"For me the biggest problem still remains my own anger and fear when my boy is crossing the line -- especially regarding safety. He has hurt me badly so many times. I know that probably he didn't mean it but the pain sometimes brought me to tears. I wish I could remain calm in those kind of situations."
Staying calm when our child hurts us is almost impossible. Pain sends us immediately into our lower brain stem, which governs the "fight or flight" impulse, and our child immediately looks like the enemy. That automatically drops us onto "the low road" of parenting. You know the low road. It’s when you snarl at your child through clenched teeth, or start screaming, or become physically rough. When you lose all access to reason and feel justified in having your own little tantrum.
What should you do when your child hurts you? In that moment, nothing. Any action you take with your child from that state will have results that aren't good for either of you. You will almost certainly perpetuate a cycle that includes physical violence. That doesn't mean you don't set clear limits. You actually have a lot of power to prevent this situation from recurring. It's just that you need to regulate your own emotions before you can help your child regulate his.
Children learn to regulate their strong emotions when we:
1. Accept all feelings.
2. Set firm, clear limits on actions.
3. Regulate our own emotions so that we act with respect.
Let's look at this in action:
Six year old Adrian hurls himself at his mother, scratching and clawing. "NOOOOO!!! That's not fair!! I hate you!!!"
Mom sidesteps, but not fast enough. Her arm has a long, nasty, red streak. She shrieks, in pain and outrage. She takes a deep breath, says "OOOWWW! That hurts!! I need to take care of myself right now. I will talk with you after I calm down." She goes into the bathroom and shuts the door. (If the child has abandonment issues or is younger than five, she leaves the door open.)
Mom does NOT use the time in the bathroom to review all the reasons her child is an ungrateful, mean brat who is on track to becoming an axe murderer. Instead, she tenderly washes her arm to calm the wounded child inside her who wants revenge. She counts to ten, taking deep breaths. She reminds herself that her child is having a hard time regulating his emotions, and that HER ability to stay calm is a critical factor in his learning this skill.
She reminds herself that her goal is to raise a child who WANTS to control his anger and has the emotional intelligence to do it. That means punishment actually won't help here. Instead, he needs to reconnect with her and to get some help managing his emotions.
By the time Mom comes out of the bathroom five minutes later, she has shifted herself onto the High Road of parenting. You know what the high road is -- when you're seeing things from your child's perspective so you can respond to him with patience and understanding.
Mom goes over to her son and gets down on his level, although far enough back so that he can't hit her face. (This reduces his fear so he's less likely to lash out.) "That really hurt me. I know you were angry. But I won't let you hurt me. People are NOT for hitting."
Adrian: "But it's not fair. I NEED to go to Jake's house. You said I could, yesterday." (Notice that Adrian is ignoring the fact that he hit her. Mom realizes that until she helps him with these feelings, he won't be able to absorb the lesson she wants to teach about hitting.)
Mom: "Yes, I did. I see why you're so disappointed. But things have changed now, because Grandma needs us to come spend the night with her. I won't be able to come back to pick you up at Jake's. I'm so sorry. I know you were looking forward to it."
Adrian: "You broke your promise! You're a liar!"
Adrian is still very angry, but Mom's empathy keeps him calm enough that he doesn't lash out physically this time -- only verbally. He storms away from her, across the room. Mom knows this is actually an improvement -- he removed himself rather than hitting.
Mom: (Accepting her son's anger.) "You're really mad at me, Adrian. You think I broke my promise." Mom ignores his calling her a liar, which, to him, she is at that moment, even if she usually keeps her word to him. She acknowledges the anger and upset that are causing him to attack.
Adrian: (yelling) "You DID break your promise! You told me I could go!"
Mom: (Ignoring, for now, his raised voice, mom speaks kindly and calmly, validating his anger. She models taking responsibility.) "I gave you permission to go and now I won't let you. You're right; I didn't keep my word. There was a good reason, but I still broke my word. No wonder you feel mad and hurt."
Adrian: (Mom's empathy is helping him trust her with the source of his upset.) "All the rest of the kids are going! I'll be the only one who isn't there!"
