When a child has fallen and scraped their knee, the adult on hand usually praises them “you’re so brave” – even if they do cry.
When a child is facing a fear, perhaps about to slide down a pole at the playground for the first time, we’ll often coax them to do it by telling them to “be brave”.
Of course, we’re meaning to be supportive and to encourage the child when we say these things, but let’s think about the messages our words are really giving them –
* what you feel is a problem.
* do not show the way you really feel – pretend if you have to.
The Short- Term Problem
When our children are encouraged to feign bravery rather than be honest about their feelings, it tells them that they cannot come to us with all of their emotions, certain ones have to be kept neatly tucked way, out of sight.
But, if they can’t come to us, the adults in their lives, when they are fearful or in pain, who are they going to go to?
After being told to “be brave” often enough, they may eventually conclude that it’s best to avoid putting themselves in any situation where they’ll potentially experience pain or fear – because there will be no real support for them and the adults around them will likely disapprove of their feelings. In trying to avoid pain and fear, they avoid the fullness of Life also.
The Long-Term Problem
If our kids learn that they must “be brave” as children, they will take that belief with them into adulthood. Concerned with appearing brave, they risk becoming one of the emotionally disengaged adults we meet all too frequently. They may even use negative behaviours to avoid their emotions in order not to let slip how they’re really feeling.
Most of us can probably think of a number of people we’ve met who are distant. There’s a feeling that their walls are up and they’re hard to connect with or develop a meaningful relationship with. So we don’t usually bother. If we do have a relationship with them, communication is difficult and frustration is high – for both parties.
When I was at university, I did an assignment on friendship. I learned that personal disclosure is the number one way people make and deepen friendships, including disclosure of emotions – the good and the bad.
We want our children to be emotionally available to the people in their lives so that they can enjoy rich relationships. Being honest about difficult feelings is a life skill that helps them to do this. But they have no way of learning how to do this if they are told to “be brave” whenever they’re in pain or fear.
Of course, not every “be brave” is going to make a child risk-adverse and turn them into an emotionally distant adult who leans on destructive behaviours to help them avoid their feelings. But I want to be intentional in my response to a child’s pain and fear, to make sure I am giving them the support they really need. We can teach our children that all feelings are normal, even uncomfortable ones, and that they are better expressed than avoided & denied. The ability to both accept and express how they feel are skills that help them to be their authentic selves, which, from my spiritual point of view, is the purpose of parenting.
A BETTER WAY TO RESPOND
Thomas had his 4 year-old vaccinations this week. I waited until the morning of the appointment to tell him about it. I used a picture book he has in which a vet gives a kitten its vaccination to help me explain what was going to happen. He was not pleased to get the news, saying he was scared and worried that it would hurt. I sat him on my knee and listened to his feelings. I told him I understood it was scary and it would sting for a short while and also that I would be right there with him. Once we were in the nurse’s office, he inched his way under my chair, trying to hide from the inevitable. I talked to him about how he was feeling, not labouring over it or trying to coax him to feel differently. When it came time for the pricks, he squirmed and squealed a bit in anticipation and needed to be held firmly so the nurses could do their thing. Afterwards, he had a bit of a cry and cuddled up on my lap for comfort. Within a couple of minutes, though, it was if the pricks hadn’t happened.
My approach was to acknowledge how he was feeling and show my caring but, basically, to just be with Thomas, his fear and his pain. He got through it and he learned that feelings are okay & they pass in their own time.
When we show that we accept their feelings, our children learn to do the same for themselves and for others. At the moment, we’re talking grazed knees and vaccinations but we’re teaching our children to navigate the bigger fears & pains that they will face when they’re older – new jobs and broken relationships, perhaps.
CONCLUSION: WHAT IS BRAVERY, ANYWAY?
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers was my first self-help book. In my mid-twenties, I would listen to it in my car (on cassette tape!), trying to muster some courage after years of fearful living. The title sums up the best strategy for using in times of fear & pain – allowing ourselves to feel the feeling while moving forward.
Perhaps this is where bravery and courage are a little different. Bravery is about hiding our feelings and white-knuckling the situation at hand, essentially so that everyone else is impressed by us or to avoid their disapproval. Having courage, is to experience the feeling in full and show up for the situation on hand because we know it’s worth doing.
Bravery is putting on a face. Courage is facing the fear & pain.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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To be honest, angry people scare me. I feel myself shutting down when one of my children starts shouting and stamping at me. I don’t know what to do when another person is angry because I’ve never been allowed to get angry myself. As a child, my anger was judged as “disrespectful”. As a teacher, I had to “be professional”, always calm and reasonable. In romantic relationships, my anger has often been ignored.
