This provocative question came up in a parents’ discussion I led recently about establishing healthy boundaries. I was responding to a mom’s query about dealing with her toddler son pulling her hair. I encouraged her to try to stay calm while she kindly, but definitively stopped him. I suggested she take his hand away or put him down and say something simple like, “I won’t let you pull my hair. It hurts me.”
No, it isn’t fun to have our hair ripped out, and we may not be able to suppress a scream or our anger. We aren’t robots. But if we lose it, lecture or plead, we can make the experience too exciting, unnerving, or intriguing and cause the toddler to feel too powerful and/or create guilt. These responses can also make him want to repeat the action until the issue feels resolved. Instead, he needs the comfort of knowing his mom won’t allow him to pull her hair — period -– and the assurance that while it’s no big deal, it shouldn’t happen again.
When we handle these situations simply, directly and with conviction, the toddler can let go (literally) and move on to more productive activities. He may be upset, but he feels relieved of that particular distraction (though it may take several repetitions before he finally puts it to rest). “Phew! I won’t be given the power to hurt my mom. That’s settled.” When toddlers don’t receive the consistent and conclusive answers they need, the tests and power struggles can continue, sometimes for years.
During this discussion about boundaries and hair-pulling, another parent asked, “How open and honest should we be with our babies about our emotions — pain, worry, anger, sadness, etc.?” (Not her words, but that was the gist.) Her question got us all thinking.
Most of us desire an honest relationship with our children. Honesty, trust and authenticity are integral to Magda Gerber’s child care approach, and most of us are committed to modeling those values. But can we always be our whole authentic selves without infringing on our child’s well-being, without shaking his sense of security? Don’t children need us to be strong? Where do we draw the line?
When we can, I believe it’s best to temper our darker emotions in the presence of very young children, while finding a way to release them thoroughly elsewhere. And I don’t see that as being inauthentic. It can be frightening for children to have their parents rage, sob or fall apart, or lean on them for emotional support (when they need it be the other way around). But telling our children, even our babies (especially our babies), in simple terms what’s going on when we’re upset is necessary, in my opinion, and here’s why…
I have 3 kids who, for different reasons, don’t seem particularly sensitive to my feelings these days. One needs to push me away in preparation to separate — she’ll be leaving the nest for college soon. Another is in the throes of adolescence and committed to rejecting mommy regularly (which is easier for me to understand the second time around). The third child is a gregarious, athletic boy who relates to the world with his physical exuberance. So, I’m always taken aback when I realize how tuned in they are to me. When I’m pensive, distracted, or a little down they’ll immediately ask, “Are you okay?”
Babies can’t ask, but they need to know because they are fully aware that something’s amiss. If you have the slightest doubt about a baby’s sensitivity and awareness, please read this article by Lisa Sunbury at Regarding Baby and watch the video. It’s tough to watch, but you’ll be astounded.
Resolves mystery and eases worry
So, if from early infancy onward children sense our feelings, how does it affect them when we’re upset or troubled? I found this explanation concerning older, more verbal children at hospicenet.org:
We express ourselves by what we do, by what we say, and by what we do not say. When we avoid talking about something that is obviously upsetting, children often hesitate to bring up the subject or ask questions about it. To a child, avoidance can be a message – “If Mummy and Daddy can’t talk about it, it really must be bad, so I better not talk about it either.” In effect, instead of protecting our children by avoiding talk, we sometimes cause them more worry and also keep them from telling us how they feel.
A baby sees his parents as incredibly important, somewhat godlike figures, and when we’re upset, even a tad anxious, it’s indeed unnerving and stressful. The baby may even wonder, “Gosh, could these tense, mysterious feelings be about me…something I’ve caused?
Have you ever been in a mad rush to go somewhere and tried to diaper or dress a baby in a hurry? It seems maddeningly ironic when the baby resists, maybe cries and is far less cooperative than usual, but it’s no accident. Our babies are very sensitive to our stress. I’ve found it better to admit, “I’m sorry, but I’m worried we’ll be late for the doctor’s appointment, and we have to rush.” (Then maybe make a game out of rushing.)
Social emotional intelligence
Making sense of one’s emotional life is an ongoing process, but since experts agree that social-emotional intelligence is a key element to reaching our potential, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
By telling children what’s on our mind, and labeling our emotions for them, we help them begin the process of recognizing and sorting through feelings. Best to keep it short and simple. We might say, for example, “Sorry I spoke to you loudly. I’m really angry that the neighbors let their dog run loose. It isn’t safe.” Or, “I’m worried and sad about grandma. She’s sick.”
Helps us clarify feelings and self-calm
The beauty of letting our children into our emotional world is that by framing our feelings for our child, we clarify them for ourselves. Expressing ourselves this way can have a calming effect and help us to gain perspective on the situation.
Helps restore trust if we “lose it.”
In The Emotional Life of the Toddler, psychologist author Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D., shares an interesting perspective. Although she doesn’t “necessarily advocate” a parent’s loss of control, Lieberman notes: A parent’s outburst can be actually helpful for toddlers because it teaches them that they do not need to control themselves all the time.
The important question is what to do after the parent has lost her temper. Here, language can be of enormous help because it enables parent and child to discuss together what happened “when mommy and daddy got so angry.”
No matter how righteous a parent’s anger, it is always frightening to the child. This fear can be made more manageable by explaining how mommy or daddy felt, asking the child how he felt, and reassuring him that he is loved even when the parent is angry at him. When children can find meaning in difficult experiences, their sense of security is temporarily shaken but not permanently impaired. They learn that closeness is restored after the tempers calm down.
Lieberman continues: Telling the child “I am sorry” can spare her undeserved shame, reassure her that she is not to blame, and shore up her self-esteem. Of course, this only happens when parents mean what they say.
As our children grow and understand more, we can feel freer to express our more complex feelings and encourage them to share theirs. And by all means, don’t hesitate to share all the good stuff!
Thoughts? Feelings? I’d love to hear them…
(I share more in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, now available in Spanish!)