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)

96 Comments

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

  1. Hi Janet

    Thank you so much for yet again a lovely post to help me along in my parenting journey. I can strongly relate to this post, having lost my mother at an early age I remember growing up with my father and step mother and having similar experiences. My step mother would often use the silent treatment and refuse to engage in a conversation when I was a teenager (and before) if she disagreed. I remember once it lasted for days when she said I was on the phone too much as a teenager. My father said he thought I hadn’t been on the phone too much and she didn’t talk to him for a week. I realised I was repeating this behaviour with my husband (then boyfriend) as a young adult and decided I would not do it again (I used to hang up the phone when we had an disagreement when we were doing long distance). Thanks also for all your other posts. My relationship with my daughter (15.5mo) has improved significantly now that I know how to be both gentle AND firm with boundaries. I read and re-read them to keep me focused.

    Much appreciation,
    Rachel

  2. Thank you for sharing this… what a powerful, powerful revelation.

  3. “But she clearly could not handle my feelings. The result was I felt innately bad and wrong for ever having them.”

    How profound! That even all of the other wonderful things she did for you couldn’t make up for not having learned that all of your feelings were okay, no matter what they looked like. What a crucial message to communicate to our children. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. My mother is gone over 10 years and has not been here for me while I raise my 3 year old. I feel completely alone some times, often.

    I understand 100% how my parent’s cannot handle my feelings. I have been estranged from my father for YEARS as a child and an adult. Because of my feelings. I have been abandoned and it has been difficult for me to get a hold of my own feelings, when clearly my parents cannot handle them either.

    I’m very aware of my daughter and the person she’s becoming, the spirited independent person. I am re-parenting myself through her. I’m making sure all the things I felt I lacked she gets.

    I will promise her that she can be herself and I will always love her. She will learn that she is NOT her feelings. She will never feel “innately bad and wrong for ever having them.” I have always felt bad for having feelings. Because others couldn’t handle them. Even now.

    Thank you for this. This is very good to hear.

    1. I feel like you just wrote my thoughts exactly. What a blessing to be able to understand these things and make a choice to parent differently!

  5. So blessed that you chose to “take the plunge” and be vulnerable in sharing this. One of the most moving pieces of yours I have read (and I enjoy and learn from them all). Thank you thank you. It is absolute life-giving truth.

  6. Thank you so very very much for sharing this. I can relate in many ways, especially with arriving at 25 and realizing I was an emotional mess and had a lot to heal and sort through. I am also afraid of my feelings, but for the complete opposite reason, my mother was a rage-aholic. And I learned to cope by stuffing my feelings- or exploding.
    She and I have healed so much, on our own and now together. But I am doing everything in my power to create a culture of emotional wellness in our family. Your blog is helping immensely. Thank you.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this! I remember very clearly when I was 4, a time when my mom yelled at me for something I didn’t do. When she figured it out, she apologized, and that made a HUGE impact on me.

    I try to be open and honest and accepting with my 4yo daughter even though it’s so difficult sometimes. I want her to understand that we *should* talk about our emotions and that it’s ok and normal to express them, even if she’s mad at me.

    I don’t want my girls’ self-confidence and well-being to depend on how they think *I* feel about them. I don’t want them to be afraid of me, or try to please me all the time. I’m still working on it, because I was raised very differently.

  8. A powerful post. Even perfect moms make mistakes. And moms who make mistakes can still be wonderful. Thank you for sharing this.

  9. Sometimes you read something and you know that it will change you some how. This post has changed me. Its personal experience, with vulnerability which touches all heart. I will learn from your experience. very beautiful!

  10. Dearest Janet, Thank you so much for letting us inside your world & opening the door to some of your darker rooms. We all have them. You are brave & a hero for sharing this with us. I salute you!Being a Life Coach I know how destructive burying negative emotions & memories can be on a person’s wellbeing and ultimately their health. Accepting & processing your emotions is the beginning of the healing process. And then comes the lesson to be learned… whether its immediately or 20 years down the line! We do eventually get to the ‘a ha’ moments. Much love!!! Love your blog!

  11. Oh my! Janet, you HAVE to get the “How We Love” book by Milan and Kay Yerkovich! It will open your eyes up to why we are the way we are! Incredible book! My jaw was dropping all thru the books. We are affected by our parents from day 1 and our reactions today go clear back to then. Go to the HowWeLove.com website and take their free quiz. Get your free test results and then write down your top love types (usually 2 of them) and then click on each (all 5)and read about them. Get the the 2 books they offer. The How We Love our Kids is great too! Very insightful! I think you will gain greatly from them and then be able to pass on the blessing to others!

