Most of us were not raised in fairy tale households by perfect parents, and the formative messages we received as children may not have always been positive or healthy. The good news: the process of raising our own children can be profoundly restorative.
Every hour we spend with our babies and kids offers us opportunities to instill in them affirming messages, large and small. Whenever we are able to recognize and extricate ourselves from the less healthy patterns of our own childhoods and make the choice to do a bit better by our children, we take a baby step toward self-healing.
One of the most colossal challenges for parents and caregivers is accepting our children’s negative feelings, especially when these feelings are directed at us. Many of us received the message early on, perhaps even in infancy, that expressing anger or hurt towards our parents was unacceptable. And yet, the feelings were there — we didn’t conjure them up.
We also sensed (or perhaps it was quite blatant) that our parents sometimes had negative feelings about us, but for some reason these feelings weren’t allowed to run both ways. We had no choice but to bury ours.
When Mary shared this insightful story about accepting her daughter’s rejection, hurt and anger, I instantly knew I had to post it:
We had our second daughter about five months ago. To help our 2.5 year old adjust, we followed the advice we found on your blog and in Siblings without Rivalry. The transition seemed to go smoothly–there were issues with interrupted sleep, bedwetting, and tantrums–but they were pretty mild and resolved relatively quickly.
The biggest change was that M moved into a serious “papa phase”–she wanted to do everything with him. That seemed normal and, honestly, pragmatic — so we went with it. In those early days, it was very easy for me to care for the baby and for my husband to care for M. But as the months wore on and the baby was less dependent on me, M only seemed more attached to her papa and, even more than that, she seemed to not like me anymore. She often seemed very angry at me or distraught when I would care for her.
At first, I thought it was a phase. I just did a lot of empathizing and tried my best to stay unruffled. But a few weeks ago it felt like I needed to address what was going on. I was uncertain about what to do, but I remembered your advice about the importance of letting your children be mad at you. Maybe my sweet M, who had seemed to adjust to her little sister so well, was mad at me for having another baby?
So, one afternoon I said to her: “You know when you say ‘Go away, Mama!’?—I still love you… And when you cry and say ‘I don’t want you to do bedtime, I want papa!’?—I still love you. …And when you say ‘Don’t look at me!’–I still love you.”
I went on, listing all the examples of her rejecting me that I could think of, always ending with the refrain “I still love you.”
M was quiet for a moment and then said, “I’m going to spray you with water so that you don’t love me anymore.” I wasn’t quite sure what this meant (I can’t remember a time when she sprayed me with water), so I replied, “I’m going to use my magic towel to dry off…And I still love you”. And she went on, making up other ‘naughty’ things that she would do–and I kept ‘undoing’ her naughty thing and repeating that I still loved her.
That conversation was so clearly a turning point for us. Later that day she came over to me and snuggled into my lap–I could have cried from relief. And she is way less angry and more affectionate than before. She is still in a ‘papa phase’ but definitely seems to have moved out of her ‘anti-mama’ phase. Thank goodness.
I don’t think I would have ever known how to have a conversation like that if it weren’t for you and your blog. Thank you so much, Janet, for the work that you do.
For the next few days, M periodically wanted to have the conversation again. She would tell me that she was going to spray me with water, etc.–clearly looking for me to say that I would still love her. She’d do a few rounds and then wander off to some other activity–it seemed like she was processing our original conversation.
But the best part was about a week later. After having our usual exchange, she said to me, “Now you say it”. She wanted me to tell her a naughty thing that I would do–and then she would reply “it’s ok, mama–I still love you.” Not only was it super sweet, it was actually very emotional for me. While I used the same imaginary examples that she had used, I found myself thinking in my head about all the times I’ve been a less-than-perfect parent, and it just blew me away to have her telling me “it’s ok, mama–I still love you” over and over again. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
This parenting thing is an amazing, intense experience–and it’s so clear that my girls are shaping me just as much (if not more!) than I’m shaping them! Such wise, intuitive souls in those tiny little bodies, eh?
Thanks again for everything you do. I can’t get enough!
(Mary, thank you again for sharing your powerful story)
I share more about fostering our children’s emotional health in
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)
(Photo by Ste Elmore on Flickr)
I cried reading this. We are going through something similar at home because of the new baby. But when my son would say things he was going to do I would just reply with, “I won’t let you do ….”. I feel bad now that I didn’t express more love to him during this time.
You can turn this corner any time, SC! I guarantee you your son will welcome it. Children are the most forgiving people on the planet.
I also cried reading it. I have a demanding job, and my husband drops our toddler off at day care and picks her up. Since he stayed home with our baby the first year of her life, she has a definitely preference for him lately. And the temptation to take it personally has been great. But I too have been trying this strategy of being “unruffled” and it is working!
I have tears in my eyes reading this story, thank you for sharing it.
Me, too, Rebecca.
Oh my, so emotional! I needed this, thank you for sharing.
Such a lovely story. I had the same experience and I didn’t know what to do. I never addressed it directly I just kept offering love and feeling soooo sad that our relationship was shattered. I knew it was temporary and sure enough she slowly returned to her loving self but I wish I had known about Janet then!
