It was early in the morning. I hadn’t been up for more than ten minutes but I had already shouted at my boys three times. Having been a teacher, I’m usually pretty good at what I call “professional calm” – the ability to avoid getting wound up in the emotions of the moment and respond calmly to a situation. Normally, I’m a minimal shouter but there was no sign of that woman on this particular morning. “Why am I shouting at my children?” I wondered.
When I find myself shouting, it is a signal to go inwards, not to blame my children – even when they’ve trailed mud over the newly-cleaned floor. My shouting is a prompt to ask myself what’s going on with me that I can’t muster up my professional calm in this moment? Often just knowing why I’m really shouting, seeing that it’s not really about my boys at all, helps me to regain perspective and stop taking whatever it is out on them.
REASONS WE MIGHT SHOUT AT OUR CHILDREN
Here are some of the main reasons I shout. What makes you shouty?
I’m tired. This is the main reason I shout. When I’m tired, I become hypersensitive and my tolerance level plummets. Something that would’ve been irritating on a normal day, like Thomas pouring my drink into his cup ‘til overflowing while I’m not looking, becomes infuriating when I’m tired.
I’m overwhelmed. When I’m overwhelmed by all I need to do, any added demand, such as being asked for another snack, feels like harassment.
I’m triggered. Sometimes, my boys hit a sensitive spot and my ego comes out roaring. Eg.“How dare he disrespect me!” Being disrespected hits a tender place for me. I question my worth and I spiral downwards within – and loudly without. (See my post How Our Children Raise Us for more on being triggered by our children.)
My children are doing just the thing that winds me up. Thomas has a squeal perfectly-pitched to grate on my nerves. My reaction is almost a biological response rather than a mental/emotional one. He usually squeals when being provoked by Jake. Thomas’ squeal and Jake’s aggravation are a lethal combination that sends me bananas.
I’m in a rush. You don’t need to be told that children have a completely different sense of timing to adults. (The joys of not being able to read a clock.) I hate being late and lose patience when my boys are slowing us down.
I’m preoccupied. Sometimes, there’s an issue with my boys that I haven’t taken the time to get to the bottom of because I’m in the middle of something. Perhaps I’ve called out to them to stop arguing over a toy but they actually need some help to come up with a fair way to share it. Without my guidance, the arguing gets louder and more aggressive…and so do I. Sometimes, I’ve just got to put my plans on pause, get present, and deal with the issue properly.
HIT THE RESET BUTTON
The magic is that, in any situation, we can choose again. We can hit the reset button and respond differently, without shouting. When time is short, I simply take a breath. With that breath, I imagine shedding my upset self like a snake sheds its skin, leaving only the Loving part of myself remaining. I return to the situation with her instead. Just the intention to approach the situation with Love makes a difference. (We can teach our children to do this too.) When I need more than a moment to make the switch to Love, I turn on the kettle and the tv, giving us all a 10-minute break to diffuse the situation. My professional calm returns and I continue – without shouting.
Yesterday, the boys and I were in the car and it was a case #1 and of #4 in combination. Having been working on this post, I was determined not to shout. Being in the car, there was no kettle or tv in sight. So, I stopped the car, told my boys I would drive again when Thomas had stopped squealing & Jake had stopped bothering him and got out. I stood quietly on the pavement until I felt calmer and was sure the kafuffle between my boys was over. It was a quiet drive home.
RECOVERING FROM OUR SHOUTING EPISODES
When I have shouted at my boys, I always apologise. When they shout, I tell them that they can express whatever they have to say but must do so respectfully. Same goes for me. Whatever the reason I’m shouting, my spiritual beliefs insist that I always treat others with love, knowing everyone is worthy of kindness and respect at all times. I only apologise when I’m ready, though, able to be sincere. (See my post Should I Make My Children Apologise?)
It doesn’t feel good to have been the shouting mum, it’s not how I want to be. So I also have to forgive myself. I don’t want to carry my guilt around with me, it will only sour the next moment. Having a shouty moment – or a shouty day, even – doesn’t mean we’re bad people or bad parents. It just means there’s something going on for us. It shows us that we need a little TLC of some sort – we all do sometimes.
