Psst! The stories shared here are from my or a client’s home to give you examples of how parenting by connection can look in action. Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of our collective children.
So Here’s The Story …
Early one morning, I told my 5-year-old son we were going to our favorite pizza restaurant for dinner, but later, when I discovered that some of his classmates would be going the following day instead, I decided it would be best for us to wait and all go together. I felt bad about breaking the plans even though it was in my son’s best interest.
Generally speaking, setting limits is not my area of strength. My instinct is to soothe, smooth over, and fix. Situations like this one, in particular, make it very difficult for me to hold a limit because I grew up with a parent who rarely followed through on a commitment or promise. For that reason, and many others stemming from my own parent’s divorce, my inclination is to be liked and to please others. In the past, these deeply rooted feelings would lead me to bend myself into a pretzel to satisfy my son until I couldn’t please him anymore. I would then blow up in frustration or shut down. This was a pattern I had been trying to change.
Connected Parenting In Action
I decided it was important to hold the limit about not going to the pizza restaurant tonight, as uncomfortable as it might be for me. I said warmly, “I’m sorry our plans changed. Let’s pick something different for dinner. You can choose.” This sent him into a rage. He was yelling, “I hate you” and “You’re the worst mommy.” What do you do when your child says, “I hate you”?
I knelt down next to him and listened to him yell and stomp for 10 minutes. I got low, stayed close, and every once in and while said, “I’m sorry this is so hard” or “I know you wanted to go.”
His angry words were hard for me to hear. Part of me wanted to walk away, but I stayed. I didn’t try to list all the solutions as I might have in the past or tell him his words were hurtful to me. I suspected he needed to feel the disappointment to release it and let me know how this change of plan made him feel. I remembered that he couldn’t think just then – his strong emotions washing over his prefrontal cortex where logic resides – and that helped me stay in the moment and listen without worry or doubt. I wasn’t afraid of the words he was saying or that I needed to teach him a lesson.
I was on the ground with him giving him my caring attention and confidence, every now and then saying things like, “We can still have a great night together.”
After about 10 minutes, he settled down and started playing with Legos on the table. I asked him what he would like for dinner, and he suggested a couple of doable options that we had at home. He was able to think again and work flexibly with me! No pretzel bending or bribes necessary. It was as if the dark clouds parted, and we could see each other in a new light. I got started on his dinner, and he continued playing. I didn’t say anything about what just happened.
About 15 minutes later, he looked up from his Legos and said, “Mommy, I’m sorry for saying I hate you. I don’t hate you.” I said, “Thank you, my love. I understand that sometimes it feels like you hate me. I love you soooo much.” I gave him a big, vigorous hug, and he said, “I love you too, Mommy.”
We had a great night. We had a lot of fun playing together, and he got ready for bedtime easily.
Holding the limit around not going to the pizza restaurant tonight helped us both grow. If I had decided to distract or soothe him at that moment, he would have missed an opportunity to offload some of his hurt feelings. If I had let my anger get the best of me and corrected his vitriol, he would have missed out on an opportunity to apologize on his own. And I would have missed the opportunity to see that even if I’m not “liked” in a particular moment, offering my presence and non-judgemental listening of his feelings is what lifts tension and brings us back to safety and connection – and enables us to have a wonderful night despite feeling disappointment for a little while.
The Science Behind the Story
Understanding Anger and How to Respond
1. Anger is known as a secondary emotion, which means it is an emotion FUELED by other emotions. Usually, under the surface of anger is hurt, fear, worry, or a sense of loneliness. In this case, disappointment (and most likely some other feelings) were underneath the anger. When we make it safe for our kids to express their anger – we are enabling our children to expel the hurt feelings underneath it and reach a solution together once they have calmed.
2. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Howard Bath, when children are “lashing out” with their words or aggressive behavior, it is our job to focus on the emotions DRIVING the behavior – not the behavior itself (angry words your child says, like “I hate you,” etc).
3. If we focus on shutting down the angry words by shaming them, arguing back, or threatening a punishment – we are missing the opportunity to address the root cause of what caused their angry behavior in the first place: an overwhelming emotion that is hijacking their prefrontal cortex which enables their rational thinking, impulse control, good judgment, & flexibility.
4. Anger in and of itself is an important emotion – neither good nor bad. Handling anger with empathy and a sense of neutrality (as seen in this story) signals safety to the child and allows them to develop a healthy relationship with their anger as they mature and develop. They learn they don’t have to escalate it in order for them to get heard by their caregivers.
