Watching your child act in a way that is unkind and hurtful, is not only painful, but can be scary. The spiral of worry and parent guilt starts spinning around in our heads; what did I do? How could my child be so mad at me? Where did they learn to talk to me like that? Have I failed them? Will they speak to their teacher like that? They’ll have no friends and end up in jail with an attitude like this. They need to know that this is just simply unacceptable, no matter how mad you are.
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This train of thought is very logical and justified. It’s also the prevalent narrative in our society; that above all, we must teach our children to be respectful to others. Treating people with kindness, when you are feeling salty, is very hard for even adults to do. Empathy, trust and attachment is all you need to teach a child safe and healthy coping skills. Empathize with your child, trust in your child that they have the capacity to learn the value of kindness and utilize your attachment relationship with your child to offer support, in these often challenging moments.
I recently had a parent ask me about this topic which I have been meaning to write about for a while. This is my response:
This is such a tough one and, I really feel, a personal choice, because there are benefits and risks to both options.
Handling it how you are; staying calm, empathizing but insisting on respectful language before you will work through the issue, this is how we used to do things. I think it is what many people do, it is often how things are done in ECE, and I do not think it is harmful in any way, it just may not be achieving the goals you have. When we would take this approach, we often found, like you did, that my child did not calm down, it seemed to escalate things.
I tried reflecting about how I felt at that age when people told me I had to be kind to be heard. It was very hard to comply with their request, even though I wanted to. More than anything in that moment, the child just wants to feel accepted but they are having an emotional reaction and do not have the skills yet to cope with these moments in safe and kind ways (many adults also lack these skills). Here’s why compliance may become so difficult in these moments; insisting on respectful communication is a boundary we are putting up. That is ok, but children don’t often become calmed by imposed boundaries, especially if the boundary is they need to calm down. Also, by insisting that they calm down prior to working through their issue with them, it can teach them to stuff down their emotions to make others happy (I know that sounds harsh but we all do it, please don’t take this harshly).
The very big benefit of this approach is she will likely learn that you can’t speak to people that way and that is important. I think we focus so much on that piece that we forget that there are so many other things going on and learning to speak to someone with kindness is a learned skill that many never acquire. Intrinsic motivation to treat people with kindness, even when we are feeling salty, happens when you treat someone poorly and then there is a disconnection with that person, and you feel remorse for hurting them and not being kind.
The other approach, I think, makes parents very nervous, and rightfully so, because if they actually talk to their teachers or friends like that, life is not going to be easy. But actually, children often act like this at home and not in public or with others. Why? You’re her safe spot where she can unload all her emotions and feel secure that you will still love her the same when she is done unloading. The perceived risk here is, we think we are allowing them to mistreat us but we can still use gentle guidance to try and help them learn coping skills. Small shifts may allow her to feel more comfortable to sit in painful feelings. What actually may be happening is the effort to try and calm down may be making her more panicked (I am definitely like this myself).
We could say something like “I can see you seem very angry right now. It’s ok to be angry but when you talk to me like that, it hurts. There are all kinds of ways to feel your anger without hurting others. Would you like some help finding a safe way to be angry? Or do you think a hug will help?” I know many people will not agree with this but I often tell my son after one of these episodes, when he is feeling guilty and apologizing; “I am your mom and no matter what you say or do I will always love you. Even if you need someone to be mad at, I will be that person. I am always here for you, no matter what you need.”
Many people may feel like this invites my child to use me as a punching bag but that is not my perspective. I was a very emotional child and felt incredibly misunderstood so my empathy runs deep for children who are struggling to feel heard. Total acceptance is exactly what I needed. But that approach was unheard of in my day. As a result of my strong emotions, and the consequences for them, my home often felt unsafe. I am also a parent and I get frustrated and hurt by hearing “I hate you!” Just because I give this advice, does not mean I always take it. I try to, but I am human and I get frustrated and triggered and say things back that are not the most supportive. It is a really tough situation and emotions are flying so you are also going to react emotionally. The three things you said at the start are the most important; stay calm, empathize and offer emotional support. Sometimes the best conversations happen after everyone calms down.
There are also three main perspectives you can take here:
Punishing and rejecting it
“I will not allow you to treat me this way! You must sit in your room until you calm down and can speak to me with respect”
I think this (or a slightly more gentle variation of it) is the go to for most households, peaceful or not. It is tough to stay calm and peaceful in these moments and I often hear parents saying these are the times when they tend to break away from their intended values. It is also an emotional reaction and fuels the fire that is already burning hot. If the intent is to encourage reflection of their own emotions and behaviour, this approach often causes resentment, which gets in the way of emotional growth and connecting those feelings with their behaviour.
Panic and Fix
“Oh my gosh! I am so sorry! What did I do? I promise I will make it right. I never meant to upset you. What can I do to make this right?”
I think this may be a newer phenomenon. I do not think it is overly common but I have heard a few parents that interpret this approach as empathizing. I would more call it internalizing. Your child does not actually hate you. Like all of us, they cycle through emotions. Love and attachment is a deep and profound experience that cannot be shattered or developed in one moment. It is a series of moments and connections that build attachment. Just because your child is mad at you, does not mean your attachment with them is broken, although they may feel a little disconnected from you and misunderstood, at the time. Taking the panic and fix approach sends a few messages. It can make them fearful because they see how upset it made you and they don’t want you to feel insecure again, so they suppress these feelings for fear of hurting you. Also, when we panic over children’s challenging emotions, we send the message that these emotions are to be feared and suppressed.
Reflecting on it
“I hear you saying that you are very angry with me right now. I would love to figure this out together. I just don’t know how to communicate with you when you say hurtful things like that. Do you need help finding a safe way to be angry? Or would talking about it be more helpful?”
This approach acknowledges their feelings, but also lets them know that they hurt you. You do not need to take it any further than that. That is grace, allowing your child to screw up and not hold it over their head for the next six weeks. There is a fine line between emotional manipulation and modelling emotional communication. That is why I try not to focus too much on how they hurt me and focus on what is going on inside them that made them feel the need to hurt me. It is not easy, but I really think these moments when our children are struggling the most, is our greatest chance to build trust and connection. If we can look past the behaviour and try to demonstrate unconditional love and acceptance, even in this moment, I think that is when we build the bridge that allows for co-regulation. Simply just try thinking about what you would want if you were having a meltdown, and just wanted to calm down, but did not know how. That is empathy; the most powerful tool we have as parents.
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