I hope you took some time this week to figure out what you’ll be implementing regularly to care for yourself, and identifying what, if any, activity for your child has to be shuffled around in order to make it happen. Bonus points for already doing it!
So, when you thought about the memories these mean names remind you of, what feelings came up? Helplessness? Vulnerability? Sadness? Disappointment? Hurt? This insight will come in handy…
Here is the next step in responding to your child when they call you names:
Understand the Brain
Children do not have the cognitive capacity to think ahead when upset. Their frontal lobe, the part of the brain that manages impulses, is immature.
But wait, Megghan, MY KID KNOWS these words piss me off! Yes, after they explode, they remember, or it registers, that what they did is hurtful. They are intelligent enough to talk to you about it later and demonstrate understanding. When we assume this means they know what they’re doing in the moment, what we miss here is the understanding that children need empathy, repetition and support to manage their angry impulses. If we do not acknowledge their brain development, we jump to shame-oriented parenting strategies (spanking, time-out, writing lines, soap, etc.)
Children cannot develop and express empathy unless they feel understood. They cannot understand, nor give two sh*ts about your feelings, and whether their words hurt you, if you do not first identify and sit with theirs. So, last week I asked you to do some self-exploration. If we brush off our own emotions regularly, say our kids’ words don’t hurt, then we cannot acknowledge their hurt.
Notice how I am not mentioning much about anger in this post already.
Anger is ALWAYS a secondary emotion. There is always another feeling underneath the anger. This feeling makes us feel more vulnerable, and thus we automatically look for a way to feel powerful, hence, the angry outburst. This comes more easily than saying “I’m disappointed!”
Think about it: Our initial impulse when disappointed, hurt, upset, is to lash out. As (mostly) responsible adults, we manage this, stuff it aside, or grunt rather than act on it. Why? Because we know what the consequences will be if we don’t.
Get Down on Your Kid’s Level, and Name Their Other Feelings
Now that we know anger is secondary, it’s important to do some investigating regarding what other emotions our children are feeling in the moment. Pro Tip: upset is a good one. It’s often safe enough for teens, because it is in the same emotion family as anger. As you practice naming feelings other than ‘mad,’ your child will begin to correct you. This will help you start to nail your guesses, but either way, your child hears you focused on their feelings, and less on their behavior, which in turn decreases the intensity and length of their meltdowns.
Name ‘upset, disappointed, hurt, etc.’ and then name the anger. Doing both is important. This helps your child/teen switch the focus to the feeling behind their anger, moving the processing of the feelings along.
Josie wants a snack, but it’s 10 minutes before dinner. You tell her no, redirect her to the choices she has after dinner, and she still gets upset. She’s not hungry for dinner! She wants those cookies NOW. So, she calls you stupid and the dinner gross. Typically, this would lead to you sending her to her room and sometimes giving some retort back about how ungrateful she is about your hard work in the kitchen. Maybe in this moment it struck a cord because you’re not sure how dinner will turn out, (you’re trying a new recipe) and you’re already vulnerable about the meal.
Here is where you can name her feeling for her:
Mom, bending down to meet Josie: “Josie, I know you’re disappointed you don’t get a snack right now. You’re mad that you can’t have what you want right now.”
That second sentence probably sounds familiar. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve been focusing on naming feelings for your children. Hopefully, the primary feeling, disappointment, is more easily recognized here, as she can’t have what she wants. By kneeling or bending down we decrease the sense of powerlessness our children feel when a big tall adult is telling them ‘no.’ It sends the same comforting message we instinctually give when our child is physically hurt, or they are sad. Emotional hurt or disappointment is not much different of a feeling. Responding in a similar manner will help your child feel understood.
We ‘bend down’ by going over to our teen and making eye contact. Use our body language to indicate full attention and care to their feelings– our toes follow our nose. This body posture of facing our teen with our whole body indicates their emotions matter enough to attend to, even when we aren’t giving them what they are asking for.
“I know you’re upset you can’t borrow the car this weekend. You were hoping to go to ______, and you’re mad that you can’t drive yourself.”
Next week we will focus more on how to redirect your child/teens anger and support them in expressing it in a more effective manner. Acknowledging the emotions behind the anger is the first step toward teaching them how to manage their emotions more effectively, and how to have a conversation with them about why their words hurt so much.
Are there other parenting topics you’d like to hear more about? Let me know in the comments!