Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why We Shout In Anger: How Connection Leads To Cooperation

" The level of cooperation parents get from their kids is usually equal to 
the level of connection children feel with their parents." ~ Pam Leo

For a number of years now I have been parenting with this quote from Pam Leo in mind. Not always consciously, but always in my heart I knew this sentiment to be true. Children "act out" when they sense disconnection. They "misbehave" in a misguided effort to get needs met and return to connection. The angrier parents get and the more punitive we become, the more we can expect children to continue to give us more of the same misbehavior and acting out.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately (generally because keeping connection despite my daughter's challenging behavior can be difficult) and have been trying to write a post about it when my friend, Julie, sent me this beautiful story that clarified everything I have been trying to say:
Why We Shout In Anger 
A Hindu saint who was visiting the river Ganges to take bath, found a group of family members on the banks, shouting in anger at each other. He turned to his disciples, smiled, and asked: 
"Why do people shout in anger shout at each other?" 
The disciples thought for a while. One of them said, "Because we lose our calm, we shout." 
"But, why should you shout when the other person is just next to you? You can just as well tell him what you have to say in a soft manner" answered the saint. 
The disciple gave some other answers but none satisfied the other disciples. 
Finally the saint explained. 
"When two people are angry at each other, their hearts distance a lot. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The angrier they are, the stronger they will have to shout to hear each other to cover that great distance. 
But what happens when two people fall in love? They don't shout at each other but talk softly, Because their hearts are very close. The distance between them is either nonexistent or very small." 
The saint continued, "When they love each other even more, what happens? They do not speak, only whisper and they get even closer to each other in their love. Finally they even need not whisper, they only look at each other and that is all. That is how close two people are when they love each other." 
He looked at his disciples and said, "So when you argue do not let your hearts get distant. Do not say words that distance each other more, or else there will come a day when the distance is so great that you will not find the path to return."
I sat with this story for a little while, remembering a lesson I had learned somewhere along the way: all behavior is an attempt to get a need met. Thus, children do not misbehave, but they may not have the skills to get what they need in a way that makes things easy for adults. 
Mischievous? Yes, sometimes.
But not manipulative.
"Don’t interpret that children are trying to do something to you — they are only trying to do something for themselves. And this does not make them bad children or misbehaving children. But it may cause a problem" ~ Thomas Gordon
I notice that when I let go of the idea that my children are being manipulative, willful or obstinate and instead remember that they would cooperate if they could, our connection to each other returns. Once the connection is there, their challenging behavior diminishes and often I am aware that I had been trying to defend my position of authority instead of relating to them during a particularly challenging moment.

Once I am treating my kids as if they are trying to get needs met and may not know how to do it appropriately, I am less likely to be triggered by their behavior (thus, less likely to blow my top) and am more likely to have the presence of mind to be empathetic and offer help. 

I think, as parents, we often feel helpless and frustrated when our children don't do what we want them to do. Perhaps we forget, in those moments, that our children are fully formed human beings who don't yet have the skills to explain their behaviors. Instead, they do things like whine, cry, bite, pout, hit and any other number of behaviors to express themselves. 

In those moments it's so easy to let our hearts get distant. But, as Maya Angelou said, "When you know better, you do better". I don't beat myself up for what I didn't know to do before, but now that I know better, it keeps me honest and on the right track as I continue growing as a mother. 

No more distant hearts in our family. No more shouting in anger. 
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