GUEST BLOG POST – Inviting Your Child’s Anger In by Fran Walfish, Psy.D.
It’s happened to all of us. Your child melts down in a huge fit of anger and you don’t know what to do. If it happens in public, on top of your frustration you feel embarrassed and humiliated. You could instinctively lash back in anger, collapse into tears, or temporarily abandon your child by walking away for a few moments. What few parents know how to do is turn the anger into a positive. But, I have good news. I can help.
Over the years, I have seen many angry children in my office and have come up with a simple strategy that works. I call it 3-D Parenting. 3-D Parenting has three components: Discard the Defensive, Demonstrate Empathy with Words, and Directive Discipline with Boundaries. The main objective is for parents to become comfortable tolerating their child’s expression of direct anger.
Many parents find it hard to bear their kids powerful fury. But, staying connected during trying times creates stronger parent-child pathways and also requires tolerance. By employing these three key strategies, you will help your son or daughter stay open with you when they are filled with rage. 3-D Parenting also promotes respectful, friendly, courteous behavior in parents as examples, and in their children of any age. What more could you ask for?
So what are these three key strategies? I can best explain by telling you about a mom and her son that I treat in my office. At eight, Bobby is the oldest of three children. He is a very nice boy who continually sets his own emotional needs behind the needs of others. Also, as the oldest, his mother has higher expectations of him. Additionally, Bobby has a younger sibling with special needs and the youngest in this family just turned two.
When I first met Bobby I encountered a well-mannered, shy boy who found it hard to tell his mom anything critical, or to complain. He was angry because he felt he did not get enough of his mom’s attention; she was consumed with caring for the child with special needs and running after a toddler. While Bobby was not the type to have a meltdown, inside he really was one angry little boy who was on the brink of a huge explosion.
The good news is that Bobby’s mom, Gail, was pliable and open to coaching. Not all parents are. But Gail very much wanted to do the right thing and already felt her own guilt about not giving Bobby the same level of attention that she gave her other children. One of the first things Bobby said to Gail when we all sat down together was “I want some special time with you.”
I found it quite interesting that Gail’s initial response was to say, “But don’t you remember? We did that on Thursday.” Her response was an attempt to qualify in her mind and in Bobby’s eyes that she was a good mom, and it touches on the basic foundation for any parent: you must be self-aware. Being self-aware is a basic premise for parenting and I discuss this in depth in my book, The Self-Aware Parent (Palgrave).
The importance of self-awareness is this: If you are not aware of your internal thoughts and feelings as a parent, or of the specific buttons that trigger angry responses in you, any parenting model you try will backfire. So rather than thinking ahead and talking themself through angry times with the best interests of their child at the forefront of their mind, the unaware parent jumps to reactions imprinted into them by early life relationships with their own parents. This could include angry words in response to a child who screams, or tears of frustration when your child has a temper tantrum.
Gail was not yet a self-aware parent and her desire for validation showed this. Gail did not realize that Bobby was angry because he did not receive one-on-one attention every day. When I confronted her on this, Gail did not collapse into an emotional heap or abandon Bobby in a time out, but she did become defensive. Interestingly enough, discarding the defensive is the first of the three key steps in 3-D Parenting.
Discarding your defensive feelings and behavior creates an open environment from which you will parent. Most parents want to be liked (as well as loved) by their child, but as a parent, you should understand that your child will sometimes be angry at you––especially when you ask him to stop a behavior or do something he would rather not do. Claiming himself as a separate being with individual wants is a necessary part of your child’s development, and as you know, children sometimes do this with anger.
For many parents, acting without being defensive is a new way of functioning; it is a very different framework of belief. But it is important, because your child needs to feel accepted and embraced at all times, including when they feel and express their anger.
My first goal for you as a parent is for you to honestly examine how you act when your child is angry, and see if you have tendencies toward defensive behavior. Most of us do, myself included, and it is important to let that go. Steps two and three will give you better options to replace your defensiveness with.
Step two, demonstrating empathy with words, simply means narrating your child’s angry feelings back to them. It is a reflective listening and talking skill that allows you to explore your child’s anger with your eyes and ears, and then say it back with empathy.
For example, in the midst of a tantrum many parents refuse to accept their child’s opposition, and ignore it by turning away until the child is ready to behave. As a result, your child may think his or her feelings are not valid. Instead, acknowledge that you understand your child is upset by narrating verbally what your child is feeling. So rather than becoming defensive, you say with warmth, “I see you are angry with me, and I’m the kind of mom who really wants to hear about it right to my face. Tell me about why you are mad at me.”
