I witnessed my first born’s angriest moment when he was about three years old. I cannot remember clearly how things escalated that day. What I remembered was an image of him standing in the middle of the living room seething with anger.
His tiny body was tense and trembling, his teeth gritted tightly, his cheeks flushed, and his eyes staring intently ahead. I was very angry too. The following thoughts were looping in my head, “How dare he behave this way again! His behaviour is getting from bad to worse. He is going to grow up an angry person and demand his way without respect. He is not going to have any friends…”.
It didn’t take me long to realise that my mind was not in the present moment. It was in the future. My imagination was blowing the situation up.
The next moment, I saw blood flowing down from his nose. It was thick, dripping and crimson red. It flowed fast and with it my anger dissipated. The sight of blood brought me back to the present moment. I probably rushed to him and did something for his nosebleed for which I cannot remember. All I could recall now is the angry child and the blood.
When he was around that age, he got into frequent temper tantrums – sometimes throwing things, sometimes screaming at the top of his lungs and sometimes just trembling with anger on the spot. On my good days, I would ignore the behaviour until he ran out of steam. On my bad days, I would stare back at him in even greater anger and demand (in an even louder voice than his screaming) hoping that he stop his behaviour immediately. The nose-bleeding episode made me realize the futility of my thoughts in these moments; and the futility of ignoring and scolding. Yet, I don’t exactly know what else to do in those moments of desperation.
In desperation, I tried to meet his needs hoping to minimize the escalation of his emotions.
Maybe, I thought, I lost some perspective of being a child as I grew up. I used to admire my younger sister who threw temper tantrums with a lot of screaming and rolling-on-the-floors. She was my hero. Whatever she was asking from my parents, I wanted it too. I just did not have the courage to ask because I was afraid of my parents’ scolding and caning.
I tried to recall my childhood wants and think more from my first born’s perspective. I focused more on giving what he needed as long as they were developmentally appropriate. I worked on letting go of my fears for his future. Once I did that, more internal space for me to be with him opened up. I was able to accept more of his physical and psychological needs in the current moment. I started to be able to perceive sadness or distress more accurately and soothe him earlier. It worked instantly and we became closer to each other.
Perhaps I was just plain exhausted all the time. Well, most modern parents are! I drank more tea and coffee at one point as a desperate measure (It didn’t work so I reduced it to one cup a day again). I tried ginseng. I exercised. I became a little more energetic, more cheerful, and more patient. I did mindfulness exercises. I became more focused and more joyful.
Things started improving. My child’s tantrums reduced. He still got upset every now and then, but not as much. Even when he did get upset, I still felt a tiny sense of failure for not being able to take away his negative emotions. It was as if I have not tried hard enough. After self-blame came self-defense. I have tried the best I could. And I blamed my child for being unreasonable. I would scold him. Then finally, guilt would take over. I would apologize for scolding harshly.
I knew deep down that I cannot fulfill my child’s needs all the time even with limitless time and energy. All human’s wants and needs are endless. Discontentment is all pervasive in man, woman and children all the same. How could I ever take away any emotions, be it positive or negative? I was like Sisyphus, the Greek mythical god, who was rolling an immense boulder up a hill aiming to reach the top, only to watch it roll back down at the end of the day. There was no end to the rolling, yet I did not see any way out. It seemed I had to keep climbing the hill and rolling the immense “bolder” if I were to be a good mother. I felt obliged to make my child feel even better.
Then the missing link came! I was co-running a workshop about raising resilient children in National University Hospital in early 2014. (The developers of this program are Dr Roberts Brooks and Dr Sam Goldstein). There was a very tender video shown during the workshop. In the video was a one year old child left alone in a stroller by a parent. He was frowning and looking around possibly in search of his parent. Then there was a stranger adult, who was supposed to soothe the baby, kneeling by the stroller. (I cannot remember if “the stranger” was Dr Roberts Brooks or Dr Sam Goldstein.)
As a mother of two, I knew the baby was going to be stressed in this new place without a familiar face. He would cry in fifteen seconds or less! My first instinct would be to smile at the baby and distract him with something so that he did not get upset too fast. But the stranger in the video did something I did not expect. He looked into the frowny baby’s eyes with a little frown of his own. The stranger’s expression reflects a little sadness, just like the baby. He then said to that baby along the line of, “Aww, I know you are feeling a little puzzled and sad.” He continued holding the gaze of the little baby with sadness. It felt as if he was walking with baby in that plane of sadness, completely okay with being there with him. He was not asking the baby to come out of it. The baby started to appear calm and started looking at the stranger connecting with him in his sadness. Then the baby’s mood started to shift from sadness to curiosity. I guess that being accepted as who he was in the present moment, with sadness and all, he was able to start to explore what was going on around him with a sense of safety. The stranger then reflected, “You are checking me out now?” with raised eye brows and an interested look. He was reflecting the baby’s behaviour of being curious. He was moving onto another plane with the baby. The video continued with the stranger following the child’s emotions based on his facial expressions and other behavioral cues, acknowledging out loud what he thought the child’s intentions and thoughts were in the moment. He was not rescuing the child from any of the emotions or trying to change the child’s thinking. He was there totally accepting and embracing everything that was going on. He was at peace with them all, and in turn the child was at peace too.
It was extremely calming to watch the video. My learning point was that I do not need to change the experience of my child. Whatever his experience is, all I need to do is to accept the experience as it is. If he did not like a type of food, I could agree with him that he does not like the food (not that the food is not nice or he was choosy). I could agree with his longing to have another food (not that I need to get that food for him). I could agree with him that he feels a little sad because he does not get the other food (not that I need to scold him for not appreciating for what I have got for him). I could still persuade him to eat even with all his other wants and disappointments. It was wonderful. Accepting his emotions (by guessing and naming it) reduced one level of struggle. He and I spent less energy fighting with his emotions. We both have more energy on making the situation work the best we could.
It has worked wonders to reduce my pressures to “perform” as a mother and to reduce the pressure on my child not to feel negative emotions. My first born is now eight years old. He has learned how to recognize my emotions and name them too. One afternoon, just a few weeks ago, he told me that I looked angry just before we went out for his swimming lesson. Boy he was spot on! I was very tense that day trying to meet my schedules for work and his activities. I was angry with the situation I was in. The moment he recognized it, I felt a sense of being understood. It was as if my child has seen my inner experience. My urge to act out by asking him to hurry up went away. Instead, it gave me a chance to tell him what I was angry about. He gave me an outlet to ventilate. And he even helped me problem solve! Through my training as a psychologist, I have learned that emotions tend to lose its intense effects once you could name it. I have been soothed when my mentors and my psychologist friends helped me identify my emotions and accepted them as it was. But when it was done by my eight-year-old child and I felt soothed by my child, my sense of joy and contentment was just profound. My once-nose-bleeding-child and I have come a long way in making friends with our emotions. We have recognized them, named them and tamed them.
Written by Nyein Nyein
This post was first published on https://mindtending.com/anger/ and the original site is marked for deletion soon.