I looked just in time to see my youngest daughter reach over and whack her older sister in the chest. "What are you doing?!" My anger boiled up quickly. How could she do such a thing? She doesn't see any hitting in this house. Yikes.
It's nearly impossible to stay calm in a situation like this. Physical violence and pain trigger the lower brain, fight-or-flight reaction in the body. The muscles tense, the heart races, etc. You know the feeling. In that moment, Zen mama I was not.
Triage for a moment like this is to take care of ourselves. In my best moments I would say something like, "I'm really shocked and angry to see hitting!" Then separate the children to have a moment to calm down (a.k.a. hide in the bathroom and take deep breaths.)
When we're a little calmer, we can access our the reasoning upper brain and remember this:
Children act badly when they are feeling badly.
Their behavior can be totally frustrating, but it stems from an inability to express challenging feelings maturely (go figure.)
When they've acted badly, the point is not the exact behavior, but the challenging feelings behind the behavior. Children, like all human beings, have a profound need to be seen and heard. When we acknowledge their feelings, we connect with them at a layer deeper than the superficial. They are more likely to feel understood, like we "get" them.
Children can only manage their behavior when they can manage their emotions. This is called self-regulation, and they learn it by having parents who accept their feelings. Yup, even the challenging feelings.
Our feelings need to be felt so that they can dissipate and leave us. There's a saying about this: "Feel it to heal it."
Repressing our feelings puts them beyond our conscious control. Then they pop out unrestrained and cause "bad" behavior. Children need to feel safe to experience their big upsets and let them go. They need to know their feelings are accepted and difficult feelings are "okay."
This is one of the most challenging thing for us as parents. It certainly was for me.
I, like many other people, was raised in an environment that taught me that I shouldn't have difficult feelings. When I had difficult feelings, I was shamed. My big upsets made my parents angry and upset themselves.
It shouldn't have been a big surprise that my young daughter's big feelings upset me. I had never been taught to deal with these feelings in myself and now I couldn't deal with hers.
This is a big crossroads in parenting. We have to choose. Will I follow in my parent's footsteps? Or will I do the challenging work it takes to learn how to take care of my own feelings mindfully so that I can be a loving presence for my children?
For me to see and accept the feelings behind my daughter's behavior, I had to first accept my own feelings. I had to accept my rage. I had to accept my despair. I had to accept that I felt inadequate and insecure. It goes without saying that this is really hard to do. I wanted to be this perfect, loving presence for my daughter, so how can I accept the rage and other difficult feelings in me?
I accepted my feelings by breathing and feeling them. I moved the feelings through my body with yoga. I practiced self-compassion. I noticed my thoughts and chose to change self-defeating ones.
It was and continues to be something I practice daily with intention. And the reason I practice it is this:
Children learn what they live.
This is simple but not easy. If I learn to accept and take care of my own challenging feelings, my daughters will learn to accept and take care of theirs. They will live it and see how it is done.
The same follows with every aspect of the way we live and parent. If we're considerate and respectful to them, they become respectful, considerate people. If we yell at them, they learn to yell. If we bark commands at them, you'll hear them barking commands at others.
The work of parenting is work with ourselves.
So what do I do about my daughter hitting?
First step, of course, is to see if her older sister is hurt and comfort her.
Then, the best way to diffuse anger is actually to first acknowledge it: "You were really angry at her, huh?" Then, go to the feelings under the anger: "I wonder if you were feeling upset because your sister wanted to make the rules," or "I wonder if you were disappointed that Daddy didn't get to say goodbye this morning."
A child probably will not have that understanding, so we can't expect instant agreement. But if we do this fairly often we will be teaching them to look under their anger.
Next, I would help her express her feelings better. "Remember, hitting is never okay. What could you do next time you feel angry to express your feelings?" I would brainstorm ideas with her without judgement. It's important to remember that when someone is in the throes of anger, we can't brainstorm and make suggestions. While they're furious, they need us to acknowledge it: "You are so mad!" Then they need to let off steam physically.
But really the first step is accepting and embracing our own difficult feelings. To see and hear and "get" ourselves. Then we can do it for our children.
When we can see the feelings under the behavior, children feel seen and heard. When we "get it," and the feelings are acknowledged, we're on the road to clearer skies.
What do you think?
How do you respond to challenging feelings? Do your kids respond in the same way? Start the conversation in the comments below!