We love our little kids, and our big ones, too. Why then, do we spend so much time fighting and screaming with our children who are supposed to make us happy? It makes no sense. It is not rational. When we are not rational, we do things we don’t understand and cannot control. When it’s over, we ask, “What got into me?” or, “What was that all about?”
In the absence of answers, we are bound to make the same mistakes over and over again. Many parents make the mistake of taking their child’s behavior personally. Taking it personally means taking something negative as if it were a reflection on ones worth as a person. The key words in this definition are as if. We can learn to stop reacting as if things were true, that are not. We can learn how to make informed choices in our own behalf once we know what these choices are. That option, in itself, is empowering.
One source of parental anger is the inability to understand why our children says or thinks what they do. We can’t understand our child’s logic. We cannot figure out what is going on in that little head. The child cannot tell us. It’s very frustrating. We are a) angry at the child for being so unreasonable and b) we are angry at ourselves for our inadequacy to solve the problem of a child who throws a fit when he/she doesn’t get a cookie just before dinner. We imagine that the issue is obedience or control, but we are missing the point. When we try to intervene on the basis of these false assumptions, so we make things worse for the child and for ourselves.
An effective approach is to deal with the underlying negative opinions that are inducing all the behavior. I recommend that parents validate the child’s anger. The parents can say, “You sound anger, I don’t blame you. You have a choice, you can play with your toys or draw.” By offering a choice, it gives the child a sense of control. It relieves the pain of frustration. We do not take the child’s demand for a cookie personally. We are a good parent, even if our child is angry. We are not better if they are happy and we are not worse if children are upset. By validating their feelings and offering a choice, we take away the child’s power to make us feel inferior and inadequate to cope. We are the adults. We don’t have to get a child’s approval to validate our self-worth. This unpleasant scenario can be turned into an opportunity. Parents can use this occasion for replacing their own doubts and fears with appropriate feelings of maturity and competence.
I encourage people to replace their need for approval with trust. We can trust our judgment as good enough to solve problems as they unfold. We can trust our judgment to do the best we can with what we know at the time. We cannot control the future. We can only live in the present. We can choose to trust our judgment to tell us what is best based on what we know in a present situation. If we find out later that our judgment was mistaken, we can make another decision. We can catch ourselves trying to predict the future. Instead, we can choose to focus on the reality of the situation and take life as it comes.
And what does reality require? It requires that we tell the truth. The truth is that the child is angry. To a child the experience of not getting their way can be seen as a threat. The threat is the potential of being unlovable, “If my parents loved me I’d get my way!” To a child, the fear of potentially losing love and comfort is a threat to their survival. So they lash out in a tantrum. It has nothing to do with the parents’ worth as a person. Our naive attempt to appeal to reason through the use of logical thought only compounds the child’s pain. It assumes that people are like Mr. Spock, all logic and that with enough information they will be swayed. Many parents spend time giving evidence and explaining their point, but to no avail. We cannot change his/her feelings by imposing our logic. The child is in emotional pain and we are sorry that he/she is, and that is why we say: “I’m sorry you’re so angry.”
Many people have learned that “I’m sorry” is tantamount to an admission of guilt, but “I’m sorry” is really an expression of regret. Regret is the sincere wish that things were not the way they are. We know that anger hurts, and we regret that they are in so much pain. This technique is called telling the truth. This is an appropriate validation of the child’s anger. When we validate anger, we are validating him/her as a worthwhile human being in spite of his/her unpleasantness. Moreover, we are validating ourselves as a worthwhile human being at the same time. That is making a choice in reality. That is control.