No one on earth has more power to infuriate us than our own child.
Why do you suppose? Are they psychically imprinted with some manual to the circuitry of our emotional centers? Is this all some diabolical scheme to drive all of the grown ups mad and leave nothing but children running the earth?! Ok, perhaps I go too far…
In truth, our children incite our anger for a number of different reasons.
On the one hand, there is the more universal truth that working with kids at different ages taps into that part of us that carries historical memory of being that age. It’s a bit uncanny. When I worked as a school-based counselor, I would observe different classes and find that the teachers were often emotionally pushed to respond as the age child they were dealing with. On a bad day, the 1st grade teacher would be acting like a 1st grader, the 3rd teacher would act like a 3rd grader and so forth. These were not bad teachers, mind you. And it was consistent across the three schools I served. We will have the hardest time holding it together when our children are dealing with developmental phases that were our most difficult or did not go well for us. We have instant reactions.
While unpleasant, this is actually not a bad thing. I had a mentor once who believed that we have kids not so much to give them a chance at a great life, but rather, so that we have a chance at a “do over” for our own wounded spots. In order for that to work though, we have to be responsive and not reactive. We have to recognize our own wounds playing out in the situation and use the opportunity to get the healing that we need. (Look for a future blog on how to do that.)
Kids routinely tapdance on our “squishy spots,” (those parts of ourselves that remain tender from past wounds.) They don’t usually do it intentionally; it’s just what happens when their truth crashes up against our truth. Once they figure out that they can get a rise from us in that area, they might repeat the behavior, but that is only intentional in and as much as they know they can push us to react.
Another reason they can get to us so easily is that we are highly invested in their success! We want to see them grow into intentional and successful adults. We put great effort into helping them grow into intentional and successful adults! When it seems as though that is not happening, we can feel overwhelmed with a torrent of insecurity, self-doubt, fear, powerlessness and confusion. When all of that swirls together, it tends to come out as anger.
We say things we don’t mean to say. We do things we don’t want to do. We act… sort of like our kids, frankly. Just in more sophisticated language. Then we get more frustrated and feel more insecure, more self-conscious, more fearful, more powerless and more confused. Which sometimes leaves us more angry! How do we get off this crazy merry-go-round??
I know I’m a Johnny Onenote on this issue, but step one is always always always to self-regulate. (See Self-Regulation for more informations on how.) Once you are back in your thinking brain, you can reason through the situation differently.
As Anne Lamott so poignantly writes, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” Once you self-regulate and are now in your “right mind,” ask yourself what you were expecting from your child. As you assess your child’s performance, keep in mind that the linearly logical answer in any situation is not the full answer. (Read my previous blog, “Emotions 101” for more information on emotional and linear logic.) Just because it makes linear sense that Jimmy could actually put his shoes where they belong when he walks in the door, the fact that he has consistently not done that for the last two years tells you that there is something else driving the behavior. You expect him to do it because it is logical. It is also linearly logical that that if he’s not doing that, he is communicating to you that he doesn’t respect you. The expectation that he will comply with this rule is leading you to resentment and anger. And you are justified in your anger! It’s not ok for Jimmy to perpetually ignore this house rule. However, your justified anger alone will not change the current situation or help your child grow.
Jimmy is telling you with his behavior that he needs something. No, not a swat on the behind! That would cloud and confound your teaching moment. You aren’t trying to teach him to change just this one behavior, but rather, to teach him to live in community, to respect other’s space, to be considerate, to learn to follow through on positive habits, etc., etc., etc. Your job, as a centered, grounded, self-regulated and clear-thinking parent, is to sleuth out the need underneath the behavior: Is your expectation developmentally appropriate for Jimmy’s age? Does he perhaps have attention issue that require a different approach? Have you clearly communicated the expectation? Does he understand (or care) that when he repeatedly does what he’s not supposed to do, that he’s hurting you and hurting his chances of getting the Mom/Dad he actually likes being around? Is he so excited about the next thing he’s headed to that he forgets to pay attention to this moment?
Once you’ve understood what’s under the behavior, you can respond more constructively, in a way that builds Jimmy toward his positive adulthood. And… you’re a lot less angry. And feel less powerless! And less confused! As they say in Whack-a-Mole… Bonus mallet!!
I recognize that this is merely a thumbnail sketch of these kinds of situations. Every person, every parent, every child, every family is unique and has unique challenges. For help with your unique situation, click on the Contact Tiffany tab and let’s talk.
“Surviving is important, but thriving is elegant.” Maya Angelou