When we’re feeling stressed, we can sometimes lash out at those closest to us. Have you ever had a situation with your children where, seemingly out of the blue, you have just lost it and been completely consumed by rage?
A parent friend I know said that he had never been an angry person until he had children but now he regularly flies off the handle. That’s quite a statement to make but sometimes we do seem to have exaggerated reactions to our children’s behaviour.
If a colleague took an extra five minutes to find their coat we would wait with patience but when our child does it, we see red. If our friend picked up every candle in the store to investigate the scent, we probably wouldn’t say a thing but when our children touch things we go crazy!
We often don’t respond to our children with the same respect and courtesy as we do to complete strangers. Why is that? Have you ever wondered why our children can sometimes trigger these intense emotions inside of us?
The answer is quite complex because there could be several reasons why we flip our lids.
In the moment, we could be overwhelmed, exhausted or under time constraints. But how do we manage to control ourselves around adults, yet we lack this restraint in our most precious relationships; the ones with our children?
In my experience, when we look below the surface of the stresses and strains of modern life, two factors usually appear.
One is that we take for granted the fact that our children love us; and two, our child’s behaviour triggers something negative in us from our own childhood. These are pretty big concepts to wrap our heads around. Let’s take the first one.
Our children come into this world dependent upon us. They need us for survival and this attachment is interwoven with a deep love. Our children love us unequivocally.
Have you ever noticed that if you lose your temper or you are dismissive of your child, they will often cuddle you afterwards? Children are wired to seek connection from us and if they feel that this bond is under threat (e.g. because we are emotionally pushing them away) they will cling to us.
But we often take this for granted. We know our children will be gracious and forgiving when we mess up. They rarely withhold their love. In fact, they seem to love us more in our worst moments. When we are grouchy or lack patience or are emotionally distant, this is when they want to be around us more.
Children instinctively sense when the attachment fibres are tenuous and they unconsciously try to fix them. Aren’t they amazing? Merciful, understanding, loving and deeply connected to us.
But because of this, we don’t always treat them with the respect they deserve; we sometimes become complacent about their love for us. Now I know I’m over-generalising here but it is worth reflecting on.
So, what about us? We often talk about the unconditional love we have for our children. We would walk over hot coals for them, we would shield them from danger but, what about in our less dramatic, day-to-day encounters with them?
Truthfully, we don’t always give our love without strings attached. We don’t always love the true essence of our child. We don’t always whole-heartedly accept our children for who they are.
Sometimes we would like them to be a little bit quieter, neater, smarter, braver or softer. It’s hard to admit it because it’s true.
We can learn so much from our children. They don’t want us to change or be anything more or less; they just want us to love them and look after them. That’s it. More often than not, if a parent has difficulty accepting their child for who they are, it’s probably because they haven’t accepted themselves fully. And this leads on to number two: wounds from our own childhood.
I always say that our children are our greatest teachers and this is because they hold a mirror up to who we really are. If we have any past trauma or bad childhood memories, interactions with our children will often trigger these. Generally, when we are triggered our reaction will be intense and disproportionate to the situation.
Maybe you were the youngest in your family and you never felt like anyone listened to you or respected you. Now, when your child is cheeky or disrespectful, it triggers something deep inside and you become livid. Maybe you came from a chaotic household with lots of shouting and door-slamming and so when your children are noisy in the house, it sends you into an anxious frenzy.
Many people don’t think that their past experiences are relevant anymore because they are older and they have ‘dealt with it’ but becoming a parent can re-open old wounds. When you parent with unresolved issues weighing you down, you are reacting to present situations with past pain and this isn’t fair; to you or your children.
When I work with parents in this way, we often talk about their own childhood and see if we can identify their triggers. I ask them to get curious and notice what pushes their buttons and we try to work backwards and find the cause of their discomfort. When we’ve done lots of work on the back-story then we focus on self-regulation strategies.
Digging up the past can be a painful process but the self-awareness it fosters can also bring closure or a sense of peace to negative experiences they have had. This is called re-parenting and it can really strengthen the relationship with our children when we begin to heal ourselves.
And please remember, we’re all human.
If you are triggered and you lose your temper in the run-up to the holidays, you can always repair the rupture in your relationship. Apologising to your child and taking responsibility for your behaviour can have a powerful impact on your connection. It strengthens the bond and you model humility in the process. Now that’s the real spirit of Christmas.