  12. Dear Janet,
    Thank you for sharing this. It resonates so so much with me I cannot tell you how much. The not feeling too well in your own skin feeling. The fear of having any emotions. I have started an NVC course and we have been talking a lot about empathic listening – I realised I am having trouble with just listening to other people’s “bad” feelings, without trying to get in there, fix it, give advice or yet something else. An dI am slowly realising that this is so deeply connected to the fact that I was not free to get angry as a child, get mad, or sad. That I was a forever cheerful girl, who had occasional worse days, but she’d get over them, because that’s what girls like that do.

    So thank you. I am now learning all this, it is somehow easier to accept my kids’ feelings and emotions than it is to accept my own at times, but I am on the way 🙂

    Love.Anna.

  13. Amazing that you can share this without bitterness! Props to you for taking the lesson and moving on.

  14. Thank you sooooo much for your courage!

  15. Hi Janet.

    It was a pleasure to read this post. Touching, grounding and beautifully written. I can definitely relate with those feelings. And reading this gives me again that motivation to be there even more for my son. It can be so tough, especially when I get caught up in his feelings of anger. It can only get better though.

    Like almost everyone is saying here, you are helping me incredibly!

    I wish there were more parents around the area where I live who I could share this way of raising children with!!

    Thanks for your honesty.

    Greetings from the Netherlands!

    1. Hi malissa
      i am a big fan of Janet and her parenting approach. I am also in NL. Let’s get in touch.
      you can get in touch through my website.
      warmly
      claudia

  16. Wow Janet, I am so moved, thank you so much for sharing this. I was not allowed to feel either specially anger but was punished for it physically and verbally, I am still healing and working every day to make sure my children know they are allowed to feel. Even if I feel overwhelemed at least make sure to let them know is ok to be sad, mad, etc.

  17. This speaks to my experience as a child, and I am so thankful that you wrote it. Having had a mother who I often had to emotionally take care of because she couldn’t handle my emotions, I feel a powerful commitment to let my son feel whatever he feels and to tell me about it (or yell at me about it, as this strong-willed 2.5 year old will tend to do). Reading about your experience feels both healing and empowering. Thank you!

  18. Thank you for being vulnerable, Janet. You’ve expressed perfectly what is on the hearts of many of us who have experienced the same with our own parents.

  19. Wow. This post just caused a major ‘aha’ moment within me. Major. Possibly even life changing. I have spent my life dealing with extreme anxiety when I feel like certain people are mad at me, my parents in particular but it runs over to my brother, my partner and some close friends too.

    I’m 5 months pregnant and lapping up your blog and articles.

    Thank you.

  20. Thank you Janet for sharing. I do believe the personal is political and that by openly and honestly you share you are helping so many people to heal themselves. That has certainly been my experience as your student in class – you made me a better mother. My son is now 5 and I don’t get the pleasure of going to RIE — but I still read your blog as it is so applicable. And i still have to remember to go back to my RIE background. My son has his voice and his feelings, because of RIE and I want that because it will keep him safer in the world because he won’t be afraid to speak up.

  21. avatar Vanessa B says:

    Loved this one! Thank you so much for sharing. I’m so very sorry to hear of your mothers passing.
    God Bless
    -Vanessa B

  22. I can relate to this! I think mothers in this era (my own included) valued themselves in terms of their mothering yet there was no way to measure or grade them. Today most of us have careers and educations and we can separate ourselves from our kids. But my mother too wanted only the happy emotions from us – just the good news – and then she could tell herself she was doing a great job! So glad all of that has changed.

  23. avatar Katharine says:

    “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.”

    Ouch.

    Mom did not respond well to boundaries.

  24. My 3yo daughter had a major temper tantrum a few weeks back (a combination of a very tired toddler and coming home too late – our fault). She really went wild and tried to scratch us, and for the only time ever, screamed at me “GO AWAY” while stomping. I was at first angry myself and struggling to keep it together (37 weeks pregnant here) but when she said go away, something in me clicked, I instantly calmed down and repeated several times “I will never go away, no matter how angry you are.”. After that she finally started to calm down and let me hug her.

    I knew too well how as children we scream “Go away” and “I hate you” when we really need our caregivers the most. I’d venture that even adults do that same to their loved ones, push them away when they need them too much.

    Thank you for sharing this story and reminding us to accept all our children’s feelings.

  25. Thank you for your honesty and candor on this post. I needed to hear this. Moreover though it showed me the need for me to be ever present with our children. Thank you again! You continue to be an inspiration for positive change in me!

