A beautiful Saturday morning with my daughter planning her 8th birthday party! We both love all things arts and crafty and the boys were out getting haircuts so this was the perfect opportunity to have some much needed special time to reconnect with my sweet little girl after a busy week.
That was until I spilled coffee on her treasured drawing! A drawing of a costume she’d designed for the play she would be in in a few weeks time. She had laboured over it and after several unsatisfactory attempts had got it just the way she wanted it. To make matters worse I was the one who had asked her to move the drawing from the kitchen table where it had been floating around for the last couple of days. I wisely suggested she put it next to my handbag so that we’d remember to take it to her drama teacher later in the week and avoid any spills or mess from the kitchen table.
I truly do not know how it happened. I’m not particularly clumsy, though like most mums I do seem to be in a rush a lot of the time. Anyway, as I grabbed my coffee and headed for the office to continue our party planning, I finished my call (to my husband asking him to pick up milk on his way back from the barber), threw my mobile phone into my handbag on the way past and somehow knocked my coffee, spilling some on her drawing!
As soon as she realized that the picture had drops of coffee on it, and I mean drops of coffee, not an ocean, a tad more than a sprinkle really (the bulk of it had spilled into my handbag, on my phone and the table around – but never mind that), she screamed, fell to the ground and went directly into rage. Full blown, high-pitched, hysterical rage! The next 10 minutes felt like slowly ticking, excruciating hours.
There was no holding back for this soon-to-be eight year old. She let me have it full throttle. If she knew expletives she would have used them. Even as I felt torn between retaliating and finding a safe place to hide, I was struck by her gift for the spoken language. I’m sure she could be a master debater (or manipulator) with comments more suited to a wily teenager. Hateful. Blameful. Mean. Punishing. This little firecracker was taking no prisoners.
So what were my options for responding to such intense, raw emotions, which appeared completely out of proportion with such a minor event? A minor event to me in the overall scheme of things that is, as this was not a minor event to her. And yes, her reaction was out of proportion and seemingly over the top and that’s for very good reason. Her brain is not fully developed yet and won’t be until her early twenties (lucky me, I have a few more years and a few more tantrums to endure yet). Like learning any other skills, whether it is learning to read or ride a bike, she needs to learn how to regulate her strong emotions.
I could have used a typical response such as, “Don’t worry, it is just a drawing.” However it wasn’t just a drawing. And maybe I could have gone on further to reassure her that, “You are great at drawing. You’ll be able to do another one, maybe an even better one.” But she thought the one I’d just ruined was perfect, (as she later let me know during her tirade!) so why would she be interested in doing another one?
What I would have been communicating to her if I minimized her hurt or reassured her, is that she was not being truly heard. This would leave her feeling misunderstood and when people feel misunderstood, what do they tend to do? Most probably one of two things, they either stuff their emotions down and are left feeling disconnected from the other person, or they try even harder to communicate how they feel and the anger and rage escalates, both internally and externally.
Another option for responding might have been to apologize, which I did numerous times I might add (at least initially, until I realized my words were falling on unresponsive ears). I could have gone on and on defending myself. Explaining that I didn’t do it on purpose, it was just an accident, accidents happen etc. If I used logic and reason in an attempt to help her get over the loss of her drawing, I would have been appealing to her logical brain, which had completely left the room at this point.
She had been taken hostage by her primitive, emotional brain, which in turn drove her to behave as though her life was in danger. Her immature, developing brain does not know the difference between a real and a perceived threat so her body reacts exactly the same way to spilled coffee on a drawing, as it would do if I had physically attacked her.
If I had given in to the part of me that wanted to retaliate and tell her how ridiculous she was being, how utterly over dramatic and destined for the stage she is, I would have only succeeded in angering her more. No amount of arguing with her was going to help this be over any faster. No amount of arguing was going to make it stop. Besides extending the whole ordeal, retaliating would only leave me feeling guilty for losing control and for resorting to acting like a child myself.
As an aside, I will say that I am very proud that I have never hit her. Although this time it was an unfortunate incident where I could completely understand and empathise with why she was angry and at no time wanted to hit her, there have been plenty of times where if it had been an adult I was arguing with I would have said the comments were below the belt. She has managed to find my weak spots, push buttons I didn’t know I had until she arrived in my world and has managed to push me to the edge more times than I care to count. So I am proud that I have never lashed out at her physically because there have certainly been times where I have felt the rage she was feeling when I spilled coffee on her drawing. Like the time she drew on the roof of our car for example, but that’s a whole other story!
So how did I respond? With both empathy and assertiveness.
I listened carefully to the feeling behind the hurtful words. She was looking to punish me, to have me feel what she felt and to be sure that I understood how upset she was about her drawing. So I repeated back to her what I believed she was expressing.
“You are so angry at me right now and it is because you worked so hard to get your drawing just right.”
“Yes, and now it will never be right again because you’ve gone and spilled coffee all over it! Did you want me to have to do it again, because you were the one who told me to put it there?”
“You’re worried that I may have done that on purpose because you can’t believe that it has now got coffee on it. No, I would never intentionally do anything to upset you or be mean to you.”
“Well why did you do it then? Now I won’t have it to show my teacher the costume I want.”
“You’re frightened that your drama teacher won’t know what you want to wear now that the picture is ruined.”
“You’re feeling so angry and upset about it all and you’re not sure how it can be fixed.”
“It can’t be fixed!!”
“It feels hopeless, that there is no way to undo the damage.” This is said without any trace or sarcasm or exaggeration because this is exactly how she is feeling. But now there is a shift, if ever so slight. The wind comes out of her sails as she loses some of the intensity of emotion.
“ I have a few suggestions that might work if you would like to hear them?”
“Okay, I’ll wait then until you are ready.” I did not abandon her but rather stayed in close proximity to help communicate my willingness to help and to wait. The asking for input and help is very intentionally left on her terms. Although I may have caused the problem and I am willing to help her solve it, the ownership of the problem remains with her. After a moment she reluctantly nods.
We came up with a number of possibilities together – redrawing it, tracing it, photographing the original. I can’t remember exactly what we chose to do in the end. What I remember is that she was happier with the final outcome than she was with the original, our relationship was intact and she learned a valuable lesson of resilience and problem solving.
When I’ve explained this process of empathic listening in the classes I teach, many participants wonder about the amount of time this takes. Surprisingly, this approach takes only the same amount of time or less then arguing or waiting for a child to calm of their own accord. This approach also has the added benefit of modeling how solutions can often be found, teaching forgiveness rather than holding grudges and helping difficult emotions be tolerated and accepted.
This article highlights the use of Active Listening, a very important skill in conveying empathy and understanding. If you would like to learn more please jump over to my website www.enjoyparenting.com.au ,follow me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/enlivenenrichengage/
or look for a Parent Effectiveness Training instructor in your area at www.etia.org