Our words become our child’s inner voice. They internalize how we respond and react to their behavior and reactions. As adults, it is our job to see the feelings behind the actions, but because this rationale wasn’t always modeled for us, we are stuck in a cycle of being in our own version of the “child mind.” This is no one’s fault, just something to be aware of when interacting with our children. Breaking a cycle is hard, therefore no one is going to be 100% perfect 100% of the time. Awareness is key and it only becomes problematic when we don’t take responsibility for how we respond, blaming them and actually believing that the issue is with them and not us.
“The more we hone this ability to meet life in a neutral state, without attributing “goodness” or “badness” to what we are encountering, but simply accepting its as-is-ness, the less our need to interpret every dynamic as if it were about us. Our children can then have their tantrums without triggering us, and we can correct their behavior without dumping on them our own residual resentment, guilt, fear, or distrust.”
Most of us take our child’s behavior personally, as if what they are doing is being done to us. Our children are their own beings with their own feelings and experiences as small people trying to navigate a big, new world. How we respond to their tantrums, cries, outbursts and unfavorable actions makes all the difference in how they process it and how they will process such hardships in the future. We have a couple of options. We can respond in a way that promotes disconnection, which only creates more stress for our child. OR we can respond in a way that fosters connection, which creates a sense of safety for them to healthily process their emotions. I have come up with seven examples of how we respond in ways that create disconnection and some tips for what we can say instead.
1) Blame. “You are making me crazy.”
I will start off by admitting that I have uttered this one, except my version was, “you are driving me nuts.” I knew it wasn’t true, as in, I knew it wasn’t my son that was driving me nuts. I was already feeling stressed and overwhelmed about things that I can’t even recall anymore and he was simply triggering it all. That is the thing to remember: It is never their fault. They are not trying to drive us insane. Can parenting be overwhelming? Absolutely, but it is still important to never take it out on your child. They are trying to get legitimate needs met and yes, sometimes (ok, a lot of times) it is more than one person can handle, but always take care of yourself and try to refrain from blaming them for your stress. This sends the message that they are too much. That they want too much, need too much and feel too much. This isn’t true. They are perfectly them, and it is okay that we feel overwhelmed by it as parents living in a society that worships isolation. What is not okay is that we blame it on our children who never asked to be a part of it.
Instead try: “I hear you that you are upset. We all have the feels today, huh?”
2) Gaslighting. “Oh, you’re fine. Look at everyone else having fun. Why can’t you go have fun?”
Gaslighting is defined as a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting his or her own memory, perception, and sanity. This is actually a very common way parents react to an upset child. They are insisting that the child is fine when the child is clearly not fine. Will the child be fine in the near future? It is very likely, and maybe that is what some parents mean, but they are not okay right now. Insisting that a child is okay when their inner world is signaling that they are not okay is extremely confusing. On one hand, their brain and body is telling them that they are sad, hurt, etc, but on the outside they are getting the message that nothing is wrong. On top of that, they are receiving that message from someone that they really trust. If a child grows up with this being the norm then the odds are high that they will grow up as an adult who doesn’t trust their own emotional state. Not trusting yourself in that way makes it easy for people to be taken advantage of.
Instead try:“I saw that. You hit your head and it hurts now. You are safe.”
3) Guilt. “See what you are doing? Now you’re getting your sister upset.”
Trying to guilt trip someone out of their feelings is like trying to bomb your way out of war. It only makes it worse and does nothing to solve the problem. Inducing guilt is a recipe for making a child self-conscious about their feelings. If they know that what they feel negatively affects others then they are more likely to stuff their feelings in an attempt to not upset anyone. The thing with stuffed down emotions is that they can’t stay stuffed down for long and will eventually come out in ways that are more aggressive and disruptive in the future.
Instead try: “I see that you are frustrated. Sister is frustrated, too. How can I help you?”
4) Threats. “If you don’t stop crying right now I will give you something to cry about.”
Trying to make a child immediately put a stop to their feelings is very anxiety producing. Feelings are big and strong, like a current, and to ask someone to immediately stop this instance by using threats causes a lot of fear. On one hand they want to listen and not reap the consequences, but on the other hand the effort it takes to put the force of your own feelings to a screeching halt feels impossible. They panic and the situation inevitably escalates. One who uses these types of threats is someone who isn’t comfortable with their own emotional state and has projected that onto their child. I firmly believe that to the extent that we are in approval of our child’s emotions is the extent that we are in approval of our own. If you find yourself wanting to immediately quiet and hush your child when he is upset then I would say it is time for a little soul-searching and to ask yourself in what ways are you uncomfortable expressing your strong feelings and emotions?
