In this age of enlightened child rearing, parents can feel very uncomfortable when they have decidedly unenlightened feelings towards their kids. Rage, irritation, revulsion, even hatred – these are not feelings we're supposed to have toward our children! And yet all of us, if we're honest (and admit to being human) do feel them from time to time. Acknowledged, these feelings are often a source of guilt and shame; unacknowledged, they can be the source of destructive behavior.
While it is normal for parents to feel any of the above so-called "negative emotions," it is not healthy for anyone (kids and parents alike) when the feelings are a) pervasive, and b) result in abusive behavior (verbal and/or physical). When pervasive, these feelings generate an overall negative emotional climate in the family that becomes a chronic stressor and risk factor for vulnerable family members. Similarly, abusive behavior seriously undermines the sense of safety and security that family life optimally provides.
There is a line between episodic, expectable moments of anger, irritation, frustration, and dislike toward one's kids and abusive behavior, even if it's the impulsive, lashing-out-in-anger variety. As parents we need to stay well on the safe side of that line. But sometimes – and for some people – that is difficult; and unfortunately, the advice of experts to "stay calm" amounts to putting the cart before the horse. If we could always stay calm and be our better selves there would be no problem. What follows are some guidelines and principles for parents dealing with negative feelings towards their kids.
Staying calm, as mentioned above, is one of the hardest things to do when our emotions are triggered. We have an evolutionary heritage manifest in our nervous systems that predisposes us toward fight or flight when we feel threatened. And it isn't just a looming, hormone-driven teenager that threatens us as parents – it can be the screaming, unreasonable toddler or even the crying, inconsolable infant. As soon as our emotional systems are engaged in this way, all our good sense and hard work to be a good parent are compromised. Many of us go into a kind of default mode in which our actions are driven by automatic thoughts and emotional reactivity. Afterwards we feel guilty or perhaps engage in some post-hoc rationalization for our behavior – neither of which prepares us to do something different the next time. And a next time will certainly come, perhaps not in the same form as this last incident – parenthood is filled with these unfortunate opportunities. So what's to be done?
Though it makes an unwieldy acronym, four basic principles and practices are necessary to deal with these moments of negative emotion: Prevention, Intention, De-escalation, and Repair.
Prevention: Prevention is a matter of knowing what's going on, what gets you and how it gets you. Why it gets you is less important, though certainly useful. Prevention entails making the time and effort to think ahead about what is likely to happen (based on past experience) and how to deal with it.
What's going on? Your child may be acting the way he/she does for a variety of reasons. It's important to have a good understanding of the relevant factors, especially such issues as developmental stage, temperament, and any existing vulnerabilities (including psychiatric, learning, and developmental disabilities). Stressors such as family conflict, financial stress, and peer group issues can play a significant role as well. The key is to find a way to take some of your child's behavior less personally.
What gets to you? Is it defiance? Backtalk? An entitled attitude? The idea is to have a good idea of your vulnerabilities; to know what's likely to get you upset. These are your triggers; or if you prefer, your "buttons."
How does it get to you? When your child does one of the above or some other behavior that triggers you, how does it trigger you? In other words, does it evoke only anger, or are there other vulnerable feelings that are getting tapped into? Many of us are aversive to feeling intense anxiety, shame and humiliation – we don't want to feel them, and our body-mind systems are very organized to keep us from feeling them. Anger, often considered a "secondary" emotion (a feeling about a feeling), can arise in response to these more "primary" emotions. Among anger's many functions, self-protection is one of the most basic. So if your child says or does something that gets you enraged, it's highly likely there is some other feeling or set of feelings that's in the background, for which the anger acts like a well-trained guardian. The more we are aware of those feelings in the background, the more we can appropriately attend to them when we're not actively triggered. But this is getting a little ahead of things . . .
Why does it get to you? This is closely tied to how, but often links to past experience. If you think back on a particular time you got very angry with your child, it probably resonates with some experience or set of experiences you had in your own life, possibly with a parent. Knowing this, however, doesn't necessarily equip you to change your reactions in the present. You still have other work to do. The knowledge may help, however, to make you a little less ashamed or self-judging. But more on that later as well . . .
Intention: With prevention, we look at our triggers, our vulnerabilities, our past actions and experiences and set our intention to do something different. Intention requires us to take responsibility for our triggers, for deactivating our buttons. We cannot expect our kids to do this for us. It's far more useful to have one's behavior guided by an intention than by the automatic thoughts and feelings that can arise.
For example, you know that getting your son to do his homework is often a time when you get very frustrated and angry. You do the work of prevention and thus have a good sense of what gets to you, how, and why. Now, knowing all that, you set your intention by asking yourself the following:
• How do I want to respond in this situation when/if my kid starts to act in a way that triggers me?
• What are the traps for me in this pattern with my son, and how do I avoid them?
• What tools will I make use of to stay on task, to remain calm, and to help him?
• How do I want to feel at the end of the interaction?