So sweet! I teared up because I went through something similar with my daughter, and we had a similar exchange. She didn’t suggest saying it back to me, but now almost nightly we go through the ‘I love you to ___ and back’ (blank filled in with anything – the moon, China, Grammy’s house).
Thank you for sharing this story!
I cried when i am reading this!! thanks for sharing!
please add me to your mailing list, I would love to read your articles/posts.
Wow, tears! Great! sigh…
Wow. That is so powerful, it might have just made my day.
Ugh! Tugging ever so gently at my heart strings! Such a sweet story…….and happy ending!
my son started rejecting me during our evening family book time, but I told my husband that this was very painful for me after not having seen my son during the workday and then caring for our infant daughter when I got home. I did not participate in booktime, but told my husband he should tell my son I was hurt and that he should invite me back. He did invite me back and then soon enough he was back into the usual ping pong back and forth of mommy and daddy ohases. I agree that our kids can get mad and have a right to reject us sometimes, but I also want my son to know that I am hurt when he rejects me because I love him infinitely. And that if you hurt someone who loves you you need to make it up to them and or make them feel better.
I also cried reading this, thank you for sharing your honesty
Lovely. Thank you, thank you.
So emotional and touching!
Our son often has strong preferences as to which of us does things such as change his nappy. It’s about half and half who he picks. Sometimes, there isn’t an option for some reason as one of us is busy or not there, but not always and there are grey areas when it’s slightly inconvenient but doable – strapping him in his car seat is a typical example. I’m not quite sure how to react to this – just go with the flow and let him have his parent of choice? On the other hand, it can be quite frustrating at times. Any thoughts or advice on this?
We are experiencing something similar with our two y/o daughter. For the past few months she has wanted me to do everything from getting her up in morning to bathing and bed. It’s exhausting for me and hurtful and alienating for him. We r not sure how to deal with it. Should I just say ‘no daddy’s going to do it’ and ride out the tantrum or go away for a few days so there’s no other option? He tries to spend quality one on one time with her at weekends and would like to bath her at night.
wow. so powerful. tears in my eyes and such a great lesson learned! thank you so much for sharing
Read ‘Mama Do You Love Me?’ it says it all..
I do this with my daughter quite often.. reassuring her that despite whatever behavior or “naughty” thing she is doing i still love her. I will tell her i don’t like it when you throw things or spit water or ignore mommy ect,…but I still love you. she has recently started saying no you don’t you don’t love me anymore. i just say no, mommy loves you very much I just don’t like..and I say whatever it is she was doing..but she just keeps saying over and over that no I don’t love her anymore and that if I don’t like what she’s doing that I don’t love her. Am I doing this wrong by telling her that Idon’t like whatever behavior it is that she’s doing?? I always reassure her that I will always love her and It doesn’t matter what she does I love her but her doubt concerns me…
This is my 3.5yo middle child to a tee! Made me cry. It looks like I need to have a conversation with her….
My 2.5 year old son has always demonstrated a preference for his father. I was sad about it for a while, but decided not to make an issue of it and just let it be. The title of this post caught my attention immediately, because they are words I hear from my son often, especially when his father is home.
I was putting my son to bed one day, and after our usual routine of books and songs, I remembered this post. I started saying, “I love you as much as all the stars in the sky, I love you to the moon and back again, I love you always…and no matter what.” I continued with “Even when you’re grumpy… I still love you! Even when you say ‘Go away, Mom!’ I still love you…” etc. He kept saying, “More! Another one! I want more stories!” and smiled every time I said “I still love you.”
He’s asked for me to do that every night since. One night he climbed into my lap, put his head on my chest and just lay there for a while, which is very unusual for him. Then he suddenly took my face, looked me in the eyes and said very seriously, “I love you Mama.” I sat there and held on to him, tears silently streaming down my face as he drifted off to sleep. It was the sweetest moment. And though he still prefers his father for certain things, our relationship has improved tremendously.
I actually wept reading this. My oldest daughter started her ‘papa phase’ long before I got pregnant with my second daughter.
I guess she saw how much I was hurt the first time she ‘rejected’ me and she kept doing it in different ways until I became strong enough to see through her behavior. Then I saw how much of me as a little girl was activated when felt rejected, and I guess I let my child without an adult to depend on…
Once I started replying how much I loved her, and started feeling that real love stronger than my primitive rejected self, I guess we started to bond in a more complex way, and I could see her relaxing… As she was saying ‘my mom can take this, she won’t be destroyed by me’
I am so grateful she is my daughter and I often think how different I would be if we haven’t met.
This article made me cry though I have not faced such a situation. very sweet and touching.tfs
I love this post! I am tearing up,too. This is timely for me. Just a few days ago, I made up a song for my 2.5 year old daughter: I love you when you’re happy, I love you when you’re sad, I love you when you’re silly and I love you when your mad. I love you all the time, I love you all the time, Mommy and Daddy love you all the time.