Kids can be mean. In fact, they can be downright cruel. Add in the emotional factors of adoption and trauma, and you’ve got a recipe for some unsavory comments. Sometimes these comments are delivered with the cool deliberation of a teenager. More often, cruelty comes wrapped up in anger.
“I hate you!”
“You’re not my real dad!”
“I wish I was never brought into this stupid family!”
“I hate it here!”
Because we are the adults, we are expected to keep our cool and respond appropriately to the outbursts of our children. That doesn’t mean these verbal barbs don’t hurt. Many is the time I’ve dealt with an angry child, then locked myself in my room to cry. It hurts. Even knowing that they aren’t saying what they mean, it still hurts. We want our kids to be happy. And we want our children to love us, too.
Because we are the adults, we know that anger is a secondary emotion. Meaning that anger is an emotion used to hide from or cover up the real emotion. Under anger we find hurt, shame, fear, vulnerability, embarrassment and a myriad of other negative emotions. Because we are the adults, we can listen with logic to what our kids say in anger, and hear the real emotion underneath.
Rather than reacting to the angry statement, take a deep breath. Let your kid vent while you puzzle out what is really bothering him or her. For example, I had a child who recently brought me the paperwork for an overnight camping field trip. The paperwork was dropped at my feet and I was informed that my kiddo didn’t want to go. I asked why and was provided with a laundry list of completely ridiculous reasons. Because I know my child, I figured this was a case of separation anxiety. I ignored all of the reasons given and responded, “Oh. That’s too bad. I was really looking forward to being one of the parent volunteers on this trip.” Suddenly the clouds lifted and all of the fun and exciting adventures we were going to have together became the topic of conversation.
Our adopted children have all suffered a great loss in their lives. Even if we have had them since the day of their birth, they lost their birth mom. Many of our adopted and fostered children have also survived trauma. They come to us with fears and anxieties and expectations of failure. As the parent, we need to train ourselves to hear with logic, not emotion. We need to hear past what they are saying, and listen to what they really mean.
I remember one night I was snuggled in with one of my kids who had had a particularly difficult day. He began listing all of the good things I loved about his siblings, saying nothing of himself. After several minutes I said, “That’s true. I do love them. But not for the reasons you listed. I love them just because they are who they are and they are mine. And that’s why I love you. Because you are you and because you are mine.” I was going to stop there, but felt inspired to add, “And I love you every bit as much as I love them.” My sweet child finally burst. He clung to me while he cried. I rubbed his back and whispered assurances of how very much he is loved.
A child who yells, “I hate this stupid family!” might be starting to feel settled and loved. That can be extremely frightening to a child who has known nothing but instability. By expressing hatred for the family, he or she is preparing for the next upheaval. A lecture on speaking kindly would do far less good than a reassurance that the child isn’t going anywhere.
A new foster child who yells, “I hate you!” may be feeling guilty for liking you. After all, in the child’s mind this is a betrayal of the biological parent. A few words about how it’s okay to like me and still love your mom would do a world of good, whereas a time out for being rude would not.
Because we are the adults we are tasked with deciphering the messages hidden in the anger. The first step is to decipher. The second step is to communicate about the underlying fears. The final step is to teach the child how to skip the anger and communicate his or her needs and emotions more effectively.
Step three can take a lifetime to accomplish!
We sometimes will ask, “What’s the real problem?” when our kids are acting out in anger. My older kids are now fully capable of answering that question. With the younger kids, we still walk them through what they are feeling and why they are using anger.
It’s not a fool proof plan. I mess up just as much as the kids do, but we’re trying. And because we are dedicated to trying, we’re moving in the right direction.