It’s Not All Mary Poppins

From the Archives: Anger

There is one parenting concern that effects almost every parent out there. This aspect of parenting effects discipline issues, self-esteem issues, child-control issues, tantrums, whining, family dynamics… you name it. You can be almost 100% sure that when you’re in a conflict with your child, or some other negative loop, this issue is playing a part.

What is it?

tantrumAnger. Or, more accurately, how you feel about anger, and how you respond to it.

Anger affects:
– how you feel about yourself and your parenting when you are angry with your child
– how you respond when you are angry with your child
– how you respond when your child is angry with you
– how you respond when your child is angry with/about anything else

In short, every aspect of interacting with your child is affected by your attitude to and response to that most troublesome of emotions.

If you haven’t got your own anger (and your attitudes to it) sorted out for yourself in a useful, constructive way, you are going to have no end of trouble with anger as it arises during child-rearing.

If you’re sitting there saying, “Well. This doesn’t apply to me. I’m never angry with my little darling. Sometimes I’m disappointed or sad, but never angry”… if that’s your attitude, you have some SERIOUS denial issues. Everyone gets angry. Everyone.

That attitude stems from the root belief that “Anger is bad and I shouldn’t feel it”, and it causes more parenting problems than I can count.

Let’s clear something up right away: Anger is not bad. It is not wrong. It is not a sign of a weak personality. It does not make you a bad parent.

Anger is simply an emotion, and (say it with me, people) emotions are neither right nor wrong. They just are. Where the rightness and wrongness comes in is in the expression of the emotion. But here we must clarify still further. Expressing anger is not wrong. Necessarily. What matters is how you express it.

“Easy for you. You never get angry, not really angry.” An abusive man once said that to a woman I know. Why did he believe that, when it was patently false? Because she never went into frothing, out-of-control rages. If she really felt anger, he reasoned, if she really got angry (like he did), then she, too, would go into wild, manic rages. He figured that because she didn’t become abusive when angry, she couldn’t really be angry.

Whether we agree with his reasoning consciously or not, a lot of us base our responses to anger on those same assumptions. That is our fear: Anger = Danger, Mayhem, Violence.

Which it does — in toddlers. The thing is, by the time we achieve adulthood, we should have developed the control over our anger such that we can be angry — really and truly furious — without losing control. You can be angry without screaming and hitting and biting and spitting and throwing things. A young toddler mostly can’t. An older toddler can, mostly. (Yes, they can.) And an adult? Of course you can.

Not only is anger not necessarily destructive, anger can be actively constructive. So few people understand this. Anger can be the catalyst for change, the motivation to take brave steps, the fuel for justice, pushing us those one or two steps further than we would normally go. Anger is a tremendous motivator, applied properly.

Yet we have this tremendous fear of anger. A fear so strong that we can’t allow ourselves to be angry in our children’s presence. We can’t allow ourselves to let our children know that we are angry with them. We cower from our own anger, and thus deny our children invaluable lessons of our good emotional modelling. And when our children are angry, we tend either to cower from it — cave into any and all demands just to appease it and make it go away (which, of course, only encourages poor expression of anger) — either that, or disallow it entirely (and thus create another generation of repressed adults). Neither are helpful, healthy, or effective, for you, for the child, or for your relationship with the child.

We have to get past this. We have to learn to deal with anger in a useful, constructive way. So that we can parent our children effectively. So that our children can learn to manage their anger by seeing us do it, by being allowed to be angry, by being taught to manage theirs as we manage ours. We need to learn to be angry, properly, constructively.

So we can all be happier!

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August 30, 2011 Posted by | parenting | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Why I love dads

A while back, Noah started showing some reluctance at drop-off. It doesn’t matter that he’d been coming for well over a year and has been just fine for all but the first month. No, there’s no reason for it. It’s just one of those two-year-old things.

