after the blow-up: putting humpty-dumpty together again

Reader Question: 

Any suggestions on how to repair the anger you expressed with your kids after it's happened?




Answer: 

Welcome to my wheelhouse, mama. 



Tell me if this sounds familiar:

Me: OK my darling! Time to get our shoes on and get in the car!

Chicken: (Silently darts out the back door)

Me: WOW CHICKEN I CAN SEE YOU DON'T WANT TO PUT YOUR SHOES ON YET!

Chicken: (Dives under the porch, burrows into leaves)

Me: Chicken, you look like a mouse! We should play under the porch more often. It looks really fun under there. But right now it's time to get our shoes on, or we'll be late for school.

Chicken: NO! I don't WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL!

Me: I can see that, but I think that once you get to school-- (Chicken throws a fistful of under-the-porch leaves and God knows what else in my face. There are probably spider eggs in my hair now that will hatch tonight while I'm sleeping. #DontLetTheBrownReclusesBite)

Me: (Fuck!) Uh oh, I don't like that at all, Chicken.

Chicken: (Grabs another fistful of leaves and winds up)

Me: (I don't think so, buddy) (grabs his wrist and pulls him out from under the porch)

Chicken: (Drops to the ground and tries to scramble back under the porch)

Me: (Hauls him up to hold him in my arms like a baby) Wow, kiddo, you're having some big feelings about this transition right now.

Chicken: (Blows a raspberry in my face)

Me: (Channels effort to keep hands soft and gentle) Hm. Yeah, I don't like spitting in my face.

Chicken: (Blows another raspberry in my face, laughs)

Me: (Deep breath) OK, I'm going to take you to the car, and we'll put your shoes on when we get to school.

Chicken: WE'LL SEE ABOUT THAT! (pinches my armpit skin)

Me: OW!

Chicken: (Laughs)

Me: Chicken, I won't let you hurt my body.

Chicken: You are a poopy, poopy Mommy.

Me: (Forcing levity) Am I? Oh no! Will you check my diaper?

Chicken: No because I hate you.

Me: Well, that's fine, but we're still going to school. (Puts him in the car)

Chicken: (Wiggles out of his seat, dives into front seat, hits "door lock" and looks at me, giggling, through the driver's side window.)

Me: (Very deep breath) (Pulse racing) (Stay calm stay calm stay calm) Unlock the doors please.

Chicken: HA HA! YOU CAN'T GET IN!

Me: (Oh my God, fuck you so much) One.

Chicken: Two?

Me: (Bellowing) DAMN IT, OPEN THE DOOR RIGHT NOW, CHICKEN. NOW. NOW. NOW. NOW. NOW.

Chicken: (Licks window)

Me: (Mind goes blank) OK fine, good-bye. (Walks away) (I'm gonna scare this little jerk so he sees what happens when you push someone past all their limits.)

Chicken: (Starts screaming) Don't leave me! Don't leave me! Mommy! Mommy! Come back!

Me: (I am a monster.)

#ThisMorning
___

it's an electric burner
turned up to high

i was looking for a visual metaphor
also it kind of looks like
a hot brain
so
i'm fine with it
i mean it's not
groundbreaking
but it's fine


Raise your hand if your first response to the feeling of anger is "push it down," or "stay calm" or "take a deep breath."

Raise your hand if you simmer silently, but visibly, until you eventually explode.

Raise your hand if you remember being confused or worried about this kind of behavior in adults when you were a child.

Raise your hand if you feel like there was a lesson you missed at some point in your life: "Expressing Anger 101: How To Be Mad Without Feeling Like a Monster."

There is so much to unpack when it comes to parental anger, and especially maternal anger. We refuse to feel it until it consumes us.

We MUST be nice. We MUST be patient. We MUST be good. But we can only be pushed so far.

We fight the good fight, stay on the high road, model patience and respect for as long as we can, and then one more fucking thing happens and the dam just breaks.

What that looked like this morning:

Kid
Mom
Runs
Talks Kindly
Throws
Observes Feelings
Spits
Empathizes
Pinches
Breathes
Calls Names
Remains Playful
Locks Her Out Of Car
Says Please Unlock The Door
Says the word “two”
FREAKS THE FUCK OUT


Of course, after we freak the fuck out, regret and shame consume us faster than the 2 minutes flat in which we polished off a slab of Safeway cheesecake with the maraschino cherry syrup in the parking lot at 11 pm the night before Thanksgiving.

