Let Your Kids Be Mad At You

I always write my posts from personal experience, though I am rarely the protagonist. This story is especially personal and, honestly, it feels a bit risky to share, but it’s important, so I’m taking the plunge…

I had the perfect mom. We adored each other and had a wonderful relationship right up until her death four and a half years ago. She loved to laugh and make others laugh, and everyone who knew her relished her company — her children and grandchildren most of all. She was perpetually and reliably loving and supportive. I always felt she was in my corner and my biggest fan.

My mom had only one major flaw: she talked on the phone. How could she ignore us for those ten or fifteen minutes? Oh, and occasionally she went to the bathroom and closed the door (the nerve!). But otherwise my mom was absolutely, incredibly perfect, and I will always, always think so.

Then there was me. I remember a mostly happy childhood, yet it was evident early on that I lacked confidence.  Even though I had lot going for me on the outside, I don’t ever remember feeling entirely comfortable in my own skin, the way the children I work with and my own children clearly do.

In my late teens, as my public career began to flourish, my insecurities really took root. Part of my job as an actress was appearing forever cheerful and ‘on’ at parties, publicity events and on the set, all of which I managed relatively gracefully. Deep down, though, I was dying. It was the 80’s, so of course I did my share of drinking and drugging, which had the effect of helping me to feel some false confidence and a comfort that I’d never really experienced before.

I’ll fast-forward through the details, but suffice it to say that at 25 I was an emotional time bomb. When I finally slowed down enough take stock and face my demons, I was flooded by the feelings I’d been avoiding and stuffing away all those years. I wasn’t prepared for the accompanying anxiety, or especially the self-loathing and depression, never mind the panic attacks. I was a mess, and for a long time I cried from morning ‘til night. I cried a river… and I actually think this is what helped to heal me.

After a few years of very intense work on myself, I slowly, slowly began the process of self-forgiveness and acceptance.

But what was so wrong with me?

This whole experience seems especially bizarre to me now that I have a 21 year old who could not be more different than I was at her age. Like my other two children, she is grounded, secure, capable and self-confident.

So again, what was the matter with me?

I got an inkling several years later, and this brings me back to my mother. By then I was happily married with two kids. I was having my daily phone conversation with my mom when she made a comment (in jest, I’m sure) that I objected to a bit. There was an old joke in my family that I was useless in the kitchen. This was certainly based on fact, had been true for most of my life, and I had always happily played along with it.

But since becoming a mom I’d changed a lot. I’d become the responsible person I needed to be. I’d figured out how to cook for myself and my family. I didn’t feel that I deserved the label “pathetic-in-the-kitchen” anymore.

So, although I’m certain I didn’t even raise my voice (because I had never raised my voice to my mother so long as I can remember), my feelings were hurt, and I got a little defensive. I objected to her comment.

She hung up on me.  I called her back, but she didn’t respond. I tried again…and again. I left messages. But she wouldn’t speak to me. It took five days, and for those five days my anxiety was through the roof. I couldn’t breathe. I was in a constant state of panic. And strangely, deep within me I knew this place…it was familiar.  I don’t remember when or how, but I knew I’d felt this terror before.

Eventually my mom took my call…and neither of us ever mentioned what had happened. I was so grateful and relieved to be breathing again that I would not have dreamed of saying anything that might drive my mother away from me.

My dear mom had never laid a hand on me. Never punished me. Never yelled at me. But she clearly could not handle my feelings. The result was I felt innately bad and wrong for ever having them.

So I’ve made a special effort to accept all my children’s emotions, especially their anger…to let them know that it’s always okay for them to be mad at me. I’m not going anywhere.

I’ve been far from perfect, but the good news is that with kids, we do get points for trying, especially if we confront and repair our mistakes. “I’m sorry I lost my patience.”

We are human, and our kids are incredibly forgiving.

***

 This story and more are in my book:

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting 

(Photo by Lance Shields on Flickr)

92 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you for letting us into your world Janet! You are helping me and my family in so many ways. If you were in front of me right now I would give you a big fat Greek hug!!

    1. Awww, I’m feeling the big fat Greek hug, and I love it! Thank you!

    2. avatar debra schnarr lombardo says:

      janet,
      thank you for sharing this very vulnerable story…how profound to have reflected and found the source of your self loathing….
      i have had similar experiences..and love my mother deeply but learned from how she parented me…how to better parent my children..and in fact have done research on how shame impacts us all…i would love to speak more…maybe one day…f2f…at a RIE conference…?

