Let’s explore a fairly typical example: A child storms into the room telling their parent that they’re never going to talk to their friend again. The parent responds with “of course you will, she’s your best friend.” The parent has reacted to the surface behaviour, rather than tuning in to the child’s feelings and unmet needs. The child’s desperate needs to have their feelings seen, validated and the invitation to share what happened were not met and now they’re hurting even more, so they retort “You NEVER listen!” and their parent snaps back “how DARE you accuse me of that!” The child storms off shouting “You’re not the boss of me!!” If the parent can remember to slow down, breathe and notice their own feelings first and foremost, they may identify that they reacted from feelings of powerlessness and anger. In situations like this, what’s often interpreted as “I can never get it right!” might be more accurately interpreted as; “Mum/Dad I can’t cope with you not coping with my feelings. I need you to become calm, to care for me and see that I’m doing my best. I’m really hurting, please show me what I CAN do with all this rage, please listen and show me that my feelings are understandable.”
“When children are upset, they cannot be reached by reasoning. When angry, they respond only to emotional balm.” – Haim Ginott
Reasoning, moralizing, threatening or guilt tripping are counterproductive and tend to intensify rather than resolve a child’s defensiveness. We want our child to open up to us because it feels safe and good, not because they feel guilty and worried about our feelings and needs. It’s fine to invite your child to share their feelings as long as it’s expressed as an invitation rather than a demand or a guilt-trip. When truly unconditional, the parent’s invitation usually helps the child start to feel better, regardless of whether they are ready to open up or not. Reassure your child that your love is big enough to hold all their huge hurt and angry feelings. This reassurance of emotional safety signals that the coast is clear for them to open up again, that with you is a safe and solid place to land.
When does “go away” mean “go away”? When their child says “go away”, most parents either walk away angrily or keep arguing. Either way, the child may feel even more upset and overwhelmed. Sometimes the child just needs support and respect for their need of some space to calm down (depending on age, safety and circumstances). However, more often than not, the child needs their anger to be expressed, witnessed, accepted and acknowledged. Rejecting their parent is often the child’s only way of showing their feelings of rejection.
Children yearn to feel free of the stress of unexpressed emotions. When difficult feelings are listened to, accepted and understood, they become much less difficult, it allows the child to feel normal and ok about themselves again. Our children can generally only cope with their feelings to the extent that their parent can cope with them. Kids need to cry, shout, roar, growl and sometimes even scream when frustrations build up in intensity. But strong emotions can be hard for parents to cope with, especially if as children they weren’t allowed to show such feelings. Unresolved feelings can get stirred up at these times.
But so much healing can happen when parents feel strong enough to really listen lovingly to their child’s crying or raging. Screaming into a cushion or growling into hands can muffle the sound but allow the release or encourage your child to growl like an animal. Other outlets to help dispel excess tensions from the body are; stomping feet, jumping up and down while growling, laughter, pillow fights with parent, massage, art, water, mud, sand, singing, being in nature, to name but a few. Being the mature adult isn’t always easy! Managing our emotions in intimate relationships, especially the parent child relationship, is one of the biggest challenges for most parents. It’s right up there with night waking and sleep deprivation. Increasing our awareness of this dynamic and gaining empathetic emotional support in the process of learning how to navigate the tsunamis of emotions that parenting brings forward is so important and, I believe, one of the greatest gifts that parents can give to themselves.
“Choose to be kind over being right and you’ll be right every time.” ~ Author, Dr. Richard Carlson.
Our children value our honesty and care about our feelings, but when they are themselves in an emotionally charged and raw state, it’s generally too much for them to be expected to hear and understand our feelings and needs. If you need to express a boundary, it’s best to keep it simple, for instance; “I can’t let you hurt me/ hit me/ swear at me, I’m keeping us both safe, but I’m here and I care, I really really care”. Trust that your child wouldn’t hurt others when angry if they could manage their overwhelming feelings. Blocking the physical attack as non-aggressively as possible, while kindly helping them to get it all out helps them develop great self-regulation skills for life! The calm after the storm is a better time to talk more about what happened and what might have worked better. You can ask; “are you ready to hear my experience of what happened?” It also helps if, at calm times, you can talk about how hard anger is for everyone, even adults, but what really helps is loving support and that even though it’s not ok to hurt you, themselves or others, it’s always a big “yes” to expressing their feelings and letting it all out when you can really be there for them.
Trust that your child wants the mutual love, trust, connection and understanding that you want. It’s important to keep the emotional storms in perspective and stay in touch with the positive intentions of everyone in the family. Appreciate that everyone, you included, is doing their best. Some of the most empowering and loving words we can speak to one another are; “What do you need?” These are words that we ask each other a lot in our family, which helps each person to listen to and honour their physical and emotional needs. These words remind us that all feelings and needs are valid and respected.
“Vulnerability may be at the core of fear and uncertainty, but it is also the birthplace of courage and compassion – exactly what we need to help us stop lashing out and start engaging with the world from a place of worthiness; a place where empathy and kindness matter.” ~ Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW in “Ordinary Courage”
Genevieve Simperingham is a Psychosynthesis Counsellor, a certified Aware Parenting Instructor, parent educator, a blogger and public speaker. She’s been parenting with attachment principles from the beginning, her son is 21 and daughter 16. She runs the Peaceful Parent Institute in New Zealand and offers live and online events. Check out her website www.peacefulparent.com.