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Ever since I started training to become a play therapist my perception of why children do what they do, especially when they are being oppositional, has changed. Recently, I had an experience with my five year old who had a two day surge of defiance. Our days went from mostly smooth sailing with sporadic refusals, to two straight days of complete refusal at everything I asked of her.
Being the trained therapist I am, I first assessed for the following:
1) Have there been any recent changes in her routine?
2) Is she coming down with a cold?
3) Is she hungry?
4) Is she tired?
Knowing that none were the culprit for her resistance, I was perplexed. I started to feel angry and resentful. My therapist part was telling me there was a reason for her behavior and I should be understanding but another part of me was checking out and wanted to be alone - away from her.
Fast forward to a few mornings after and my spouse told me about a conversation she had with him. My five year old disclosed she was upset with me because... wait for it... "Mama wasn't getting mad!" :0 In other words, my daughter was trying to rile me up. Her defiance was meant to spark a strong angry reaction from me.
Hence this blog post. While I'm generally a private person and don't like to share details of my life with people outside of my intimate circle, I did want to share my recent experience in the hopes it normalizes and validates what you and many parents experience at one point or another.
So, what is the lesson to be learned from this experience? Children often want us to feel how they feel. And, if they don't think we are getting it, they will find a way to make us feel what they are feeling.
In this situation, my daughter was trying to get me mad because she was mad. What she got from me instead, which I'm been working hard on and am proud of, was a calm, patient mom who validated her feelings but still told her she had to take care of her responsibilities. What she really wanted, however, was a mom who got upset because it would in some way validate her experience.
Now this may sound confusing but here is an example my husband reminded me of - have you ever been so mad and upon telling someone how mad you were, they just turned around and gave you a calm, non-expressive response? Do you remember How it made you feel? Did you welcome their calm energy or did it piss you off even further? Chances are, it made you more angry and even a bit confused. Why? Because you may have felt like they were not taking you seriously or were being dismissive. This is what some children feel.
So, does this mean we turn around and be mad at our kids? No, but we can be mad WITH them. We can join in their anger and perhaps share some of their energy so as to relate empathy. Here is what I tried and recommend:
1) Listen to what they are saying - after repeatedly telling my daughter, to brush her teeth, she replied, "I said no! Mama, you are making me so angry that I just want to fight you!" :0 Whoa! This statement triggered a strong reaction from me.
2) Detach from taking it personally - My vindictive part wanted to pull the parent card and show her "who's boss" while my compassionate part wanted to help her. So, I took a deep breath and channeled my compassionate part.
This is the part of me who doesn't see her statement as a threat/challenge but instead as a need. What was the need? I didn't know at the time, but I knew that continuing to push the issue of brushing her teeth wasn't the answer. The deep breath I took allowed me to disconnect from my own anger and frustration and remind myself that I'm dealing with a five year old who is still trying to make sense of the adult world around her.
3) Get playful - After coming to my logical senses, I realized I should try engaging her in a playful way that may help regulate her anger. I furrowed my brows, lowered myself to her level, made eye contact and said, "You want to fight me huh? Okay, come on, fight me. Let me see how much you can push my hands."
I placed my open hands in front of her and let her push them. I pretended she had so much strength that she was able to "push" me backwards. I said things like, "Oh wow, you are really pushing me. You are so strong and so mad." I then pretended to fall to my knees, which made her laugh thereby giving me permission to laugh. That then turned into some light tickling and led to some hugs. As I was hugging her, I then walked her into the bathroom and put the toothbrush in front of her. The result? She ended up brushing her teeth with no resistance. Yay!!! (Side note: I then collapsed on my bed and took some time to regulate my system).
While I realize it takes energy to embrace our playful side, put aside our agenda and our pride, I am the first to admit that moving forward, I will continue to assess her need and try to get playful first. Again, this isn't possible every time but it is doable and it works.
I would love to hear your comments and/or address any questions you have.
Feel free to share them below. And as always, thank you for reading.
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