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Guest post from Dr. Laura Markham

2013 February 15
by Rachel Turiel

So, we all love the teachings of Dr. Laura Markham now, right? Remember this post where we got to pose a question to her? Well, here is the chosen question with the very helpful answer.

I’m particularly glad this question was chosen because there are people who struggle with this in our house, and they’re not all under 4 feet. Ahem.

homeschool p.e.

Question: My daughter (7 yrs old) has started wanting to make other people (mainly her brother) hurt when she is emotionally hurt. So something happens that hurts her feelings and immediately she wants to lash out and try to make others feel like she does. Not every time, but often. She has also begun to want everything that she does to be about other people, for example she steps on a toy, her foot really hurts, she’s crying and it was my fault or her brother’s fault. Thanks, Sheryl L.

Dr. Markham’s answer:

“Lashing out” when we’re upset, and “blaming others” for our distress is a completely normal human reaction. Most of us gain the ability to refrain from these almost automatic reactions as we get older, but some people go through their lives with a “chip on their shoulder” blaming others and reacting angrily to imagined slights.

What’s this all about, and how can we help our children (and ourselves!) grow out of it?

All mammals, when they’re in distress, go into fight, flight or freeze.  So when your daughter steps on a toy and it hurts, she’s plunged into distress, and she goes into “fight.” She lashes out at whoever is closest, or even throws the toy.  Or, something happens that hurts her feelings. Again, she’s in distress, so she goes into “fight.” She lashes out.

It isn’t because she wants to make others feel as bad she does. At that moment, she isn’t even considering others. In fact, when she’s in “fight, flight or freeze” she can’t think straight or access her empathy. She’s lashing out because she can’t bear her own feelings of hurt, fear and sadness. To fend them off, she gets angry. It’s an instant, automatic, response. The best defense is a good offense.

It’s easy to see how universal this is if we look at our own tendency to lash out when we feel fear, disappointment or sadness:

*We almost run a red light, and yell at our kids for distracting us.

*We get a parking ticket and blame it on our spouse for taking so long in the store.

*Someone we love dies, and we get angry at the doctor.

Our blaming others when we’re upset isn’t so different from our child blaming her brother when she’s upset. Hopefully, we’re able to bite our tongue so we don’t go on the attack. Once we’re calm, we often see that our response wasn’t fair.

So how can you help your daughter in these situations?

1. Stay calm. She feels like it’s an emergency. Your calm attitude communicates that there’s no emergency, and she doesn’t need to be in “fight” mode.

2. Empathize. Whether it’s her foot or her heart, she hurts. Acknowledging that will help her feel understood, less alone – and less like it’s an emergency. Bypass her anger and respond to the hurt or fear that’s driving the anger, which helps her understand her own emotions better: “Sweetie, that must hurt! Ouch!”

3. Don’t attack back. Your daughter is attacking to avoid her own pain. If she can pick a fight, it’s a way of dumping the pain elsewhere so she doesn’t have to feel it. Don’t take the bait. Instead, when she says “It’s your fault!”  you can respond “You are pretty upset…That must really hurt.”

If she’s attacking her sibling, you can say “Right now it seems like everyone else’s fault, doesn’t it? Your foot must really hurt. What can we do to help your poor foot?”

4. Model taking responsibility. Your goal in this situation is to help your daughter assume her share of responsibility for stepping on the toy, instead of blaming someone else. So model taking responsibility in whatever small amount you can. When she “blames” by saying “It’s all your fault!” you might respond “You wish that toy hadn’t been there. Me too! That really hurt your poor foot. I so wish I could have seen this coming and gotten that toy out of there.”

5. Teach repair. Later, when she’s no longer hurting, you can say to your daughter, “That really hurt your foot…you were pretty upset…When you told your brother it was all his fault, I think that hurt his feelings…I know it’s his toy, but he loves you and would never want to hurt you….I wonder how you can make things better with your brother?”

