinking.  If I am honest with myself, I get that angry sometimes too.  But the 25 years I have on my son gives me the wherewithal to shut my trap.  I too could say that I’ve been so angry I have wanted to hit someone.  I have never acted on it. I have needed to choose other more appropriate ways to handle my anger, but that emotion he himself is expressing which has given us both such grief is one I too have had and just never made the connection that words are not actions.  I am the safety net where he is learning the connection between actions, feelings, words…all this from.  It would not be acceptable for him to tell anyone else that he is going to hit them, but I get to accept him, warts and all, so I can help walk him through what on earth he’s feeling and where to go from there.  How can we give words to our feelings unless someone shows us how?  We eventually figure it out, but maybe we don’t have to reinvent the wheel if someone will accept us at face value.

Yesterday I was given four more opportunities to try my new tactic of reflection and accepting his analogy that his anger is so great he thinks about hitting someone he loves.   Each time was progressively shorter and less intense.  Momentous.

And a post for another day?  Today this Little Boy exhibited a drive to nurture and connect and play that I have never seen before, in very specific ways.  I’ll never know if the two are connected, but perhaps.  Today, a wall was crumbled.

Phew.  Some days we’re flying blind, and some days we’re high as a kite with the hope we are on a path that will grow our boys into compassionate, empathetic men.

Today, the wind is blowing and the kite tails are flying.

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5 responses to “the berlin wall of emotion

  1. This is in the same category as when you reasoned with him while we were at Cracker Barrel on our summer trip. He wanted the toy, you told him that the toy needed to stay at the store, and at one year old, he put the toy back and we went home. This is clearly momentous, Bee.

  2. oh ginger i have been really enjoying your perspective and parenting… i admire your ability to find a way that speaks to a child that is completely frustrated. i feel encouraged to make a change with my own parenting, and i thank you!

  3. Beautifully written! Thank you for sharing your insights and revelation on the power of connecting and honoring the intensity of emotions. Breakthroughs with our children feel amazing, especially when it’s been a long struggle. Keep it up, mama!

  4. The *awe huh* moments are beautifully portrayed! So happy for you. May your kite tails always wave high!

  5. Garth’s own particular brand of lashing out involved the words, “Mom, you make me so mad!!” (with hands on little hips). And I would sit him down for the umpteenth time and explain that I couldn’t MAKE him feel anything. I wasn’t trying to make him mad, but he was rather choosing to be angry at a situation that he couldn’t completely control. I eventually got through to him somehow, and he learned to take the kind of control over his own life that he so desperately wanted to happen, without blaming me or anybody else.

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