Thursday, April 14, 2005

On Being Angry

This scene has played out any number of times with parents of both genders, though I've noted that more of them are women than men. A parent stands in my entryway. Their child has decided that they don't want to come to daycare, or that they do want that particular toy - which is at home - or they don't want to put on their slippers... You get the picture. The child takes out their frustration on their parent, and smacks them, or screams, or head-butts their chest. Again, you get the picture. The parent looks at me. I smile supportively, but until I'm given the go-ahead to deal with it, I'm very reluctant to breach parental authority. That's the situation, but what is the emotional reaction of the parent? I'm sure it varies from parent to parent.They're sometimes embarrassed, because they have this notion (not entirely inaccurate) that their child never does this to me. Perhaps they're embarrassed because the child doesn't do this at home, but is playing to the audience. Or embarrassed because it happens too often. They may be impatient to get on with their day and past this little scene. And not infrequently, they are angry with their child. If they are angry only because they are embarrassed, I am only semi-supportive. However, if they are angry because they have been hit or screamed at, I am very supportive. I've regularly had parents look at me and express anger at being treated this way by their two-year-old. This doesn't surprise me. However, they further express tremendous guilt at being angry. The first time I heard this, it truly surprised me. It does no more, because it's happened so many times. Let's examine this. Someone has struck you, you instinctively feel anger at being so treated - and then you feel guilty for the anger. Why? If that someone was thirty-two, would you feel guilt? I doubt it. We have such difficulties with anger. Despite common opinion, anger is not wholly negative. In fact, anger, appropriately motivated, directed, and channelled, can be a positive force. It is not wrong to feel anger when your child aggresses against you. It would be very wrong to aggress in response; it would be wrong to hit them back, scream in their face, or shake them. Wrong, dangerous, and in some instances, criminal. However, none of my parents has, to my knowledge, ever responded like that to their anger. They just feel anger - and for that they feel guilty! Stop it, I say! You have a right to feel anger when you are aggressed against. It is not your pride or your ego reacting here, it is your self-respect. You have a right to expect - and see to it that you receive - respect. You treat your child respectfully. Your child needs to learn to treat you this way also. Respect in the best relationships is mutual. So, what to do? First, accept your response. If you're feeling anger, because someone has hit you, it's more than likely appropriate and justified. The question is not, "How do I not be angry?" but rather, "How do I respond constructively to this situation"? You are, after all, in exactly the situation your child is in. He or she is angry, and so has lashed out. You are angry. You, however, choose not to lash out. You choose to react in a different way. You don't have to pretend not to be angry. In fact, what you can choose to do is model appropriate ways to deal with anger. Not only are you resolving this particular situation, you are teaching your child how they can deal with their anger. Don't be afraid to let your child know you are angry! Use it as a teaching moment. You are not trying to frighten or browbeat the child into submission. You are trying to express anger constructively, so your child will know how it's managed! 1. Stop the physical aggression immediately. If your child has hit you, don't let him/her hit you repeatedly. Grip their wrist firmly, and say with equal firmness, "No hitting. You do not hit me. You can be angry, but you may not hit." (With a verbally capable child, this might be the time to encourage speech. "When we're angry, we don't hit. We talk. Tell me what's wrong." However, if the child merely struggles to be free so that they can wallop you again, save the debrief till the emotions have receded and internal order is restored.) 2. Expect compliance. Do not let go of the wrist until you can feel the tension leave the child. If you misjudge, and they swing at you again when you let go, repeat the step above, and hold longer. Wait for him/her to relax. Repeat your words: "It's okay to be angry, but it's not okay to hit. No hitting." If you haven't done this before, you may have to explain: "I won't let go until you put your hand down." 3. When they begin to relax, praise/encourage them. "That's better." Release them gently. I have a catch-phrase that I use in these situations, whether the child has aggressed against me or another child: "Remember, hands are not for hitting, hands are for hugging." 4. When the child is no longer coiled to strike, praise them again. Give - and receive - a hug with the child. They need to know it's all right to be angry, that they can be angry, they can express it in other ways, and that they're still love-able, even if they experience anger. Repeat the key concept yet again as you cuddle them. "It's okay to be angry. It's not okay to hit." 5. Quickly move on to the next thing. "All right. Let's have a snack now." (Or read a story, or get out the playdough, or whatever.) Caution: the child is probably still a little emotionally wrought up: do not phrase this as a choice. Do not ask them "Would you like to...?" It's highly unlikely that they can deal with the challenge of a decision just yet. The kids in my care soon grow so accustomed to the catch-phrase, that I can use it as a reminder when I see someone building up to deliver a smack. I'll call out in a cautioning tone, "Uh-oh, Felicity. Watch that hand! Remember, hands are for hugging." It usually suffices. Or, I get the children to finish the sentence for me. "Bascia? What are hands for? Hands are for..." and the children generally chime right in "...hugging!" But remember, mom and dad, that just as your child has the right to expect you to treat them respectfully, you have the right to be treated respectfully by your child. Just as you're trying to teach your child: "It's okay to be angry", it is also okay for you to be angry, too! What matters in every case is the response to the emotion.

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