In our children's book Some Monsters, one of the tricks for battling monster fears is to keep a flashlight handy and shine it into the dark corners every now and then. I think the same could be said for parenting. Totally triggered by something your child is doing? Bring out the mag light and do some serious poking around. Children are born good people, they aren't psychopaths that will grow up to kill, rob, and knock over old ladies if parents don't mash and mold them into moral folk. The goodness is there already, blooming, and when they mess up, or piss us off (That's what we mean by "mess up" isn't it?), it's usually for a good reason.
They have needs that aren't being met.
They are experiencing a feeling so unbearable that their primal brain compels them to an action that might discharge some of that emotion.
They have developed some belief about themselves or others in the absence of information.
.... something else.
The other day I walked over to pick Echo up from our friend Romy's house. She didn't kick and scream when I told her it was time to go, but outside the gate when she handed me her tap shoes to carry and I hesitated for a split second, rage flared behind her face and she jabbed impatiently, ready to lose her shit.
A few steps later I said, so sweetly, and non-aggressively: "So Echo... lately I've noticed that you've been mad at me. Kind of out of the blue, anger leaps out. Are you mad now? I'm confused because I don't understand why."
Know what she said?
She kept walking and didn't say a word.
I kept my cool. "Wow. I feel really sad that you aren't answering me. I'm so super frustrated by that."
"Man, this feels terrible." (Starting to lose a little cool.)
Then she said: "I don't want to talk about it!"
Me: "Why not?"
Echo, exasperated: "I just said I don't want to talk about and you're talking about it!!!!"
Then I did lose it. Totally triggered by this point I pulled out all the "info" about how at our house we don't do time outs and spanking, that we talk about things instead. And if we can't talk about things then what do we do??? I put "info" in quotes because really it was a veiled threat (If you don't talk about this, then what choice will I have other than something totally unsavory?) and also because Echo was certainly not receiving information. She was triggered too, and in that state no one hears information.
It got worse. I think I even decided I'd "play that game" too and joined in on the silent treatment. It wasn't pretty. Echo sat on the porch and cried. I steamed in the kitchen. I checked on her a couple times, each time a little more gentle and neutral. Eventually she was ready for deep sobbing and lots of hugging. I propped her on the counter and together we pulled out the metaphoric flashlight and took a look around her emotional mind.
It wasn't a quick process. There was a lot of empathy for all of the feelings Echo was experiencing, starting with the loneliness and sadness she felt out on the porch, then going further back, for the frustration she felt on the walk home, then further back, for the anger she felt toward me about the tap shoes. This part is hard for me, the part where I give her empathy for her feelings even though I am so tempted to say: "But I didn't do anything wrong with the tap shoes! Why were you mad at me?!", or "You were alone on the porch because you decided to be alone on the porch!" Empathy is for the feelings involved, not a condoning of actions, or an agreement about the "truth" of the situation. Empathy is acknowledging that her reality is real for her, and her feelings are valid regardless.
Plus, I was interested in helping her move back into her higher brain where we could discuss rationally the recent trend to be angry with me and to not want to talk about that anger. Empathy was going to soothe her feelings enough for her brain to feel like the environment was safe enough to re-open the executive function.
We kept shining the light. She was able to describe a feeling that compelled her to hide her feelings. She said the sensation was like being slapped anytime she thought to share her emotions. She said the feeling was dark green and lurked inside her, spreading across her whole stomach and chest. It was a scary feeling, like having an enemy inside that told her not to trust anyone and that it was shameful to share, and not safe.
You can just imagine my eyes popping out of my head can't you?
Now that her whole brain was back online we looked at when this began. She was certain the green feeling arrived before our trip to Santa Cruz but remained hidden because she was too distracted by all of the fun. Then she got real quiet, for several moments, before crumbling into sobs. She revealed that the scary audio story, Revenge of the Witch is responsible. Revenge of the Witch is a story we picked up at the library. In preparation for our trip I immediately loaded it onto the ipod. Echo started listening to it right away and I didn't think anything of it. From the outside she looked rapt as usual. Little did I know that Echo was scared out of her mind. She finished the entire six disc program before letting me know that she had been living a horror story through headphones for two days straight.
Anyway, she thinks she felt so scared by that story that the idea sprouted in her mind that you couldn't trust anyone, not even your mom.
So although she had been wanting to talk, although she had been wanting to share her feelings, that green presence in her torso slapped her back, and scared her from doing so. Our troubles would start because she wanted me to know what she was feeling without having to tell me. And when I failed, she felt angry.
Now our plan is this: When the green sensation pops up Echo will use her code word: "Giraffe". My response is to give her a hug and know that she will talk about whatever is bothering her later, when the green feeling subsides. We've tried it once so far with great success. She also is going to build a bonfire with Papa and perform a ritual that involves burning a piece of paper with the word DISTRUST.
There I was, walking along the sidewalk, pissed and triggered by this little twerp who was mad at me for no reason and giving me the silent treatment. Little did I know about Revenge of the Witch and terror, and green feelings slapping her from the inside and preventing her from speaking. Does it make sense to me? Nope. Not much. But that doesn't matter. It makes sense, to her. She isn't a misbehaving twerp, she's a person with her own sense of logic, rationale, and emotional landscape.
I'm so glad we pulled out the flashlight instead of the paddle.