I know I’m not the only one whose anger has been silenced. It is socially unacceptable to express anger, for women in particular. But, when unacknowleged and unexplored, anger can become harmful to us, turning into depression, addiction and any number of illnesses & destructive behaviours. Although our behaviour may be “unreasonable” when we get angry, we get angry for a reason that is asking to be addressed. When I realised this, I was able to stop judging my boys for their anger and begin to learn how to help them through it.
STEPPING THROUGH ANGER – THE PROCESS
I wanted to find a way to allow my boys their feelings and empathise with their perspective while also upholding one of our highest values – respect for others. I have found that the best thing to do in angry moments is to get really present. This helps me to tune in to what’s really going on with my boys when they can’t understand and express how they’re feeling for themselves.
It also helps me to remind myself that, once we reach anger, most of us, no matter how old we are, are not in a position to be reasoned with. So we cannot appeal to our child’s reason in the midst of their anger and we have to help them to get through it before we help them to learn from it. So, here’s how I have started going about this –
Acknowledge how your child is feeling. Eg. “You’re disappointed that you can’t go to James’ house today, you really wanted to go”. If we only see anger and we’re not sure at this stage what our child’s primary emotion is, (the real reason they’re angry), we can acknowledge their anger.
Allow your child their feeling. Don’t try to talk them out of being angry, distract them from it or criticise them for it. Being with them through all emotions is the nature of unconditional love. This can be hard to do, especially in the company of others because we often feel embarrassed that all eyes are on us to see how we’re going to deal with our “naughty child”. In such moments, I focus on staying present with my child as if no one else were around.
If your child becomes disrespectful, either verbally or physically, state the expectation.Eg. “It’s not ok to hit your brother, it hurts”. We need to be brief here, not letting the setting of this boundary distract us from what’s really going on for our child.
Give your child what they need to get through their anger. Some need a hug, others need space. My Thomas responds well to the assurance of a cuddle and calms himself down quite quickly on my lap. My Jake needs space and only gets more enraged if I engage with him about the situation, so I might say to him, “I’ll be in the kitchen and we can talk about it more when you’re ready”.
Help your child to understand and cope with their primary feeling. Once they are calm, they are in a better position to talk about what was going on for them. Their primary feeling is the one that looked like anger but was actually something else. Eg. I find that my boys’ anger is often actually towards themselves when they feel regretful about how they have behaved. So, in such a situation, they may really be wanting to apologise or make good with the other person. Here our children can begin to learn how their emotions are their spiritual barometers (More on this in my post Anger in Children).
Identify a strategy our child can use to calm themself down when they feel themselves getting angry in future. Here, we can emphasise that it’s important to express their anger but that they need to do so respectfully. We can offer suggestions, but, our child chooses for themself a way to calm down so they’re able to share their feelings respectfully. Eg. asking for a hug, going to their room and having it out on a pillow, doing something they enjoy eg. bike ride or Lego, taking 5 slow tummy breaths. In future, we can remind them of it at step 4.
Throughout this process we are not trying to control our children or to punish them but to teach them how to manage their anger and its underlying emotion. How we go about each step will depend on our child’s stage of development and particular needs. We also need to take a long-term approach, not expecting that, having gone through these steps with them a couple of times, that they will be able to manage their emotions independently – that’s our intention for our 18-year-olds but probably not our 5-year-olds. And helping anyone in a state of anger is rarely neat and tidy. I hope this framework is helpful but, in a state of presence, we ultimately each need to follow what our intuition tells us to do in the moment.
IN SUMMARY – BECOMING UNSTUCK
No more hiding from angry children for me. No more punishing, placating, pleading and all those other things I used to do because I didn’t know how to respond to their anger. I’ve found that taking this time to write a few posts about anger has made me far more comfortable with it and has enlightened me as to what would really help my boys when they’re angry. I will leave you with this quote –
“The more you try to push a child’s unhappy feelings away, the more he becomes stuck in them. The more comfortably you can accept the bad feelings, the easier it is for kids to let go of them”. A. Faber & E Mazlish, “How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk”, p42
Much love to you and your little souls,
PS – Do you have a strategy for helping angry children to share with us? Comment below.
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Most of us have heard it said that, when someone feels angry, they’re not really angry, it’s a symptom of something else that they feel deeper down. But often I forget this truth because, in the moment, it certainly feels like anger – all that boiling within and, usually, roaring without. However, a few things happened recently which reminded me to look for what’s really going on beneath a person’s anger and have helped me to feel more confident about dealing with anger – mine and my children’s.
THE ANGRY FORK STORY
Begin with a recent Summer evening. Having enjoyed a barbeque dinner outside, I was sitting at the patio table and my boys were playing on our lawn. Jake picked a stray fork off the ground and I could see in his eyes that he thought it would be a fun idea to throw it.
“Please don’t throw the fork”, I said.