Dr. Markham’s website 

Dr. Markham’s book

Dr. Markham on Facebook

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33 Responses leave one →
  1. February 15, 2013

    Great advice! Thanks for facilitating this Q & A, I could always use suggestions to help me be a better partner/parent/person. It’s so easy to fall back on a knee jerk reaction to stuff around the house. Good food for thought this Friday.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      February 16, 2013

      Yes, better partner/parent/person. Isn’t it great how this can apply to all our relationships!

  2. February 15, 2013

    I love Dr. Markhams’s way of understanding children and all of us. I also like how compatibly it fits with Positive Discipline. Very helpful response and thanks for sharing it.

  3. Katie via Facebook permalink
    February 15, 2013

    This was wonderful to read. Thank you.

  4. Rachel Kohnen permalink
    February 15, 2013

    I am utterly in awe that your blog has a personal response from Dr. Laura. That is so very cool. Good work on spreading empathetic parenting!!

  5. Sheryl Lock permalink
    February 15, 2013

    Thank you!!!! So helpful and fun to have your question addressed. Helpful to see where I can take it into a bigger situation by not responding with giving her the acknowledgment. Thank you for doing this Rachel! Thank you for your time and thoughtful answer Dr. Markham!

  6. Sara permalink
    February 15, 2013

    I’m on board with empathizing, even though I often want to react differently in the middle of a meltdown. But I don’t know if I can get behind the taking responsibility piece as written. How does taking false responsibility for the problem (saying ” I so wish I could have seen this coming and gotten that toy out of there”) get my child to take responsibility herself (given that the problem is like that she left toys all over the floor even when asked to pick them up).

  7. February 15, 2013

    Sara- I know, it’s counter-intuitive. But kids don’t learn from lectures. They learn from what we model. So when we model taking responsibility, they learn to take responsibility.

    Of course, in this case, it was the brother’s toy. But notice we aren’t blaming the brother or asking him to take responsibility. We’re stepping into the gap and wishing aloud that we could have made this situation better. Which makes our kids see that they could have made it better, too.

    When we take some of the responsibility — even just “I wish I could have prevented this” — it helps our child not feel so defensive, so he’s more able to admit his own responsibility. By contrast, when people feel attacked — “See? That wouldn’t have happened if you’d picked up your toys” — they’re on the defensive. They aren’t able to be spiritually generous. And taking responsibility is a spiritually generous thing to do.

    Finally, I think that our culture communicates that making mistakes is an awful thing, which makes it hard for a child to step up and admit she made a mistake. When we respond so graciously, it models for kids that making mistakes is not unforgivable and can be admitted — it doesn’t make you a bad person — even Mom wishes she could undo things!

    Recently, I found myself saying to my daughter, who had forgotten to meet an application deadline, “Sweetie, I wish I had reminded you…I saw it on the calendar, but then I forgot to ask you about it.” As you can see, this is just another version of my advice about the toy, which I have been doing my daughter’s whole life. But she’s 17 now, and she grew up with that kind of modeling, so her response was “Mom, it was completely my responsibility, not yours. I just goofed. I really learned a lesson here.”

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      February 16, 2013

      Dr. Markham, thank you for your reply, and Sara, thank you for your question. It *does* feel counter-intuitive, I hear that.
      However, what taking some burden of responsibility for someone else’s feelings can do is disarm their anger. No one *wants* to fight and feel separate but damn, we humans are wired funky. We feel hurt: we push away. It’s so fortunate when there’s someone in our lives who can help lift some of the heavy, icky feelings off our backs. My husband took this approach with me for years! And it may have saved our marriage. (He’s naturally kind and generous but we also had an amazing therapist who helped us see our patterns). I was quick to look for an outlet of blame to deflect my own fear and self-doubt. He stayed with me instead of letting me push him away, which helped illuminate to me that he was on my side, my ally. (because sometimes I’m still 5 years old).
      *it takes a huge suspension of ego to approach your spouse or child in this way, but I promise, it’s like a muscle that with practice, gets easier, and helps the other person, like Laura’s daughter in her story, cut through the blame immediately and know what is their own responsibility (without feeling chastized).

