"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 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 beloved 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 tantrum.
So what should you do when your child hurts you? Any action you take with your child when you're reacting from physical pain will have results that aren't good for either of you. You will almost certainly escalate and perpetuate a cycle that includes physical violence.
Remember, aggression comes from fear. So even if you don't know what your child is afraid of, even if the aggression seems to come out of nowhere, your child is showing you his fear.
If you answer your child's aggression with more aggression, you will escalate the fear, intensify the hitting, and increase the likelihood of future aggression.
It's not easy dealing with a child's aggression. But there's a better way. Children learn to regulate their strong emotions when we:
1. Accept all feelings. ("I hear how mad you are.")
2. Set firm, clear limits on actions. ("No hitting. Hitting hurts.")
3. Tell them what they CAN do with their feelings. ("You can show me how mad you are by stomping your foot, or you can tell me in words.")
4. 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 and works to calm herself while a frantic child is still yelling at her. Needless to say, that takes practice.)
Mom does NOT use the time in the bathroom to review all the reasons her child is a mean brat who is on track to become a criminal. 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.
In other words, she resists sliding onto the low road. Instead of giving in to her fear and anger, she chooses love.
Mom 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 that punishment 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 a few 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. (Being on his level reduces his fear so he's less likely to lash out.) She speaks with tenderness and strength. "That really hurt me. I know you were angry. But people are NOT for hitting. It's never okay to hit. You can tell me what you need without attacking me."
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're right, I promised you and now because Grandma is sick, I have to change that." Mom ignores his calling her a liar, which, to him, she is at that moment, even if she usually keeps her word to him and has a good reason for breaking it this time. 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 would 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 doesn't tell him not to yell or call names. She just 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) "Yes. But I don't care if Jake is mad at me. 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 hitting is never okay. 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. Everyone gets mad. But there's no excuse for hitting, EVER. Next time you feel like hitting, what could you do?"
Adrian: "I know, I'm supposed to use my words. But I was too mad."
Mom: "I understand. That is a strong feeling, wanting to hit. But you need to commit, in that moment, to do something with that feeling instead of hitting. What else could you do with that feeling if you can't use words at that moment?"
Mom: "That's better than hitting."
Adrian: "Stomp my foot?"
Mom: "That's good too! And you can also try what I do. You can leave the room and 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, and you will probably feel like hitting again. But hitting is NEVER ok. I would never hit you. You are not allowed to hit me."
Adrian: "Mom, I won't hit any more. I just didn't know what to do when I got so mad. And I was surprised when you told me, that's all. But next time I will stomp and scream instead."
Mom: "Adrian, it was fine you got angry. I understand that even though I had a good reason, I did break my word to you. And maybe I could have done a better job telling you. But even if you are completely right to be really mad about something, it is NEVER ok to hit, no matter what. You can tell me how you feel and what you need without hitting. 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 to him.
- That his feelings are acceptable, but it's his responsibility to choose how 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.
What if your child is too young to have a conversation like this?
You'll want to read: When Your Toddler Hits You: A Script