What about when we get angry at our babies or toddlers? We feel such intense shame after our angry words and actions and this shame works double-time to keep our dark experience with our toddlers hidden away as a secret.
Logically, we know they are so very young and they are not really trying to be annoying – but that knowledge doesn’t always keep us afloat when we are drowning in fury. And to whom is this rage directed? At the tiny person we invited into the world with such overwhelming tenderness a number of months earlier.
They seem now to be the longest months of our lives.
The thing about a bub’s brain is that there is no capacity for them to rate our parenting, no matter how poorly we are ranked in our own eyes. Nor are they able to work out cunning strategies to hurt our feelings even though our feelings are undeniably wounded when we are pushed away or hear, “I don’t like you daddy”, or, “Go away mummy”.
Tragically, once our feelings are shredded by such delicate little bib-wearing creatures, our reaction switch is turned to full-on-adult-defence mode BUT the child has no mental category in which to place our impulsive behaviour**. Our automatic responses usually run along well-worn paths labelled Attack or Withdraw (or both – which is commonly called, ‘hit and run’) but the force we display when using these responses can inflict the kind of deep internal injury to which we always swore we’d never subject our own children.
The angry wave rises quickly and it can be so overwhelming that we have no thought to pause or compute its origins before unleashing our temper in our unique patterns of attack or withdraw. Once we’ve released our individual Kraken, our ‘lid’ is so ‘flipped’ that we have the dickens of a time trying to recover our caring, sane, reasonable self. Consequently, we don’t take any time to think about the natural immaturity, imperfections and vulnerabilities of the child. Nor can we engage our rational thoughts in remembering what the child’s brain is actually working on – getting their needs met.
It can be so helpful to re-calibrate our thinking each morning (or as often as needed in a day) by recalling that fact. This child is just trying to get their need met. The newborn baby can be observed to cry when it needs something and turn away (or stop drinking) when it has enough. As that little brain develops, the child learns more of its needs as well as more effective ways to get them met but it’s important to know that expressing the need is the focus for the child. It’s their entire job description.
Hence…. there are no actual thoughts rolling around their skulls about how they can so effectively annoy mother so that she pulls her hair out, screaming and slamming things or (even more confusingly) goes quiet and withdraws her very self, geographically and/or emotionally. So when a child says, “I don’t like you mummy”, she is most likely protesting what has just been said or done that cuts across her desires. Taking this statement personally – as if the child is trying to shame us – sets us up for a sad, angry, painful encounter.
Certainly our children learn how to play games, manipulate and ‘push our buttons’ as they grow older and develop higher brain function, but even then, they are functioning in more complex ways to meet more complex needs within the family system.
Example: Miss Barely Three is told that her half hour TV time is over and it is time to wash her hands and have dinner. Her initial response is to give no response. She’s almost deaf to anything but the programme that is giving her such delight. The message is then delivered with greater volume but…still no response. The TV is eventually turned off and a scowl or a scream at the offending adult is offered.
Rather than react to this poor behaviour with a grown-up version of poor behaviour, a parent/caregiver can (after pausing and breathing) ask themselves what the child is needing in that moment.
(Some parents will often answer this question with, “They need a good smack on the bottom” but I’m hopeful parents will realise that this is a great opportunity to leave the clichés behind and really engage their empathic, nurturing-parent-brain to work out exactly what is needed in that moment. Many who reply that their child needs instant, harsh punishment often rationalise that they had that kind of upbringing and it “didn’t do me any harm”. However, upon deeper inquiry, they confess that they hated their caregiver who swooped with unjust punishment for the child who was simply protesting in the most primary fashion.)
The thoughtful parent might ask themselves as they put themselves in their toddler’s shoes, “What would it be like to be her right now?” It would make complete sense that she would be distressed at the sudden disappearance of Paw Patrol, and that she is very cleverly using the most immediate methods at her disposal to let you know. This immature, imperfect, dependant little human is actually doing the most instinctive thing she can do to protest the action that has caused her to lose her contentment.
Most parents want their children to go out into the world one day feeling secure in their ability to protest what is unjust for themselves and others. This three year old’s protest is just a very early version of this wonderful adult quality of self-esteem.
This doesn’t mean that the parent, who is aware of the necessary routines of the day, should turn the TV back on in sympathy for the saddened child and just sit and wait for Miss Three to (finally) become aware of her hunger as her primary need. That would be as equally bonkers as screaming at, or withdrawing from, the child when they’ve simply acted with age appropriate proficiency.
It does mean that the parent can offer the profound gift of understanding to the child while still maintaining the family rules, “I know you really love watching Paw Patrol and I can see that you’re unhappy about turning it off. I’d feel the same if I were you. We’ll pause it right there and you can see the rest next time. Now I’m going to race you to the bathroom so I can wash my hands first….”
Miss Three might still be upset (although possibly not after she wins the race) and won’t rationally grasp the elegant features of this negotiation but there is an underlying lesson that she is learning – that she is understood by her parent AND that her parent is in charge. Her parent/caregiver is still a safe person, has understood the child’s perceived need (to keep watching her heroes’ adventures) as well as the overriding ‘bigger picture’ need (to wash hands and eat dinner). Her brain will also be accumulating a mental imprinting of these moments where a wise parent combines both understanding and leadership to create an environment of security.
For a parent, it’s hard and constant work. I think of it as getting a ‘PHD’ on your own child.
Isn’t that exactly what we needed when we were children? Empathy and guidance from a caregiver who knew how to regulate the initial surge of hurt and anger, originating in old feelings of hurt and rejection, and deciding to get onto our wavelength rather than take our protests as personal attacks.
This is also exactly how to best deal with the anger that rages between our teens and ourselves when we’re in that older stage of parenting…more on that soon.
**They will learn soon enough however. Among the things they learn is to hide, to fight back, to feel shame, to collapse, to comply, to scream, to submit. They also begin to learn to feel confused, uncertain, unacceptable, combative and not good enough.
See https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/animations for some great animations.