  26. It’s interesting that by letting our kids be mad at us, they would calm down much easier and sooner.
    thanks for the post

  27. avatar Aerials4s says:

    I just found your website and I wanted to say how helpful it’s been thus far!!! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  28. Painful as those five days were, they provided an extraordinary insight into your otherwise happy childhood that are a sort of road map into unseen areas of yourself. I’ve been reading an enormously powerful book, Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller. It has given me a new way of seeing the people around me, including my children who experienced plenty of medical trauma. Worth a read.

  29. I think it’s a bit coincidental that I just found out about a big huge lie my mother told me that if revealed would hurt my children as well and I am so angry at her and yet I know that confronting her will do nothing, she will deny it, lie her way out and then act as though she did nothing wrong and go out of her way to pretend it never happened. My mother has never been able to deal with confrontation and I too have a hard time standing up for myself because I’ve watched her play the avoidance strategy by lying my whole life. I so don’t want to be like her, I don’t want to ever lie to my children the way she did to me. I’m still angry and haven’t decided yet if I should confront her about it but your post helped me to take a look at it from a different angle.

    As for letting your kids be angry at you, I’ve always let them be angry. I would tell them that it’s ok to be mad at me, they could evern talk to me about it or I would direct them to another suitable adult to talk about it with. And once the anger passed, we would talk about it. That approach just made more sense to me than telling them that they were wrong to feel.

    Thanks for another wonderful post.

  30. Janet, I cannot even begin to express how greatful I am for everything you write. BUT THIS put me over the edge, you are a deity to me. Thank you thank you thank you for going to that risky place and sharing. It means so much to me.

  31. It was Donald Winnicott who geniously described how a mother should survive her baby’s agressive impulses without retaliating or being destroyed by them. You have described a very profound issue in a simple and beautiful way. Thanks for sharing.

  32. I love this. As a woman who has always been highly emotional ( I often heard “stop crying” and “your too upset” as a child) and the mother of a highly emotional 3.5 year old daughter, I really resonate with the accidental damage that can be done by not accepting emotions. I am struggling with walking the line between accepting emotions and setting limits with my daughter. An example: Tonight we left my aunts house and as usual she ran from me when it was time to get coat and boots on. I sympathized with her desire to stay, gave her the option of putting on the boots or being carried and she hummed and hawed then said the third option is neither. I told her since she didn’t want to decide, I would help her to the car by carrying her and then she screamed yelled cried hit and begged me to take her back inside so she could put her boots on. She then tantrumed the entire half hour ride home yelling “turn the car around! Go back and let me put my boots on! Mommy! Don’t talk to me! Be quiet!”. I tried to let her know I was there for her and sympathize but she just screamed over me to stop talking to her anytime I opened my mouth and yelled “I’m not upset!!!” This happens with bedtime, transitions, goodbyes etc. Her world is in chaos right now due to a father who is in emotional crisis and I know her huge reactions are a result of schedule shifts, connection issues, grief over divorce etc., but I’m completely at a loss and it feels so imbalanced to have my three year old scream at me and run from me over every single limit. I’m so afraid of letting her down.

    1. Alexa, as hard as this must be for you, I would perceive it very positively. Your little girl is doing a very good job getting her feelings out. Keep giving her these boundaries and trusting the strong feelings she shares in response. Consider these situations an opportunity for her to safely express herself to you. Also, in calmer moments I would talk about her feelings about what’s going with her dad. YOU are doing an awesome job, so keep up the good work! This too shall pass…and pass even sooner if you welcome these feelings.

  33. Dear janet,
    Thank you very much for sharing your personal story.
    I feel that it’s a gift when deep inside you know what you need to “work” on and repair for your own sake and for raising healthy and happy kids.
    I don’t really know why i have a low self esteem, and i don’t really know why i’m acting the way i do, but i’m working on it.
    I have been reading a lot lately about Gordon Neufeld’s and Gabor Mate’s work and on attachment, which seem to be the key. It is helping me to realize the impact of “me being a mess” is causing to my dear child.
    I don’t know you personaly but i can tell that you are a great person and that your children, friends, family and of course all the famillies that you see with your RIE work are very lucky to have you.
    Thank you again for educating us and teaching us that we can do it, that we can be better persons

  34. This is so true for my childhood, although I’d add my/our mother was the ONLY one allowed to be angry. This used to make my twin sister and me cower.

    Like you, Janet, I had to participate in years of counseling, depression, etc.

    I learned in all of this turmoil feelings are OK and we must express them in order to relieve the inner stress.

    I always tell the children in my care it’s OK to be mad at me, “You don’t like me right now. But I know you will love me when you don’t feel angry anymore. I will always love you no matter how you feel or what you do.”

