Undoing Harsh Words

Undoing Harsh Words

For a number of years, I assisted Rachel Macy Stafford with replies to readers' comments on her powerful HandsFreeMama blog. Rachel's posts are deeply moving and motivational accounts of real-life moments with her daughters and evoke an outpouring of emotional responses like this one from the mother of a 4-year-old who was struggling to find her patience. This reader's comment and my reply are shared with Rachel's permission.

Kelly commented on "To Build (or Break) a Child's Spirit":

Wow… I should have read this earlier in the week. Now I am here about to leave work, reading this, and on the verge of tears. You explained what I did to my 4 year old yesterday.


She cleaned up her mess in the bathroom, and I reprimanded her for not calling for help. Why? Because I didn’t want “bad germs” all over her and the bathroom. I was harsh explaining and showing her how to wash her hands properly. Then after that I calmed down. A few moments later, she would not eat her dinner. It sat there in front of her and she would not take a bite. My husband tried as did I.


I was surprisingly the calm and rational one this time. I offered her milk so she won’t go to bed hungry. She was refusing, but then agreed. As I was getting it ready for her, I turned with the gallon in my hands and almost tripped over her. I was upset and told her to “MOVE! I don’t want to fall.” She ran crying to her father. Afterwards, I realized she was running to me to give me a hug.


What heart-wrenching guilt. I felt like such an awful mother. I don’t know what it is at times, that I get so impatient and mean. I think that she should know better and expect more from her. I forget that she’s 4 years old. I did apologize to her after, but it doesn’t take away the moment.

Sandy's reply to Kelly:

Heart-wrenching guilt is one of the worst feelings a mother can have. Two incidents like that back to back can really make you doubt yourself.

I hope you read Rachel's post on the inner bully because not only will it reassure you that you are not alone, but it explains where your harsh judgments come from. You judge yourself the same way you judge your daughter, which is probably the same way you were judged as a child. It's all in your statement, "I think that she should know better and expect more from her." That's what your inner-bully is always saying to you. It's judging, pushing, and telling you that you are never good enough. That kind of internal pressure would make anyone impatient and mean.

You said that you made a point to apologize, and that is definitely an important step. For an apology to be most effective, make sure that you stress that you know her intentions are always good, and you just can't see them when you are angry. Stress that the anger is your problem, not hers. If there is any teaching to do (like her asking for help or checking to see if your hands are full), save that for later, separate from the apology, at a time when she no longer feels defensive and can actually participate in problem-solving with you. That will help a great deal, and there is still more you can do.

There is a way to effectively "take away the moment" as you wished you could do.

You can play out the scenarios with your daughter again, but this time as a game so she can release any remaining tension, regain her confidence and reaffirm her connection with you. Dr. Lawrence Cohen's classic, Playful Parenting, provides many examples of using simple games therapeutically. You can find his book here and more on the Playful Parenting website.

For example:
To replay the hug incident, you can tell her, "That probably felt really bad when you ran to me for a hug, and I yelled at you. Let's play the 'Angry Mommy' game."

Let her be the Angry Mommy, and you be her. You can have her pretend to hold a container of milk, and you run up to her for a hug. When she pretends to get angry, use a stage whisper and ask, "What do I do?"

Often at this point kids will tell you to cry and run away or do whatever they do, so whatever she tells you to do, do it in an exaggerated, silly way. If she laughs and wants to do it again and again, it's the right game. If not modify it and "follow the giggles," as Dr. Cohen says.

When she feels empowered enough, she will probably ask to switch roles and want to defeat the Angry Mommy. Keep the play pretend (no hurting anybody), then every time she uses pretend aggression to defeat you, have Angry Mommy get bigger and stronger. And every time she uses love weapons like kisses and hugs (name them something funny) or magic phrases like "Please help" or "May I," have Angry Mommy start to melt away and Loving Mommy start to emerge.


The push and pull between Angry Mommy and Loving Mommy should also look silly and will probably be another source of giggles for you both, because it gives playful form to something she and you are grappling with in real life.

With a strong commitment and the right tools, you can break the cycle of judgment and criticism as Rachel has done. Reading Rachel's blog posts and book, Hands Free Mama, will keep you inspired and motivated.

If you want more simple parenting tools or new ways to respond to your daughter, my book is a great resource. You can read the online version free on my website here: SAY WHAT YOU SEE for Parents and Teachers.

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