This afternoon, I watched my five year old niece swing her two braided pigtails behind her and furrow her eyebrows so that they nearly touched, after a child grabbed a block from her stack. And then another kid knocked over a fence she had been building around two plastic cows. And then a cousin playing a poking game with a younger child poked her in the side, and she turned and swung at him, nearly leaving a black eye in her wake.
She got in trouble – for she had hit another child. She was yanked from the play-area and made to sit in a white plastic chair, alone, until she could calm down and agree to play nicely. She was angry.
But here’s the thing: she really was angry about the block that was grabbed from her (and also frustrated because she wanted to play) and she really was angry about the fence that was knocked (and also, crushed that her cousin didn’t see her magnificent building efforts) and the uncalled for poking (and also, annoyed to be distracted from her play).
The adults around her knew none of this, but they were exasperated because they wanted to catch up with each other, not mediate childhood squabbles. And so, they removed her (less she hurt another child) and stuck her in a chair to think (because you can’t hit, and that’s not the way we act in this family, and think about it until you’re ready to come back and be kind).
The question emerges, did this little girl learn anything from her time out? What if what she learned was that her anger – and all the feelings underneath – were invisible to the adults who love her the most? What if what she learned, was that it didn’t matter that other children knocked over her creations, and that it was OK for older children to poke her because they were poking other children?
Those are not lessons I want my niece or any child I love to learn. And yet – I participated in this – I was one of the adults who wanted to have bread and coffee while the children played over yonder.
What if, instead of letting our desire to be with the grown-ups and our short-fuses for kids who hit other kids get the best of us, we connected with our kids? What if instead, we kneeled down, slowed down and tried to understand what was happening for the child who just struck another?
What if we approached the situation with empathy, instead of exasperation?
Here’s the thing about anger: there is almost always another emotion (or more than one) underneath anger. And when we approach a situation with empathy, what we feel are the feelings underneath the anger.
What do I mean? Let me give you some examples:
For my niece, under her anger about the knocked over fence was frustration that she couldn’t play as she wished, underneath her anger about being put into time-out was perhaps sadness or a feeling of her experiences being invisible to her caregivers.
For you, imagine you didn’t get a promotion you really deserved, and you were angry. But what was underneath that anger? Maybe some embarrassment that you didn’t get the job, maybe some fear that you wouldn’t be able to make it professionally, maybe some disappointment in yourself.
For you, maybe you’re a mom. Maybe your child was dawdling in the slowest way only children can dawdle, while you hurried them along because you really wanted to get them to the playdate because you really needed to talk to another grownup about life. And maybe their incredibly slow way of getting their shoes on was making you mad, and maybe you snapped a little. Underneath your mad was a need to be heard, a feeling of losing yourself to dawdles. See how underneath the mad, there’s something really tender?
Think back to the last time your were angry: what else was there? If you really looked, what might you find?
With that perspective, let’s return to this situation in which my niece has just slugged another child. She did hurt the other child. And yet, she’s only five, and we grown-ups were very engrossed in grown-up things in the time leading up to the slugging.
Perhaps this child could have used some help when the other kid grabbed her block, or knocked over her fence. Perhaps she could have used some empathy instead of a scolding.
So what would that have looked like?
It would have required an adult to sit down in her space, and attend to what was going on for her. We might have asked her “Hey, what are you building? Where do these little animals go? Who is helping? Who is playing something else? How are you feeling? What do you need- do you need helping building the fence again? Do you need more blocks or a little space to work in?”
These are all empathic questions: questions that are centered to her experience. They necessarily understand her hitting as an expression of her frustration – and they assume that she was just trying to be a good, playful child. They assume that something went wrong, and that that something caused the behavior. And, they hold open space for the fact that the something that went wrong was, perhaps, that the parents involved were talking to each other instead of attending to their children or being present in their children’s space. And maybe, the something that went wrong was the fact that the parents’ need time for self-care, too, because we live in a world that affords very little of that. And, these questions hold space for this little girls’ experience without pointing fingers at her, her playmates or even her parents.
These questions assume that underneath the anger that was expressed through hitting, there is something else happening, and they assume that that something else is actually very important and that, if we can tend to it, maybe next time, we can do something else, instead of hitting.
So what if your child looks at you like you have three heads when you ask empathic questions after they express anger (whether they express anger via behavior like hitting or by telling you they’re pissed off)? It’s a good question, and one you might need to deal with if you haven’t approached situations like this in the past. It’s OK to offer yourself some empathy here, and let the kids know you’re trying something new, because the old way (time outs, grounding, whatever it was) seemed like it was hurting more than helping.
Because in the end, what we want the children to be able to do is manage their anger in ways that don’t hurt others, and we want them to be able to try new ways when things don’t work out. And if we’re going to ask that of our kids, you know who has to do it first?
Model that kind of vulnerability, enact that kind of empathy, and we’ll all be better for it.