By Genevieve Simperingham
“No! Go away!”, “You don’t care!”, “Stop talking!” or the dreaded “I hate you!” If your child has expressed anything similar to this, be assured that you’re not alone. For many parents, feelings of rejection and powerlessness surface in these situations. We’re biologically driven to care for our children and it can feel really hard when our child doesn’t appear to need us when they’re clearly upset. But your child does need you, they need to feel your strength and unconditional love, most importantly, they need your acceptance of even these angry feelings!
When your child pushes you away, won’t let you hold them or even come near them, they still need to know that they’re emotionally held and cared for. No matter how cold the atmosphere there’s always a way to bring back some warmth, perhaps with a sympathetic smile or a kind gesture like kindly offering to get them a drink.
When children struggle to cope with their feelings, they easily become angry and blame those they feel closest to. Parents and caregivers can easily feel unfairly blamed; they then blame their child and either threaten, plead or reason to no avail. A chain reaction of blame and rejection ensues and both parent and child push each other further and further apart. Parents understandably feel hurt, rejected and criticized when ignored or verbally or physically attacked. The parents feelings are understandable, yet when they react from this hurt place, they’re more likely to take action they later regret and are less likely to resolve the unmet needs driving the behaviour. A battle ensues between two hurt child-like people, one taller than the other!
The big challenge and the big success lies in the adult’s ability to manage and care for their own feelings and stress levels at such times. In becoming more aware of their urge to argue for instance, they can instead choose to respond with empathy, even when setting clear limits. Children, like us adults, resist guidance during emotional challenges until they feel understood. Our child needs us to be their anchor, they need us to not lose the plot when they lose theirs, and when we do lose it (being human!), they need for the connection to be repaired. This gives them the modelling they need to slowly develop the self-regulation skills that will support them throughout life’s challenges.
Traditionally, acting out behaviour in child and parent has been viewed as something to be controlled, without care or consideration of the underlying hurt feelings and unmet needs. Yet, for a response to be truly constructive, it needs to be influenced by empathy for oneself and one’s child.
At times of emotional overload, children desperately need us to see beyond the rejection and aggression. They need us to hear and respond compassionately towards their feelings of fear, overwhelm, aloneness and frustration. When upset, they can’t access the reasoning part of their brain and being reasoned with can infuriate them. Asking “what’s wrong?” is probably asking too much of them. But showing that you’re sensitively caring about their feelings and taking the pressure off generally begins to hit the spot: “Oh dear, I can see that everything’s just too hard for you at the moment, let’s both just take some time to sit and take some deep breaths to let out some stress”, or simply holding out your hands in the gesture of offering a hug; “A hug might help you feel better”, or giving them permission to let it all out: “Honey you can let yourself have a big big cry”.
It helps when we can ourselves slow down, breathe, pause, give ourselves self-empathy (thoughts of “this IS hard” can bring acknowledgement to self) and then engage our empathy for our child that we have the chance of interpreting what they’re really communicating. When they shout “I hate you!”, sometimes it’s the only way a child can show that they’re hating how they feel; words like “you’re stupid” may indicate shame and humiliation; “go away!” may be a need for more respect of their boundaries and autonomy or an expression of loneliness, sadness or rejection.
Notice the feelings your child brings up in you at these times and this can give you a lot of clues into the feelings that the child is trying to show you they’re experiencing. A typical example is the parent who leaves their very clingy sad child in the morning and returns in the evening to their child who now refuses to look at them. The child needs help re-connecting and resolving stuck feelings of rejection. This could be a great moment for a game of hide and seek where they regain feelings of empowerment around finding their parent who has disappeared.
Our heart is our internal compass that allows us to attune to our child’s intricate feelings and needs and unless it’s engaged, we can feel lost at sea during emotional storms.
In the peaceful parenting model, when the child pushes their parent away, the parent identifies (the earlier the better) that the heat is rising and knows that unless the parent moderates the emotional temperature, things may head towards overload. Just stopping to ask “what might he be feeling?”, “what might she really need?” and “how am I, what do I need?” begins the journey from the head to the heart, leading us towards empathy. The parent refrains from interrogations like “why must you react ..?” and instead views the intensity of their child’s expressions as being directly proportional to their stress levels and as a cry for safety and connection. Parents understand that children can only act as well as they feel and they only have the energy to give and cooperate when their emotional tanks are full.
Because children are highly sensitive to their parent’s opinion of them, they have a protective instinct to reject their parent when conflict arises and they fear their parent’s anger and criticism. The child also has an instinctive need for the support of their loving, mature and caring parent! Children can feel confused and conflicted when these instincts clash. When conflicts erupt and the connection breaks down, it’s our responsibility as parents to make our way back to a calm mature state and to reassure our child that their very vulnerable sore and fragile feelings are safe with us.
“I want to appreciate you without judging. Join you without invading. Invite you without demanding. Leave you without guilt.” ~ Virginia Satir
See next page for more…