Healing a Child’s Anger (a Powerful Success Story)

Janet shares a parent’s dramatic story recounting how she overcame her fear and doubt to allow her 6-year-old to express explosive emotions. In a wonderfully detailed e-mail to Janet, this mom describes a feeling of distance from her son and the respectful – albeit difficult, loud and sometimes scary – steps she took to welcome his “messy and uncomfortable” feelings and let them play out. In retrospect, she says she now understands what it means to trust her child’s feelings and recognizes that “this is what really deep emotional healing looks like.”

Transcript of “Healing a Child’s Anger (a Powerful Success Story)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I am doing something a little different. I’m sharing a success story that a parent excitedly wrote to me. For those of you who are familiar with my written work, my books and my posts on my website, you know that I love to share success stories. I feel it really helps all of us to get specific examples of what these principles and responses that I recommend actually look like in practice, how parents are using them. And I’m also going to give some commentary, which I don’t often get to do so much in my written posts, bit by bit, about this experience.

Okay, so here’s the email that I received:

Hi Janet. I have a success story that I wanted to write down for myself and then thought, I should share this with Janet. It was a textbook “Janet” moment for me.

At a low point last January after my five-year-old boy hit my mom, I read No Bad Kids and it started a deep shift in our family that I’m incredibly grateful for. Thank you so much for your profound work. Since last January, I’ve read something of yours several times a week, awkwardly trying your approach. Wondering if I was doing it right, with small successes and some hopeless moments, but today it all came together. I’d love to share that story with you.

My son and I had a conflict yesterday that we didn’t quite resolve. I still felt disconnected from him this morning so after I had done some self care, a workout and felt well resourced, I saw that he was drawing by himself and I went over and sat next to him. My closeness started bringing up the feelings. “I want space. Go away.” I felt the doubt slip in. He’s asking for space. Shouldn’t I just give him space?

But then I remembered that he was pushing me away when deep down he probably wanted to be close so I stayed there quietly and just looked at him with love. His feelings started escalating, which unexpectedly made me more confident.

“Leave me alone, go over there. You never learned how to listen when you were a kid. You’re so mean.” He screamed for Dada to come save him from me. I let him scream.

He ran around the yard. I calmly followed. Then he tried to throw something at me and I held his thrashing, biting, hitting body strongly and calmly. We were really in it now. He knows just what to say to knock my confidence.

“You’re hurting my wrist.”

Me: am I hurting him?

“I’m hot.”

Me: is this cruel?

“I need space.”

Me: I’ve taught them to ask for space and now I’m not giving it to him.

“You’re not listening to me.”

Me: am I supposed to listen to him like this?

This time I realized that’s what was happening and I leaned in, instead of backing off. I held him as lightly as possible, but was quick and ready to keep our bodies safe, and carried on. I felt so clear about what was happening. I trusted what was happening.

The next layer came up.  “I don’t like any of the Christmas presents you gave me. I only love Dada and not you. I want to kill you. I’m going to tell Dada to chop your head off with an ax. I hate you.”

I felt some of my own sadness well up and just allowed it. My eyes brimmed with tears. He made gagging noises and said he couldn’t breathe. I trusted all of it and just let it flow.

Up to this point I had said very little. “I’m going to stay close to you. I’m going to keep our bodies safe. I’m right here. I love you.” But here I added, “I know this is so uncomfortable. I’m so proud of you.” I felt inspired by the deep work he was doing, allowing all of those really scary feelings to come up. That’s hard for me as an adult to do and here was my now six year old, really going for it. Wow. Now I felt like his cheerleader.

Then the intensity just passed. He tied my shoelace in knots, which felt like an acceptable and shifting expression of wanting to hurt me. I rubbed his back a bit. He was able to make eye contact with me. His eyes were big, soft pools. I told him I loved him. And he said, “I love you too, kind of.” A couple more minutes and then he was in my lap. I was kissing his face and neck and we excitedly set off to go draw monster trucks together.

I know we have a lot more of this to do together, but now I don’t feel scared of it. I often brace myself for these sessions, but today I felt in my body what it feels like to welcome the messy and uncomfortable feelings. To trust that they are good, that he is good and that this is what really deep emotional healing looks like.