      • Kelly permalink
        February 20, 2013

        I, too, was confused about the strategy of taking responsibility as an example, but reading the example with the deadline and calendar made me realize that the dialog I imagine having is “Oh, I’m so sorry! I should have reminded you but I forgot.” And that, I think, is taking responsibility in an unhealthy way, modeling accepting blame for something that is truly not your fault. The “I wish I had…” dialog makes much more sense, and doesn’t directly take the full blame for something. I will be trying to remember this the next time “I should have” comes out of my mouth. :-)

        • Rachel Turiel permalink*
          February 20, 2013

          Good point, “I wish…” is easy to say and sincerely mean.

    • Sara permalink
      February 16, 2013

      Thank you for the response and additional explanation. I see what you mean more; it still feels counter-intuitive and I expect will take a lot of work to make myself do it in the moment, but you’ve given me more to think about.

    • Anonymous permalink
      March 20, 2013

      Sorry, when I take responsibility, then my son blames me. I’ve gone to neutral statements, like “I wish the toy hasn’t been left on the floor”. That allows the kid to take responsibility later, instead of me taking it.

  8. Andrea permalink
    February 15, 2013

    Thank you Dr Laura!! We are working on this very hard ( and it is so hard) with our son. He has special needs and limited language and it works! We are seeing miracles. We all want to be validated. Not to validate the bad behavior, but the FEELINGS that fuel the behavior. It’s amazing how a simple ‘you’re mad’ or ‘i see you are so frustrated’ or ‘waiting is so hard’ can damper the wildest tantrum.

    And thank you Rachel for facilitating such a wonderful conversation about parenting. Every time I choose to support my child, despite the behavior, it’s a win for us both. And the behaviors work themselves out. If my son and I can do it… We all can!

  9. February 15, 2013

    I *just* received a copy of her book. I have never been so excited about a parenting book. Thanks for the introduction.

  10. Sabrina permalink
    February 16, 2013

    I am one of Rachel’s “fans” who always appreciates the postings, but rarely, if ever, comments. However, today, I benefited so much from everyone’s thoughtful contributions that I couldn’t take the wonderful gift and not say “Thank You.”

  11. February 18, 2013

    i needed to read this today. but, then again, i so often feel that after coming here. often, your space and your words and your pictures leave me smiling, wordless and content. like an exhale. oh, if only there was an invisible bridge from my san juan islands to your san juan mountains.

  12. February 19, 2013

    Good timing for this post! My boys are 11 and 9 (this week!) and are into all the same things. They’re either the best of friends or the worst of enemies, as you can imagine. They do well at school and are models of behavior there, at karate, etc.

    My question: What if the blame is going onto the other brother and parents after they react in anger? They both say we’re unfair and always favor the other one, and flip out if they get “in trouble” (that means your advice of “be kind to family members, that’s not how we treat each other, blah blah”) There’s yelling, shoving and a little punching, which I hate but people who raised multiple boys look at me like I’m nuts that I expect it not to happen!

    We’re doing much better as a family with your advice, my husband was something of a hard sell, and he tends to blame others when he screws up but is getting better about it.

    So how does the empathy work with a tween without feeling patronizing? I’m (not very) patiently waiting for your book about older kids!

    Thanks!

    • February 20, 2013

      I think empathy with a tween works like empathy with an adult. So we need to actually see it from their perspective and feel compassion for them, not just use the words. And we want to go beyond the anger to the hurt, fear, or sadness underneath that’s driving the anger. We listen and repeat to be sure we understand. In the example you gave, it might go like this:

      “It’s all his fault!”
      “You’re still pretty mad about this, huh? ”
      “Of course I’m mad! It’s his fault, and I got yelled at!”
      “You feel like I was unfair?”
      “You WERE unfair! He started it!”