Instead try: “I hear that you are very upset. I am here for you.”
5) Shame. “Ugh. What now?!”
As a mother of a rambunctious and demanding toddler, I would be lying if I said that this saying didn’t pop into my head at least once a day. If it isn’t one thing it’s another and I know how tempting it can be to respond with, “what now?!” From the time they wake up: Mom! Food! Then they spill food. Mom! Then they want to help pick it up. Mom! Not with that rag, they want the sponge. Mom! Now let’s go outside. Mom! I want my shoes. Mom! There is a mosquito on me do something. Mom! Look at the snail! Look, mom, another one! Then they fall. They’re crying now. You carry them inside. They want to nurse. Now read me a book. Now take me to the park. I have to pee now. I spilled my pee. No, I want to flush it! You get the idea. This is a time of excitement, a lot of learning and a lot of accidents. They want to show you and share with you and they might get hurt sometimes in the process. Instead of responding in a way that has them feeling like they are being a nuisance, it is better to send the message that what they have to say and what happens to them is important.
Instead try: “You have a lot to say today. I am excited for all that you are learning.” Or in times of pain, “You got hurt again. I saw that.”
6) Isolation. “Just ignore her.”
I have heard many parents offer the advice to other parents that they shouldn’t reward “bad” behavior with attention, and to just ignore the child when they are upset or “acting up.” Again, this just makes it worse by inducing fear and anxiety into an upset child by leaving them to be alone with their uncomfortable feelings. Children are not “bad.” They are simply acting out their feelings. Probably because they don’t always feel safe expressing them, but that isn’t always true. Sometimes they just don’t know any other way and it is up to us to create that safe space for them to do that and to have the mature awareness to know when their actions are a cry for help and connection. This can be easier said than done because in many cases the adults are not even aware of their own feelings, and therefore cannot tap into their child’s.
Instead try: “I am here for you if you need me.”
7) Violating. “Don’t tell me no!”
If you have a toddler that frequently objects and protests “no” a lot then this is good news. Many people think this is a bad habit and ever rude or disrespectful, but it is actually a sign that they are learning personal autonomy and how to assert boundaries. Although it can feel inconvenient at times as a parent, these things come in really handy for when our children become adults, as long as we support this process instead of making them believe that saying no is disrespectful or rude. If they are made to think that they can’t say “no”, then they will grow up having a hard time with personal boundaries and fear saying no when they don’t want to do something. I would venture to say that the majority of adults today have this problem to some degree. I know I do.
Instead try: “I hear that you don’t want to get in the car right now, and we have to go pick up your brother. Would you like to bring a book with you?”
Like any relationship, the relationship you have with your child can be a catalyst to self-growth if we let it be. Our children are our biggest mirrors into our own inner workings of the self. They are constantly reflecting back to us not only our shadow and destructive patterns, but our beauty and our light, too. In my opinion, the foundation one needs to begin to build starts with adopting the notion that no child’s emotions, feelings or behavior are “bad,” nor are they something to be controlled or any of the other things we tell ourselves in order to justify placing blame on them (the child). These ideas have to be dropped completely from the psyche. We have to start from the notion that our child is inherently good and they want to be good. We have to be able to look beneath the surface and see what we call “bad” behavior as a cry for help or a desire to be connected to us. We must intentionally work to become more comfortable and in approval of our own feelings and deeply supressed emotions. We cannot have the capacity to hold the space for our child’s big feelings if we are still stuffing down our own or have a lot of judgment about ourselves in that area. It starts with us. Freeing our children begins with freeing ourselves. I will leave off with one more quote by Dr. Shefali Tsabary because I love her revolutionary work so much:
“Our children pay a heavy price when we lack consciousness. Overindulged, over-medicated, and over-labeled, many of them are unhappy. This is because, coming from unconsciousness ourselves, we bequeath to them our own unresolved needs, unmet expectations, and frustrated dreams. Despite our best intentions, we enslave them to the emotional inheritance we received from our parents, binding them to the debilitating legacy of ancestors past. The nature of unconsciousness is such that, until it’s metabolized, it will seep through generation after generation. Only through awareness can the cycle of pain that swirls in families end.”