I'm losing it with my four year old!
Sarah asks: "He is having a very long spree of very angry tantrums, emotional outbursts, "I hate you's". And is hitting me, throwing things at me, etc. He's not doing this to anyone else other than his parents. Now, I can listen, set empathetic limits, stay close, weather the storm, offer suggestions, be present... UNTIL he hits me. Something triggers in me -- when I get hit, I want to hit back. Without thinking! It's clearly not ok. I am looking for alternative ways to help ME with this trigger. I am not trying to stop his emotions. I just want to respond appropriately and with thoughtfulness. I know the whole walk away, count to 10, etc. I need other ideas."
Genevieve's response: I see you are practicing empathic limit setting, and I take my hat off to you for your commitment to not act out on that very primal impulse to fight back. In our society parents are given ample permission to yell at children and physically overpower them (like forcing them into time out). When parents start to practice peaceful parenting, they start to see how this perpetuates the negative feedback loops of disconnection and upset. Parents are faced with needing to find ways to manage their own frustrations and anger to avoid directing that intense energy at their child. This is much easier said than done and can involve a huge emotional journey for so many parents. I hear how very difficult and distressing these situations are for you, how very triggered you become. As indeed most parents do when dealing with such emotionally intense and charged interactions with their child, especially when you are unclear what TO DO and feel powerless. You and your boy are both likely experiencing huge surges of intensely distressing emotions that cause you to feel scared, powerless and out of control.
Were you hit or yelled at as a child? The first question which comes to my mind relates to whether you were hit as a child, either by your parent(s) or an older sibling who you often felt quite powerless to. If this was the case, you're very likely experiencing the body memory and in these stressful moments, and with that comes that package of unresolved emotions relating to those times. If you felt powerless to your parent's anger when you were young, the child in you likely gets activated at these times. The fight-flight stress response is activated. The child in you will need some reassurance and soothing and maybe emotional release from you the adult. There are many resources in the member's areas that can help you retrain your body and brain to identify that you are indeed safe at these times and hence to come out of those negative feedback loops of feeling scared, powerless and hence re-creating conflicts. Check out our Self Healing group in the list of groupsor the drop-down menu under the profile pic in the main menu when you're logged in. I also recommend going through the Overcoming Overwhelm eCourse plug the 10 Day Peaceful Parent Challenge short course. (link to groups and courses from your Village Map).
Powerlessness for a child or a parent tends to evoke intense frustration. When faced with the kind of challenges you're describing, many parents who would have previously regained control of their child by overpowering them by yelling, threatening unpleasant consequences or sending them to their room are often now faced with a sense of powerlessness. "What can I do in this situation? How do I know this won't happen again?" And this I guess is where you're at right now and want to gain clarity about what might work in these situations. Peaceful parenting aims to find the middle ground between authoritarian rule where the parent holds all the power and the child feels powerless or the other extreme of permissive parenting where parents resentfully submit their power to their child to avoid conflict, leaving them feeling powerless. Of course, you are working hard to consider what both your child and you yourself are actually feeling and what you each may be needing, and hence on the path to greater harmony. Yet often the transition can be slow, messy, confusing for parent and child and you may feel that you're in the midst of the storm of all that change at the moment.
Addressing his need for safe outlets for his frustrations and your needs to do the same. I'll first talk about ways that you can help your boy get some of his frustrations out in safe ways, then further down, I'll address your question about how to manage that intense trigger which rises up in you with the urge to hit back is probably the core question for many parents committed to peaceful parenting.
When he lashes out, the main aim, as well as protection, is to reach him emotionally.
Help him know how he can get his anger out in safe ways You'll find a lot of insights into what's going on for your child in my article "aggression - why children lash out and what to do" And with these insights into the child's inner struggle and distress comes more genuine compassion. If you see his stress is rising and there's the risk of aggression, offer him the palms of your hands to push against (it might work better if you kneel or just bend your knees so you feel solid). Being allowed to push against you will help him gain the outlet that he needs without hurting you. If this results in laughter, this is also a great tension reliever.
