It can happen with all children. Something goes wrong and the response is to blame another – that other often times is Mom or Dad. For children who have experienced trauma, the intensity and nature of the arrows let loose during such an exchange can sting acutely and sometimes come flying at a very young age. It can feel like they are expert sharpshooters and the bulls eye is dead in the center of the parent’s heart.
In reality what is usually happening is that their harsh words are triggering something in us– a past hurt, a feeling of deficiency, a buried fear. The goal – and may I say loudly and clearly, a very difficult goal indeed – is to not take these angry expressions personally. I, for one, can testify that this is extremely challenging and way easier said than done. Receiving the emotions of frustration, sadness and happiness is a lot easier than receiving anger. It just is. Most parents would literally lay down their lives for their child, so sharp words and searing accusations can feel ludicrous and hurt deeply.
There is another way to view this. We as parents are the safe haven – a kind of sanctuary where all emotions are allowed and the child is still beloved. Children from hard places often feel the need to control –in response to the fact that a significant part of their lives have been completely out of their control. They can feel shame and sometimes see themselves as worthless. Rather than let those very deep feelings into their consciousness, they need a safe place to target them. That secure place is often right at home in the midst of those who love them most. Deep down they may be testing to see if we are really, really going to love them and stick by them through “come what may”. Can we tolerate all parts of them – the good and the bad? Anger often covers up a deeper feeling of fear, shame or sadness. They, like all of us, have a desire to be truly known and yet unconditionally loved.
King David is one of my very favorite guys. He was passionate, raw and a master of extreme emotional expression. He got into big messes, called out to God in such authentic ways and fully asserted a great range of emotion. He was chased and often running for his life– he was an unjust target. He also made others unjust targets of his own desires; think Bathsheba and Uriah. But he always knew God as a safe haven. “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” He flat out voiced all kinds of things to his refuge/shelter/ always there God. And God received it all. David was known in a way that I wish to be known -as a person after God’s heart.
With time and patience, we can begin to discipline and teach our children how to express angry and fearful feelings in healthier ways. It is a moment by moment, day by day, looking toward the long term goal kind of training. To get there often requires a lot of target practice.