      (An aside- this is why the rule of thumb with sibling squabbles is never to try to figure out who is “at fault” or who started it. Instead, say “I see two kids hurting each others’ bodies and feelings….Do you two need some help to figure this out?” But let’s assume that in this case you saw one brother shove the other and you couldn’t stop yourself from yelling at him.)

      “Hmm…So you’re mad because even though you punched your brother, you think he started it and I only yelled at you…Is that right?”

      “YES!”

      “I can see why that would make you mad. It does sound unfair for me to just get down on you, when I didn’t see the whole thing.”

      Acknowledging his perspective and taking some responsibility for your own contribution to the situation, however small, is helping your son calm down.

      Now empathy will help him process his upset.

      “You must have been pretty upset to hit your brother.”

      “He deserved it….He shoved me!”

      Ignore the blame and again empathize with his feelings.

      “He shoved you? That must have hurt.”

      “It did hurt…he always feels like he can push me around.”

      “It doesn’t feel good to be pushed around, does it? Nobody likes to feel pushed around.”

      Your son takes a deep breath. That’s your signal that he’s letting out some of the hurt that led him to punch. Help him go further with that by giving him a hug.

      “I’m sorry, Honey. You don’t deserve to get pushed around. I know that didn’t feel good to you.”

      Now he’s ready to take some responsibility.

      “It sounds like both of you were pretty upset. I know it hurt you to be shoved. AND no matter what happens, punching your brother is not okay.”

      “But he shoved me!”

      “I hear you. AND no matter what happens, no one ever deserves to be punched. Hitting your brother is not okay. What could you do next time you feel like he’s pushing you around, or he shoves you?”

      Now you’re into problem-solving.

  13. Cara V permalink
    February 19, 2013

    This post is timely for me. I have two girls, 5 and 7 and they both have this propensity to blame and externalize their yucky feelings. They have both begun to be physical with me or with each other when the mad words aren’t strong enough and they feel out of control. How do I protect them, myself and our belongings from damage without being perceived as “attacking back”? I sometimes just try to block their attempted hits, imagining myself as the karate kid (wax on, wax off), but I still sometimes get hurt, and I know they do. I’ve also tried a kind of full body hold like those used in group homes, but I feel ridiculous, like I’m being too extreme and actually driving their behavior to another level.

    • February 20, 2013

      Cara- The way to ease your kids’ anger is to help them with the feelings that are driving their anger, meaning the fear, sadness and hurt that are always underneath. If you can stay compassionate and create enough trust, they will probably begin to cry instead of rage. If they don’t cry, they’re letting you know they don’t feel safe enough. To create that safety, try more empathy in the moment, but also more roughhousing play to get them giggling on a daily basis. Most of parenting is preventive maintenance, and that is what helps us avoid situations like you’re describing. Here’s a post on preventive maintenance:
      http://www.ahaparenting.com/_blog/Parenting_Blog/post/Preventive_Maintenance_to_Keep_Your_Child_Out_of_the_Breakdown_Lane/

  14. Val permalink
    February 19, 2013

    Thank you Dr. Laura! You are amazing, I’m so glad to have found your loving advice and point of view. I received your book last week from your website and can’t put it down:)

  15. Elissa permalink
    February 19, 2013

    My daughter doesn’t verbally blame but frequently lashes out when angry/ hurt/ upset. I always acknowledge the feeling but this often makes her angrier or she shuts down or sits still yelling no! No! No! repetitively. I am interested in your idea of fight, flight, freeze as this sums up her actions perfectly. How do you connect with a child who freezes or tries to block you out? Another example is her telling “I want a cuddle” then kicking and hurting me when I try to cuddle her.

