When my daughter is angry, I can have a tough time connecting emotionally with her. I want to, because I believe all the research and experts who say that it will help them mature, as well as become more resilient and effective problem solvers. I’ve read tons of great books on the importance of a deep emotional bond that includes connecting with them when they are angey. I’ve even done a wonderful interview recently with parenting author Jennifer Kolari who outlines wonderful tips in her book Connected Parentin g. However when I’m in the trenches with a kid who is angry, I often struggle to connect.
My challenge seems to be in matching their intensity, or their affect, as Kolari calls it. This key part of mirroring or connecting helps the child feel understood, which actually changes their brain chemistry and calms their brain down. Unfortunately, even if I get the words right, if I don’t match the intensity, it doesn’t work.
This morning my kids got in an argument before school. I’d like to say that this is a rare occurrence, and while it is far from a daily occurrence, it happens way more than never, which is what I would like. I completely understood why my daughter was upset with her brother. I attempted to mirror, before approaching the problem resolution. My default position is an intellectual, reasonable one. As often happens in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t see how to match her affect, without which Kolari stresses mirroring does not work.
In a nutshell affect means the tone or intensity. If your child is full of emotion and you reply back calmly and unaffected, they don’t get energetically that we got them. Unfortunately if they don’t get that we understand, they stay or even get more agitated. They are stuck on trying to be understood, and can’t move on to problem solving until they feel understood.
My attempt at mirroring didn’t work and if anything fanned the flames. My frustration at wanting to connect but failing fanned my own flames. I blew up back when Lauren said, “Quit telling me what I feel.” I told her that it was pretty obvious how she felt! She went off to school feeling awful, her brother I’m sure was relieved to be away, and I felt both relieved to have them both gone, and dejected that we’d had such a bad start to the day.
When I was debriefing with my wise friend Kathleen Reeves who has lots of the skills I am still learning, she suggested that instead of saying that I could see that my daughter was upset, that I could have said, “You are pissed off” with emphasis and feeling in my voice. As she said that, a light bulb went off for me. I felt like I’d been just taught basic math, because as soon as she said it, it was obvious to me that would have worked.
Ironically, I can feel like a slow learner in all of this, despite being a great academic learner. I am committed to learning this new way of speaking, this language, but it is can be very hard for me. I suspect that this language comes much easier to parents who were well nurtured growing up. One of the reasons I interviewed Jennifer Kolari was because I wanted to hear her give examples of mirroring. I knew that I could benefit from hearing examples over and over until it becomes second nature to me. I reminded myself once again to be patient with myself and continue to work on learning this powerful technique.
Kathleen also shared with me that probably I have troubles going there with my kids because my feelings weren’t acknowledged as a child. Although my parents are wonderful people who I love dearly, there is no question that my feelings weren’t acknowledged. I can’t recall one time where I went to either of them when I was in pain or with questions about issues I didn’t know how to resolve. The few times I got very angry were met with a terrifying response from my dad that left me certain that anger wasn’t okay.
Can you relate to your feelings not being acknowledged by your parents or teachers? Or do you have problems connecting to your children? I’d like to hear from you. Love is not enough if that love doesn’t get through. If no one modeled connection with you as a child, chances are you will find this tough. If your anger wasn’t allowed, chances are this will be the hardest area for you to deal with. Yet in order to fully heal yourself and grow and evolve, you need to learn how to connect with your kids emotions.