Category Archives: Family Project

04Feb/13

Do You React like a Child?

I have realised that a lot of the discord in our house is made worse by my own reactions to it.

I can give up my food, lose my sleep, give my children my gloves and socks on a cold winter’s walk, let them choose games, films, where to sit, what to eat………all in a mature adult way. That’s what mums do.  We put our children first, trying to ease their discomfort, not minding if we don’t get to choose the cake first, or sit in the front of the car. Sometimes I do mind, but I can sacrifice these kind of things with equanimity.

What I can’t cope with are their expressions of negative emotion: the arguing, complaining, the anger and frustration. It makes me feel so uncomfortable and out of control that I react to them as a child would. Immediately.  Without pausing and thinking. Without empathising with them. Only thinking of myself, my emotions, and how I can get control of  the situation, and smooth things over again.

John Gottman, in his wonderful book, ‘Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child’ explains that how we react to our children’s emotions reflects how we respond to our own.  Sadly, I have had to admit that this is true in my case.  In some areas I am not emotionally intelligent in the slightest.  I hate being angry or upset and have spent my entire life resisting it, trying to eradicate it, believing myself and my life to be seriously flawed in those instances.  I realise now, that as a perfectionist, I needed to control it. Anger and sadness have no place in a perfect life, so they were obviously Very Bad Indeed.

Now, while I am trying to raise a happy family rather than a perfect one, I understand the value of negative emotions and the choices we have in responding to them.  I know of many better ways of acting and talking to myself and my children in these situations to validate the feelings, accept the situation, set limits on behaviour and come up with solutions if need be.  Unfortunately my emotional side is not with the programme yet.  It seems to be many years behind, and I worry whether it will ever catch up.  Knowing something intellectually and rationally is one thing.  Knowing it emotionally in the heat of the moment is another thing altogether.

What further confounds the problem is that I wear my heart on my sleeve. It is easy to tell what I’m feeling, without me having to spell it out.  I’ve always thought of it as a sign of being honest and just a part of being me.  Now it seems a lot like a lack of self control – call it stiff upper lip if you like.  When the emotional going gets tough I just can’t keep it together.  It all comes out – like a five year old – directed at the people closest to me.   It’s like I am stamping my feet and shouting ‘its’ not fair!’  Knowing intellectually what I need to change doesn’t help me react in the moment, and even makes it feel worse because I am aware that I could be behaving differently, but can’t. It can be very frustrating, especially when I behave in a way that I’m telling my children not to.

But another important thing I’ve learnt in the past 2 years is that in order to change this and improve my emotional reactions, I need first to accept that it’s ok not to be perfect at the moment. This means being mindful and kind to myself when it happens.   I also know that to change a habit I need to focus on the new habit and have a plan of action.

So, I have compiled a list of  ‘alternative parenting responses’ for myself and my husband to use in the heat of the moment when we  start to get frustrated about the kids being upset or misbehaving.  We have practiced noticing what triggers our annoyance, and then started using the new responses. It will take some hard work before it feels natural or becomes a habit, but we’ve seen some small green shoots of success already which spurs us on.

It seems I may be able to grow up after all.

16Jan/13

A Day in the Life of an Emotional Mum

reward chart

Zach still responds to reward charts…thankfully!

I’m feeling low. Tired and battle weary. And it is only 9.30am. Zach was up at 4.45 this morning and refused to go back to bed. I didn’t have the strength to fight him so since Chris was getting up anyway (I know – it’s crazy) I said he could sleep on Chris’ side IF he didn’t fidget. If he fidgets he goes back to his own bed. It’s been a long time since he has come into our bed during the night and so I was expecting some wriggling and chatting ending with me battling to take him to bed. I felt that I was just postponing the inevitable.

Surprisingly however, he stayed as still as a person can do. I think he moved twice until he got up at 7.19. He always tells me the exact time he wakes up. If I was taking the positive from the situation I could focus on how his self control has improved. When he got up the second thing he said to me when he came downstairs was ‘Mum, I tried my best and stayed very still.’ I praised him enthusiatically and said I was really impressed. This is progress, but I know it is only one side of his personality at the moment.

At breakfast – when he was showing signs of resuming his fight against the world – I told him that it was time for things to change. I said that he knows now that we love him, and that we still love him when he is naughty, or when we are telling him off, or when he hates us. He knows we love him whatever. [We’ve been telling him this for 6 weeks or so now so a lot of it has gone in. See previous post for more on this.] Now it’s time to stop fighting us. He has to do as he is told. I’ve done a chart for him to get ticks whenever he does as he’s told, when he accepts me saying ‘no’, and whenever he realises he’ s fighting us or pushing us away and stops doing it. It’s a big ask but the prize is going swimming with Daddy and/or using Dad’s telescope – if we can find it in the garage. I also told him that I would be making another chart for black marks. Whenever he doesn’t do as he’s told, or fights us, he will get a black mark. These will add up to him losing privileges like his ipod, TV, going to bed, pudding, treats doing activities with Chris at the weekend. I will decide what these are when I am calm (hopefully!!).  Part of me knows this will work for a while and then he will slip back into not caring, and hating us all. But the more optimistic part of me knows that I have to keep going. I have to keep the faith, even though it’s so hard to fight every day with someone you love.  I try not to fight but I have to provide the boundaries and he keeps choosing to fight them. This week I feel emotionally exhausted. I have no idea whether I am doing the right thing.

In the car on the way to school Jas chose the gratitude topic, and she said ‘Think of 4 things we love about Zach.’ Very intuitive of her, I thought. Even Harvey joined in the spirit of the exercise despite being very annoyed with Zach and his behaviour at the moment. I was very proud of both of them.

Harvey:  OK, let me see…mmmm…I love Zach because he’s really great to play with.

Zach: [a big smile on his face.]  I was hoping you would say that!

I think it helped. As I said goodbye to Zach at school I told him he had earned 2 ticks that morning for getting dressed when I asked him and for getting into the car nicely. He seemed proud so I said: ‘ Does your heart feel better when you are not fighting us?’ He said yes.

Now, back home, I am noticing that I need to be kind to myself today.  I need to build up my energy and resilience so I can cope with round 2 at pick up time.   It makes me sad that I find it all so emotional, and that it knocks me off-centre so much.  I’m sure that a lot of families experience similar problems everyday, and just get on with it without so much angst and emotional upheaval.  But I have to accept that this is who I am. This is how my brain has learnt to deal with emotions.  The positive is that I am gradually learning to be less emotionally involved and more calm in the difficult moments. So today I’m not going to beat myself up for allowing it all to wear me down.   I’m going to keep going, take things slowly and be kind to myself.

I feel low, tired and battle weary, but that’s ok. If I’m kind to myself, that’s ok.