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.