“Dr. Laura…I think we as parents need to be honest about our own anger, disappointment, sadness about our child’s choices…”
I agree completely. We need to be honest about our own feelings — with ourselves! We need to notice our emotions as they come up, take responsibility for them, and work through them.
Because the truth is that every parent sometimes feels rage toward his or her child. Stuffing those feelings doesn’t help anyone.
But that does NOT mean that we need to “dump” our upsets on our child in the name of being honest. That’s not acting like a grown-up. It’s not coaching our child to be his or her best self, either. In fact, when kids follow that modeling, it looks like tantrums.
So unless there’s immediate danger — in which case you need to remove a child from harm’s way — I recommend that parents try to avoid relating to their children when they’re angry.
Does that mean we aren’t being honest, truthful and authentic? I don’t think so. Let’s take this one step at a time.
1. Anger is always “valid.”
But that just means it’s a message, a signal that you are triggered by the situation, meaning that you have some scary, more vulnerable emotions like fear and sadness in response to what’s happening. Anger is our response to feeling threatened, whether by an actual threat in the environment or by those upsetting emotions.
2. Don’t we need to show the other person how angry we are?
That depends on what outcome you want. Do you want the other person to be motivated to work things out with you? Then you want to create safety, which you don’t do by blasting them with your anger.
Angry words and tone escalate the drama and make the other person more reactive, so it becomes almost impossible to resolve the situation productively. And you certainly can’t coach your child with respect and compassion when you see them as the enemy.
3. But I’m entitled to be angry about this!
You are always entitled to all of your emotions. But just because your anger is valid doesn’t give you the right to visit your anger on another person. Actually, expressing anger to someone else just reinforces your anger, that internal feeling that it’s an emergency. That heightens your “fight or flight” response — which makes the other person look like the enemy.
4. Whose feelings are they, anyway?
Sure, our children make us MAD! But the truth is, those are our own feelings. They aren’t caused by our child, they’re caused by our own conclusions (“She lied to me… How dare she?!… She’s going to be an immoral person!”) We can’t always choose our feelings, but we are always responsible for what we do with them. (Exactly what we try to teach our child when they are so (legitimately) angry at their sibling that they lash out physically.)
5. What if we were completely honest with ourselves about our feelings?
That means, instead of acting on our sense of emergency and “being honest” about our anger by speaking or acting angrily towards our child, we would be honest with ourselves about those more upsetting, scary emotions under the anger:
- “It scares me that she would lie to me.”
- “How can I trust him after this?”
- “I’m afraid that she’ll come to a bad end.”
- “Am I raising ungrateful brats?!”
- “I feel powerless to get her to tell me the truth.”
- “I don’t know how to get through to him.”
- “It hurts so much when she says such nasty things to me, after all my sacrifices for her.”
- “Have I been such a terrible parent, for him to act this way?”
- “I feel so helpless!”
6. Anger is a signal that we have work to do on ourselves.
Anger is always a way of fending off our own more vulnerable emotions. We attack instead of acknowledging our hurt, fear, grief, and powerlessness.
If, instead, we breathe our way through those more vulnerable emotions, we’ve gotten the message they’re sending us: We care so much it hurts. We’re afraid we’ve messed up. We’re afraid they’re damaged. As we feel those emotions, they begin to evaporate, and we no longer need the anger as a defense. The anger starts to melt away.
And only then, once the anger has faded and we see our own contribution to the problem, do we feel empowered to take constructive action. That’s why Stop, Drop, and Breathe is your most effective parenting mantra — it stops you from taking action when you’re triggered.
7. Are you letting your child “get away”with something?
No. Once you aren’t in the grip of your anger, you’ll have the clarity to set clear, kind limits and to coach your child through his big emotions. But you’ll be doing it for your child’s optimal development, not because you’re mad, or sad, or disappointed. We all have those feelings sometimes. But they are never our child’s responsibility, even if we’re responding to our child’s behavior.
8. But don’t you need to tell your child how angry her behavior made you, either so she knows how bad her behavior was, or to model being authentic in a relationship?
Actually, being authentic and honest would mean being more vulnerable, by going under the anger to the fear beneath. So instead of “I’m angry that you lied to me” the honest communication would be “I’m scared that you lied to me… I’m afraid that means that you don’t think you can tell me the truth… You are so important to me and I’m terrified that I’m losing you.” Your authentic, vulnerable communication is much more likely to convince her of the seriousness of her behavior. (Anger will just make her defensive.)
9. Is it ever useful to share your authentic feelings with your child?
Of course! Later, when everyone has calmed down, share your feelings and tell your child what you need from him in the future: “When you lie to me like you did, I feel hurt and scared. I need to be able to trust what you say.” Most kids who have experienced empathy and apologies from us will respond with a heart-felt apology. And since you’re creating safety by empathizing, they’ll tell you why they made such a poor choice. Then you can explore with them how to handle a situation like this better, next time it comes up. This helps your child learn the lesson you want to teach, so much more than your throwing a tantrum and dumping your anger and fear on your child.
10. But what about telling the truth?
Consider that maybe you aren’t seeing the whole truth. You’re only human, so you only get to see from where you’re standing. If you could see things from your child’s perspective, the same circumstances would look very different. You’ll always get closer to authentic, honest communication if you re-frame the situation so you have a larger view. For instance, you might ask yourself, as Gandhi reportedly did when his grandson lied to him, “What about me wasn’t safe enough for him to trust me with the truth?” Your anger will dissolve, and you’ll be able to problem-solve more effectively.
11. But what am I supposed to do with my anger?
Great question! You’re supposed to use it diagnostically, rather than acting it out on someone else. Ask: What is making me so upset? Am I hurt? Afraid? Feeling powerless? What can I do to take better care of me? How can I address the actual source of these more vulnerable emotions in a constructive way? Are my expectations of my child reasonable? If so, what support does my child need to be able to meet those expectations?
If you want more support to manage your anger, check out How to Handle Your Anger at Your Child.
12. Don’t you have to tell kids you’re disappointed, sad or angry about their behavior to get them to act right?
No. That’s shaming. You can certainly tell your child what you need and expect from them (i.e., honesty), but your feelings are your own responsibility.
All children will act like children, and all children will experiment with breaking your rules, lying, and other unacceptable behavior. Kids who adore and respect you don’t want to disappoint you, so they’re more likely to follow your rules more often.
But you don’t get that kind of relationship by making a child feel guilty and ashamed, which is what happens when you say “I’m sad, angry and disappointed in you.” You get that kind of relationship by coaching your child through his emotions, so he can better manage his behavior. You get it by setting clear, kind limits about what kind of behavior is acceptable. You get it by giving your child the support she needs to manage herself better. And you get it by role-modeling respectful expression of emotions, so your child respects you.
Kids want to act right. If they don’t, it’s because something’s getting in their way and they need our coaching. A coach doesn’t say to the player “I’m sad, angry and disappointed about your playing.” The coach takes responsibility for coaching himself through his own feelings. Then he figures out how to help the player do better.
And that takes real honesty, and taking responsibility for our own feelings, rather than dumping them on someone else.
Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.
Image courtesy of Paige Cody.