I snapped. I was so cross. I found myself shouting, “don’t you dare,” and roughly pushing my son away. I was really shocked at myself.
Our lives had been full: within a 6 month period we’d had a big holiday back to Britain, moved to a new house and a welcomed a new baby into our family. My eldest boy was understandably finding it hard to adjust to all the changes in his life. He’s typically he’s such a gentle and kind kid. But at that point, if I had to set a limit with him, he would more often than not, get extremely upset and start spitting at me. And being spat at really pressed my buttons. It felt so insulting, so rude, so humiliating. I lost it. I’m not someone who’s quick to anger, usually I just zone out. I was really thrown by my own behavior.
This isn’t the kind of situation we readily share with other parents at the park or the school gate, but it happens in every family. It happens because that’s the way our brains work: there’s a biological basis for the strong emotions we all feel.
Because of the way our emotional brain and memory function, our experience as a parent is forever connected to our experience of having once been children ourselves. When events happen that remind us of something painful from our past, the emotional memory of that event gets reactivated. When this happens, our ability to think goes offline and we’re flooded with emotions rooted in experiences from the past. Tara McCay at Hand in Hand Parenting explains, “it can be as simple as a mum watching her two-year-old child take a toy from an older sibling that stirs up. Perhaps mum gets frustrated and reacts with a forceful, “No snatching!” Mum grabs the toy from the shocked and now crying two-year-old. She may never link her own grabbing behaviour to the times when, as a kid, she had her toys snatched by a younger sibling. When she complained she was told she should get over it or she’d be given something to cry about. Since children want to get along, she stuffed her feelings. Mum’s knee-jerk grabbing of the toy from her two-year-old was an act caused by restimulation of an old memory”1. In my case it was by my son’s aggression towards me that reactivated old memories of times when I’d been treated without respect as a child and unresolved pain caused by the powerlessness I felt at those times.
As an adult, being spat at by a kid isn’t really too much to worry about. Saliva is harmless. So my intense anger didn’t really match the situation. Why wasn’t I simply amused? Why didn’t I feel empathy for the obvious pain my son was in?
When old memories get tripped up, emotions flood our brain and we have limited ability to access our thinking brains. We might even “flip our lid”2, losing it with those around us. Although it might seem like the emotions we are having are in direct response to what is happening in the present moment, they are not. Big feelings, out of proportion to the current situation, warn us that stored emotions are being triggered.
So what can we do about it? We can: (1) take action to heal old hurts; and (2) put in place emergency measures to lessen the chances of us losing it with our kids.
Healing old hurts
One powerful way of healing these old hurts is to find someone who can regularly listen to us with warmth and kindness. Over time, this is a deeply effective way of stopping and preventing those knee jerk reactions.
To set up this kind of listening you can establish a “Listening Partnership”. It’s very simple. You find someone who can listen without giving advice, without interrupting, without judgment as you tell them about whatever is on your mind. And you take turns listening to each other. Maybe you decide you’ll each get 30 minutes to be listened to and then you swap over. As you listen, you hold the thought of how good this parent is, how they are doing their very best and how anything they do that doesn’t make such good sense is just a reflection of things that have hurt them in the past. And over time, as trust builds, you’ll feel safe enough to show each other your feelings, you’ll begin to laugh, cry, tremble or even rage. And after you’ve released your feelings you’ll notice that your mind starts to think better. As you release emotional tension you become freer to find new ways of responding to hot button issues. Very few of us get this kind of listening in daily life. But when we get it on a regular basis it helps release the old knots of tension inside. We find our brain no longer gets flooded by feelings at hot button issues, we’re able to keep thinking.
Some people worry that if they let themselves cry or dive deep into their own upsets they’ll make things worse, they worry that more bad feelings will come. What’s amazing is that once we’ve had the chance to cry hard about a past hurt and we make it all the way through, clearing out the tension inside, we can actually think better and more clearly. The practice of exchanging listening time is a powerful agent of change. Over time, it can totally change what happens instantaneously inside of you at high-stress moments.
When I found myself losing it as my son spat at me, I knew I needed to take action to stop my mind getting flooded with feelings. I also wanted my son to stop spitting at me, I needed to set a limit with him. But shouting and getting angry just made things worse. So I needed to deal with my own upset before I could set limit with him in ways that work.
So I turned to my Listening Partner for help. As I admitted to what I was doing, I laughed with embarrassment about how I’d been behaving. I cried about how I’d been hurtful to my son with my rudeness. I raged about how insulted I felt about being spat at. I remembered times I’d felt offended as a child and trembled and cried long and hard. Then I noticed that I was no longer getting angry when my son started spitting. I was ready to set limits with him in ways that work. I stopped him from spitting by kindly and warmly holding the expectation that I wasn’t going to let him spit at me and listening to the feelings he had that were fuelling his behaviour. I had to do this a fair few times before he eventually stopped spitting altogether.