    • February 20, 2013

      Elissa- You don’t say how old your daughter is, but most of us hate being analyzed. And so when a parent says “You’re mad about….” most kids feel intruded on and get angrier. So it is important to “name” feelings for toddlers but by the time kids are four or five they usually get upset if they feel analyzed.

      But that’s okay, because naming the feeling is not empathy. Empathy is really seeing things from the other person’s perspective, and feeling it.

      When your daughter is upset, she needs to feel safe enough to really feel all those upset feelings. Then they will evaporate. Kids don’t usually feel safe to let those big scary feelings swamp them unless they are with us and we are fairly calm. So the most important thing we can do to help our kids with their feelings is to stay calm ourselves, and accept their feelings. By doing that, we create a sense of safety.

      Once your daughter feels safe, all those feelings will come up and out. That’s good! In fact, it’s great, because what’s driving the anger is hurt or disappointment or fear or sadness. And THOSE are the feelings she needs to experience. Once she does, they dissipate, and then she no longer needs to be angry. The anger is just a defense.

      So what’s happening when she freezes? She is scared of the feelings come up. Calm yourself and stay compassionate. Hold her if she’ll let you. Say “You’re safe, Sweetie…I’m right here.” She will probably cry and cry. And then she’ll feel and act a whole lot better.

      What if she says “I want a cuddle” and then hurts you when you try to cuddle her? Your cuddle is providing safety to her and so she wants it. But when she feels safe, all those yucky feelings come up. So she tries to regulate them by pushing you away. She has no idea what’s going on and is not trying to hurt you or jerk you around. She just feels like she needs you to feel safe, and then your presence somehow stimulates all these awful feelings. So in this case, if this is frequent, say “I am right here to cuddle you, Sweetie, but I won’t let you hurt me…Here, I’m going to sit down right here on the floor…Come sit on my lap.” That way, her back is to you and she can’t do as much damage. Again, your goal is to create safety for her to get through those scary emotions, and you can’t create safety if your shins are getting kicked!

      • Elissa permalink
        February 20, 2013

        Thank you so much for your response Dr Markham. My daughter is 6. Most info I’ve found is based on toddlers & assumes children are past this ‘stage’ by now so I have found your website & advice to be my saviour. I received your book in the mail last night & felt I was reading her exact meltdown behaviour word for word on the page. Now I understand her actions better and feel I have a plan to help me stay calm and to help her the best that I can. I love this beautiful little girl so much!! Your parenting advice is more than helpful and I am so grateful to have found you. Thank you xx

  16. Anonymous permalink
    February 19, 2013

    I would guess just keep empathizing until she knows you hear her. It takes them a while to get used to a parenting shift. If she kicks I’d say I won’t let you kick, kicking hurts and stop her or get up. Are you asking her if she’d like a cuddle before you try?

    • Anonymous permalink
      February 20, 2013

      Thanks. Things have improved with Dr Markham’s strategies so we’ll keep on keeping on. I’m so glad to have found her site. Impatiently waiting for my Peaceful Parenting book to arrive.

  17. February 19, 2013

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. These past couple of weeks have been specifically about blaming. I feel like i’m the child. :-) Love the steep learning curve. OM!

  18. February 25, 2013

    Great post from Dr. Markham and great question. Learning about blame is terrific for children and terrific for us children in larger bodies as well! Our tone, body language, and eye contact (or not!) carry meaning that we may not even notice. A course that explores blame and how to break the cycle of blame in your life is Freedom to Be: A Life Embracing Experience through Your Infinite Life Training and Coaching Company. We have an upcoming course in Miramar, Florida the weekend of March 8 – 10th. I am happy to share more about it with anyone who is interested. You can visit http://www.YourInfiniteLifeOnline.com or e-mail me from http://www.WholeHeartedParenting.com. I will also put a link to your blog in the next issue of Parenting News, our weekly newsletter for parents and educators. I hope it brings you many new readers and I invite you to subscribe at http://www.WholeHeartedParenting.com. Thanks!

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