Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

When your child snarls at you, could you just choose love?

"I have been skeptical in the past of hugging a child who is screaming at you and being generally quite awful ... in theory I know it makes sense but I find it hard when they are being so hateful and you don't feel particularly loving! But I had a breakthrough. I wanted my 3 yr old to put his shoes on. His behaviour was deteriorating and when he screamed at me, I just said - 'What's up love? I think you need a big mummy cuddle and you can tell me what's making you feel bad.' Then I hugged him, and he burst into tears. We had a cuddle and he put his shoes on happily! It was textbook 'Dr. Laura'!" - Rachel from London

I know, you want to raise a child who acts right. You certainly don't want to reward bad behavior. But think about those times when YOU are at the end of your rope, and before you know it, you've raised your voice. Wouldn't it help you more to get a hug than a reprimand?

As the Dalai Lama says,"Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."

Just look at your child’s upset as a raging storm that you don’t have to get sucked into. Acknowledge his pain, then bite your tongue, except to offer empathy.

Yes, this is a teachable moment, but the teaching is in what you’re modeling about compassion, self-control, and staying connected. Other lessons need to wait until the student is calm enough to take in what you're teaching.

Take a deep breath. Look at him with love and compassion, understanding that he's miserable.

Say: “Ouch. You know we don’t treat each other that way in this house. You must be really miserable to act like this. I’m so sorry you’re hurting. I love you and I would do anything for you. I’m here with a hug when you’re ready.”

No, you’re not teaching your child that she can get away with being rude.  You’re teaching her that you’re a safe haven and she never needs, or wants, to lash out at you like that. 

In your loving presence, your child’s storm will pass more quickly. Don’t be surprised if she apologizes, or thanks you for understanding, and wants the reassurance of some extra hugs.

There'll be plenty of time, then, to talk about appropriate behavior. And you don't need to shame or blame at that point, which will only cause her to shut down. Your child knows it's not okay to snarl at you, just like you know it's not okay to yell at her. What she needs is for you to listen to why she was so upset. Knowing that you hear is what helps her learn express her upset more appropriately.

After she feels better, you can simply say "You were so upset. You know, you can always tell me when you feel like that, and I will always try to help. You never need to yell at me."  

Then, work together to make a list of what people in your house can do to appropriately express their anger, and post it on your refrigerator. Let your child see you refer to it when you're angry. They will follow your example.

Can't do this every time your child is snarly? Join the club. But every time you can shift gears -- even when you feel attacked by your child -- and respond with compassion, it gets easier to do. You're actually:

  • Re-wiring your brain so you aren't as reactive.
  • Dampening your stress response to reduce those anxiety-producing stress hormones.
  • Strengthening your vagal tone so you can recover more quickly when you get upset.
  • Increasing your feel-good bonding hormones, so you feel happier, more often.

You're becoming a person who creates less drama, and more love. 

What's more, your relationship with your child changes to become more peaceful, because your child changes, too. When your child's upsets are met with compassion, your child feels understood. He becomes less likely to take his moods out on you, and more able to self-regulate when he gets upset. He becomes more emotionally generous.

And, then, sooner or later, you'll begin to see your child offer YOU love .... when you most need it.



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