He threw it.
“Jake, I told you not to throw it”, I said calmly.
Jake immediately jumped into a defence of himself, accompanied by angry faces & gestures, volume quickly rising. He ended it all with the exclamation, “You’re always so rude to me!”
“I don’t want him talking to me like that”, I thought but, perhaps thanks to the warm evening and a satisfied belly, I was able to keep calm and present. Without knowing what I was going to say, I asked Jake to come and sit down next to me. He reluctantly sat at the table beside me.
“The way you spoke to me wasn’t respectful. What were you really trying to say?”
He was a little surprised by my question. I think he sensed that I was right – his response to me was out of proportion to my simple statement that I’d asked him not to throw the fork – but he needed to figure out for himself why he was so upset.
“Tell me what you were trying to say, respectfully” I encouraged.
“I’m sorry for throwing the fork!”, he suddenly blurted, brow creased and avoiding eye contact with me.
“Is that what you were really trying to say when you were shouting at me?”
“Tell me if I’m wrong, but when you shouted why are you always rude to me? were you actually feeling bad that you threw the fork, even though I’d asked you not to?” I didn’t want to put words in his mouth but I felt he perhaps didn’t know or couldn’t quite articulate what had happened for him and needed a little help.
“You shouted at me, but really you were angry with yourself? You felt kind of guilty?”
He needed no reprimand for throwing the fork or shouting at me, the natural consequence – the discomfort of his guilt – was enough.
THE PURPOSE OF ANGER
It was an eye-opening conversation for us both. It made me wonder, how often do we end up “disciplining” our children for showing anger when really they just had an emotion they didn’t know what to do with? We need to teach them to take a moment to recognise their feelings and respond intentionally to them. To do this, we can guide them through a kind of self-exploration suitable to their age and give them an opportunity to understand what’s happening for them, like I did in the angry fork story. And, importantly, we need to do this without punishing or criticising them for their age-appropriate struggles with their emotions.
Guiding our children through their anger is part of growing their broader emotional intelligence. Our parenting can help them to develop emotional awareness and an ability to articulate what’s going on for them. In this way, our children can become more at ease with the range of human emotions available to them, less controlled by them and able to choose good-feeling ones for themselves.
Our emotions are like a spiritual barometer. The good-feeling ones tell us we are aligned with our truth. The bad-feeling ones show us something we need to be aware of in order to become more aligned. By taking a moment to be with Jake’s anger, he was able to realise that he, in fact, felt guilty and it showed him that not listening to me when I asked him not to throw the fork wasn’t aligned with his true loving self .
Your negative feelings are there for a reason. Like pain in the body, they are a call for awareness and healing. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are not your emotions. But your emotions do come bearing lessons, and you can’t learn those lessons until you feel them. – Mastin Kipp, Claim Your Power, p.51
ADULTS GET ANGRY TOO
But developing this kind of emotional intelligence is a long-term goal for our children. I cannot expect my 6 year-old to deftly manage all of his many emotions. Especially as our emotions sometimes hide beneath anger, they can be hard to get to. Heck, we adults struggle ourselves. Here’s my story –
The next night after the barbeque, I slept in the spare bedroom downstairs because my husband was feeling unwell and I didn’t want to get sick too. When Jake came in to see me in the morning, he said he’d vomited during the night. When I got up, I saw that my husband had left a bundle of Jake’s dirty bed sheets in the laundry sink. I started fuming. Why hadn’t he rinsed and soaked them – or asked for my help to clean them?! I might not be able to get the stains out now! I splashed & stomped & barked around for a while and my poor boys steered clear of me. Then I asked myself, “why am I so angry?” My husband had done the best he could in the middle of the night, trying not to wake me so I could have a good sleep. I paused and realised that I wasn’t really angry, I actually felt guilty that he’d dealt with a vomiting Jake and the dirty sheets on his own when he was feeling unwell himself.
It really is never anger, it’s always something else. Thinking back to Mastin’s quote, my guilt was pointing to my discomfort at the thought of causing someone else any kind of trouble, an aspect of my sometimes shaky sense of self-worth that I’m still working on.
IN SUMMARY – THE ANGER ICEBERG
Later that day on Pinterest, I came across this anger iceberg infographic by The Gottman Institute. I think The Universe wanted to drive the point home to me, make sure I really got it.
For me, it feels easier to know that I’m dealing with guilt or some emotion other than anger. Anger seems so explosive and unreasonable (even in a person who quietly seethesrather than shouting) and I’m never sure how to approach it in another person. But these experiences of late have given me some ideas about how to go about it. Keep an eye out for my upcoming post about how we can respond helpfully to our children when they are angry.
Much love to you and your little souls,
PS – What emotions have you noticed sometimes appear as anger in your child/ren? Comment below.
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