The shame spiral is real and it's a doozy.

What is wrong with me
Why can't I be better
I'm terrible
I have no idea what I'm doing
I'm sorry

The hard part for me is that I have warring compasses in my head, each of which points due north in a different direction. 

There's the compass my mother gave me, which tells me that people lose their temper and it's okay for kids to see that.

There's the compass I bought with all my progressive parenting books, which tells me that kids need calm, comfort, and constancy, especially when they're being little assholes (paraphrased), and that anger is harmful to young children.

There's the deeply-rooted compass I've followed my whole life, that tells me when something feels uncomfortable it must be bad, and that it's always most important to be kind.

And there's the compass I've been building since the day I became a parent, that tells me it's okay to question my instincts because like it or not, I was raised in a flawed world by flawed people, and sometimes things that make me uncomfortable might actually be okay, and sometimes things that feel like home are not who I want to be anymore. 

So which one is right? Which one do we follow? What do we DO when we've yelled, walked away, frightened our children or scared them into sullen withdrawal? How do we come back?

___

1. Repeat after me: I am mad, and I am okay.

This is as important for you to hear as it is for your kids to hear: You can be mad without destroying your child. You can demonstrate anger without traumatizing the person you love the most. You can yell, stomp, slam a door, punch a pillow, and you will still be okay, and so will your child. 

As long as you're not physically harming your child, bullying him, degrading him, abusing him, as long as you're just being a person who is mad without being violent (physically or emotionally), you can be mad, and your family will be okay. 

Hiding your anger teaches your kids that anger is something that we need to be protected from, and I have not found that to be true if your anger is expressed in a nonviolent way.

In fact, since I've started demonstrating my anger in nonviolent ways: yelling, punching a pillow, stomping my foot, and declaring my feelings ("I am so mad right now!"), I've noticed that both Chicken and Buster are expressing their anger more readily, and recovering from their anger more quickly. 

When I stopped protecting him from my anger, he stopped seeing anger as something he needed to be protected from. When I stopped fighting back the monster, he stopped seeing it as a monster. And so did I.

I get mad. And I am okay.


2. Take up some space to calm down.

Don't rush back to calmness. You can be mad for as long as you need to be mad. Nothing will break between you and your child in the next half-hour.

Give your kid some space, and take some space of your own. 

Do what helps you calm down - lie on the floor breathing deeply, drink a glass of water (or whatever,) listen to or sing along with a song that you love. 

Here are my go-to's:

Sam Cooke - Bring it On Home to Me

Old Crow Medicine Show - Wagon Wheel


It's okay to let your kid watch you calm down - in fact, it's great if you can do that.

But if you're too mad to be around your kid, it's okay to calm down by yourself, too. The most important thing is not that you model rapid calm, it's that you BE genuinely calm. 

Not the mask of calm that we can slip on terrifyingly quickly when we sense that we've transgressed. 

The real calm. That takes some time.

3. When you're ready to talk, a well-placed "whew!" is a winning kickoff.

"Whew! I was mad."

"Whew! I really yelled loud!"

"Whew! That was an intense morning, huh?"

There's something about the "whew!" that both acknowledges the intensity of the situation, and promises that it's over. 

"Whew!" means we're past it. 

"Whew!" is an invitation to share a smile, and maybe a quick laugh of relief. 

"Whew!" tells your child that he wasn't the only one who was overwhelmed or freaked out by the episode. 

My formula is "Whew!" plus an honest observation of what happened. So for the example from this morning, that conversation in the car started like this: 

Whew!
+
I was really mad when we got in the car.


4. Explain what happened - but keep it short and sweet.

Seriously, 2 sentences MAX. Your feelings are complex and deserve to be fully articulated, but that's why you have friends and partners and siblings and bloggers to email about it. With your kid, your goal is to summarize the events of the incident and your feelings as briefly as possible. Why? Because best-case scenario they're over it and don't care, and worst-case scenario, they're still unsettled and don't want to go there. 

