By Dr. Laura Markham
“For me the biggest problem still remains my own anger and fear when my boy is crossing the line — especially regarding safety. He has hurt me badly so many times. I know that probably he didn’t mean it but the pain sometimes brought me to tears. I wish I could remain calm in those kind of situations.”
Staying calm when our child hurts us is almost impossible. Pain sends us immediately into our lower brain stem, which governs the “fight or flight” impulse, and our beloved child immediately looks like the enemy. That automatically drops us onto “the low road” of parenting. You know the low road. It’s when you snarl at your child through clenched teeth, or start screaming, or become physically rough. When you lose all access to reason and feel justified in having your own tantrum.
So what should you do when your child hurts you? Any action you take with your child when you’re reacting from physical pain will have results that aren’t good for either of you. You will almost certainly escalate and perpetuate a cycle that includes physical violence.
Remember, aggression comes from fear. So even if you don’t know what your child is afraid of, even if the aggression seems to come out of nowhere, your child is showing you his fear.
If you answer with aggression, you will escalate the fear and increase the likelihood of future hitting.
Children learn to regulate their strong emotions when we:
1. Accept all feelings. (“I hear how mad you are.”)
2. Set firm, clear limits on actions. (“No hitting. Hitting hurts.”)
3. Tell them what they CAN do with their feelings. (“You can show me how mad you are by stomping your foot, or you can tell me in words.”)
4. Regulate our own emotions so that we act with respect.
Let’s look at this in action.
Six year old Adrian hurls himself at his mother, scratching and clawing. “NOOOOO!!! That’s not fair!! I hate you!!!”
Mum sidesteps, but not fast enough. Her arm has a long, nasty, red streak. She shrieks, in pain and outrage. She takes a deep breath, says “OOOWWW! That hurts!! I need to take care of myself right now. I will talk with you after I calm down.” She goes into the bathroom and shuts the door.
(If the child has abandonment issues or is younger than five, she leaves the door open and works to calm herself while a frantic child is still yelling at her. Needless to say, that takes practice.)
Mum does NOT use the time in the bathroom to review all the reasons her child is a mean brat who is on track to become a criminal. Instead, she tenderly washes her arm to calm the wounded child inside her who wants revenge. She counts to ten, taking deep breaths. She reminds herself that her child is having a hard time regulating his emotions, and that HER ability to stay calm is a critical factor in his learning this skill.
In other words, she resists sliding onto the low road. Instead of giving in to her fear and anger, she chooses love.
Mum reminds herself that her goal is to raise a child who WANTS to control his anger and has the emotional intelligence to do it.
That means that punishment won’t help here. Instead, he needs to reconnect with her and to get some help managing his emotions.
By the time Mum comes out of the bathroom a few minutes later, she has shifted herself onto the high road of parenting. You know what the high road is — when you’re seeing things from your child’s perspective so you can respond to him with patience and understanding.
Mum goes over to her son and gets down on his level, although far enough back so that he can’t hit her face. (Being on his level reduces his fear so he’s less likely to lash out.) She speaks with tenderness and strength. “That really hurt me. I know you were angry. But people are NOT for hitting. It’s never okay to hit. You can tell me what you need without attacking me.”
Adrian: “But it’s not fair. I NEED to go to Jake’s house. You said I could, yesterday.” (Notice that Adrian is ignoring the fact that he hit her. Mum realises that until she helps him with these feelings, he won’t be able to absorb the lesson she wants to teach about hitting.)
Mum: “Yes, I did. I see why you’re so disappointed. But things have changed now, because Grandma needs us to come spend the night with her. I won’t be able to come back to pick you up at Jake’s. I’m so sorry. I know you were looking forward to it.”
Adrian: ”You broke your promise! You’re a liar!”
Adrian is still very angry, but Mum’s empathy keeps him calm enough that he doesn’t lash out physically this time — only verbally. He storms away from her, across the room. Mum knows this is actually an improvement — he removed himself rather than hitting.
Mum: (Accepting her son’s anger.) “You’re really mad at me, Adrian. You’re right, I promised you and now because Grandma is sick, I have to change that.”
Mum ignores his calling her a liar, which, to him, she is at that moment, even if she usually keeps her word to him and has a good reason for breaking it this time.
She acknowledges the anger and upset that are causing him to attack.
Adrian: (yelling) ”You DID break your promise! You told me I could go!”
Mum: (Ignoring, for now, his raised voice, Mum speaks kindly and calmly, validating his anger. She models taking responsibility.) “I gave you permission to go and now I won’t let you. You’re right; I didn’t keep my word. There was a good reason, but I still broke my word. No wonder you feel mad and hurt.”