    I believe EQ is the most important skill to nurture in early childhood. EQ effects your entire life and will come to bare in all aspects of your life.

  35. Made me cry. Got that part of parenting down (the one where my kids can and are mad at me). I love those feelings and this is a great reminder that we don’t have to be perfect, just willing to love right on through it.

  36. What an amazing story, thank you so much for sharing. While I can hold your story with total respect, I also wonder what type of childhood your mother had and whether this impacted on her parenting?

  37. Hi Janet! I read this post before and i m reading it again as a reminder to myself 🙂
    My parents have raused me well … but i have confidence issues and now that i have a dd of my own i want her to be a better confident person and i am working as hard as i can to develop that in her 🙂 thankyou for sharing your incredible experience with us <3

  38. One of my earliest memories is of my mother saying to me, in an incredulous and authoritative voice, “You can’t be angry with me!”. Still trying to unravel this – it’s holding me back, big time. Thank you for sharing.

  39. Helping children to accept people as they are,not being critical about themselves,helping them to take decisions according to what they feel right and not getting affected by others comments…….will help children to live a normal life….this attitude will help even older folks….respect others opinion but live life in your own beautiful way…..jaya.

  40. Janet, I’d love to know…and this would be helpful to me…did your mother ever inquire into your feelings? And how often? Did she take the initiative and ask how you were doing…when you were a teenager? An adult? Did she only have a hard time when it was a surprise, or did she really want to know what was on the inside when she was calm and prepared?

    1. Hi Jane! My mother was sensitive to my feelings and often inquired about them, but I must have sensed early on that criticism of her was off-limits. I would not have dreamed of ever arguing with my mother or father…and to me that seemed normal! I did not openly rebel as teenagers naturally do. My rebellion came later and was far more self-destructive. Yet, I always felt very comfortable expressing vulnerability with my mother and sharing negative feelings about other people. I know to my soul that she adored me. I guess it was just way too painful for her to be in conflict with me.

  41. avatar Ruth Mason says:

    Worth the “risk,” Janet. Thank you. I believe the more deeply we all share, the less alone everyone feels with their own meshugas.

  42. thanks for sharing. this brought a tear to my eye….not because this is exactly what my mother did/does….but because this is what I did this morning when my 3 yr old was being way too difficult and non-cooperative. I shut down and walked away!
    It was all good when we met after he came back from daycare….but I know in that moment I let him down.
    thanks for making us more aware and able!

  43. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and personal experiences.

  44. I had this same inkling a few years back. My mother and I never had those teenage rows that many of my friends did and I realised that this was important somehow….so your write up helped me work out a layer to it all. 🙂

  45. thankyou thankyou.
    I do struggle with my daughter’s emotions. They are so intense. But I also grew up feeling like I was expected to ‘feel’ a certain way. So this is perfect 🙂 i’m bookmarking this post for those hard days where I just want to walk away from the challenge 🙂

  46. Thank you so much for your vulnerability! I’m 44 years old and just made a realization about my own mother through your post. Thanks for your generosity.

  47. avatar Janine Gordley says:

    Beautiful post. Just beautiful. Only twice has my son, who is going through hell right now, broken down and sobbed to me. I let him do it. I listened, I didn’t argue, had no clue how to solve it. But I know that being able to accept his emotions, as painful as it was for me–and for him, to put himself out there– put something in his heart that would not be there if I couldn’t accept his difficult emotions. It hurts so much to get the message from your mom and dad that your emotions are too much and belong hidden away. I try to say to my boys with my actions and words, “You are loved and accepted all the time, no matter what condition you are in.” I hope this article helps a lot of others too. Thanks.

  48. avatar Janine Gordley says:

    I should really have added, given the specific emotion of your article, that it isn’t just sadness we accept from our boys. There are times we do accept the anger, no questions asked. We can tell one of them is having a hard time, and may choose to leave it alone until a quieter, private time when one of us will ask what is really wrong.

  49. avatar Katerina Konstantinidi says:

    Thanks for writing that….I cannot tell you how much I relate to your story….what you realized is sooo revealing to me….I need to process the info now…. yes…this “not acceptance of bad feelings” can damage in such a subconscious way…. it is nothing obvious…thank you so much again…

  50. What a brilliant share… Thanks for being so honest. It is so interesting our relationships with our parents with shape our way as parents. My childhood was great and there are no complaints but I have gone down the route with my own kids of positive parenting and question all the time why. I’m sure it was from the experience I had growing up and not being allowed to share emotions and feelings in a similar way you describe so they don’t sit well with me. My husband is totally supportive of everything I am and only now am I comfortable to break out of my comfort zone with him in my corner. Thanks so much for sharing!!!

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