I cannot stress how important the empathy part of this step is. For instance, with a young child you might say, “Mommy sees you are angry that you can’t have more play time with your red truck. You want more play time, but now it’s time for your bath and you got mad at Mommy. It’s hard to stop when you want more.” Being a container for your child’s anger will help him view you as a person he can confide in. It also establishes your place as a stable figure, one who will not attack, run, judge, blame, or collapse when the going gets rough. This is very important to convey to your child as he grows and faces larger issues.
Another key aspect here is that no resolution is required. All that is needed is that you hear your child. That in itself is reparative. All your son or daughter wants is to be understood and validated.
The final step is directive discipline with boundaries. Talking through a situation, as we did in step two, allows your child to feel heard. However, once he understands that you acknowledge and accept his displeasure, you must set the boundary and follow-through by taking action and directing your child toward his responsibility––and your command.
In this case, simply walk him into the bathroom and help him into the tub. It is not necessary to indulge him with other toys to compensate for his struggle in leaving the red truck behind. If your very young child becomes totally out of control, you can sit on the floor Indian style, with your child sitting down and wrapped in your arms in front of you, facing away, until the tantrum is over.
In my practice I work with many sophisticated parents just like you. But, what is most lacking is the lasting ingredient of motoring your child through his or her responsibility. You can talk all day long, but if you do not take the step of making sure that your child completes his responsibility, then you might as well talk to a brick wall.
Without directive discipline your angry child is likely to ignore you. He will think of you as a nice, but limp and ineffectual mom or dad. Instead, once you set a boundary, enforce it. Optimal parents also take a deep breath and think before speaking, so the boundary they set is appropriate and significant, but short in duration to motivate your child to keep trying.
It takes some practice, but you can learn to direct your child’s anger with clarity, kindness, empathy, and firmness. “I know how hard it is to leave your video to go take a bath so I’m going to help you. Here we go.”
In putting it all together it is good to remember a few things:
1. Your child is always allowed to be angry.
2. Be empathetic toward your child at how hard this moment is for him or her, for the angry feelings that are expressed are very real.
3. Follow through with praise for successfully completing this “hard-to-do” task.
It is possible that in praising your child, she might come back with something to the effect of “You made me.” Your response could then be, “Well, I helped you. And one day soon you’ll be able to do this all on your own.” These words give your child supportive confidence to work through her anger by herself.
Remember Bobby and Gail? I taught Gail these ideas to help them through their mild crisis. Specifically, I suggested that:
1. Gail encourage Bobby to complain to her directly. She needs to be self-aware enough to know that Bobby’s angry complaints are not attacks on her. Instead, they are situational and he needs to vent. “I know how frustrated you feel when you don’t understand your homework assignment. Why don’t you try your best and after snack time we’ll look at it together.”
2. Bobby should be able to go to his mom anytime and say he needs individual time with her. Gail then should follow up on that need, if not right then, at a designated and specified time that same day. “Mommy is busy making dinner right now, but after dinner you and I can walk around the block, hold hands, and be together while Daddy watches your brother and sister.”
3. Gail and Bobby should have a standing once a week date to go roller skating (an activity Bobby loves). Nothing should get in the way of this weekly activity and this should be alone time with just Gail and Bobby, and without his siblings.
4. Gail should ask Bobby at least once daily: “How are things for you?” Because Bobby accommodates and does not want to burden his mom, he does not share his angry feelings easily. He needs to be encouraged.
5. Bobby cannot pummel his brother or sister as a way to vent his anger. If he does, play time is automatically over for Bobby for the next three hours. It is important to structure discipline as stinging, but short lived. That way your child will be motivated to try again to achieve.
Few of us were reared with parents who said, “Come on, give it to me. I want to hear what you’re really feeling,” but that is a lot of what today’s parenting should be about. Add empathetic narration and boundaries with follow-through, and most of your work is done.
I realize it is a lot to remember. But the more you practice it, the sooner acknowledging your child’s anger will become second nature to you; and the faster your family will become happy, connected, and strong. My empathetic narration to you is, “I know you can do it.”
Dr. Fran Walfish is the top leading child and family psychotherapist and author in Beverly Hills, California. In addition to her thriving private practice, Dr. Walfish was on clinical staff in the Department of Child Psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for 15 years. She was a school psychologist and recently completed her 4 year term as Chair of the Board of The Early Childhood Parenting Center founded at Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles.
Dr. Walfish is a regular expert contributor to Parents magazine, Parents.com, NBC Nightly News with Brian Wiliams, The Dr. Phil Show, Parenting magazine, Parenting.com, Family Circle magazine, Woman’s Day magazine, etc. Visit her website http://www.drfranwalfish.com/. Dr. Fran’s current book, The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building A Better Bond with Your Child, is represented by William Morris Endeavor Entertainment and published by Palgrave Macmillan. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are collaborating with Dr. Walfish to produce a television series offering her therapeutic guidance and help to families in America.