There probably was a reason, initially. Maybe he’d had a bad dream just before waking. Maybe he was coming down with a cold, or had had a squabble with a fellow-toddler, or was sprouting yet another tooth, or hadn’t eaten breakfast, or was under-rested, or, or, or…

There are any number of reasons for a sudden change of attitude, and you know what? Nine times out of ten, it doesn’t matter what the reason might be. One time in ten, it does: on that occasion, you deal with the issue — maybe another child is routinely picking on the reluctant one, maybe the parents are too often fighting in his presence on the way to daycare, maybe a child is chronically under-rested. All those things can be dealt with direct, but generally the adults involved do the figuring. We grown-ups put our heads together to see if there’s a preciptating cause, and, if so, to see if there’s something we can do to eliminate it.

There is almost no point at all in asking a two-year-old “Why are you sad?” They don’t know. They just are. If you press them, they get confused, and it makes the anxiety worse. If you try to help them out by making suggestions, they’ll either just wail harder, or latch onto something at random. “Yes! I’m sad because gramma went home! Yes!”

Is that really it? Who knows?

And really, it rarely matters. What always matters is how you respond.

And Noah’s dad, GOD BLESS HIM, responds well. So well. This guy is a master of managing the drop-off uncertainty that Noah was evidencing for a bit there.

After getting his customary good-bye hug, Noah was not trotting off to see what the others are up to — which used to be customary. Now he was turning back to daddy.

“Nuther hug,” he said, a tremor of anxiety in his voice.

“I get ANOTHER hug?!?” daddy exclaims, with great enthusiasm. “Boy, am I lucky!” And he would scoop his son up into a wild and happy embrace, swinging Noah’s wee body from one side to the other, laughing all the while. And Noah laughs, too. How could he not, with dad injecting such positivity and fun into the proceedings?

And then, when dad set Noah down the second time, he cheerfully announced “Have fun today!” — and left. Immediately. He didn’t wait to see what Noah does next, he didn’t make eye contact, he didn’t linger to see Noah settled. He just left.

And Noah? Noah was now in my arms, off to get a book. Which we read on the couch, and by the time the book is done — and it always involves at least three enthusiastic verses of Old MacDonald — Noah has made his transition. He is here, and he is happy.

In fact, the second hug/book/sing-song has become such happy part of our morning ritual that I’d forgotten it orginated in drop-off anxiety. It’s just what we do. Noah hasn’t shown any concern for several weeks, but he’s still getting that second, swooping, laughing hug. It’s just adorable.

And then, today, Mummy did the drop-off.

And when Noah evidenced that tiny smidge of anxiety, which hadn’t been obvious for five weeks or more, mummy squatted down and made eye contact, stroking her son’s shoulder, calming him.

“It’s okay, Noah. You know you have fun at Mary’s.”

Whimper.

“It’s okay to be sad, sweetie, but I know you’ll have a good day.”

Whimper, sniffle.

“Oh, honey. Come and give mummy a big hug, and then try to smile, okay?”

And the dam bursts. There are tears everywhere. He is clinging to mummy, wailing. She is patting and soothing.

And I am wishing Daddy had done the drop-off this morning…

February 23, 2010 Posted by | daycare, Noah, parenting, parents | , , , , , | 9 Comments

Anger

What is the most troublesome parenting concern? What is the aspect of parenting that effects discipline issues, self-esteem issues, child-control issues, tantrums, whining, family dynamics… you name it?

tantrumAnger.

It affects:
– how you feel when you are angry with your child
– how you respond when you are angry with your child
– how you respond when your child is angry with you
– how you respond when your child is angry with/about anything else

In short, there isn’t one aspect of interacting with your child that isn’t affected by your attitude to and response to that most troublesome of emotions.

And if you haven’t got your own anger (and your attitudes to it) sorted out for yourself in a useful, constructive way, you are going to have no end of trouble with anger as it arises during child-rearing.

If you’re sitting there saying, “Well. This doesn’t apply to me. I’m never angry with my little darling. Sometimes I’m disappointed or sad, but never angry”… if that’s your attitude, you have some SERIOUS denial issues. Everyone gets angry. Everyone.