P.S. In our family, we call this rush of feelings a wave because that’s kind of what the energy feels like it’s doing, an ocean wave crashing to the shore. I love that it doesn’t have a negative association. I’m in a wave, you’re in a wave. It feels neutral.

Thanks again, for all your clear wisdom. It’s fun for me to be able to share how much it’s affecting our little family.

When I reached out to this parent to thank her for sharing her story with me and would she mind if I shared it in a podcast, while saying yes, she sent me another little addition:

I’ve gotten so much from others sharing their nitty gritty stories on your site. I hope my own learning will help others. One thing to add, we had a really great day and before dinner, he came upstairs from playing with his brother and said, “Mama, is there anything I can help with?” I literally melted. I looked at him and just said, “I love you so much.” Thanks again.

I just now realized she mentioned a brother in that part, and I’d kind of thought there must be some challenge that this boy has in his life besides the regular six year old challenges. But now this makes even more sense that he’s dealing with a brother as well.

Okay, so again, I want to thank this parent for sharing and also to congratulate her for this incredibly challenging work that she’s doing. Shifting our approach is no small thing. Changing these patterns that are maybe ingrained in us and then have developed with our children as well is so difficult and so brave. I hope that this parent is very, very good to herself and congratulates herself for every success and every time that she’s able to stay regulated when her child is not. And it does get harder the older a child is, not because it’s harder for our child to adjust, but for us it’s much harder because, again, we’ve developed these patterns — the way that we see our child and their behavior and the way that we react or respond. Shifting our adult brains to seeing it differently and, therefore, feeling differently about it and responding differently, it takes enormous commitment.

The other part that’s harder is that children are expressing their feelings in ways as they get older that are much harder not to take personally. For example, when he says these very scary things about hurting her. It is so hard not to be ignited by that.

Let’s look at what she did here. She said they’d had a conflict that wasn’t quite resolved. Her son, a lot of feelings were stirred up in him. And it sounds like that he’s been kind of on and off in this dysregulated place. Maybe not being able to clear his feelings all the way. And she realized that, so she decided to connect and see if there was some repair work she could do there.

And sure enough, he started right away. “I want space. Go away.”

Now, how hard is it not to say to a child this age or any age, “Okay, I’ll go away. I’ll give you privacy”? How hard is it not to see it that way? And it sounds like this parent did have that impulse at first and then realized, no, this is something he wants to express to me — that he’s angry.

She says, “I felt the doubt slip in.” Oh no. He’s asking for space. Shouldn’t I just give him space?

But then she remembered that “deep down he probably wanted to be close.” Yeah, seeing beyond what we’re getting on the surface, that’s part of the challenge. And that happens with much younger children as well, that they will say, “I just want this thing,” but they are in this aroused state, or about to be, and we naturally think, well, if I give them this thing, that’s going to help. So we try to make it work for them. And then it doesn’t help and actually makes it worse, and now they’re asking for something else or continuing on. And at that point, one of the challenges is… it becomes harder for us to stay regulated when: well I got it for him and he’s still doing this! And the reasonable thing is:  Well, that’s not fair! That’s not right.

It’s normal for us to feel those things. That’s why this perspective takes so much practice. And as this parent has found, she needed to feel it. She says, “I felt in my body what it feels like to welcome the messy and uncomfortable feelings. To trust that they’re good, that he is good and that this is what really deep emotional healing looks like.” Yes. That trust and the perspective on what’s going on here is what carries us through.

She stays. She saw his feelings escalate and that unexpectedly made her feel more confident because she felt, yes, there’s a dam that needs to break here. Or as she puts it, “A wave.” There’s a wave coming on here. And now I see it’s starting to crest and yes, okay I can trust this.

It can be easier when it’s clearer to us that our child is in a state of dysregulation. It can feel clearer to us than when a child is just saying, “I don’t like this and go away,” and they seem more rational. She saw that the wave was gathering. That helped her to trust.

And then he’s, again, pushing her away: “Leave me alone, go over there.” He says, “You never learned how to listen when you were a kid. You’re so mean.” These are things maybe that she had said to him in the past. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, but he’s throwing them back at her, lashing out, throwing his hurt out at her. And again, to not take this personally — very challenging.

He screamed for his dad to come save him from her. That’s something that happens a lot where the child will say, “No, I need this other person.” And for that parent to hold strong, not take it personally, not have all their insecurities pop up… Oh gosh, he likes him better and he doesn’t love me. All of those voices have to be overridden with this trust. Trust in the feelings and the healing that happens when feelings are expressed.