  2. Hey Janet – thanks for the piece , it’s a great point. My one question , why did you start off with “My mom had only one major flaw: she talked on the phone. How could she ignore us for those ten or fifteen minutes? Oh, and occasionally she went to the bathroom and closed the door (the nerve!). But otherwise my mom was absolutely, incredibly perfect, and I will always, always think so.” When clearly you spelled out in your article that your mom wasn’t perfect ; she couldn’t handle your negative emotions and that’s definitely a flaw . Was it because you used to not be able to see that flaw in her ?

    1. Yes, Rivka. I think it can be hard for us to perceive our parents’ flaws. I still think she was perfect in so many important ways. I would call what she had a weakness, rather than a flaw.

  3. So many of your posts serve as much needed reminders. This one is no exception. Thank you for your devotion to helping us parent kind, confident and resilient children.

    1. You are so welcome, Cara. Thank you for your kind words.

  4. avatar Kat Beaulieu says:

    Thank you ~ as always Janet you are spot on ~ my mother on the other hand had many flaws/weaknesses ~ the major being emotionally abusive ~ I dropped out of school at a young age to get away from her ~ I knew it wasn’t right to be treated this way and yet, she was my mother. I still live with/battle with self worth even though intellectually I know it’s old tapes and stories and I have grown beyond all that ! I am a teacher of young children and find it so important to be clear and respectful ~ your posts are gifts that help in working with these precious beings that hopefully won’t have to go through the inner pain that I did.

  5. avatar Lindie Janse van Vuuren says:

    What do you do if you as a mom see that negative emotions?

  6. I try so hard to accept my nearly 4 year olds anger but he almost always acts with violence. I’ve tried I don’t know how many times to keep him from hitting and say “I won’t let you” but he’s determined. I have hit a wall with this but your post reminds me it’s important to keep trying. I wish I had someone to model just how to let him express the anger while keeping the aggression in check.

    1. Can you redirect his violence towards something appropriate? If he is entering the “fight or flight” response he likely needs a physical outlet to burn off the adrenaline and cortisol flooding his body, hitting (i.e. “fight”) might be the option that works for him right now.

      When my son went through a hitting phase I bought an inflatable weighted minion that when punched would fall back and then come upright again. When he started to hit I would tell him that he can’t hit people but that if he feels like he needs to hit something that he can hit the minion. That worked well and it proved to be a very short phase.

    2. I had this issue (though at 2.5 yrs). I don’t know if this works for you but I started with timeouts (explain, 1min per Age, explain again, see if they apologize and hugs and kisses). That’s been somewhat successful but I found identifying when he was going to be violent was much more effective. When I started to see the frustration leading down that path, I would ask him to name his emotion (are you frustrated, mad, sad, happy!) and help him hurdle the obstacle causing it. That would work about 25% and other times, I’d sternly say his name and then say in a big loud voice, I LOVE YOU!!! I found guiding him through his emotion in a healthy way (yelling, distraction, belly breathing (Sesame Street), focusing) helps the most but immediate timeouts for biting or extreme hitting necessary to really stop all of it.

  7. Wow. This is me. Only my kids are driving me insane and when they gat mad at me I feel like I’m going off the deep end. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. You are so kind–your assessment of your mom and this weakness that affected you as well as your gentle acceptance of the hurt you endured. Thank you for sharing, for the wise parenting words that have given me more confidence in my journey, and for the vulnerability you exhibit in offering your own story. You make me think of Brene Brown’s work “Daring Greatly.”

  9. Wonderful piece. I wish I had the internet and your website when I was raising my own kids. Accepting a child’s emotions and feelings are so important but it is not easy as we all know. Thank you for sharing!

  10. This is beautiful! Thank you for giving us support to accept children whole – their full range of emotions!!! Your writing is so heart felt and so real. As a mom and a teacher of young children for 30 years I find it refreshing and you always support the things I am thinking about and writing about myself. Thank you! Thank you Janet!

  11. If your children do not sometimes get mad at you, you are not being a good mother. You are being a friend. Be a friend when you can, but be a mother when the situation calls for it. There is a difference, and being a mother is more important. You always want what is best for your children, and sometimes that requires the discipline of a mother, not the acceptance of a friend. Being a good parent isn’t easy. Sometimes you’ll hear, “I hate you!.” That hurts, but in most cases it means you have done the right thing.

