When I’m upset — insert also overwhelmed, exhausted, angry, impatient — it takes me awhile to work through it. It’s not easy for me to simply shake it off, restrain or ignore however I’m feeling either. I need time to reflect, talk about and work through strong emotions, and I need empathy in that, too.
I’m a grown adult, which means it has taken me years to get to this place of awareness and discipline. I think I’m still developing a healthy understanding of what I need when I am on the edge, but if I can only say this now — grown and experienced and weathered through the storms — how could I possibly expect the same of my son?
I think often about how it must feel for a child to “work through” hostile emotions with only their little bodies and developing brains as reinforcements. How is this even fair? I know my son feels happy, sad, excited and afraid in the same way I do, but he does not yet have the intellect to understand why he feels these things. This is why children have tantrums, aggression, outbursts and tears.
And this is why they need us.
It’s so important that we empathize with our children. I think we must constantly remind ourselves that young bodies cannot respond to anger or aggression or frustration in the same way we can. They can get there, but they need guidance, support, love and care to do so, and they need to know it’s ok to feel how they feel. Always.
Now, I understand it’s easy to accept this now, when we are removed from an aggressive situation with our children. “When my son gets upset, I will respond with empathy and kindness. Got it.” But then, when we are faced with the angry child — yelling, kicking, big tears and confusion — we, too, lose the calm we had so cooly moments ago. We forget to be the bigger person. We forget to observe and guide. We get frustrated, too, and no one is learning. No one is better. Just another Saturday morning.
Let’s do better. Let’s hold one another accountable for how we choose to respond to our children’s aggressive behavior. And let’s really try, because there’s a huge opportunity for growth here — for both the adult and the child.
Start With Words
I’m very communicative with my children, so when one of them is upset, I will remove them from the situation to a safe place where we both can take a breath and start with words to alleviate the pain. “Can you tell me what you are feeling right now? Can you tell me why you feel these things? What were you doing before the angry feeling began? What are you thinking right now? Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?”
When we encourage children to use words instead of actions to express feelings, they will use their bodies less. Their body might even calm down as they start using their words instead, so react to this. Get down to their level, look them in the eye and reassure them with head nods and a gentle hand that you hear them and your time in that moment is for them. You might be exasperated, but you have reasoning inside your brain they do not. Use it for the both of you.
Relate to Your Child
As you continue to communicate with your child, do not be afraid to speak to your own emotion, too. Even though this is not about you, children do like when they can relate to an adult, so speak to the empathy you are giving them. “I’m upset here, too, so I’m taking big breaths through my nose as I talk with you. I’m slowing down my body so I can reassess the situation. I’m thinking about you and your emotions right now instead of my own, because empathizing with someone helps me feel better.”
Then, stay with them in it. A child’s impulsive anger can be uncomfortable to sit in sometimes, so much that you’d rather walk out of the room or ignore their fit, but stay there a bit longer than you normally would, calm and silently.
Lastly, do not force your child to apologize. Talk to them first about why physical aggression is not a good choice, how that can harm others and harm themselves. Then, speak to the great importance of apologies and why expressing our remorse for our actions builds humility, awareness of self, kindness and a stronger understanding of human behavior. Your child will express an apology when their body, mind and heart is ready to do so. Give them the liberty to be accountable for their actions on their terms, and watch them grow.
About the Author
Angela Tewalt is a writer and mother to two boys. She shares parenting stories and Montessori inspiration at Guidepost Parent.
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