I hear a lot from parents who — their child seems to have a preference and it is so hard for that parent who is the not preferred parent in that moment to stay strong and trust that this isn’t personal. He doesn’t mean this. He’s expressing himself in this moment. Feelings are not facts.

And also maybe sometimes the other parent hears and wants to come and rescue. And of course we can’t ideally allow that to happen, because then the child may seem to be getting what they want on the surface level, but this is not what they really want and really need.

In a podcast that my daughters recently did together for Unruffled, they were talking about feelings and my daughter had an interesting description I hadn’t quite heard. She notices that even with adults, that adults have their version of a tantrum. And that when adults are in these spaces, she’s noticed that it’s as if they’re in a blackout. And she said, “You can’t believe anything they say.” And she’s learned that these moments just need to pass for that person.

That’s accurate. We can’t take to heart what our children are saying in these moments where they’re raging or having a tantrum. They’re in the wave.

She says she let him the scream, even though he was screaming for his father to save him. He ran around, she calmly followed. And then he tried to throw something, so she held his body. And then I thought it was great that she knew just sort of when to back off and still be containing his behavior without restraining him (I don’t recommend that). It sounds like she was just trying to keep him safe and let him know that she was there for him. Showing him she was there for him as the safe person that he can express with.

This is when we have to put on our therapist hat with our children. And as I’ve said, it’s not an active working on, making something happen. It’s a trusting, allowing, accepting, letting pass the wave.

We don’t want to be riding the wave with our child. If we’re riding the wave, we are going to be exhausted because children, especially young children have a lot of waves of emotion. They need to pass through them. But if we’re on them as well, we’re not going to make it through the day without losing our temper or being reactive. But if we are witnessing it, letting the wave pass and trusting that it will pass, that’s the best that we can do for our child to allow for the healing.

So then, and this part is really, really hard when he says, “You’re hurting my wrist. You’re hurting me. I’m hot. I need space.” I’ve had to work with other parents whose children were doing these things and I was the one sort of helping contain them in their emotion. And it is very hard when children start saying, “I’m thirsty, I’m this, I’m that.” Or if they say, “I need to hug right now!” But you can see that your child is not in a place to accept that hug. That if you did try, they would be beating up against you. Or just kind of lashing out with the things that this mother said so well, she said, “He knows just what to say, to knock my confidence.” Right. Children have been figuring this out from day one where our vulnerabilities are. This is just learning and intelligence, this high awareness that young children have.

So they are reading us all along and they do know just what to say. And in these moments, they will impulsively lash out and check out all the places where they feel we might cave. And I guess it’s a way to really share your feeling of hurt is to kind of hurt someone else. But again, they don’t mean it personally. They can’t help themselves. This just has to pass.

I love the way she shares all her doubts. Am I hurting him? Oh, am I being cruel? Those come up for me still every single time when I’m working with children, especially because I’m worried that the parent is feeling all these things as well. It’s still always amazes me when I realize repeatedly that trusting and allowing it to pass is the right thing to do, is the perfect thing to do, is the healing thing to do.

Then says the next layer came up. He didn’t like any Christmas presents. Here’s another thing: my child’s entitled. I tried so hard to get the perfect presents. He’s again, lashing out in those vulnerable places. “I only love Dada and not you. I want to kill you.” Wow. He’s really escalating this. And maybe in the past, this parent did the normal thing and reacted to some of these types of statements, taking them personally or being alarmed. That’s why they’re coming up again. He senses that these are weapons that are an effective way for him to share the depth of his feeling. Does he really mean these things? Absolutely not. I say that with confidence. Absolutely not. And wonderfully, this parent realizes this as well. She said, “I trusted all of it and just let it flow.” Man.

And then she told him, “I know this is so uncomfortable and I am so proud of you.”

Wow. The high place in herself that this parent went to trust and be that big, big person for her child. That’s what children need.

And when we see this way, of course, we’re never going to be happy that our child was upset, but there is a rewarding feeling to being able to rise above as this parent did. She really did. And then it just passed.

Then he did this thing of tying our shoelaces in knots, which she insightfully says, “Felt like an acceptable and shifting expression of wanting to hurt me.” Yeah. “I rubbed his back a bit.”