  12. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing this. I went through, and am still going through, an eerily similar situation. I have had to tiptoe around my mom with certain ‘difficult’ feelings in the same way she has always had to tiptoe around hers. So, guess you could say in runs in the fam. There are many patterns for which I have vowed to not repeat myself or with my family. And this dynamic is absolutely at the top of the list. With the help and support of friends coaching me through it, I have been successful at setting certain boundaries with my mother and it has not been easy, but it has worked and I have seen drastic improvements in some of her boundary-crossing behavior (main ones are talking negatively to and about my dad, and helicopter grandparenting). It is so important for us to be able to have these difficult conversations and let those emotions out. I am thankful for reading this because even though my children are still young, I want to be conscientious of this as they grow. I imagine this is going to be an incredibly useful insight for those tumultuous teenage years. Again, thank you. Lovely.

    1. Tamara, can you elaborate on your mum not bad mouthing to or about your dad and the effect that had on you?..

  13. Hi Janet

    My 6 year old Daughter was mad at me yesterday and called me the worst Mum in the world and it was the worst day ever in her life! She wanted a book on a charity stall and it was GCSE revision Geography! I think she thought it was something it wasn’t like we could ask her questions etc. I had tried to explain what it was calmly while she was crying. I agreed to go back and have another look to try to show her it was too old for her etc. She didn’t calm down or understand so I said oh get it then and I saidit I. A bit of a mean way I suppose which made her angry. She was tired and hungry too and there had been a build up as we were food shopping and I said a few things like she wasn’t listening etc. When she said I was the worst mum etc I just said ok and didn’t react, is this the best thing as I assume she said it to get a reaction from me and I didn’t want her to think I was ignoring her. I did say I understand she’s angry when we got on the house. pm any Thanks

  14. I try to accept my 4 year old and 2 year olds feeling. But what I struggle with is the drama, it’s like she enjoys and wants to be upset and tell me how mad she is at ‘so and so,’ how she’s not going to play with ‘so and so’its hard forme to affirm this when I can tell she is acting sometimes… Does that make sense?

  15. What you described sounds so familiar to the younger me. I was scared to let my mom know I was injured, that I was embarrassed, that I felt sad, that I was stressed, that I was insecure or worried or upset or scared. My feelings and emotions seemed to enrage her. She would shut down if I exposed any other side of myself, and I was always full of anxiety, pretending to be completely fine until she would recover. But I always felt so hurt that I couldn’t be ME.

  16. Oh Janet, yes! My husband grew up in a household where his mother’s emotions dominated and there wasn’t a lot of room for anyone else’s. I grew up in a house where you vented: you could cry, you could yell, stomp, slam a door, and then it was over. Then there was talking and apologizing. That is how our house runs. No ones emotions are more or less important than anyone else’s and there are no grudges. And apologies happen in a timely way. There is always love and always growing and learning and accepting. Occasionally my 12 year old daughter and I do our yelling, arguing and then we come back around and re-connect. My husband tries to hush us, and we both turn on him to bugger off until we are done.
    He’s learning. But I always hope my children know that their emotions are safe in our house and that they are always loved.
    Thank you for your share!

  17. May I ask if you ever found any resolution for your insecurities? This article could have been written by me, and now my mind is a bit blown 🙂 I would love to know how I could get confidence, but also very happy to now know what to look for in the way I parent my two small kiddos. Thanks so much for sharing.

  18. My mom also liked doing those put-downs “in jest” thing for as long as I remember. Useless in the kitchen was one of her favorites, but there were plenty others. I went with it when I was younger, because I was like hey, it’s true, and I don’t really mind. Only later I realized the damage that it does to my confidence in that particular area, and to my willingness to improve it (like what you wrote in your essay about why not to give kids labels). But anyway, once I was on my own I started calling her out on it rather than going along with it, and if I found it particularly inappropriate then *I* would hang up on *her* and not take her calls, rather than the other way around. So I can’t really imagine what it feels like when you feel like you can’t even stand your ground, you’re not even allowed to protest such things. To me this is less about accepting of your feelings (doesn’t sound like you were mad at the time, merely assertive), and more about a power dynamic where you have none of the power. There is *absolutely nothing* wrong with you, everybody’s confidence would be entirely shot by that sort of dynamic.

  19. I was just putting this together… You wrote: “My dear mom had never laid a hand on me. Never punished me. Never yelled at me”. But she did get upset at you sometimes, and she didn’t do anything about it? Did she do the “you hurt my feelings, and there’s nothing I can do about it, nothing I’m going to do about it, but be hurt now, until I eventually get over it”? Is this what you mean by not being able to handle your emotions? Mine did that sometimes, which I found incredibly guilt-inducing (she was more prone to have the anger reactions that your mom didn’t have, which I found somewhat fear-inducing but easier to fight against, to feel anger and push back – it’s probably how I got my “confidence”). When someone carries our negative emotions as a harm, the guilt that it induces, the fact that there’s nothing we can do to “fix” it… That’s incredibly debilitating.

