Editor's Note: This is the final installment of a four part series about parenting, anger, and attachment. You won't want to miss the first three segments. (Part 1 - Part 2 and Part 3)
When I was a teenager, my mother warned me that everyone has a finite supply of brain cells. Once your brain matures, she said, it's a downhill slide, and all you can do is try not to accelerate the process too much with drugs or alcohol or massive head injuries. When I went to the "Of Buddhas and Brains" conference, I learned that this was not just a parental scare tactic; it was once the prevailing wisdom about the brain. But advances in brain imaging have brought the revelation that human beings can rebuild and strengthen neural pathways.
For all of us who have not led completely charmed lives, this is great news.
For parents who are members of oppressed groups, and for anyone who grew up with routine or catastrophic trauma, this is particularly great news.
Traumatic experiences are more likely to be stored in our brains as disorganized, implicit memories that color our perception and experience without becoming part of our conscious awareness. When those leftover issues get triggered, we are more likely to "flip our lids" (Neurobiologist Dan Siegel's term--a nod to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reflection and self-regulation) instead of responding in ways that are attuned to the present situation and the people around us.
The discovery that the brain continues to develop new connections throughout our lives means that it is possible to reshape our brains, to bring our unresolved issues into conscious awareness, and to avoid knee-jerk responses to our kids.
Sounds easier said than done, right?
According to Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell's accessible book, Parenting from the Inside Out, some of the best tools are self-reflection and narration. In other words, telling stories about our experiences. At first I had trouble believing that telling stories could actually be key--it's so rare that science seems to reinforce my own prejudices--but after reading Siegel and others, and performing my own experiments in parenting, I have come to feel that it may in fact be true.
When Waylon was about eighteen months old, we started brushing his teeth in a more formalized way, and I started flipping my lid.
Generally speaking, Katy and I adhere to a non-authoritarian philosophy of parenting. But when I was in charge of tooth-brushing, flexibility evaporated into a volley of increasingly loud commands: stand still, face me, look up at the sky, open your mouth, no, open your mouth WIDE, I told you to STAND STILL!
Some toddlers might acquiesce when a grown-up is barking commands in their face, but not Waylon. He'd clamp his mouth shut or turn his head away, and tooth brushing frequently deteriorated into a shouty stand off. When he finally told me "I just don't like it when you yell at me," I knew it was time for Mama to bow out of this particular duty.
Why was tooth-brushing such a triggering event for me? The answer offers some insight into how unresolved issues get passed from generation to generation. My father had terrible teeth. They had tons of fillings and were crooked in the front, which was a source of shame. He smiled with his lips over his teeth until he finally got braces, when he was 50. Dad was lovingly determined that our teeth would be different, so he took nightly dental hygiene upon himself. Not just when I was 2, 3, or 4, but when I was 9, 10, 11. He approached tooth brushing with a kind of manic excitement--this is going to be fun! Fun! Fun!--and by making it a game about chasing pink plaque on imaginary pink bicycles. And it was kind of fun, but it was also kind of like having a hurricane in your mouth. At 6'2", my dad towered over me. In his zeal, he used an inordinate amount of minty fresh Crest, which burned my mouth and made my eyes water. My most visceral memory of nightly brushing is the feeling of lather filling up my mouth and overflowing down my chin while I tried to keep my mouth wide open, completely powerless.
As an adult, when I tried to brush the teeth of a squirmy, distracted toddler, these childhood feelings of disempowerment resurfaced and triggered a strong need to control Waylon's unwieldy (but age appropriate) behavior. I experienced any resistance from Waylon as threatening, out-of-control, and, to tell you the embarrassing truth--unfair. Some juvenile part of me felt like, "I didn't get to resist or talk back, so why should you?"
I wish I could say that my dental hygiene issues dissipated immediately once I remembered these feelings and integrated them into a coherent narrative, but, alas, it's not quite that neat. The most important thing that I gained was the ability to empathize with what it feels like to a child when an adult--regardless of his or her good intentions--handles you roughly. Although I still recuse myself from tooth brushing, I am much more careful to be gentle when I am pulling a shirt over Waylon's head or rubbing sunscreen on his face, and to listen when he tells me how it feels.
Resolution in the Present
So, to return to the day of the drool-soaked tantrum: Waylon was in time out for hitting, but I was the one feeling miserable in my room. I know that Waylon needs to understand the consequences of hitting, that he needs to learn to "use his words" to use the words of a parenting cliché. This sounds simple in theory, but some days Waylon seems like a little bundle of aggressive impulses. For Katy, who grew up roughhousing with her brothers, it's hardly noticeable, like a little mosquito buzzing in her ear. For me, with my family background, it's unsettling to be the target of open aggression. What's even more disturbing is the feelings it stirs up inside of me. I get angry! With my son!
My wife the therapist has one word for me: "repair."
"It's not getting angry that's the problem. He needs to understand how he's affecting you. It's lack of repair that causes problems, because he also needs to know that you can stay connected to him even when you're angry."
When Waylon finally got out of timeout, we spent some time talking about both of our reactions. Waylon apologized for jumping on my head, and I apologized for yelling. Later that night, when we were lying in his bed after story time, I told him again that I was sorry if my yelling and my angry face scared him.
While I was still feeling guilt, Waylon seemed to have moved on.
"That's all right Mama. We made up together."
Want to learn more about how self-reflection and writing can impact your parenting? Katy Koonce, LMSW (aka my wife) and I are leading a workshop about gender, trauma, and parenting at Gender Odyssey over Labor Day weekend. It's called "Navigating the Past to Parent in the Present."