When Jake was a pre-schooler, I often noticed him hanging on to things after giving him a firm word or disciplining him in some way. He seemed uncertain how to interact with me, unsure whether I was still upset with him or not. So my husband and I started making a point of telling him that it was “finished” once any discipline had been dealt with. We would then continue as normal, ensuring our manner with Jack was back to usual, not angry or upset in any way. This was to show him that the incident was over and no hard feelings remained. Looking back, I can see that this was a precursor to teaching him about forgiveness.
Last week, the long school holidays were getting the better of us both. It felt to me that Jake wasn’t listening to much of what I said (unless the word “chocolate” featured) and I was tired of being patient & consistent. I ended up shouting in exasperation. Later, as we both sat at the table having morning tea, we exchanged apologies for our behaviour. Jake kept repeating his apology despite my acceptance and I realised that I had never spoken explicitly about forgiveness with him. So, I reminded him of how I used to say “finished” after a telling-off so that he knew it was over. “When we forgive someone, we decide that it is finished, we decide not to keep feeling upset with the other person”, I told him.
That was enough for one morning but our chat made me realise that there is so much for a person to learn about forgiveness. Many adults struggle with it. And perhaps it’s because we don’t truly understand what forgiveness is – a gift to ourselves.
4 CHARACTERISTICS OF FORGIVENESS
Having given it some thought, I’ve come up with four characteristics of true forgiveness that we can aim to pass on to our children. They may not grasp it all at first as forgiveness can look different on the outside than it is on the inside. From the outside, it sometimes looks like politeness or forgetting but it’s neither of these things.
1. We forgive for our own benefit. Forgiveness is not saying “it’s Ok” but, rather, “I’m OK”. Ultimately, it is a choice not to let whatever happened hurt us anymore. I have seen people who are almost defined by the event they refuse to forgive – often bitter, vengeful and hard, their non-forgiveness is apparent even when they don’t realise it. Yet the people they won’t forgive have likely moved on and are unaware of the resentment harboured towards them. Those who won’t forgive don’t see that their forgiveness is for themselves and that they suffer most for their decision not to allow it.
2. Forgiving is not pretending it never happened. When we forgive, we are forgiving the person, not their actions. We let go of our resentment towards them. What happened may still upset us when we think of it but we no longer see ourselves as the victim of a personal attack. With time, we may even recognise the gift hidden in the experience – something we needed to learn about ourselves. I think this is what is meant by the phrase, “forgiven, not forgotten”.
“Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you were”. – Cherie Carter-Scott
3. We can’t force someone (or ourselves) to forgive. A list of reasons to forgive is not going to make someone forgive because forgiveness does not happen through logic – it happens through love. Taking a moment to see the humanness of the person whose actions hurt us can help open us up to forgiving them. When we recognise that the other’s hurtful behaviour was caused by their issues & misconceptions, we realise that whatever happened wasn’t about us at all. It then becomes easier to forgive because we know we can relate – we have issues & misconceptions of our own that affect our behaviour. Seeing that we are all ultimately the same enables us to be compassionate instead of judgemental and willing to forgive.
4. Forgiveness doesn’t require an apology. Just as whatever happened to hurt us wasn’t really about us, forgiving isn’t really about the other person. Because it’s not about them, we can choose to let forgiveness in at any time without an exchange of words. When we do receive an apology, it is an invitation to forgive, a reminder that the power to do so is in our hands. We simply decide that we are open to forgiving and allow Love to do the rest.
HOW TO TEACH OUR CHILDREN ABOUT FORGIVENESS
Having defined “forgiveness”, the big question is how to teach our children about it. We want them to really understand what it is so they don’t just go through the motions of forgiveness because it is expected of them, to appear polite. There are a number of things we can do towards giving them a full picture of forgiveness –
Forgive our children. Once our children have offered us an apology for something or been through the consequences of their inappropriate actions, it is over – I repeat, OVER! Often I have seen a child put through the consequences & offer an apology and still have to endure 10 more minutes of lecturing or suffer the cold shoulder for the rest of the day. What’s happening in these situations? – their parents haven’t forgiven them.
