June 5, 1918 – June 10, 2013
It’s funny how raising kids forces you to take intangible concepts and solidify them for the sake of teaching them to others. Because it’s one thing to understand something, and quite another to PUT IT INTO WORDS so someone else can understand it.
So here’s something I was forced to put into words the other day, while leading my children through the resolution of a confrontation.
The biggest myth about anger is that it’s a direct response to something that has happened to us. But that oversimplification leaves out one very important link in the chain. Anger is only a secondary emotion.
Most of the time, anger is a defense tactic employed to mask the vulnerability we feel from other emotions – often pain or fear, but there are a variety of emotions that expose this vulnerability we would rather keep hidden. In Kaelin’s case, Koren was making her feel inferior. Threatened by this emotion, she lashed out at him in anger, one of the two methods we humans have for defending ourselves when we feel vulnerable (the other being withdrawal).
While withdrawal is more like a shield, anger is a knife: a defense-via-offense tactic, and used much like a cornered cat uses its claws, or a frightened snake its bite. Emotion has a tendency to block cognitive function, so we flail our knife about in an effort to restore our own security, slashing whatever (or whoever) happens to be in our way.
But anger doesn’t solve anything. It typically makes our insecurity worse instead of better, because then we have regret to deal with, and usually end up causing in others the very wound we perceive to have incurred.
It isn’t really fair to bring anger unless you’re willing to own and admit to the underlying emotion. In Kaelin’s case, we worked on saying, “Koren, when you boss me around, it makes me feel like you think you’re better than me, and that hurts my feelings.”
Elementary, but it was so much more effective than her previous reaction, which sent Koren running to me in tears. Koren apologized for hurting her and said he would not do it again.
The flip side to this is communicating with someone who is displaying anger. This concept is a little mature for Koren, so we didn’t go into it deeply at the time, but I’m going to put it here anyway.
There are basically three ways to react to someone who is flailing their knife around in response to something you have said or done.
The most important thing to remember when dealing with someone who is angry at you is that the anger is only a facade. What’s underneath is vulnerable and likely linked to a deep fear or pain, that the angry person themselves may not even recognize or understand. Handle with care.
My son’s personality is an intriguing dichotomy. He is frequently a total, off-the-wall goofball who loves to make jokes and crack others (and himself) up with his silly antics and humor. His laugh is infectious and when something really tickles him he wants to share it (again and again) with everyone around him. He is constantly coming up with ways to make me laugh.
But he can also be a serious scholar, who grasps intangible concepts far beyond his age level. He can spend lengthy periods of time pouring over a puzzle or a book, and sometimes retreats from the social atmosphere because he just needs some “alone time.”
He misses Xander. He has been remarkably resilient in the wake of losing his best friend in a drowning accident last summer, but Xander is frequently on his mind and he occasionally has days when he seems to struggle with the weight of permanent (at least, for the length of this lifetime) loss. I think true grief is like that, coming in waves where sometimes the seas are calm and you can manage through life as usual, and other times it comes out of nowhere and knocks your boat over.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in my craft room when I started to hear a small, whimpering voice. At first I thought maybe the kids were playing (they frequently role-play, where one is the parent and the other is the kid… and the kid role involves a LOT of whining). But I soon realized that Kaelin was downstairs, so I followed the sound and found Koren sitting by himself in the media room. The Apple TV’s slideshow was running and he was watching our family pictures scroll up the screen.
“You ok, bud?”
“Mama… I miss Xander. I want things to be like they were in that picture. With me and Xander at Chuck E Cheese.”
“Were you talking to Xander just now?”
I want so badly to make this better for him. That’s my right after all, isn’t it? The Sacred Superpower granted to all parents: kisses and words to offer that make all the boo-boos feel better and all the monsters disappear.
But – surprise - there are some wounds that can’t be healed with hugs and kisses. These wounds continue to hurt the ones you try so hard to shield.
He had another wave yesterday. We were at a restaurant with my family and Koren suddenly retreated. I noticed him sitting in a corner instead of in his chair and asked him to come sit with me. He climbed up in my lap and we chatted for a bit, and then I took him to the bathroom. Once we were in there, between his goofy attempts to make himself invisible so he could jump out and surprise me, we had the following conversation:
“Mama, can I tell you something?”
“Do you know why I was sitting in the corner?”
“Because I was thinking of Xander. And I wish we were playing together.”
His mood picked up after lunch and he seemed to really enjoy the rest of the day (especially T-Ball practice), but his friend remained on his mind. He brought it up again at bedtime and told me that every time he sees a helicopter it makes him think of Xander (who was flown to the hospital in one). He wanted to know if, whenever they are reunited in Heaven some day, Xander would still be four, or if they will be the same age. He still prays for Xander’s family nearly every night.
Today, he’s in good spirits. He bounded down the stairs this morning full of life and hoping for a boiled egg with breakfast. While eating, he ruminated on whether he wants to be a teacher or a doctor when he grows up. It appears yesterday’s funk has passed.
Even though his instinct is to retreat when he’s feeling down or needing to process, talking about it does seem to help him. Despite my wishes (and futile attempts), I can’t calm the ocean for him. I can only ride the waves with him, and hold him tight when swells get high.
Perhaps that’s all he needs from me.
At about this time, I started to realize why most people bring out the elves on the first of December instead of Thanksgiving – particularly when Thanksgiving comes earlier than usual in the month of November. My well of ideas began to run a little dry.