Spending quality one on one time can dissipate insecurity and consequent frustrations. Making time for fun and laughter is very bonding and healing. Play is the child's natural way of communicating, when we can join them in their play, there is SO much scope for healing. And most importantly adopting a truly non-punitive approach to parenting and committing to your own self-healing, ideally including a form of meditation practice.
More options to gain outlet for the BIG intense emotions. Tell him he can growl like a lion. Intercept his hand, stop him from hitting you with your arms, then restrain his body, facing him away from you and taking him onto your knee as you sit on the ground with him, holding each wrist if necessary (as non-aggressively as possible) and speak words to him that show him that you're confident, in control and helping him let it all out: "Just let it all out my body, you can cry or shout or growl, just let it all out" This isn't telling him what to do, it's giving him permission to do that which it's very obvious that he desperately needs to do.
When a child senses that their parent is not just coping with them being upset, but actually truly caring about their feelings, this is what allows a child to *** feel safe enough to move from fighting to releasing frustrations ***.
It's a fact that when we can slow down the breath, lengthening each in and out-breath, this takes humans out of fight-flight. Try also doing big deep sighs and encouraging him to do the same, "breath out all that frustration, we'll do it together". Even if your child won't join you, when you reach a calmer state, this changes the dynamic. Another thing you can do when his anger is escalating is offer to take his hand and take him for a brisk walk, or better still skip or run together, this allows him to move and expel some of that adrenaline and cortisol, while giving him the connection and support that he also needs, "come on sweetheart, walk/ skip/ run with me". Better still, jump on the trampoline! As you walk, skip or jump, speak words of empathy and permission for him to let it all out: "everything's just too hard right now isn't it, it's a lot of frustration in your little body, I care, I'm here, you're safe". Yes, it's a big testosterone boost at this age which can push to the surface any backlog of frustrations that are lying dormant.
Why we explode and how to prevent it If you click here you'll find lots of articles that aim to help parents in their journey of self-care, self-healing, becoming more mindful of their triggers, strengthening their boundaries and gaining healthy ways of working with anger in the family. Many people have gained help from the recorded teleseminar audio of myself and Patty Wipfler talking about "Why we explode and how to prevent it". It's free to Peaceful Parent Village members in the resources section, along with a few more audios in the member's section like "Parenting when overwhelmed" and "Being a more mindful conscious parent".
I also recommend my article Why we explode on the same subject and my Stress Relief for Parents (also free to members). These tracks were very much recorded with these questions in mind. The cd will help you develop stress release and relaxation techniques and the more you use them, the more access you'll have to self-regulating techniques in stressful moments. The theory alone is of little value to us when we're triggered if not well practiced. To have a chance to shift out of fight-flight, we need to be very well practiced at connecting in with our emotions at the body and energy levels and then communicating to that distressed part of ourselves in a way that brings us back to a softening and opening of the heart. Ultimately, it's this softening of the heart which takes us from the urge to fight or flight to instead the urge to release through tears or simply calming down by witnessing our sensations and allowing the emotions to settle.
Preventing the aggressive outbursts: The sooner we can centre ourselves, the less likely it is that things will escalate with our child to the point of aggression. It's important to really tune in to the situations, or foods or other factors that tend to make our child more fragile and hence more prone to meltdowns. The sooner we identify that our child is starting to rev up, starting to become stressed, the earlier we can intervene to regain connection and regulate our child's stress levels by re-establishing connection (be it through smiles, affection, play, empathy, active listening, anything that reduces the tensions in the air). Our power is in the moment between feeling that reaction and taking action. Yes we need to be clear about our boundaries, I believe in being honest about our feelings in a non-attacking way using "I" statements while ALSO showing consideration and care of their feelings. This is the balance that fosters mutual respect.