An intention is like a beacon that one steers by on a stormy night, a reference point for orienting. At any point one can check on this – am I acting on my intention or deviating from it? The intention is always there to help one course-correct. The key to setting an intention is to make your expectations of yourself realistic. Intend to make a small change, not a dramatic transformation.
The other component central to prevention and intention is imagination. It shouldn't take too much to imagine your way into your child's perspective, no matter how unreasonable or difficult that child seems to be behaving.
Try this exercise: before engaging in, for example, the homework session above, sit in your son's chair at his desk and imagine what it's like to be him.
• What kinds of things concern him?
• What's it like to be 10 years old and have to do homework that doesn't come easily?
• What's it like to have a big angry adult towering over you?
• What's it like to feel as if you have little power over your life at that age?
Any number of similar questions could arise – you know your child, and you can draw on your own experience of having been that age, of having gone through the realities – not the idealized depictions – of childhood. A little imagination goes a long way toward developing empathy; and empathy is the required balm for an inflamed relationship.
De-escalation: The goal of de-escalation is twofold: to prevent recurrent destructive patterns of interaction; and to give yourself a chance to be in a different state when you next interact with your child.
De-escalation builds on prevention and intention. In order to de-escalate an interaction, you have to be willing to disengage, and to trust that the longer term gain of doing so outweighs the shorter term satisfaction of winning an argument or showing your kid who is boss. De-escalation completely rests on the ability to know in the moment that you are getting too upset. There are a host of ways of describing this and a variety of techniques one can learn, but all rely on being aware of the warning signs of emotional triggering and disengaging before you get too upset.
If you get triggered and are starting to escalate, it's time to take a parental time-out. Get out of range of your child, and, assuming there isn't a pressing safety issue (e.g. he/she is not in danger of hurting him/herself or others), go to another room, or even leave the house (if possible and appropriate given the child's age). The point is to give yourself time and space to bring your level of emotional arousal down. There are many ways to do this, for example: distraction (listening to music, watching TV, reading, calling a friend who can listen non-judgmentally, etc.) and self-soothing (belly breathing, relaxation exercises, self-talk). Take the time to think carefully about what happened, what got to you, how and why.
Once you are calm you may choose to deal with the problem or decide to wait until your child is also in a calmer state. This is, of course, highly dependent on the nature of the situation.
Repair: The old adage, "strike while the iron is hot," is radically altered here so that the wise action is to "strike while the iron is cold." Ideally, parent and child need to talk about what happened when both are calmer and rested (and with kids and some parents I would add, well-fed). The goal here is not so much problem-resolution as dialogue-restoration. Some problems don't lend themselves to ready resolution. Your son may still hate doing his homework and continue to resist help, but how you and he deal with those moments can still change. The idea here is to consider your relationship to one another as primary, the problem as secondary. Most problems are not life or death. When parents and kids fight endlessly about problems (and when escalation occurs) the main casualty is the parent-child relationship, which can insidiously erode without anyone directly noticing. The principles of effective repair are:
• Prepare ahead of time by clarifying for yourself what you were upset about and what is the most important component of the situation you want to address.
• Strike while the iron is cold! Look for opportunities when both of you are calm.
• Validate feelings. You don't have to agree with the premise of your child's argument but can still validate his feelings.
• Be non-judgmental. Listen with interest and respect (and show this in your responses) to what he/she has to say. This is both good modeling and a way of setting the emotional tone for a changed relationship.
• Engage in conversations about prevention and intention regarding the experience. What can you both do differently?
One caveat for this process is: be careful not to re-vivify the argument. If you engage in all of the above, it shouldn't be an issue. However, if you or your child starts to get too heated, stop and try again another time.
Repair begins to lay the groundwork for a more collaborative model of problem-solving. Parenting is not simply a behavior; it is a description of a relationship that is constructed in and through interactions between child and parents. The goal is good-enough parenting, and it is strengthened through these moments of dialogue.
What to do when none of the above seems to help:
First, show yourself some compassion. Most parents start out with good intentions. It's extremely rare to find parents who truly harbor malevolent intentions toward their kids. So ease up on yourself and get serious about taking action.
Second, seek help and support. If you find it hard to change, don't blame yourself; you've probably got good reasons why this doesn't come so readily. Accept that and get to work. You'll definitely find that you can do better with guidance and support - and doing better means feeling better (and they're mutually reinforcing). There are a variety of means to help yourself. Here are a few:
• Individual therapy can be instrumental in helping you learn the skills you need to regulate your emotions and more effectively communicate. Medication can sometimes play an important role.
• Behavioral parent training can offer the means to learn more effective ways of dealing with difficult situations with your child.
• Family therapy can provide a safe context for you and your child to learn better ways of managing these triggering situations. It can also help jump start the repair process when a relationship has suffered.
• Substance/Alcohol abuse treatment: This can be extremely important if episodes typically occur in the presence of alcohol or substance use.
• Psychoeducation/support groups are invaluable when dealing with children who have psychiatric, medical, and/or developmental issues.
Strong emotions are a part of the territory of family life. They need to be acknowledged, recognized, and attended to so that everyone, parents and child alike, can benefit from the basic sense of safety and security that family life should provide.