When Children’s Behaviors Scare Us – Connecting to Our Heart
Have you noticed persons who do scary things are scared themselves? In the movie series, “Star Wars,” Master Yoda observes this very human emotional response when he says, “Fear is the path to the dark side.”
Fear can take us in one of two directions.
Whereas low levels of fear can energize us to achieve our goals in healthy ways, not so when it comes to intense and prolonged levels of fear, which can negatively impact our health and choices.
It can be especially scary to us, as parents, when faced with having to deal with our children’s fears. When they behave in ways that challenge us, for example, lying, being defiant, hitting, etc., it can threaten our sense of efficacy. This can scare us.
It can also take us back to a time when we were children, which may exacerbate our fears, neediness or reactivity. And that is the opposite of what we or our children need.
The blind cannot lead the blind, nor can the needy nurture the needy.
Treating your self and your child with dignity, especially when one or both of you are not feeling lovable, is a key that opens hearts and allows you to meaningfully connect.
Anger, and its two directions?
Excessive fear sets off alarms in the body and mind that, in effect, erect walls and division in our brains that can keep us in the “dark” – living with “unrealistic” life-limiting fears.
In effect, fear prevents the different parts of the mind and body from communicating effectively with one another.
Fear can mislead us, for example, to rely on anger as protective shield, rather than the useful messenger it is intended to be, ideally, to nudge us to take action to improve our life in some way.
In an episode of Star Wars Master Yoda well explains the process that can lead us down rabbit holes:
“Fear leads to Anger.
Anger leads to Hate.
Hate leads to Suffering.”
- As an action signal, anger is a vital emotion that is critical to our health and well being.
It is a secondary emotion that keeps emotions of vulnerability, i.e., fear, worry, doubts, at bay, as they can otherwise prevent us from taking action to stand up for or protect ourselves. Anger serves more than our survival. It helps us take action to thrive, to move past the most challenging of circumstances or obstacles, and so on.
Low levels of fear and anger work together to keep us on our desired course in life.
- As a protective shield, anger can cause chain-link reactions that move us in a direction that run counter to our goals and aspirations.
Prolonged anger fuels hatred. In time, hatred causes suffering, a state in which we can get lost or stuck in the dark, cut off from life enriching connection to self and others.
From the perspective of Ancient philosopher Socrates, no person knowingly does wrong. In his words, “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” Yes, people do hurtful, at times even horrific things. Socrates would say this stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding about the essential nature of life.
And, the biggest impediment to the understanding they need is: fear.
In modern times, the words of another thinker, Henry Ford, echoed a similar conviction, “What we call evil, it seems to me, is simply ignorance bumping its head in the dark.”
- In fear, it makes sense that people who are scared often do desperate things that, to others on the outside, can seem scary.
Likewise, those who do hurtful things are hurting; those who do desperate things are desperate. Another thinker, Sophocles, put it this way, “All concerns of men (and women) go wrong when they wish to cure evil with evil.”
For human beings, hatred is a place of suffering – emotional, psychological, and, spiritual. It can lead to what may be the scariest feelings of all: a sense of inefficacy and loss of hope. In other words, feelings helplessness, powerlessness or hopelessness.
From these emotional states, stem unwise choices, desperate actions. If ignored, emotional suffering can lead to physical symptoms.
A compassionate understanding of our human nature?
- Fear causes suffering to the extent it keeps us in the dark about what is going on inside of us, and essential aspects of our nature.
What thinkers throughout history did not have that thinkers have today are the advanced methods of neuroscience.
Thanks to neuroscience, what were once theories of brilliant thinkers are now proven science. We are relationship beings by nature. Not only because we are wired with circuitry for caring and empathic connection, or because our brain is a relationship organ, but also because our health, development and vitality rely on the formation of relationships. To the extent they are healthy and vibrant, so are we.
We are concerned about the formation of connections, communication, verbal and nonverbal, from the day we are born.
- Our every behavior, you may say, is driven by inner yearnings to matter both as the unique expressions of who we are, as persons, but also as meaningfully connected with others.
Our deepest strivings are for love and meaningful connection to life within and around you. It makes sense, therefore, that we would be overwhelmed by fear at the prospect of not fulfilling these inborn strivings.
This explains why caring responses, our own and other’s, enhance our sense of security – and why some of our greatest fears, i.e., rejection or abandonment, have to do with what threatens to separate us from whom and what we love. As adults, to the extent we love, we are healthy.
Next time you are fearful of a situation, stop and notice how instantly the fear can turn to anger. Then observe that, if you stay focused on thoughts that fuel the intensity of the anger, how the anger turns to hate or rage.
A compassionate understanding of our children?
Children who experience difficulties in their relationships with others may be filled and overwhelmed by emotions of anger, hate and suffering.
They live in anger. At the root of the anger or hatred they feel, however, is really fear. Perhaps fear from the first time they were left alone, and felt abandoned. Or, fear from the first time they felt rejection, a parent’s or teacher’s, or a classmate’s or friend’s. Or, perhaps, fear from the first time they were hit, yelled or screamed at, or they experienced a parent lose control over their emotions and hit a sibling.
