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How to Be Your Child's Therapist

Part 2: Understanding anger and being "good enough."

Key points

  • The struggles of parenting young children have been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Helping children communicate their feelings can reduce unwanted behaviors.
  • Listening and learning from mistakes builds stronger relationships between parents and children.

In Part 1 of "How to be Your Child's Therapist," I offered suggestions for parents struggling with their insecure child. Here, I will offer guidance for parents who are struggling with their angry child and explain the importance of being "good enough."

One of the most challenging experiences of parenting is worrying that your child is mean, or even worse, worrying that you, the parent, are mean. Feeling anger from your child—and towards your child—can feel so taboo for some that it can quickly send a parent spiraling downwards. As a psychoanalyst working with parents of young children, I have the privilege of helping my patients talk about all of their feelings—including their anger, and their concerns about their children's anger—so that they can feel supported in working to understand what is causing the conflict, while in pursuit of a solution. The following is a continuation of concerns brought to me by my patients, and I am hoping to offer it as guidance to anyone who is struggling with parenting their children right now.

"My child is mean and sometimes I worry I hate them."

Children can be mean. So can adults. There are plenty of reasons why people are mean, and when adults in our lives have a bad day and behave badly in their relationships, we try to be understanding and help them talk about what’s bothering them. Adults oftentimes forget that this is not possible for a lot of children, who are still in the process of learning how to talk about their feelings. Children have tantrums and angry outbursts because they haven’t yet learned how to communicate their experiences with words, and the outbursts are a way of ridding their bodies of unmanageable feelings that they are unable to process constructively. This can look like hitting, or biting, or throwing something at a wall or at a sibling, or saying something vicious.

When your child is being mean and is unable to communicate their feelings constructively, your reaction can then cause them to feel disconnected and helpless, which perpetuates the cycle of needing to expel more negative feelings in unproductive ways, rendering them even more frustrated, angry, and mean. Just as an adult acts mean when they are unable to imagine that anyone around them will want to or be able to understand them, your child’s negative behaviors will become exacerbated when they are feeling disconnected from you.

Try to observe little things your child does or says that could hint at an upset or struggle. If your child mentions they don’t like someone, be curious about it and ask them to tell you about the things they don’t like about them. Then ask them what they don’t like about you, and listen. Don’t correct them, don’t teach them good manners. Rather, model tension-free communication. Accept what they are saying. Giving your child permission to share their negative feelings about others and about you not only strengthens your relationship but helps them learn how to talk about their feelings instead of acting on them. When children learn to trust that they are allowed to have negative feelings, they will feel more secure sharing them thoughtfully, respectfully, and with care.

Tara Goldberg
A child's drawing, 2021.
Source: Tara Goldberg

"My child doesn’t listen."

Children are always being told what to do. Nearly everything they do requires some kind of assistance or instruction—or else is prohibited—and as frustrating as it is to constantly have to remind your child to do something, it is equally frustrating for your child to be constantly reminded to do something. It’s difficult always being told what to do, and when our minds are busy, listening to what others are saying to us becomes even more difficult. There are so many ideas, thoughts, and feelings rolling around in your child’s growing brain, and it can be hard to remember how much is going on inside of their minds, how rapidly things are changing for them, and their overwhelming reality that they are not in control of most things in their own lives.

Some children take longer to process requests than others, so give them time. If you are asking something of your child, wait to repeat your question, give some space. If your child doesn’t want to listen to you, ask yourself why, then ask your child why. Listen to your own thoughts about it, and listen to their answer. You might not like what they say, or how they say it, but if you read through the lines you might find the reason. A patient recently complained to me that her child didn’t listen when she asked him to do anything. Upon closer inspection, the issue was not the ask, so much as the way it was asked. My patient was asking if her child wanted to do something which was being forced upon him. He responded to her, “Don’t ask me if you’re just gonna make me.” So the next time something like this came up she simply said, “I need you to take out the garbage,” and her child took out the garbage. He felt listened to.

"I am not a good enough parent."

Chances are, if you are reading this, the concept of “good enough” parenting isn’t new to you, but there’s a lot of misuse and misunderstanding about it. Donald Winnicott developed the concept of the good enough parent, which is a parent who finds a balance between gratifying and frustrating their child in such a way that the child receives enough care to feel safe enough to learn and grow while also building muscles to tolerate disappointment. As much as we know this deep down, there continues to be so much emphasis placed on not wanting to set children up for disappointment, which interferes with being a good enough parent!

To be a good enough parent is to offer your child opportunities to feel disappointment, to feel hurt, to feel misunderstood, and then to help them through these feelings—this is the work of repairing hurt relationships, and teaching your child how to repair their relationship with you helps them build confidence to navigate difficult relationships in the world. Let your child be excited about a plan that might fall through, and if it does, talk to them about how disappointing it is, and how excited you both were. Let them tell you they’re mad at you for not buying them ice cream, or putting a limit on their phone use, and agree that it’s maddening, and ask them if there’s something else you can do together that could be second best. Give them time to answer. They might say no and storm off, then come surprise you a few hours or a few days later with some ideas. The greatest marker of successful parenting is in your child’s ability to tell you how you’ve failed them, and in your ability to listen and learn from them, so offer yourself and your child ample opportunity to be just good enough. It’s the best any parent can be.

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