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Monday, August 4, 2014

Teaching a Child to Wrangle, Not Reject, Rage

From The New York Times "Motherlode" Blog

July 30, 2014

"...if we consistently squelch children’s expression of anger or pull rank because it’s the quickest end, we model that the person with the most power wins. Is that what we want children to learn?"

My elementary-age daughter wants to wear a skimpy skirt to school. I make her change. My middle-school son who recently smoked marijuana wants to hang out with a friend. I say no. I refuse to sign consent for my 16-year-old to get a tattoo.

What do I get? Angry children who may persist until I’m mad in both senses of the word. “Parenting will eventually produce bizarre behavior, and I’m not talking about the kids,” said Bill Cosby.

I’ve done my share of bizarre things during arguments with my kids. I dumped my sons’ dresser drawers on the floor when they argued that their room wasn’t messy. I served pancakes and syrup on the dining room table while the children argued about who should set it. These weren’t my finer moments.

In my defense, I’ve had more than 30 children, a half dozen at a time. Many of them came from multiple failed foster placements. You’ve heard of extreme sports? I was extreme parenting. Yet even the parent of an only child can relate to feeling pushed to the limit when their child stands toe-to-toe screaming, wailing or wilting to the floor in a fit of rage.

Advice columns, blogs and articles offer suggestions for the mother about to blow her stack: Count to ten. Walk away. Give a consequence. Disengage. Even when these ideas work in the moment, they don’t help children learn to manage anger. It’s important for parents to stop seeing their actions as a way to interrupt the tantrum, and see the interaction as a gift they are giving to their child.

It takes courage for a child to stand up to an adult. Some youths only find that courage when they are angry. Each of those angry blasts is a teachable moment. I cringe as I type that because it’s so difficult to be present in the middle of someone’s anger. You may feel your anger rise up to meet theirs. Children can’t understand how anger works unless we encourage them to wrestle it with safe people. Their attempts may be uncomfortable or excessive.

My 9-year-old son is relentless in pursuit of his desires. When he first started challenging me, we ended up in shouting matches until one of us wore down. So I shifted my goal from holding the line to hearing his message. I listened to what he needed to say, however he needed to say it, so long as he did it privately. On my best days, I may not have been calm, but I was grounded.

Later in life, he will need to have difficult conversations with his partner or his boss and he needs to learn to ask to speak privately when he is angry. Later he would learn to temper his tone. Developing the ability to handle anger is like math or reading, one isolated skill at a time until the student has developed a repertoire they can generalize across multiple settings.

Each child pushes in his or her own way, so it can be exhausting to develop individual cues and phrases that mean I’ve reached my limit. One child may need gentle encouragement, the next needs reining in. If you feel like a failure because your own anger rose up and matched your child’s, it’s not the end of the world.

Remind yourself that children also need us to model how to sustain and repair relationships when one has been hurtful or rude. Make the overture. Apologize for losing it. Affirm they are loved.

Children must learn to manage hurt, disappointment, and anger. It’s no small thing for a child to learn to hold their place in the world. We don’t want them to become adults who crumple at defeat or trample the rights of others because then we’re creating victims and tyrants. It’s true that ending an argument can be as expedient as saying, “Because I’m the mom.”

However, if we consistently squelch children’s expression of anger or pull rank because it’s the quickest end, we model that the person with the most power wins. Is that what we want children to learn?

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