I agree completely. We need to be honest about our own feelings—with ourselves! We need to notice our emotions as they come up, take responsibility for them, and work through them. Because the truth is that every parent sometimes feels rage toward his or her child. Stuffing those feelings doesn’t help anyone.
But that does NOT mean we need to “dump” our upsets on our child in the name of being honest. That’s not acting like a grown-up, and it’s not coaching our child to be his or her best self, either. In fact, when kids follow that modeling, it looks like tantrums. So unless there’s immediate danger—in which case you need to remove a child from harm’s way—I recommend that parents try to avoid relating to their children when they’re angry.
Does that mean we aren’t being honest, truthful and authentic? I don’t think so. Let’s take this a step at a time.
1. Most of us believe that “being authentic” means telling or showing our child how angry we are. Actually, expressing anger to another person just reinforces our anger, our internal feeling that it’s an emergency. That reinforces our “fight or flight” response—which makes the other person look like the enemy. So it’s almost impossible to coach your child productively when you’re angry. Acting on our anger with our child is usually the adult version of a tantrum.
2. Whose feelings are they, anyway? Sure, our kids make us MAD! But the truth is, those are our own feelings. They aren’t caused by our child, they’re caused by our own conclusions (“She lied to me…How dare she?!…She’s going to be an immoral person!”) In fact, anger is always a way of fending off our own more vulnerable feelings. We attack instead of acknowledging our own hurt, fear, grief, and powerlessness.
3. What if we were completely honest with ourselves about our feelings? That means, instead of acting on our sense of emergency and “being honest” about our anger by speaking or acting angrily towards our child, we would let ourselves feel those more upsetting, scary emotions under the anger. (“It scares me that she would lie to me….How can I trust her?….I’m afraid that she’ll come to a bad end…I feel powerless to make her tell me the truth…I feel so helpless!”) When we breathe our way through those more vulnerable emotions, they dissipate, and we no longer need the anger as a defense. So it melts away.
4. Are you letting your child “get away” with something? No. Once you aren’t in the grip of your anger, you can intervene so much more effectively with your child. You’ll have the clarity to set clear, kind limits and to coach your child through his big emotions. But you’ll be doing it for your child’s optimal development, not because you’re mad, or sad, or disappointed. We all have those feelings sometimes. But they are never our child’s responsibility, even if we’re responding to our child’s behavior.
5. Is it inauthentic to wait until your anger cools before you talk with your child? No. Anger isn’t actually an authentic emotion. Sure, anger is always “valid”—a valid signal that you have some upsetting, scary, more vulnerable emotions like fear and sadness to work through, that are pushing you into fight or flight.
6. But don’t you then need to tell your child how angry her behavior made you, to model being authentic in a relationship? Actually, being authentic and honest would mean being more vulnerable, by going under the anger to the fear beneath. So instead of “I’m angry that you lied to me” the honest communication would be “I’m scared that you lied to me..I’m afraid that means that you don’t think you can tell me the truth…that we are growing apart…I need to be able to trust what you say for us to have a good relationship.”
7. Is it ever useful to share your authentic feelings with your child? Of course! Later, when everyone has calmed down, you might well say, “We speak respectfully to each other in this house. When you speak to me like you did, I feel hurt.” Most kids who have experienced empathy and apologies from us will respond with a heart-felt apology. In fact, they don’t want to hurt us, any more than we want to hurt them. When they do, it’s for the same reason—they’re in fight or flight, and at that moment we look like the enemy.
8. Don’t you have to tell kids you’re disappointed, sad or angry about their behavior to get them to act right? No. It’s true that kids who adore and respect us don’t want to disappoint us, so they’re more likely to follow our rules. But you don’t get that kind of relationship by making a child feel guilty, which is what happens when you say “I’m sad and disappointed in you.” You get that kind of relationship by coaching your child through his feelings, so he can better manage his behavior. And you get it by setting clear, kind limits about what kind of behavior is acceptable.
9. But what about telling the truth? Consider that maybe you aren’t seeing the whole truth. You’re only human, so you only get to see from where you’re standing. If you could see things from your child’s perspective, they would look very different. You’ll always get closer to authentic, honest communication if you re-frame the situation so you have a larger view. For instance, you might ask yourself, as Gandhi reportedly did when his grandson lied to him, “What about me wasn’t safe enough for him to trust me with the truth?” Your anger will dissolve, and you’ll be able to problem-solve more effectively.
Kids want to act right. If they don’t, it’s because something’s getting in their way and they need our coaching. A coach doesn’t say to the player, “I’m sad, angry and disappointed about your playing.” The coach takes responsibility for coaching himself through his own feelings, and figures out how to help the player do better.