For the example of this morning: 

Whew! 
+
I was really mad when we got in the car.
+
I was trying to get us in the car to go to school, and you did not want to go. 
I yelled and walked away from the car, and I think that really scared you.

And then wait to see what your kid says. 

He might say something. He might say nothing. 

Either one is okay. Neither silence nor speech means good or bad, right or wrong. Shift your focus away from building the cathedral, and toward setting this one brick, just right. If this conversation does nothing else, it demonstrates to your child that you saw the same thing he did (Mom was mad) and defines the events that led up to that feeling. If you do nothing else, you've validated the experience and demonstrated empathy. That's a WIN.


5. Apologize if you did something wrong, and know your central thesis.

Apologize if you did something wrong

Let me be clear: If getting mad when your kid is throwing shit at you, pinching you, spitting at you, and locking you out of the car is wrong, then I don't wanna be right. 

It's okay to just leave the offering as: "Whew" + Observation + Summary of Events, and see what your kid says. 

Now, in the event that you, ahem, walked away from your kid with the mean-spirited intention to scare him into obedience, and you kind of feel like that was a dick move, well, you might want to apologize for that. 

No need to grovel. No need to beat yourself to death. Simple and short:

Whew! 
+
I was really mad when we got in the car.
+
I was trying to get us in the car to go to school, and you did not want to go. 
I yelled and walked away from the car, and I think that really scared you.
+
I understand why that was scary.
I'm really sorry I scared you.

Resist the urge to go on in excruciating detail about the many ways you are terrible. It might feel true and cathartic, but for your child it will also be scary and confusing to hear Mommy talking serious shit about herself. 

Now, if you DIDN'T do something that you feel you need to apologize for - if you got mad and WERE OKAY - if you yelled, or stomped, or punched a pillow AND WERE STILL FINE - then you can go straight to your central thesis. 

Your central thesis is the core takeaway that you want your child to remember if he remembers nothing else from this whole episode. 


Whew! 
+
I was really mad when we got in the car.
+
I was trying to get us in the car to go to school, and you did not want to go. 
I yelled and walked away from the car, and I think that really scared you.
+
I understand why that was scary.
I'm really sorry I scared you.
+
No matter how mad I get,
I will always
ALWAYS
take care of you.


___

There are a lot of other things we need to do.

We need to go back to when we were little girls and tell them: You don't have to be nice all the time. You will still be a good person if you get mad. You can be mad and still be okay. 

We need to increase our awareness and acceptance of growing anger and find ways to demonstrate our anger as it's on its way up to "Freak the Fuck Out." 

We need to help our kids understand that it wasn't the word "two" that turned Mommy into the Hulk - it was the whole hour leading up to that. 

In fact, it started last night. 

IN FACT, it started 5 years ago this June. Parents have long memories and frustration and fear don't heal like boo-boos under a Doc McStuffins Band-Aid.

We need to raise our daughters to accept and express their anger. We need to raise our sons to be responsible for their own feelings.

Also we need to help the bees.

But those are, like, long-term goals that you can work toward.
#WithProfessionalHelp 
#TheProfessionalImReferringToIsASommelier

But tonight, right now, in the moments after the blow-up, that's my answer:

1. "I am mad and I am okay."
2. Calm Down.
3. Whew!
4. SHORT Recap.
5. SHORT Apology.
6. Thesis of Unconditional Love.

Oh!

7. Treat. You've earned it.


Love,
Katie

PS - 

If you feel yourself going off the rails and you need a reset, it's TOTALLY OKAY to say:

"Wait, stop, I need to rewind and try again." 

It is NOT, however, okay to make the cassette tape rewind noise because our children are growing up in a world in which the sound of "rewind" is ::soundless compression of button:: and they will be alarmed if you start making a bubbly seal noise while spinning your finger backward through the air.


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2 comments:

  1. Thank you for saying what you did in such an articulate manner... I have never felt comfortable with my, nor others' anger and this helped me a lot! Not that I'm "cured" but it has put things into a new perspective :)

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    Replies
    1. Anger is such an interesting feeling because it is so interwoven with gender, power, and the idea of virtue - like "good" girls don't get mad? FALSE. Your (nonviolent) anger is a healthy and natural part of being a person! xoxo!

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