Guest post from Dr. Laura Markham
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.
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?”
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