By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler
Can you remember the first time your child told you they love you? I do. The first time your child says “I love you” – unprompted and unscripted, is a very special moment. In the journal I keep of my son’s ‘firsts,’ I recorded the following (excerpted) entry. My son was 2 ½ years old.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Our evening time together was something we treasured and held sacred. Dad and I read you stories after getting you ready for bed, and then we would say prayers together. As you grew older, when we tucked you in it usually proceeded in the same way … we would ask you to turn out your light and then “hop” into bed so Daddy could give you a kiss before I sang to you.
This evening, after I sang ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ you raised your head off your pillow, looked me right in the eyes and said, “I love you!” Oh my goodness, your first initiated “I love you” – how very precious.
I love you too ~ always.
As a family brought together through adoption, the mother-child bond I have with my son happened differently than the automatic bond between a mother who carries her child in her womb and gives birth to her baby. Our bond had to be formed and molded through late night bottle feedings, holding him close to my heart, and lots of song and play.
Out of all those shared moments and experiences, I believe what “sealed the deal” is singing to him. Throughout most of our days, I sang lullabies, nursery rhymes and hymns. When I sang the Doxology (Praise God from whom all blessings flow…), my son was entranced. He would stop whatever he was doing and just stare at me, smiling. Then I began making up songs about our daily routines – getting dressed, preparing breakfast, going to the library, folding laundry. Usually the songs would rhyme, and my son seemed to enjoy hearing about our family and activities through these musical lyrics. When he was old enough to understand humor, I made up silly songs about anything that would make him smile or laugh. We created beat and rhythm by drumming on our laps or the kitchen counter. Using our musical instrument set, we played along to cds, and added background music to our “family songs.” Music had become a part of our daily lives, and I don’t recall a day that has gone unaccompanied by a song.
Just as I remember my little boy’s first “I love you,” I also recall the first time he told me he didn’t want me to sing. We were in the car listening to one of his favorite cds with lively song versions of nursery rhymes. As usual, I began singing along when my son stated simply, “Mommy, I don’t want you to sing that now.”
Fortunately, I know enough about child development to realize wanting me to do or not do something is a normal part of my son finding his place in this world. He was simply experimenting with his affect on the people around him and his environment. He had begun seeking his autonomy.
Over the course of parenthood you may be surprised by something your child says. Children feel one emotion at a time and in a big way. Your child is over-the-moon happy, or she unleashes unbridled anger at not getting her way. The important thing to remember is that your little one really isn’t trying to hurt you. As difficult as it is to not take it personally, remaining as neutral and impartial as you can sets the stage for a successful resolution to whatever is upsetting your child. If you instead focus on what your child is trying to express and keep it all in perspective of a normal developmental stage, it will be much easier to respond appropriately.
Below are suggestions for responding to the words, “I hate you!” These tips can also be used in other situations where your child is angry and upset, and unleashes a verbal assault on your ears. Responding gently will keep everyone’s emotions in check and help your child find positive ways to express her feelings.
Coping with Your Child’s Autonomy
“I hate you!” I have not heard this phrase … yet. This one is hard not to take to heart, especially when you love your child more than anything in the world and assume he has the same unconditional love for you. Of course when things are good your child is content, and looks at you with great affection and adoration. When things are bad, however, life is bad, you’re bad and your preschooler “hates” you. In reality, he is learning how to express he is upset with you or that something is not right in his world.
How to respond:
* Remain calm. This is always important in the face of a verbal deluge or physical temper tantrum. During his rant fest, your child is already out of control. If you lose your ability to handle the situation calmly emotions will escalate, your child will feed off your anger, and the incident will become more out of control. Keep an even tone in your voice and exhibit open body language. Your child will eventually calm down when he sees that in spite of his emotional state his environment remains peaceful. Knowing that you are there to hug and support him makes it easier for him to correct his behavior once he regains his composure.
* Avoid shaming or belittling your child’s feelings. It’s tempting to respond to your child’s “I hate you!” with “Well, I love you.” Yet this only shames your child. Saying, “Oh, you know you love Mommy,” “You don’t really feel that way” or “There’s no reason to get so upset!” belittles your child and does not acknowledge her feelings.
* Acknowledge your child’s emotions. Reserve judgment and without mocking show your child what her facial expressions and body language (scrunched face, clenched fists, hands on hips) look like. Then name her emotions. Becky Bailey, developmental psychologist and early childhood education specialist, suggests in her column on the Baby Center website … “Remember that your child is still learning to manage her emotions. She needs help expressing her feelings, and her way of asking for help is to play a kind of emotional charade game: She acts out her feelings, and it’s up to you to figure out what she’s getting at and how to help her. ‘I can tell from the way you’re acting that you feel angry. You seem frustrated that you can’t get that dress on your doll.’ If she nods in agreement, follow up with, ‘That’s very upsetting!’
* Model alternative emotional responses. When children “freak out” they are only mimicking what they have seen their parents or others do in many situations — express a strong emotion with one simple word: “I hate waiting in traffic!” or “I hate when my hair gets so frizzy!”
* Help your child voice his feelings appropriately. Give your child positive wording that helps him express his feelings without invoking such strong reactions. “When you feel this way say, ‘I feel mad. Please help me.’” Demonstrate other options for expressing emotions and frustration. “You could ask Mommy to help you get the tag in the back before you put on your shirt.” “Let’s pick out another shirt that might be easier to put on.” Offering choices is also helpful when your child lashes out because he can’t have something he wants: “You may have a lollipop after lunch; for snack this morning, you may have a banana or an apple.”
Remind yourself that your child’s behavior is normal, and in no way indicates how he really feels about you. This will make it easier for you to help him cope with strong emotions and express his feelings.
How have you responded to hurtful words your child has said? What suggestions do you have for dealing with a child’s raw emotions while maintaining your composure? We would love to hear your stories and ideas!