Let our children see us forgiving others around us. There are many small acts of forgiveness in a day for our children to witness. We forgive their siblings when they shout at us. We forgive our partners for being home late. We forgive the shop assistant who over-charged us and had to put us through the lengthy paperwork required to refund us. When someone offers an apology to us, our children should see us accept it with a “thank you”. (Accepting an apology is not forgiving them on the spot, just appreciating their acknowledgement that they have hurt us). We can also talk to our children about the compassion we have for those who have wronged us. Eg. “The shop assistant made a mistake when he was adding up our purchases, we all make mistakes sometimes”. This shows our children that forgiveness comes from Love, and that judgement has no place alongside forgiveness.
Notice and talk about it when we see that our child has or hasn’t forgiven someone. We can talk with our children about how they feel to have let go or to be holding on to their resentment. This will make them more aware of how their choice to forgive or not impacts themselves.
Don’t expect our children to forgive straightaway. Often they will need time to allow the emotions of the situation to pass before they’re able to forgive. (This is true for adults too.) If they’re not yet ready to forgive a playmate, suggest they play apart for a while. If they are offered an apology, they can receive it with a “thank you” and forgive when they are ready. (You may also be interested to read my post Should I Make My Children Apologise?)
Suggest your child pray for help to forgive if they’re finding it hard. Logic changes the mind, Love changes the heart. While we choose to allow forgiveness in, it is a matter for the heart. Prayer opens us up to receive the love we may need for the task. This suggestion is probably suitable for school-aged children but we can say a prayer to help our younger children along.
IN SUMMARY: THE GIFT OF FORGIVENESS
Forgiveness is, I think, one of the most important spiritual and life skills we need to learn. Yet, it is something easily overlooked by parents. It would be easy to teach our children to graciously accept an apology without addressing the inner process required to truly forgive.
Forgiveness is an act of self-love. When we refuse to forgive, we are really refusing ourselves freedom – the freedom to live with openness and joy. Like any skill, we get better at forgiving by practising it. When children forgive the child who called them a hurtful name, the parent who punished them unfairly, the teacher who overlooked them for an opportunity, they’ll more readily forgive the more painful experiences that are a part of life.
It is not weak to forgive. It makes us stronger. We can travel further if we’re not lugging our resentments around with us.
I’m sure you have watched a child apologise without meaning it on many occasions. “Sorry”, they mumble, fidgeting and looking anywhere but at the person to whom they’re apologising. Then – they get out of there as quickly as they can!
Likely leaving behind the well-meaning adult who had insisted they apologise. I have been that well-meaning adult, embarrassed both by my child’s misdeed and the inadequacy of their apology. Then, at some point, I realised that I had been insisting that my son apologise because I thought it would reflect badly on me and my parenting if I didn’t. My ego had clouded my judgement and I wasn’t actually teaching him what an apology really is.
WHAT IS AN APOLOGY?
So often, making an apology becomes a punishment we dish out to our children. At times, there is even an element of humiliation to it which we think will ‘teach’ them. But, if children learn to equate apologising with fear, they’re going to become reluctant apologisers, unable to offer to others and experience for themselves, release from the situations they have created.
A true apology comes from love – sincere regret for our unloving behaviour. It is also a recognition of worth – both the worth of the apologiser and the recipient. When we make a real apology, we know the other person was worthy of better treatment and that we are worthy of forgiveness.
WHAT MISTAKES ARE WE MAKING AS PARENTS?