    1. What I experienced was more like abandonment. She would shut off to me. I lost her when I expressed anything close to disagreement or rejection of her.Again, I don’t clearly remember this happening, but just have glimmers. It was so traumitizing that I imagine I buried it. She obviously couldn’t handle feeling the disagreement with me… perhaps it pushed her shame button? So, she turned away and emotionally vanished in self-protection. I have that impulse myself, but have had to fight against it. Children need be able to disagree with and reject us! That’s how they individuate.

      Yes, I agree that the “you’ve hurt me/you’ve disappointed me” response is very guilt inducing.

      1. You’re probably right about the pushing of the shame button… I have the same tendency to withdraw and shut off emotionally over conflicts, probably coming from similar sense of insecurity. You’re helping me see how important it is for my kids that I figure out how to fight this, how this may be as damaging for them as enduring anger. This is very eye-opening for me, thank you for that.

  20. avatar Amanda Colclough says:

    I freakin’ love you, Janet! We met at a RIE convention awhile back and it was a true treat for me. Thank you for sharing this very personal story on this extremely relevant topic. It’s exactly what my husband is facing right now- looking into his personal past- and understanding WHY he is so uncomfortable with our children’s feelings and outbursts. I will share with him as yet another story of how he is not alone.
    Many MANY thanks,
    Amanda

    1. Yay! Your sweet shout-out made my day, Amanda. Thank you so much. With love right back to you! x Janet

  21. Thank you for sharing this. I think it resonates with many of us that while we appreciate and love our parents, we aim to do something different than they did, for good reason (spanking and yelling, for me). My mom is so supportive of how my husband and I are raising our son. She is open to these new ideas and respects how evidence-based our approach is. It reminds me of a saying that goes something like this, maybe by Maya Angelou: Do the best you know how, and when you know better, do better. 🙂

  22. avatar Jessica Louise says:

    Thank you for this touching story, Janet.

    I remember always feeling like my mom was a perfect mom, too, and we’ve had a really great relationship. The first inkling I had that something about her parenting approach was a bit off was when I realized in my late teens that she had never once apologized to me.

    As I’ve been preparing to become a parent (expecting my first baby in February), I’m so grateful to have stumbled upon RIE as an alternative to the punishment/reward system I and so many people were raised within. I’ve realized that my mom did her best with what she knew, but that she was very, very young (19 when she had me) and emotionally immature in a lot of ways. She had to be right, even when she was wrong. She and my dad were so very rigid and would never back down from a decision they made in haste and anger, even after cooling down and hearing some reasonable arguments from me or my siblings.

    She and I were locked in a mutual fear of upsetting each other or feeling each other’s anger. So we both tiptoed, I think. I stayed in town for college because I knew she’d be upset if I left. In general, I still avoid telling her things that I know will upset her.

    I almost feel excited for the first time my yet-to-be-born kid gets really, seriously angry at me. Because it will be a chance for me to break out of this cycle and just feel her/his wrath and respect it for what it is. And respect his/her right to be angry. Such a different approach!

  23. avatar Lynn Holland says:

    Love this and your insightful blog.
    I too can relate to your issues with your mom. Mine did the same thing. Not to excuse but simply explain, I think my mom’s generation, and ones before that, saw showing negative emotions un-lady like and not acceptable. I’m so glad we know now how important it is to have and communicate about all the feelings we have.
    Thanks for the great post.

  24. Thank you for writing this! While reading I realised I was not able to properly express my feelings to my parents while growing which has lead to, what I feel, an emotional wall between us. They did their best but unfortunately had some downfalls in their methods.
    I’m so glad that I’ve come across your teachings as they’ve lead me to really think about how I’m parenting my daughter rather than just continuing the cycle of how I was raised.
    Thank you xx

  25. I want to say thank you – I have been following your blog and my husband follows your podcasts, we have even bought your books for friends who are expecting. I feel so blessed to have come across your advice and we are actively (although some days it doesn’t feel very expertly) following your techniques and strategies. It has made a huge difference in our relationships with our 2 children. This post in particular hit home to me because of how well it illustrates the long term affects of parenting choices. I have regularly told my son “it’s ok to be mad at me” but now I need to rethink my actions – do they go with my words, and I’m not so sure. I’m a parenting-work-in-progress, and thank goodness kids are forgiving. This will be my next area of conscience awareness, letting my children really be allowed their emotions.

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