"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom." -- Victor Frankl
"Where there is great love, there are always miracles." – Willa Cather
I know, you never actually stop loving your child, even when she acts like a monster and you can't stand being with her another minute. But unfortunately, the love you feel isn't the most important factor in your child's emotional development.
The most important factor is whether your child feels loved, unconditionally. Even when she's acting like a monster! Does she know that she's lovable, exactly as she is? That she isn't expected to be perfect? That her anger, disappointment, frustration, and sadness are just part of being human, and that she can count on you to help her learn to manage those feelings so she doesn't have to act on them?
You may be wondering how you teach your child those things. The answer is easy, but oh so difficult. You love him unconditionally. Even -- especially -- when he's driving you crazy.
Why? Because your child knows you love him when he's being sweet, generous, obedient. He's not so sure you love him when he's feeling angry, or jealous, or greedy. When he acts like a monster, he's afraid he IS a monster. But when you:
- Can stay lovingly connected to him even as you set limits on his behavior ....He learns that he's not a bad person, just human.
- Can resist lashing out at him even when you're "justifiably" angry....He learns from your modeling how to regulate his emotions.
- Can remember to empathize as you set limits, so he WANTS to follow them.....He learns self-discipline.
- Can accept that he's an immature human who naturally makes mistakes.....He learns that mistakes are part of growing, and what matters is noticing, repairing, and planning ahead to avoid the mistake next time.
- Can love him through his upsets....He learns that feelings are manageable, not dangerous, and that he's ok, complete with all those inconvenient feelings. It's that self-acceptance that helps him manage those feelings so he doesn't have to act them out.
Healing our ability to love unconditionally means that we commit to parenting from love, not anger. Of course, that doesn't mean you won't get angry at your child. And we all know we don't feel very loving at those moments. Loving unconditionally when you're furious isn't easy. In fact, it's such heavy lifting of the heart that it builds real love muscle. But nothing changes your child's behavior quite as quickly.
Instead of unloading your anger on this small person entrusted to your care and guidance, can you teach yourself to take a deep breath and a few minutes to calm yourself?
The key is to enlarge that space between your child’s stimulus and your reaction, so that you have the freedom to choose a response that heals. Then you'll be able to show up as a real teacher for your child, and help her process her upset constructively. How?
1. When you're angry, shift your attention away from your child and concentrate on calming yourself. Forget about teaching your child lessons unless you're in a state of love and can teach lovingly. A teachable moment is always when both people are receptive and positive. Anger and punishment are never based in love, because your child never feels love when he's feeling your anger. (In fact, he's in fight, flight or freeze, which means the learning parts of the brain shut down.)
2. What if your child "deserves" your anger? You're always entitled to your anger, but it's always YOUR anger, not the other person's responsibility. In any case, that's not a judgment you can make while you're angry.
3. What if your child's behavior requires "discipline"? Discipline means guidance. Your guidance will be a lot more effective once you're calm. It's our job as parents to be our child's role model in handling emotions constructively. That means never acting on our anger from that "fight, flight or freeze" place where our child looks like the enemy and we have to "win" while our child has to "lose."
4. But isn’t it healthy to express your anger? Dumping your anger on another person is never healthy; it just reinforces your rage. What's healthy is to acknowledge how you feel -- angry -- and then be brave enough to pause and notice what's under your anger -- hurt, fear, sadness, disappointment. Once you've calmed down, you'll be better able to take care of your own hurt places, and also intervene so your child learns how to manage her behavior better.
5. Doesn't he need to learn a lesson? Of course, but rage is not the lesson you want to teach. If you make your teachable moments into learnable moments by waiting until your child is receptive, your teaching will stick. Your child will get something even better than the lesson about behavior -- lessons about self-regulation. And just as important, the unshakable conviction that he is wholly and unconditionally loved exactly as he is, including all those messy, passionate emotions that make us human.
Notice I didn't say this would be easy. But every time you manage your anger instead of dumping it onto your child, it gets easier. You're actually re-wiring your brain!
Just keep practicing, finding that moment of freedom between the stimulus (your child's behavior) and your own response. Noticing is what gives us a choice next time.
Loving unconditionally is "Win-Win" parenting. That's because not acting on your anger creates more space for love. And where there is more love, there is always more room for miracles.