"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
Did she scream "I hate you!" and slam the door? Did he throw a toy at your head? Did she throw a fit in the restaurant? Did he hit his little sister? It's hard to feel love for our kids when we feel attacked or publicly shamed or worried about keeping one of our children safe. So we lose it.
We know we love them, even in those tough moments. But if you ask the child, he or she certainly doesn't feel loved. "Of course!" we might say. "We WANT her to know how mad we are!! She can feel our love later!"
But will your rage really teach your child the lesson you want to teach? When kids misbehave, the most effective intervention is setting a clear limit, and then helping the child through the big feelings that are causing him to act out. When we indulge our anger, we're acting from blame and revenge -- and we're modeling inappropriate behavior for our child.
Later, we often justify or minimize our anger. But our rage has a profound effect on children. At the best, they assume they're bad people who can never be good enough. At worst, you'd be amazed how many young children secretly fear we'll send them to jail or trade them in on a new kid. And anger always erodes your relationship with your child and increases their anxiety. All of this makes children behave worse, not better.
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. That means she feels loved exactly as she is. Even when she's acting like a monster!
Why? Because your child knows you love him when he's being sweet, generous, and 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.
Healing our ability to love unconditionally means that we commit to parenting from love, not anger, no matter what. Of course, that doesn't mean that 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.
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.
Love looks for solutions, not blame. Here's how.
1. When you're angry, shift your attention away from your child and concentrate on calming yourself.
Instead of unloading your anger on this small person entrusted to your care and guidance, train yourself to take a deep breath and take a few minutes to calm 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.
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."
Anger and punishment are never based in love, because your child never believes your love when you're angry. He can't help but shift into "fight, flight or freeze," which means the learning parts of the brain shut down and he can't learn.
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 to yourself how you feel -- angry! -- and then be brave enough to pause and notice what's under your anger -- hurt, fear, sadness, disappointment. If you allow yourself to feel those sensations in your body, without acting on them, they begin to melt away. Once you've calmed down, you'll be better able to take care of your own hurt places, and also to intervene so your child learns how to manage her behavior better.
5. Doesn't she 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 she is wholly and unconditionally loved exactly as she is, including all those messy, passionate emotions that make us human.
Notice that I didn't say this would be easy. I think it's one of the hardest things for anyone to do. 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.
Today is Step 7 of Ten Steps to Unconditional Love: Can You Love Unconditionally When You're Furious?
This series is designed to heal our ability to love unconditionally, so we can give our children the unconditional love they need. The first six steps were:
Want More? We're exploring each of the ten steps in more detail over the next few weeks. Join us for some heart stretches!