If they had little opportunity to have someone listen and understand, empathize and validate their fear, their fear and anger likely build up. In time, their anger and rage may seem everywhere present, and their past fears are buried very deep. It’s not easy for them to “see” their own fear as the anger steps in to ‘protect’ and keep them ‘safely’ separated from their fear. It is too scary to look at that fear. Thus, experiencing fear becomes what is feared most—and avoided at any cost.
Next time your child is angry, say to him/her, “I can see you are really frustrated and hurt, it must be painful.” Or, “You’re really upset, aren’t you?” Follow the words backwards. In time you will find the fear.
The key to healing in your relationship with your child is seeing the fear, and creating an environment in which it is safe for the child to experience, recognize and feel his fears. Be careful though, you can’t do it for her, you can only support her and make it safe for her to see her fear. Once children feel safe enough, they will see the fear. Use your energy to create safety for them to feel safe enough to see the fear.
Next time your child erupts, stop and take a deep, long breath. Think. What might the child be afraid of right now. Go beneath surface fears to the existential fears human beings face throughout life, fear of looking stupid; fear of not being right; fear of being scolded; fear of rejection; fear of being hurt, fear of loss of power to others; fear of being invisible to others; fear of loss of value or worth in relation to others, and so on. Existential fears are connected to core emotional striving for safety, esteem, acceptance, love, power, safety, contribution, purpose, among others.
An exercise to experiment with yourself.
1. Think of something that makes you feel feelings of anger, hate, hurt. Then look inside to explore the fear.
- What do you see?
- What do you fear most about this?
2. Next, think about what you tell yourself when you feel afraid.
- Do you think thoughts that tell you to stay away from what is fearful?
- Do these thoughts also explain why, how, when, where, who, etc., with regard to the fear?
- Do the thoughts include how to avoid, numb or not to feel the fear, i.e., denial, lies, addictive substances, alcohol, blame, angry outbursts, withdrawal, etc.
- Do you notice how the more you remain unaware of your fear, and the more you do whatever it takes not to see or feel the fear, the bigger the “illusion” of the fear gets?
3. Now imagine what someone you care about could do, when you are feeling emotions of anger, hatred, hurt, etc., to calm and help you restore your sense of safety.
- Would you first want someone to ‘see’ and understand, and care about what you are experiencing?
- Would you want an accepting presence, not necessarily accepting what you ‘did’ (if it was hurtful), yet definitely accepting of you as a person?
- And, would you ‘know’ when someone is an accepting presence because of how they treat you with dignity?
The steps above can help you see what your child would most benefit from as well. In the presence of acceptance, as it was for you, it will be easier for your child to see what they are most afraid of in a situation.
Something powerful happens when we connect to our fears as if feeling and understanding them were a natural way to relate to one another. It shines a new light. We suddenly realize a situation is not as scary as we once thought.
Are your responses to fear rooted in love or fear?
Emotions spark behaviors, and emotions and behaviors are rooted primarily in emotions of either love or fear. The following diagram displays some examples:
anger, hostility, shame, frustration, envy, fear, guilt, jealousy
happiness, joy, pride, confidence, elation, gratitude
lying, stealing, fighting, bullying, aggression, resistance, retaliation, screaming, blaming, pitting others against one another
cooperation, empathy, reciprocity, smiling, motivation, thoughtfulness, contribution, nurturing healthy relationships
Whatever it is, it takes time and patience to calm yourself and gain the confidence to “see” a situation from a place that allows you to courageously face any fears, and know you are built to not only handle your own, but also be a holding place for your children to learn to handle theirs.
So, the next time your child displays angry or upsetting behaviors, connect to what they may be feeling and yearning, and outwardly express this with a guess. For example, “Are you feeling upset that he didn’t share his toy because you wanted to play together? That makes sense.”
Follow the words, find the fear, stay rooted in calm, centered confidence. This helps them face their fears, with the eyes of your love. A child most needs to feel safe enough to love, and so do you.
We’re human, remember? We most want to matter, to feel valued in relation to life around us. It’s scary to love when, for whatever reason, we do not feel loved in return.
Make your first priority to feel your own fears, to be a firm yet kind and accepting presence. This best assures that you will be calm, confident, and present to your child. Remember your job is not to fix their fear or upset, rather to teach them to feel safe enough to stay connected to the inner world of their mind and heart, in handling their upsets.
“Please remember, it is what you are that heals, not what you know. ” – Carl Jung
Your presence in mind and heart builds a path that is brightly lit with a growing understanding of your self and children, first and foremost, as human beings who are phenomenally wired, with the capacity and strength, to learn to love with their whole hearts.
Staik, A. (2011). When Children’s Behaviors Scare Us – Connecting to Our Heart. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2011/09/when-a-childs-behaviors-scare-us-connecting-to-the-light/