But there were a couple of weeks when my son was spitting at me and I was getting angry. I needed to use emergency measures to stop me being hurtful towards my son. I needed non-violent ways to channel my feelings.
In my mind, we need two different types of emergency measures. We need ones for when we’re not entirely swamped by feelings; and we need other emergency measures for when we’ve completely lost it.
Emergency measures for when we’re about to lose it
(but can still think a little)
1. Get connection
When we’re getting flooded with emotions we really need help. Ideally we need another adult to connect with us and lend support us with our feelings. So it helps to reach out to someone who can listen to you. Maybe you can phone someone you trust. After 5 minutes on the phone with another adult you’ll likely be able to think a bit better.
2. Release some of the feelings
If we’re filled with anger or rage, it helps to release the energy maybe by jumping up and down on the spot, anything to use the energy powerfully but not scarily. When my son was spitting at me and pushing my anger buttons, I had music for good stompy dancing, ready to go in our stereo, so I could quickly turn it on and start dancing and singing loudly. It helped move my anger in a non-violent way.
I also set up a “mummy upset spot”. I had my bed as a place I would go to when I was really wound up and I’d scream into the pillows or thump the bed. I set this up with my son, so he knew what it was about. I explained I didn’t like the way I was treating him and next time I felt that way I was going to go to my bed and get rid of my upset there. We played around doing it together at a time things were good between us. He really enjoyed screaming into the pillows! Then I did a few times when I was just marginally annoyed, partly to try and get me to remember to do it when I was more flooded, but also to help my son get used to it. And then I managed to use it when he next spat at me and my temper boiled. It really helped. It got my son out of the firing line and shifted some of the powerlessness I felt.
4. Time out
And sometimes it makes sense just to take a bit of time out. Sometimes we need to separate ourselves from our kids for a little while. They may not like this, but if they are safe and we are angry, especially if we have a tendency to be aggressive, it’s much better for them if we just separate ourselves for a while. Go into another room or go outside for short while.
A mum from one of my Parenting by Connection Starter Classes will close the door on the kids and then walk around the house a few times until she’s calmer. She says she can hear the kids crying inside, they’re not happy she’s left them alone, but it’s much better than doing something she’d regret. She says she soon calms down enough to go back and give them cuddles and find something to do to help everyone feel more connected again.
5. Lie down
And you can simply lie on the floor3, if a kid doing something offtrack, you can just lie on floor (as long as they’re not doing something dangerous). It’ll attract their attention enough that they’ll probably stop their offtrack behavior and start climbing all over you. As you lie on the floor you might feel feelings rising in you, you might find yourself crying or laughing.
Empowering our child for when we’ve lost it
But sometimes, our emotions flood us so quickly, that we don’t manage to do anything to avoid reacting to our kids in ways we wish we didn’t. When that’s happening, we need to find ways to empower our children. Once we’ve lost it, we can’t think. But we can give our kids some power in these situations giving them things they can do that will hopefully stop our knee jerk reactions. All the strategies I’m going to describe work best if you practice them with your kids ahead of time. Practice them when you feel good, goofily pretend to lose it and have them practice their response. This way they’ll be more likely to be able to take action, rather than be frozen next time we lose it.
1. Remember you love me
When I was struggling to set limits compassionately with my son’s spitting, I chatted with him about things he might do when I got cross and he came up with the idea of saying “remember you love me, talk to me like you love me”. It would stop me in my tracks.
2. Funny signs
A friend of mine kept losing it at the front door when it was time to go to school, so she got her kids to make monster pictures they kept at the door. She helped them to be able to hold up the pictures when she was starting to lose it. It was a wonderful reminder!
Another Mum I know, was losing it regularly with her daughter, doing things she didn’t want to be doing. So she enlisted the help of three understanding friends. Then she made a list of their names and telephone numbers telling her to call one of them next time she lost it. And, sure enough, next time she lost it her daughter said “okay mum I’m just going to phone Dauphine” and her daughter phoned Dauphine and said “please could you talk to my mum”.
I think this is so good. It means in the heat of your anger, your child has someone to call, and you have someone you can talk to.
And when we’ve lost it with our kids I think apologies go a long way. It doesn’t undo the hurt we’ve caused but it helps. Children naturally assume everything is their fault. It helps to say that it wasn’t their fault. I like to say something like, “I’m so sorry I spoke to you that way, you didn’t deserve it, you never deserve to be treated like that”4
References: 1 Tara McCay http://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/parenting-that-heals-painful-memories/ 2 Daniel Seigel "Flipping Your Lid:" A Scientific Explanation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0T_2NNoC68 3 Patty Wippfler http://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/crazy-mad-what-to-do-when-your-kids-push-you-over-the-edge/ 4 adapted from Pam Leo’s book “Connected Parenting”