Dear Dr B,
My 7 year old seems to be excessively angry since Daddy was deployed and is taking it out on me. What’s the best way to teach him this behavior is not OK, but his feelings are?
Military Mom, Holding Down the Fort
Dear Military Mom,
May I first extend my gratitude to you and your husband for your service on behalf of our country. You both make it possible for us to enjoy the freedom we appreciate every day, but I know that it comes at a great cost to you and your family. Clearly…that’s part of what you’ve written about above.
What you have described is not uncommon, but knowing that doesn’t make your circumstances any easier. What your son is displaying is a behavioral reaction to grief. While we tend to think of grief in response to a death, grief is really a natural reaction to any loss. In this case, your son has “lost” the normalcy of day to day interactions with his father. Even though I’m sure you try to make up for that as best as you can with phone calls, SKYPE, text messages, etc., nothing compares to the physical presence of someone in our lives.
When you recognize that he is beginning to “take his feelings out on you,” very calmly sit down with him and mirror back his feelings to him. Something along the lines of, “it’s frustrating when we want to talk to Daddy and we can’t, isn’t it?” or “Sometimes I miss Daddy a whole lot too.” By mirroring his feelings, you communicate that it’s ok to have those feelings and share them with you. It’s important, however, that you stay calm and neutral in your approach.
At seven years old, developmentally there can be a wide range in terms of how adept children are at being able to discuss their feelings. Many do not have a good vocabulary for their feelings. I’d encourage you to get a poster of feelings (Amazon has one: http://www.amazon.com/Feeling-Today-Fantasy-Poster-Borgman/dp/B000MYM5D4). This graphic representation of feelings allows children to look at pictures of faces expressing different feelings to help them determine how they are feeling and to put accurate words to their feelings.
Sometimes getting children to talk about their feelings is a challenge. I often find that children will talk about such weighty matters more when they are busy doing something else. You might have more success getting your child to talk about what he is thinking or feeling if he is busy coloring, doing an art project, or playing Legos, rather that focusing on a conversation with you.
Once a child knows that it’s safe to express his feelings, this will often open the door to further dialogue about his feelings. As he begins to open up more about how he feels, then you can matter of factly share what are appropriate ways for him to convey his feelings as opposed to what is not. For example, “When you tell me how you feel in a calm voice it helps me want to listen and understand how you feel, but when you yell at me, it hurts my feelings and makes it hard for me to listen with compassion.”
Once you’ve practiced this with him for a while, you can even go a little further and explain “there is nothing wrong with your feelings, but sometimes there are good and sometimes not so good ways of expressing our feelings.” Then role play with him some of those good and not so good ways of expressing his feelings.
Above all else, teach your child that the very best thing he can do is to take his feelings to God. This is an opportunity to teach your child that God is concerned about anything that concerns us, and that He is always with us and is always available to listen to us. Teach him that God wants us to take all our cares and concerns to Him and let Him handle them.
You and your family are having to deal with some pretty weighty issues. Don’t be afraid to get additional support through counseling or therapy if you feel like you need it.
Because of Him,
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