But that attitude and its close relation, “Anger is bad and I shouldn’t feel it” cause more parenting problems than I can count.

Let’s clear something up right away: Anger is not bad. It is not wrong. It is not a sign of a weak personality. It does not make you a bad parent.

Anger is simply and emotion, and (say it with me, people) emotions are neither right nor wrong. They just are. Where the rightness and wrongness comes in is in the expression of the emotion. But here we must clarify still further. Expressing anger is not wrong. Necessarily. What matters is how you express it.

“Easy for you. You never get angry, not really angry.” These words were spoken by an abusive man to a woman I know. Why did he believe that, when it was patently false? Because she never went into frothing, out-of-control rages. If she really felt anger, he reasoned, if she really got angry (like he did), then she, too, would go into wild, manic rages. He figured that because she didn’t become abusive when angry, she couldn’t really be angry.

Whether we agree with his reasoning consciously or not, a lot of us base our responses to anger on those same assumptions. That is our fear: Anger = Danger, Mayhem, Violence.

Which it does — in toddlers. The thing is, by the time we achieve adulthood, we should have developed the control over our anger such that we can be angry — really and truly furious — without losing control. You can be angry without screaming and hitting and biting and spitting and throwing things. A young toddler can’t. An older toddler can, mostly. (Yes, they can.) And an adult? Of course you can.

Not only is anger not necessarily destructive, anger can be actively constructive. So few people understand this. Anger can be the catalyst for change, the motivation to take brave steps, the fuel for justice, pushing us those one or two steps further than we would normally go. Anger is a tremendous motivator, applied properly.

Yet we have this tremendous fear of anger. A fear so strong that we can’t allow ourselves to be angry in our children’s presence. We can’t allow ourselves to let our children know that we are angry with them. We cower from our own anger, and thus deny our children invaluable lessons of our good emotional modelling. And when our children are angry, we tend either to cower from it — cave into any and all demands just to appease it and make it go away… either that, or disallow it entirely. Neither are helpful, healthy, or effective, for you, for the child, or for your relationship with the child.

We have to get past this. We have to learn to deal with anger in a useful, constructive way. So that we can parent our children effectively. So that our children can learn to manage their anger by seeing us do it, by being allowed to be angry, by being taught to manage theirs as we manage ours. We need to learn to be angry, properly, constructively.

So we can all be happier!

May 27, 2009 Posted by | aggression, manners, parenting | , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Knee-deep in Guts

We have in our skulls “two minds working semi-independently of each other”, one a thinker, one a reactor. System One and System Two, or, for convenience, “Head” and “Gut”.

So claims Dan Gardner in his book RISK: The Science and Politics of Fear, which I received for my birthday. Given how I feel about risk and risk-taking, I expect to thoroughly enjoy this book.

“Head” and “Gut” got me thinking — about my job, of course. We all start out 100% gut. Newborn infants have no Head yet; they are pre-rational. Everything they do is done by instinct and reaction. There is no considered response. This is as it should be, instinct (and that piercing wail!) helping this helpless little critter survive into the next hour, the next day.

Gut is essential for survival. It tells us what’s a danger, it tells us what to avoid, it drives us to seek out what we need. And it does this fast. When in the path of a speeding car, you don’t need to know the make, year, or its likely carbon footprint. You need to take instant action. Your Gut response to something is instantaneous. Reasoned? Not at all. Effective? Very. We all start out as completely Gut, and we never lose it, because we need it.

Eventually, however, Head starts to become a player, too. Head, however, is much slower than Gut, so it takes some experience and maturity to apply it. Eventually we learn (or should!) to take advantage of what Stephen Covey neatly calls that small space between stimulus and response, and respond rather than merely react.

Well. I hope we do. For my part, at its most basic, my profession comes down to the ongoing task of attempting to install some Head-response into the seething mass of little Gut-people who fill my home daily.