When our children make empty, embarrassed apologies, it is because they are not ready to apologise. So often, adults expect children to make an almost instant apology, before the child has had time to process the emotions they are feeling. When something difficult has gone down between two people, resulting in an injury or insult, both parties may have big emotions to deal with. The child who has done ‘wrong’ needs time to allow the emotions to pass before they can sincerely apologise. They’re most likely dealing with remorse in tandem with the anger or hurt that made them lash out in some way. And the other person may also need time before they are able to receive an apology. (See my post Helping Children to Manage Difficult Emotions)
The child who is needing to apologise may need some physical space away from the situation while their emotions settle. They also need our support. Too often, we withdraw our support in a show of disapproval but a cuddle or gentle words show that our love for our child and their worthiness are unconditional. In doing this, we remind them that their behaviour is separate from who they are and we empower the love in them. Once the strength of emotion has dissipated and they are reassured of their worth, the child will be ready to address what has happened and make an effort to put things right. This may take only 30 seconds or it may take a lot longer. When we can see that they’re ready, we might suggest an apology by asking, “What do you want to do about it now…?” and discussing with them what they will do. If they want us to accompany them while they apologise, I see no issue with doing so as long as the words come from their mouths.
Sometimes, a child refuses to apologise if forced to do so before they are ready. I have seen parents apologise instead of their children (I have done this myself). But it is their apology to make, not ours. If we do it for them, they have lost their opportunity to learn how to weather their emotions and reach a point at which they’re ready to apologise. An alternative to apologising instead of our child is to enquire after the hurt party and show our concern for them. While we are doing this, the attention is off our own child and they are getting a moment to themselves to calm down.
TEACHING CHILDREN HOW TO APOLOGISE
Apologise ourselves, especially to our children – Children are worthy of receiving apologies just as adults are (see A CHILD’S WORTH). When we apologise to them, we show them how it’s done and communicate their worthiness. I usually know I will apologise immediately in the situation but I only do it when I’m ready. Sometimes, I explain my process to my eldest. For example, “I was feeling very angry so I went to my room to calm down until I was ready to say ‘sorry’”. A cuddle and a kiss put a nice fullstop on the situation.
Accept their apologies gracefully – A simple “thank you” is all that is needed. Leave it there. There is no need to follow-up with a lecture on why they shouldn’t have done what they did or a stern warning not to do it again. They know! If we respond with our ego, determined to “teach them a lesson”, they may come to dread apologising for the likely telling-off they’ll receive. That doesn’t set them up to become generous apologisers as adults.
Teach the 3 elements of a good apology – These are eye-contact, using the person’s name and saying specifically what they’re sorry for. At the dinner table a few nights ago, Jake apologised to my husband for something he had said and did all of these 3 things of his own accord. I could see his sincerity and it went straight to my heart
For young children, with limited language and self-managing skills, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to insist they say ‘sorry’. They would simply be parroting us, doing what we expected of them, which is rather meaningless. What we can do is grow their awareness of the impact of their actions on others. Yesterday, Thomas (2 years old) was playing at a water table with his little friend. They were having a great time together until Thomas started hoarding all the equipment. Too busy chatting, I hadn’t noticed. Soon, the other child was crying because he had nothing left to play with. In simple language, I showed Thomas that his friend was crying because he hadn’t been sharing the water toys. My hope is that, when he’s older, Thomas’ apologies will be sincere – words that come from his love and empathy for others. Compassion is our starting point. He will learn about apologising by watching the older people in his life and receiving apologies himself.
IN SUMMARY: APOLOGISE WITH LOVE
My verdict is that we should teach our children how to truly apologise but not make them do it. There is a lot of power in an apology. I don’t entirely agree with the phrase “Forgiven but not forgotten”. If someone sincerely apologises and the receiver sincerely forgives, it is forgotten in the sense that both people put it down, they don’t continue to carry the pain of what happened around with them. Infact, sometimes an apology even brings us closer. We know someone sees our value when they offer us a heart-felt apology or generously accept our own apology. That can strengthen our connection with them. And, in my experience, an apology is relatively easy to offer when it comes from love rather than fear. As the nurturer in our children’s lives, it is our own approach to apologising that shows our children how to say ‘sorry’ with love.