First published in the Natural Parent Magazine, available in shops in New Zealand or Australia but can be ordered from anywhere in the world.
“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
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.
“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”
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.
Genevieve’s Stress Relief for Parents CD can guide you to relax, de-stress and generally reduce the emotional triggers that can compromise your connection with your child, especially when tensions. As well as having Genevieve guide you through gentle exercises to become aware of and release stress and emotional distress, you'll also gain some self-regulation skills that increase your ability to stay calm, patient and centred.
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