A toddler is frustrated. He shrieks. Or throws something. Or wallops someone. Because Gut is fast. Then I intervene, with Head admonitions to “use your words”, “hands are for hugging”, because what I am attempting to do is to have these children pause before reacting, to teach them how to respond out of Head instead of, or in addition to, Gut.

It’s an interesting perspective on my job. And now, I must go. There are raised voices, and I think some Gut is about to bust out over there. This Head needs to intervene.

February 17, 2009 Posted by | aggression, books, Canada, health and safety, power struggle, socializing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“I HATE you, mommy!”

angry childI remember saying that to my mother. I have no idea what the offense was, but I blurted out those words in a fit of childish frothing-at-the-mouth, I’m sure. If I was old enough to remember it as clearly as I do, I was probably at least 7; I don’t think I was in my teens yet.

I still remember her response. She did not “validate my feelings”. She did not soothe or comfort. Though corporal punishment was part of the family parenting repertoire, there was no spanking for that level of insubordination, either. (None of us were spanked after the age of three or so, anyway.) Nor did she respond with outrage, though she was clearly offended.

Nope. My normally cheerful, easy-going mother directed a gaze laced with ferocity at me as she put me in my place. “You don’t hate me. You are far too young to know what ‘hate’ is, and I hope you never have to find out. And do not say that to me, ever again.”

There was further discussion about what I could say. I could say I was angry; I could say I didn’t like something; I could say any number of negative things, so long as they were said respectfully. But “hate”? Not allowed.

I don’t recall if there was follow-up. I don’t know if she had to battle this into the ground, or if that one pronouncement was enough to kill that nasty behaviour on the spot.

I do know that I agree with her.

Children raised in a loving home have no idea what hate is, nor should they. “Hate” is not a variant of “dislike”, and shouldn’t be treated as such. In the same way that we don’t allow our small children to use the “bad words” adults might occasionally let fly in their presence, we needn’t allow this one, either.

We’ve been raised as parents to respect our children’s emotions. That is as it should be. But we needn’t revere them. Nor should we buy into the notion that respecting an emotion means that we allow its full expression without reservation. Nor is “he’s too little to understand what [emotion] means” stop you from the task of guiding the expression of that emotion.

“Emotions are neither right nor wrong. It’s what you do with them that matters.” I have a vague notion that I’m quoting someone here, but it’s mine now. I’ve said it so often in our home that my teens can chant it along with me.

Good!

We can start teaching that at toddlerhood, when a child is told “You may be angry, but you may not scream (hit, bite, kick, spit, whatever).” Or, “I know taking a nap makes you sad, but your body needs the rest. You will feel better when you wake up.” Or. “You want that toy, but it’s Suzie’s turn now.”

I often am heard to say, “If you need to cry, cry quietly.”

Unreasonable? No, since they can pretty well uniformly manage it, from about two and a half, and even earlier, depending on the child. Disrespectful? No, because I’m not saying they may not feel the emotion, or that the emotion is wrong or bad, only that they must moderate its expression.

So, Ms/Mr. Enraged Toddler. You can be angry, very, very angry! You can stomp your feet. You can scowl and pout. You can not like me right now. You can tell me to go away. (And I will, assuming it’s safe for me to do so.)

But “hate”?

Nope. You don’t know what the word means, and I hope you never do. I can safely bet that those of us who do know what it means rather wish we hadn’t had to live through the experience that engendered it.

Don’t be afraid to put limits on the expression of your child’s emotions. Not the feeling of them, but their expression. Feeling an emotion is always acceptable. Emotions are morally neutral. How you act on them is not. Learning to respond constructively to your emotions is merely part of learning to exist in a world shared by millions of other people, all with their own emotional centres, all worthy of their piece of the planet.

Instead of a blanket tolerance of any and all emotional expression, try this:

“You can be [insert emotion here], but you may not [insert behaviour here], but you can [insert alternate expression here].”

And the carrot at the end of this stick? If you start when they’re two, you’ll have a way easier time of it when they’re twelve…

November 14, 2008 Posted by | aggression, parenting, tantrums, the dark side | , , , , | 13 Comments