"Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness; and concealed often hardens into revenge." ~Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton
This week's Parenting Challenge was inspired by a number of comments and subsequent discussions that were brought up in the comments section of the first Parenting Challenge. In particular, a number of us made the point that trying to be playful during conflicts or discipline episodes is so hard sometimes because we're just too damn angry to feel playful. When we feel angry, we don't WANT to come up with a cute little "pretend" scenario that will gently pull our child into complying with our wishes. Some people observed that the "playful parenting" solutions like trying to involve our children in pretend play may only work in more calm contexts in general, rather than the more heated temper tantrums or times when we're over-the-top sleep-deprived and at our wit's end.
This week's Parenting Challenge comes from Ginott's classic, Between Parent and Child. This book has a ton of explicit and implicit parenting gems (while at the same time feeling very dated in some of the examples, language, and so on). One of the most useful discussions I found in the book was the one on parents' own anger and how to deal with it. Ginott says that ALL parents feel angry at their children sometimes, and oftentimes it is completely justifiable. The problem begins when we try to completely deny those feelings. Usually, our children feel our tension anyways, so the first point is that when we try to swallow our anger, our children feel some strange vibe in the air that is unsettling at best for them. The second point Ginott emphasizes is that anger in and of itself is not a bad thing — it is an emotion that signals both to ourselves and to our child that something is amiss. LACK of anger in some contexts can in fact communicate indifference to the child… not such a good thing either. The feeling in and of itself isn't so bad, it's what we do about it that can have either beneficial or harmful effects. Finally, Ginott makes the point many of us have acknowledged: like it or not, angry feelings INEVITABLY arise when we're parenting. Figuring out how to deal with it best is what we can aim for (rather than the complete elimination of this "basic" / biologically-based emotion).
Here's the challenge then: Let's try to actually EXPRESS our angry feelings, instead of completely quashing them. But let's try to do so with Ginott's prescrption:
"Anger should be expressed in a way that brings some relief to the parent, some insight to the child, and no harmful side effects to either of them."
Tall order, I know… But the idea is that we don't want to express that anger such that it ESCALATES our bad feelings or our child's bad feelings. But we DO want to communicate our frustration in a way that opens up the possibility for repair and connection, with some learning potentially thrown in. I'll talk more about repair (either this week, if that feels right, or next). But I think before we think about how best to repair interactions when they go awry, we need to first think about how we can express those negative/angry feelings in the first place.
So, there are a few tips given in the book about communicating anger:
- Accept, WITHOUT ANY GUILT OR SHAME, that we will get angry at our children sometimes.
- We can express our feelings of anger as long as we don't do so by attacking our child's personality or character (e.g., avoid saying things like "I'm so angry because you're a lazy / slow / stubborn / mean / bad / stupid / etc. child.").
- Use "I" statements when expressing anger: "I feel frustrated when you don't listen to me." "I'm getting more and more angry the longer you take to pick up your toys." "I'm angry at you because it took me 30 min to cook dinner and you just threw it all over the floor."
- If the first mild expression of your anger gets no reaction, elaborate and express your wishful actions: "I'm so angry that you dumped your toys out of the bin right after I cleaned them all up. It makes me so, so angry that I don't want to play with you now." "When you hit your baby brother, I see red, that's how angry I get. It makes me want to stomp upstairs and not let you play with baby brother."
The idea here is that expressing your authentic feelings of anger does two things: (1) communicates your dislike for some behaviour you'd like your child to change in a way that is more "real" and, thus, more easily understood and respected by your child and (2) allows for you to move on from that emotion, because it's expressed and you no longer have to expend so much energy to suppress it. This is energy you could more productively use to flexibly figure out a solution to the conflict.
Again, I'll refrain in this first post from giving a bunch of theoretical background why expressing anger with our children might be important. I do want to add my own developmental thoughts (preliminary as they may be): (1) Very young children who can't understand the words for particular emotions are going to have a tough time with this one, but it's not impossible to start even with them. A one-year old may not fully understand the words you're using, but she may still get your facial expressions and your intentions to communicate something important, so all is not lost on the very young with this approach (and obviously, we parents are still benefiting from being able to express some of our frustration and practicing how to do so in a safe, non-insulting way, so that when they ARE old enough to understand our words, we'll be more versed at this strategy). (2) Children around the age of 2.5 years old will be able to really understand emotion terms and get their impact. Before that, you're not wasting your time, but it's more like you're setting the stage. After that, there will be variability in terms of how interested children will be in learning what you're teaching them (just like there's variability in how interested kids will be about numbers, letters, trains and dolls). (3) Children in "sensitive windows" of development, particularly the 18 – 22 month and the 3.5 – 4 year old stages may be particularly vulnerable to our expressions of anger because of the emotional challenges they're dealing with (e.g., struggles with autonomy vs. independence with the 18-month old; battling with potentially overwhelming feelings of shame and/or jealousy with the 3.5 year old). That doesn't mean we shouldn't still try to express these emotions, but being aware of our children's increased vulnerability may help us temper the manner in which we express ourselves. (4) Children over the age of 3 or so, or children with older siblings, may particularly benefit from watching their parents express anger in a non-violent, non-explosive, but nevertheless authentic way. Their cognitive capabilities are such that they may even initiate repair strategies with us… not a bad outcome.
As usual, I could go on and on with elaborating why this might be a tough strategy to implement, the kinds of contexts that it would be impossible to do so, and the different types of children for whom it might work or blow up in our faces. But I want to leave most of that discussion to you. Let us know: Do you express your feelings of anger to your children? Do you think it's a good or bad idea to do so? When you try to communicate angry feelings, how does your child react? What makes it difficult for you to talk about your angry emotions? Were your parents able to communicate anger in a way that was not terrifying or soul-crushing?