And then he said, “I love you too, kind of” when she said she loved him. That sounds so six years old. He doesn’t want to give her too much.

“A couple more minutes and then he was in my lap and I was kissing his face and neck.” And then they excitedly went off to play together.

Again, I’m overjoyed that this parent and child are confidently on their way to full healing in their relationship. And it’s believing in our child, to trust that they are good and that he is good. Believing in ourselves in our role as parents high above. Not getting sucked in or trying to stop what needs to happen.

So kudos to this mom and anyone else who’s on this lifelong journey that I’m still on, to not take people’s feelings personally. To understand that they belong to them. And taking a big step forward in a healing journey for both of them. I really hope this helps and inspires you as it did me.

And by the way, if my podcasts are helpful to you, you can help the podcast continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes. So grateful to all of you for listening! And please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

And both of my books are available on audio, please check them out. Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and apple.com.

Thanks again for listening. We can do this.

6 Comments

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

  1. Thank you so much for this article. It’s well timed for me as I’ve been struggling with my 6 year old’s anger and violence for a while now, and have recently started sessions with a child and parenting psychotherapist. The behaviour has worsened lately, Covid lockdown has not been helpful. Please could you clarify, what are you saying you don’t recommend – physical restraint? My son tends to hit/kick me, but if I move out of his reach he often breaks objects instead. The therapist I’m seeing has said that I should avoid attempting to restrain my son, primarily as the continuing violence against me will potentially damage our relationship (further?) . He suggests that as long as everyone is safe it’s better for me to take a step back in times when my son lashes out physically, and accept that objects may get broken, but that this is less important than my son continuing to hit me. He also advocates a positive points system leading to treats such as longer story times. I’d always thought that the aim was for children to develop intrinsic motivation, but he feels that extrinsic will lead to intrinsic. Lots of his suggestions have been very helpful, but I’m unsure about these two points. If you have any thoughts on these I’d be so grateful to hear them. Thank you.

  2. avatar Ashli Owen-Smith says:

    Thank you for this podcast – and for all of your audio/print resources; I follow them religiously! I am also part of the Visible Child/Respectful Parenting Facebook group, and much of this content is consistent with your philosophy. However, this podcast brought up some differences that I’d welcome feedback about. The child in this situation clearly asked for space – and the parent thought to herself, “Shouldn’t I just give him space?” It seems to me that respectful parenting means *respecting* what your child is telling you and *trusting* that he/she knows what he/she needs at any given point. So if my child is asking for space and telling me to go away, shouldn’t I honor that request? If an adult asked me for that, I would try to oblige; so why is it any different for children? To stay there – and even try to hug the child when it’s not welcomed – feels counter to honoring and trusting the child’s emotional and physical autonomy. Please help me reconcile this?!

    1. I had the exact same thought listening to this podcast, and came here to ask the same question (and, also like this commenter, am such a huge admirer of your work and recommend your books and podcast all the time). The celebration of the mother ignoring her son’s request for space made me really uncomfortable. I would love to hear you address why this is OK (and perhaps also touch on how it relates to teaching our children about consent). Thank you for all that you do!

  3. Thank you to the mother who shared her story and to you for choosing to share it with us as well. Her experience and your follow up commentary are extremely helpful.

    Ashli has a good question, which I have as well. When do you know that your child really needs space vs. when they don’t? I just encountered this tonight (again) with my LO and gave the space that was asked for. That helped to de-escalate the situation.

    I also love the part from your daughters’ interview that you call out as well. That insight about adults having tantrums was a huge AHA moment for me.

    1. This mum literally deserves a medal. I hope she reads our comments because I think she is heroic. She’s now my number one role model for how to deal with all these waves! I feel lucky that my seven year old was once that angry five and six year old. He is now the picture of emotional awareness and calm, and I didn’t handle the situation anywhere near as well as this amazing mama. Never ever did I get to the point of healing that she and her son have done, and my son has pulled through (for now). So I just want to say to her that is does pass, the explosive and sometimes cruel child can come out the other side. It doesn’t last forever and even if it does, it looks like she’s completely bossing it!

  4. Thank you for this. I am having trouble communicating with my brother. We are in our 40s now. He is the little boy and I’m trying hard not to take his anger personally. I can read and reread this post to help myself ride through this challenging time. I appreciate it, thank you.

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