5. If a child is hurting someone or something, we can set a calm boundary like, “No one is upset with you, but I have to stop you” or “My body isn’t willing to be hit, but I’m gonna stay right here for you.” In this story, the child was simply kicking, stomping, and yelling, so this boundary wasn’t necessarily needed.
6. Crying is a child’s natural recovery process WHEN a connecting adult (attachment figure) is there to listen and attune to their experience.
7. Children might also stomp, sweat, and scream to expel feelings as they travel through the emotional release process on their way to recovery. This is not an emergency, although sometimes it appears like one and can be very jarring for an adult to witness. Receiving education and support to be able to stay present in these moments is key for adults.
8. By not rehashing the situation after things calmed down and by NOT demanding an apology from the child for saying “I hate you,” it created EVEN MORE safety for the child to tap into their agency and empathy and apologize on their own.
What is Co-Regulation and Why Does It Matter?
Co-regulation is the process of holding a caring, calm, and attentive space to listen and witness your child’s emotional expression. During this time, not only are they expressing and releasing the emotions that are burdening them at the moment, BUT they can SENSE and BORROW YOUR calm, regulated nervous system. We allow them to express their hurts without our own logic, judgments and attempts to solve the problem getting in the way. This way, their limbic system (emotional brain) can find safety once again, and their own nervous system can regulate. CO-REGULATION teaches SELF-regulation.
Children under the age of 7 do not yet have self-regulation skills. They are dependent on their primary caregivers to help them through these overwhelming moments. As children grow, we can also teach self-regulation tools, but co-regulation will ALWAYS be the most important first step, no matter a child’s age. Staying with a child during their upset and listening is how they develop a secure attachment with you and within themselves.
Ideas to Take Home
What you can do when your child says “I hate you”:
1. It’s always good practice to look out for the subtle signals your child is feeling disconnected PRIOR TO their aggression or explosion. Have they been whiney? Clingy? Rigid? Bossy? Rude? These are signs their “thermometer” is rising and it’s good to move in with connection. But if you’re already at the place where your child lashes out with their words – you can STILL take a temperature check by saying something like, “I want to understand your feelings. Can you try speaking kindly?” Or you might take an empathy guess saying, “Are you feeling angry because you feel like you’re missing out on the fun?” Or, you could try to approach them playfully to see if that diffuses the sharpness of their anger. If these don’t work or you’re already in the midst of a tantrum or meltdown (like this story the child went from 0-10 quickly), it’s time to move in and listen. (see #5 & 6)
2. Reflect on how your emotions, particularly ANGER, were listened to in your home growing up – were you safe to express anger? How did your primary caregivers show their anger?
3. Be HONEST about your capacity to listen to your child BEFORE YOU TAKE ACTION. Ask yourself, am I able to listen to my child’s emotional experience right now? If not, it’s okay to walk away for a few moments to breathe, scream into a pillow, push against a wall, run your hands under cold water, or ask your spouse to step in. This can take time, but any listening we offer our children is better than none or completely losing our cool.
4. Receive support to learn how to respond to anger and aggression AND heal your own relationship with anger so you can parent from inner peace. We cannot lead our children where we haven’t been. Through my course and coaching, you will increase your window of tolerance to listen to and manage anger. It’s SO possible!
5. Our job for at least 75% of a child’s emotional upset is to send nonverbal gestures that signal safety to the child’s nervous system, such as close proximity, a calm but warm facial expression, nodding your head, or perhaps offering outstretched arms for a hug. If they will let you, holding them close to you also signals safety, but movement can be critical in the release of anger.
6. We can also offer verbal reassurances that can sound like:
- All your feelings are safe with me.
- She has the toy. I’ll stay with you while we wait.
- I’m right here for you.
- Daddy will come back. He always comes back.
- I know you wanted to keep playing.
- You sound angry, I’m listening.
- My body isn’t willing to be hit, but I’m right here listening to you.
- I’ve got a spot for you right here in my lap.
- I’m on your side.
- I think you can still have a great day.
- I won’t leave you.
7. While this story didn’t cover this, we can absolutely teach our children self-regulation tools proactively and gently support them in the use of these tools, BUT if we skip listening to their emotions, we are missing the opportunity to do the real teaching.
Bath, H. (2008a). Calming Together: The Pathway to Self-Control. Reclaiming Children and Youth: The Journal of Strength-Based Interventions, 16(4), 44–46. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ794192
Wipfler, P., & Schore, T. (2016). Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges.