By Joanne Blackerby
We brought our second child home from the hospital in the usual bleary new baby haze. We planned for everything to make our daughter, Tyler's, arrival as smooth and stress free as possible. My husband took time from work, we kept the house quiet and limited guests so our little family - me, my husband Chris, and our 5 year old son Caleb, would have the time to adjust to the demands of her new arrival in the world. I sprayed calming essential oils throughout the house and settled in to a new life with two children. Our focus was as much on sleep and rest as it was on making sure that we were available to the baby and to Caleb, who we expected would need some adjusting to being a big brother.
It was as peaceful time as we expected, until it wasn't. Caleb attended preschool in the mornings and spent the afternoons at home with Mom and baby Ty, as he quickly took to calling her. He was sweet and attentive and happy to help keep an eye on her. A few weeks later while I was making dinner, Caleb was playing legoes and the baby was in her cradle swing, the peace was shattered by a loud cry. I rounded the corner from the kitchen to the living room to find Caleb sitting on the floor with the baby in a fierce grip in his tiny arms. Alarmed that he had managed to get her out of the swing, I swooped down to get the baby, who was now in full bawl. What happened, Caleb? What happened? I asked as I frantically checked the baby from head to toe. His answer was simple: "I was hugging her. Very. Hard." Hmmm - a bit surprising but I went with it.
I asked why he was hugging the baby so hard. He answered, quite simply: "I was giving her an angry hug." Thus I was introduced to managing anger with my kids.
When we repeat this story at family gatherings, we laugh. It was clear by his gritted teeth response, that 5-year-old Caleb was less than loving at the time of his angry hug. Over the years I learned first hand that anger, frustration, insecurity and embarrassment can all feel the same to a child. The physical experience of all of these emotions can feel the same. It takes work, probing questions and guidance to help kids find the right words to express what they are feeling. They need a vocabulary to put voice to what they have inside. Caleb wasn't angry with his sister, he was frustrated with the attention the baby was receiving and with all the changes at home. His angry hugging was his way of expressing that. It took patience and time and lots of talking to help him figure out what he was really feeling. Ironically, the scene repeated itself when we brought our third child home 5 years later, but this time it was Ty who was giving angry hugs, pokes and prods at her new little brother claiming that she was just "loving him hard and testing his feelings."
My kids aren't perfect and the same lesson was learned repeatedly over the years. Why have you duct taped your sister to a chair? Why did you tear up your brother's school project? Why are you locking each other in the pantry? Where did you hide your (insert sibling) things? Is there a reason you did _____ to your ________? Can you please explain why you thought tying the baby up was a good idea? Do you think chasing____ with a pair of scissors was a good idea? Why? Why did you choose to handle things that way?
I tend to default to my lawyer husband's line of discovery questioning. And I have learned a measured and hushed tone will reveal the answers we seek .
What does your outside body feel like right now?
What does your inside body feel like right now?
Are you angry or are you frustrated?
Are you really angry or you tired? Embarrassed? Feeling bad?
I figure once we know what's at the heart of the matter, we can move forward to address it.
These are good questions for kids and adult alike. We cannot assume that our children know how to manage emotion or that they know how to behave appropriately in response to complex and stressful emotions. Even adults are not always introspective enough to manage the stressors of daily life and change. We have to teach our kids communication skills - give them the words and the opportunities to sort through what they are feeling. In doing so, we give them a lesson in finding a way out of the emotion and a pathway to managing their emotions in a responsible way.
It's not easy to teach or explain impulse control to children, but with practice and encouragement, they will get it. Caleb is 19 years old, Ty is 15 and Bennett, the baby, is 10. I laugh when I hear them repeating the same questions to each other as they sort through sibling conflict. I was walking through the house while all three were in some sort of heated sibling debate. I smiled when I heard Bennett explaining to his brother and sister: "Please refrain from doing that to me. I don't like it." Children learn what they live.
It's a good lesson for all of us. The next time you find yourself on the verge of an angry hug, ask yourself, what am I really feeling.
Caleb felt sad about his angry hugging and he wanted to make it up to his baby sister. We worked together to take pictures of his face displaying all sorts of emotions: angry, sad, happy, surprised, confused - as many as his little 5-year-old brain could think of. We framed the pictures together and hung them up above the baby's changing table. He thought it might be a good idea if his sister could see what his feelings looked like.
Joanne Blackerby (www.joanneblackerby.com) is an ACE (American Council of Exercise) certified Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist, owner of Spirit Fitness Training in Austin, Texas, and the author of Training Effects: Reflections on the Art of Personhood Training. She lives in Austin with her husband and three children.
Image: Mindaugas Danys