Our eldest is a very emotional child. Very emotional. And exceedingly uninhibited in how she expresses her emotions. While part of me envies her complete freedom of expression another part cringes at her complete obliviousness to the repercussions the expression of her emotions can have on people around her. When she was very young she would throw hysterical fits and be completely overtaken by the strength of her emotions, usually negative ones. Feelings of anger, out-rage, hurt etc. Frustrations with imperfections in herself and her life would send her spiraling out of control.
As an individual who hates conflict it’s been interesting for me to observe how many individuals who have very strong self expression tend to feel a lot better after verbally exploding and venting their feelings. They are like whew! Got that off my chest! Now you know how upset I am and how awful you are so now I can be Ok with you again. Meanwhile the people around them may still feel shell shocked and traumatized by the vehemence, harshness and meanness of how the feelings were expressed.
So here is me. Someone who struggles deeply with expressing emotions as I feel them with this child who is a veritable volcano of emotions set to erupt at regular intervals. We could not be more opposite in basic personality types. I am often in awe of her strength and ability to express exactly what she feels. Her freedom of self expression is something that I want her to always have.
Emotions are emotions. They don’t change the facts of a situation or the rightness and wrongness of things. They are absolutely authentic and I view the right to our own feelings (and especially a child’s right to their own emotions) as one of the most basic of human freedoms. But this spewing of emotions has left me at a loss as a parent nevertheless. How do you train a child who regularly erupts with harsh and abusive words based out of how strongly she feels things without taking away her right to feel that way? How do you validate the freedom to have those emotions and the right to express that strength and level of feeling while not causing hurt and damaged relationships to others? And, the most challenging of all, if adults struggle so deeply with these concepts how on earth do you break it down for a young child? My every instinct is that if healthier communication avenues can possibly be established the younger the better. In theory young dogs are easier to teach than it is to break old dogs of bad habits. The canine example has held true of what I have experienced in my own human life as well.
This past week we had something of a breakthrough for both of us. The concept has made a big enough difference I feel like it’s worth sharing. It came out of me observing how the minute an adult is perceived to be losing control of themselves in a conversation they instantly lose the credibility they desperately need, the validation they crave. Things like crying inappropriately, raising their voice, blaming others for everything about a situation while taking no responsibility for their own actions = an instant loss of respect for whatever it is they are attempting to convey. What they are desperately trying to express, the authenticity and strength of what they are feeling gets lost in the shuffle because the vehicle or method of communication they are defaulting to actually hides the all important point of what they need expressed.
Our daughter stood before me last week with huge tears rolling down her flushed face. Her blue eyes an especially intense blue like they get when she’s thoroughly riled. Through hiccuping sobs she yelled at the top of her voice “I hate this family. I hate lunches. I hate you cooking me lunches. You are a horrible Mom…” Anybody looking at her face could see the the deep hurt plastered over it. She FELT deeply insulted, hurt and even betrayed. So hurt she felt like she had to lash out as the only way to handle the intensity of what she was feeling.
This scene might have been warranted if it had been over some large life event. Some horribly traumatic new household rule being imposed. Or some awful food be dictated to be eaten. The fact that all that emotion was over me frying her eggs and flipping them in a way she was not used to did not negate how deeply she felt about what was to me a very stupid and insignificant issue. Frustration rose within me. How many times did I have to correct and train her before it would CLICK with her that it is NOT Ok to verbally lash out with abusive words when she was upset and angry?? To observe her in that moment it would be easy to assume she had never been corrected or trained to behave appropriately. There was no indication that kindness to others has been a central part of all of the training she has received in her 5 years of life. When would she develop an ounce of self control and decide to exert it I wondered for the 100th time.
I sat there looking at her trying to figure out a new way to approach this old problem. She paused expectantly with lip quivering and caught her breath between sobs waiting to find out what the repercussions of her hateful outburst would be this time. Resignedly I thought “At least she knows there will be repercussions. I guess all that training hasn’t been totally for naught” Observing her straight back, fiercely determined face, shoulders back and seeing how tall she has gotten the thought slipped through my mind “She’s so tall. So strong. She needs the truth” Deciding to allow myself to communicate the emotional vulnerability I was feeling as a result of her verbal assault I swallowed the lump that had suddenly appeared in my throat. Taking her hand I said softly “I know you are upset. I hear you yelling. I am trying to hear what you are saying. When you yell and say hateful and mean things to me though I can’t hear your important message anymore. I can’t hear what you feel. All I can see and hear is the meanness and unkindness you are showing to me. I love you. If you are upset I want to hear about it but I can’t hear the important message you have when you scream and yell. You are strong and what you feel is strong. If what you feel is strong then you don’t have to yell it. You say it with confidence and strength and the words will stand strong without yelling.”
