When Children Do Something Hurtful

When our children do something hurtful to us or to others, there is nothing growthful for them to learn if we hurt them back.

But – if we empathise, we build empathy.

If we show compassion, we build compassion.

If we stay connected, we can lead and teach.

If we stay curious, we learn.

If we stay calm, we show them we can handle all versions of them, and that we are safe to listen to and turn to, always.

Understandably, many adults might be wed to the idea that young people will only learn to do better by having consequences that hurt. This might include punishment, disconnected consequences, or anything that separates physically (time-out) or emotionally (shame, shouty voices, angry faces).

It’s what we were told to do for decades by ‘experts’ and people in the know. But now we can all know better.

It’s also a leftover from the way we were parented. Our childhood experience with these responses means they might feel familiar, but this doesn’t make them ‘right’.

We’ve also been seduced by the way they seem to work. If you punish or separate a child from you, you will get a quiet child back. But a quiet child doesn’t mean a calm child.

Unless their body and brain are truly calm, we don’t have access to the part of the brain necessary for learning.

We also risk our connection, and we can’t lead them if they aren’t connected. They’re no different to us. We’re more likely to take guidance from, and turn to, people we know will be open to us and who make us feel loved no matter what. They might tell us what we’ve done isn’t okay, but they’ll do it lovingly.

We can love and lead at the same time. In fact, it’s the only way if we want them to turn to us instead of the secretive or the forbidden.

So what does that look like?

During the storm it looks like holding the boundary AND attending to relationship. Then after the storm, separating them from their behaviour. 

During: ‘It’s okay to be angry at me (relationship). It’s not okay to use those words (boundary). I want to understand what you need (r) but I won’t listen while you’re yelling (b). I’m right here (r). Do you want me to stay or do you want space?’

After: ‘You’re such a great kid (them). I know you know that wasn’t okay (their behaviour). What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help?’ Then, ‘What might you do differently next time you feel angry/ upset/ frustrated?’ (Tie the response to the feeling.) Or, ‘What might you do next time this happens? (Tie the response to the situation.)

Separating them from their behaviour is vital to ensuring they grow to be healthy, happy, vibrant adults. Children will take their experiences and how they feel and make them part of their identity.

This is where the ideas behind traditional disciplines fall down terribly. The whole point of traditional responses such as time out, shame, or punishment has been to make children feel bad so that they would do better. We now know that it just doesn’t work that way. The more children feel bad, the more likely they are to make this part of who they are. ‘I feel bad’ becomes ‘I am bad’. The risk is that ultimately, if children feel bad enough, enough times, they will lean into the bravado of bad – the ‘badass-ness’ of being bad. 

Of course as hard as we might try to stay loving and connected, some days it won’t always go this way, and that’s okay. We’re human, with human hearts that feel big and human brains that step out at inconvenient times. Repair the rupture as soon as you can, and know there is also learning for them in our humility, imperfection, and our willingness to own our behaviour.


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Lead with warmth and confidence: ‘Yes I know this feels big, and yes I know you can handle it.’ 

We’re not saying they’ll handle it well, and we’re not dismissing their anxiety. What we’re saying is ‘I know you can handle the discomfort of anxiety.’ 

It’s not our job to relive this discomfort. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to. Our job is to give them the experiences they need (when it’s safe) to let them see that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. 

This is important, because there will  always be anxiety when they do something brave, new, important, growthful. 

They can feel anxious and do brave. Leading with warmth and confidence is about, ‘Yes, I believe you that this feels bad, and yes, I believe in you.’ When we believe in them, they will follow. So often though, it will start with us.♥️
There are things we do because we love them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel loved because of those things.

Of course our kids know we love them, and we know they love us. But sometimes, they might feel disconnected from that feeling of being ‘loved by’. As parents, we might feel disconnected from the feeling of being ‘appreciated by’.

It’s no coincidence that sometimes their need to feel loved, and our need to feel appreciated collide. This collision won’t sound like crashing metal or breaking concrete. It will sound like anger, frustration, demanding, nagging. 

