Saturday, January 28, 2012

Uncovering Sources of Angry Reactions: Using Reflection and Unconditional Parenting for Lasting Change

English: A metaphorical visualization of the w...
English: A metaphorical visualization of the word Anger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In this series of posts, I explore my personal challenges with each of the principles of unconditional parenting. These personal accounts run in parallel with a series of information-based posts where I explain each of the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting.

As I mentioned in my previous post on being reflective, part of the challenge in unconditional parenting is to examine the roots of our own parenting practices. This can be an especially daunting and scary endeavor for those of us who were raised in dysfunctional homes.  Even for people raised in healthy, supportive environments, taking a hard look in the mirror isn't always easy. As Alfie Kohn puts it, "raising kids is not for wimps."

Despite the difficulty of parenting unconditionally, I'm committed to this gentle, compassionate approach. I'm driven to provide more emotional support for my son than I ever received.  To do so, I have embraced reflection as a way of life. Without reflection, I risk falling victim to my own bad habits, habits I learned from a family with different values than my own.  For the most part, I'm pleased with my parenting choices. But there are plenty of situations in which I still need to build my emotional intelligence, where I want to be more responsive than reactive.

Like those loooong, seemingly unending stretches of intense neediness that my toddler goes through.  You know... during illness, second molars doing plate tectonics under the gums, a shift in the routine, or some other random infraction upon the fragile toddler world. And with it, the whining, the crying, the clinging, and the asking for something 17 times, even if I've already replied with a yes. Hoo boy, do those days test me!

Most of the time, I handle these situations without getting too rattled. When I'm rested, well-fed, exercised, have had ample personal time, and life hasn't thrown me any recent hiccups, I cope fine with Munchkin's needy fits. But life isn't always that smooth so neither am I. On hard days, I carry my own emotional baggage that adds fuel to any present day fire. On those days, that whining and crying really just make me want to SCREAM. I'm ashamed to admit it, but on occasion I have. If I'm not paying attention, my whole body gets tense and the only emotion I can connect with is anger.

Anger? Yes, anger, the master cover-up of all emotions. It protects us from feeling despair, loss, hopelessness, anguish, weakness and fear. And that must be what I'm feeling underneath the extreme irritation. Because the real me - the person I am today, the mother I am when I'm my best - feels only compassion and concern when I hear my child cry. No matter what's going on in my life.

Typically, when I get overwhelmed by Munchkin's needs my strategy is to take a break. I go to my chair and breathe. I remind myself that it's not his fault he's upset, he's not trying to annoy me, and that I'm just having an emotional reaction of my own. I watch myself feel angry, I hear my racing heart, and I listen intently to my breath until it slows down. I re-center. Then I get up, return to my son, and thank him for giving me a moment. I apologize if I have been harsh before taking my break. We hug and he seems to forgive me and understand. Then I tend to his needs.

But what about MY needs?!!! The fact that I have to keep repeating this process indicates that I have some unmet needs of my own. The feelings I'm having aren't just from dealing with a needy toddler. Yes, toddlers can be incredibly aggravating, but the anger-covering-other-feelings comes from me, not a two year-old. It's deeper.

If I'm brave enough to consider why I feel angry during my son's needy fits, I have a chance of stopping the cycle. I have a chance to heal my hurt feelings, forgive transgressions, and let go of the anger. Then,  I can tend to my son the way I normally do, the way I do when I'm not burdened with feelings outside of here and now.  Because what I want is to provide consistent support for him, not just when I'm my best self. I want to let go of that tension that takes over so I can take over the situation with compassion and grace.  Even on hard days.

So I've started to reflect on the source of this parenting practice, or rather, parenting reaction. Where are these crazy feelings coming from? Why do I sometimes have this intense emotional reaction to something that is really just plain irritating?

Certainly part of it is that I can take better care of myself. Get more rest. Eat before my blood sugar starts running low. Stick to my regular exercise routine. Nurture my interests and passions outside of motherhood. Make time for myself. Focus on being mindful. OK, sure, fine, I'll work on doing all that more consistently. Yet it still feels like that's just the surface layer, the maintenance layer. I still need to peel back the outer coating and get down to the pit. I need to reflect upon myself as a child in order to access the source of this angry feeling.

One clue comes from a memory I have when I was about four years-old. I was in the bath and I was very upset. Something terrible had just happened to me because I was in physical and emotional pain. My mother was washing me off, hissing viciously at me to shut up and stop crying. She was angry at me, seemingly because I was crying, in pain, and in distress.

This memory sits vaguely in the back of my mind when I hear Munchkin's persistent shrieks. Usually, I can push it away, back down to the caverns where I was taught to keep it. Yet on days when my emotional threshold is low, the memory seeps up through the cracks. It leaks into my muscles and invades my body. The pained fury holds me tightly in its merciless hand.

But the anger is not mine. I just internalized it when I was four because... well, that's how four year-olds cope. I took that anger as my own even though I didn't create it and didn't deserve it. It's not my anger and it certainly isn't for me to share with my son. I'm quite sure it wasn't even my mother's to begin with.

So it's time. Time to let go of that anger. Time to give it back. Time to forgive. Time to listen to my own pitiful wails, openly, without criticism or judgment. Time to comfort that sorrow with unconditional love. Time to heal. Time to come back to the present.

Now, I have a different vision when I arise from my breathing chair. I take one last deep breath. I open my eyes and see Munchkin watching me with concern. I go through the regular spiel (I'm sorry, I'm not upset at you, I feel better now, etc. etc.). I take him in my arms and imagine pulling the crying little girl out of the bathtub. I wrap her in a huge, warm, oversized, fair-trade, organic bamboo towel (I love the endless possibilities with imagery). I draw her up close and nestle her securely between me and Munchkin.  I listen to her screams subside to wimpers  as we hold her close. She is cradled safely there, protected from harm, soothed, comforted, loved. When I release Munchkin from my embrace, we smile at each other.

The little girl smiles, too.

For ideas on staying mindful, check out: When Stress Interferes with Mindful Parenting

Do you have parenting reactions you'd like to change? Does any of this resonate with you? Feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you!

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  1. I actually cried a little reading this because this is my biggest hurdle as a parent - overcoming my own childhood anger from the dysfunctional family I grew up in. Conscious parenting is HARD, even more so when I feel that I am constantly battling twice over: the current situation and unresolved issues from my past. But it's worth it to see the love and forgiveness in my son's eyes when own my experiences and forgive myself as well and make the efforts to heal. Thank you for sharing this post.

  2. @Fabulaous Mama: "it's worth it to see the love and forgiveness in my son's eyes" wow, that made me tear up, too! You're right, this road is really, really hard. But I deeply believe that the more of us who choose to parent consciously, the better our world will be. Little by little, generation by generation, we undo the harm and bring love and compassion to light. I'm happy to have you along for the ride :)

  3. Oh Christ, now Im crying at work. I love this