She blinked and tried to process what I said. A fresh round of tears started down her face and she said “I don’t know how to have strong words” “Yes you do”, I replied. “If you feel it strongly then your words will be strong. Say what you need to say with strength and confidence like this!” and throwing my own shoulders back and holding my head high I said in confident clear tones “I do not like my eggs fixed that way. Can you please fix them another way?” Scrunching up her nose doubtfully she surveyed me skeptically. Shrugging she gave it a try. Shoulders back she said in loud and confident tones “Mama I hate those eggs. I want them with cheese and not Pepper.” She stopped and eyed me for a reaction the curiosity clear on her face wondering if something that simple would do the trick. “I am really sorry I messed your eggs up. I can feed these to your little brother and make you some new ones. Would that make you feel better?” Still looking somewhat skeptical she responded “I really do HATE those eggs you made” in clear bold tones. “I’m sorry you hate these eggs and I’m sorry you got so upset about the eggs” I replied. Heaving a sigh of relief she responded “Yeah, me too. Being upset over eggs is very hard.”
Since the egg episode we’ve had occasion to deal with more outbursts. She got hold of some foods this week that caused a regression into behaviors we hoped to have left behind permanently when she was two. When her outbursts are triggered by food reactions this new method has not worked at all. Nothing to date has worked except clearing it out of her system and waiting for her body to be able to normalize. However the normal episodes of outbursts have had a very positive response to the concept of strong words being able to stand strong on their own when boldly and confidently expressed. If she launches into one of her verbal assaults punctuated with volume and tears I put a finger to my lips as a visual cue and say “I can’t hear the important strong words you have to say and the strong way you feel about them. Be bold and confident in how you talk to me if you feel it is important” Occasionally I have to remind her “If what you have to say is strong enough to have tears and yelling then it’s strong enough for you to be bold and confident about” Standing at attention she clearly and assertively states her case. Without tears. Without hurled insults and hurt verbal tongue lashings. It’s been an amazing thing to see and a breakthrough for her to get more respect and more validation for her point of view than she would ever have gotten with a fit.
It is my hope that in the coming years she will continue to gain confidence and communication skills for her strong emotions and feelings. The world needs more strong women who are not afraid of their feelings. Who have the confidence to express themselves without fear. Who are sensitive enough to the wrongs in the world to react and fight to get them changed. Who can be bold in their emotions knowing they are an asset instead of a weakness. Who are wise enough to draw others to their cause and not alienate them as they communicate the intensity of the need. It is my prayer that our daughter grows to be one of these strong and fierce women. She’s been given a special passion in life, an ability to care for details that do not matter to most. It’s a gift, one that I hope she is able to embrace and not despise.
If anybody reading this has a strongly emotional child with a will power of steel please know that I have an incredible amount of respect for the work it is to train children like this. I don’t in any way mean to minimize the difficulties and challenges that come with the parenting territory of children with all sorts of personalities but intend to simply tip my hat in respect to the specific challenges that face the parents of these super strong, super sensitive, super expressive children. Be their cheerleader. Love ’em and for goodness sakes don’t try to break them. Chances are they’ll break you in the process and even if they don’t, breaking them means the world loses a powerful asset. Those wills of steel will bring positive change and strong leadership where more compliant personalities will bend.
Teach them kindness, teach them compassion. They’ll learn both the best from seeing you demonstrate patience and love to them when they least deserve it. The flip side of hyper sensitive and observant kids with build in strong sense of justice is that they are acutely aware of when they are undeserving of affirmation or appreciation. Undeserving of a hug. And undeserving of patience. As tempting as it might be to feel put upon by these little demanding individuals being plunked into our lives it’s actually quite the honor to get to parent them. At least that’s how I am choosing to feel about it. 😀 Otherwise I’d be shipping a certain child off to Siberia one of these rough days.