It will feel like not mattering, resentment, disconnection. It can burst through us like meteors of anger, frustration, irritation, defiance. It can be this way for us and our young ones. (And our adult relationships too.)

We humans have funny ways of saying, ‘I miss you.’

Our ‘I miss you’ might sound like nagging, annoyance, anger. It might feel like resentment, rage, being taken for granted, sadness, loneliness. It might look like being less playful, less delighting in their presence.

Their ‘I miss you’ might look like tantrums, aggression, tears, ignoring, defiant indifference, attention-seeking (attention-needing). It might sound like demands, anger, frustration.

The point is, there are things we do because we love them - cleaning, the laundry, the groceries, cooking. And yes, we want them to be grateful, but feeling grateful and feeling loved are different things. 

Sometimes the things that make them feel loved are so surprising and simple and unexpected - seeking them out for play, micro-connections, the way you touch their hair at bedtime, the sound of your laugh at their jokes, when you delight in their presence (‘Gosh I’ve missed you today!’ Or, ‘I love being your mum so much. I love it better than everything. Even chips. If someone said you can be queen of the universe or Molly’s mum, I’d say ‘Pfft don’t annoy me with your offers of a crown. I’m Molly’s mum and I’ll never love being anything more.’’)

So ask them, ‘What do I do that makes you feel loved?’ If they say ‘When you buy me Lego’, gently guide them away from bought things, and towards what you do for them or with them.♥️
We don’t have to protect them from the discomfort of anxiety. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to.

OAnxiety often feels bigger than them, but it isn’t. This is a wisdom that only comes from experience. The more they sit with their anxiety, the more they will see that they can feel anxious and do brave anyway. Sometimes brave means moving forward. Sometimes it means standing still while the feeling washes away. 

It’s about sharing the space, not getting pushed out of it.

Our job as their adults isn’t to fix the discomfort of anxiety, but to help them recognise that they can handle that discomfort - because it’s going to be there whenever they do something brave, hard , important. When we move them to avoid anxiety, we potentially, inadvertently, also move them to avoid brave, hard, growthful things. 

‘Brave’ rarely feels brave. It will feel jagged and raw. Sometimes fragile and threadbare. Sometimes it will as though it’s breathing fire. But that’s how brave feels sometimes. 

The more they sit with the discomfort of anxiety, the more they will see that anxiety isn’t an enemy. They don’t have to be scared of it. It’s a faithful ally, a protector, and it’s telling them, ‘Brave lives here. Stay with me. Let me show you.’♥️
#parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinkids #teenanxiety
We have to stop treating anxiety as a disorder. Even for kids who have seismic levels of anxiety, pathologising anxiety will not serve them at all. All it will do is add to their need to avoid the thing that’s driving anxiety, which will most often be something brave, hard, important. (Of course if they are in front of an actual danger, we help anxiety do its job and get them out of the way of that danger, but that’s not the anxiety we’re talking about here.)

The key to anxiety isn’t in the ‘getting rid of’ anxiety, but in the ‘moving with’ anxiety. 

The story they (or we) put to their anxiety will determine their response. ‘You have anxiety. We need to fix it or avoid the thing that’s causing it,’ will drive a different response to, ‘Of course you have anxiety. You’re about to do something brave. What’s one little step you can take towards it?’

This doesn’t mean they will be able to ‘move with’ their anxiety straight away. The point is, the way we talk to them about anxiety matters. 

We don’t want them to be scared of anxiety, because we don’t want them to be scared of the brave, important, new, hard things that drive anxiety. Instead, we want to validate and normalise their anxiety, and attach it to a story that opens the way for brave: 

‘Yes you feel anxious - that’s because you’re about to do something brave. Sometimes it feels like it happens for no reason at all. That’s because we don’t always know what your brain is thinking. Maybe it’s thinking about doing something brave. Maybe it’s thinking about something that happened last week or last year. We don’t always know, and that’s okay. It can feel scary, and you’re safe. I would never let you do something unsafe, or something I didn’t think you could handle. Yes you feel anxious, and yes you can do this. You mightn’t feel brave, but you can do brave. What can I do to help you be brave right now?’♥️

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