Mom: "Oh, Sweetie. No wonder you're upset. You want to be there with all the other kids."
Adrian attacks again. He'd rather fight than cry -- it feels better. "You never let me go! No wonder I don't have any friends! It's because you're a liar and a terrible mom!"
Mom doesn't point out all the things she does for him, or that she keeps her word to him most of the time. She doesn't even argue about whether he has friends. She stays compassionate and empathizes with his upset. "Oh, Sweetie, I'm sorry this is so hard...I wish I could let you go today."
Adrian's tears well up. Mom's understanding is helping him feel safe enough to feel the vulnerability and fear under his anger. "You don't understand! If I don't go, they won't let me play basketball with them at recess!"
Mom: "You're worried you'll be left out after this?"
Adrian begins to sob. Mom moves closer to hug him. He cries for awhile, and finally stops, sniffling.
Adrian: "Jake will be mad at me."
Mom: "Hmmm.....You think so? Just because you can't go today?"
Adrian: "He says only the regulars who practice together can play."
Mom: "Wow! I see why you're worried...Do you really think you'll get left out at recess?"
Adrian: (Thinking more clearly now that he's had a chance to express his feelings) "I don't care if Jake is mad at me. I still get to play basketball. I'll get the teacher to help if they won't let me play."
Mom: "That's an idea. Is it the rule that everyone's allowed to play?
Adrian: "Yeah. And anyway, they should want me on their team. I'm a good passer."
Mom: "I would always want you on my team."
Adrian hugs her.
Mom: "But Adrian, there's something important we need to talk about. Look at my arm."
Adrian: (Non-defensive, now that he's come to terms with the source of his upset) "I'm sorry, Mom. Does it hurt?"
Mom: "Yes, it hurts. Adrian, I understand why you were mad. You can be as mad as you want. But I will NOT let you hit me. People are not for hitting."
Adrian: "I didn't mean to hurt you. I was really mad."
Mom: "I understand you were really mad. Mad is ok. But there's no excuse for hitting, EVER. What can you do next time you get so mad?"
Adrian: "I know, I'm supposed to use my words."
Mom: "Yes. And if you can't do that, what can you do?"
Mom: "That's better than hitting."
Adrian: "Stomp my foot?"
Mom: "Great Idea! And you can also try what I do. Count to ten, taking deep breaths. Let's try it."
Adrian: "Ok." (They count to ten together, taking deep breaths.)
Mom: "Adrian, do you think you can do these things next time you're angry? Because angry is fine, but hitting is NEVER ok. I would never hit you. I will not let you hit me."
Adrian: "Mom, I won't hit any more. I'm getting better at controlling myself. I was surprised when you told me, that's all."
Mom: "Adrian, it was fine you got angry. And maybe I could have done a better job telling you. And I understand that even though I had a good reason, I broke my word to you. But even if you are completely right to be really mad about something, it is NEVER ok to hit, no matter what. Ok?"
Adrian: "Ok. Shake on it." (They shake hands.)
Mom: "Do we need a reminder code for when you're getting angry?"
Adrian: "Can you yell 'Time Out!'? Like a referee?"
Mom: "Sure, I can try that. What will you do when you hear 'Time Out'?"
Adrian: "I'll count to ten and breathe, no matter what."
Mom: "Ok, it's a deal. Now, let's get ready to go to Grandma's. We're behind schedule now, so I really need your help to get ready."
Adrian: "I'll be fast!"
Do kids always recover so quickly? No. But the more you practice this approach, the more quickly they can get themselves regulated, and the less often they'll lose it. When you calm yourself, they follow your lead.
What has Adrian learned?
Some valuable skills to control himself.
That his mom can help him sort things out when he's upset.
That when there's a problem, the mature thing to do is own up to your part in creating it, as his mother did.
That he's capable of hurting someone else, and he really does NOT want to do that.
That his mother will set limits on his actions to keep everyone safe, which is a great relief.
That his feelings are acceptable, and have a way of evaporating once he lets himself feel them. He can choose whether to act on them.
And, maybe most important of all, that his mother's love for him is unconditional, even when he's crossed the line. Because with love, there is no line. There is only love.
May you make miracles today, large and small.