Let me back up a step – my five-year-old kiddo is not hate deranged, and there is nothing amiss in our family dynamic. I am simply celebrating the fact my child is able to understand and name her emotions.
I am positively grinning, knowing that she has developed the capacity to communicate her feelings in a clear and specific way. This hate is a gift.
The other night, in the witching hour between dinner and bedtime, my two girls invented a game that involved throwing large objects around our small living room. This living room contains not only our television but a shelf displaying some of my few precious and breakable objects – specifically, a Royal Doulton figurine my grandmother gave me. When I noticed this raucous game (which was in direct violation of the “don’t throw things in the living room” rule), I was exasperated. I spoke sharply. I did not lose my temper or yell, but I was clearly annoyed. My girls are not used to me rebuking them. I work hard on my patience, and they work hard on understanding and following rules. But they are kids who got excited throwing pillows and boxes, and I was sick and overworked. The result was a seven-year-old who slunk out of the room apologizing quietly, and a five-year-old who screamed, ran to her bedroom, and slammed the door with a force and vehemence I look forward to hearing in her teen years. I could hear her crying in her room, and I decided to give her space. It was almost bedtime; she must be tired. I gave her an hour alone then did a bed check, by which time she was asleep.
The next day, she asks me if I read her letter.
I have no idea what she is talking about, so she leads me to my bedside table. Beside my Wonder Woman alarm clock, there is a folded paper with elaborate drawings in orange marker. Inside, there is a long story written in the beautiful broken phonetic English of the kindergartener. I sit down on my bed and gesture for her to join me. She hesitates a moment, then jumps in my lap and snuggles close.
“What is this picture?” I ask.
Together she and I read her letter:
“Moms get mad at you. They yell as loud as possible. I hate my mom. I feel like I want to yell and scream and cry. I want to leave the family and hit and punch, and so please do not yell at me.”
After we read the letter together she grabs my neck and holds me close. I kiss her forehead and we sit for a minute, listening to each other. We talk about how some feelings are so strong they burn like a stomach ache or a bee sting. I hug her and tell her how happy and proud I am she thought about her feelings and wrote them down. I thank her for telling me how my actions made her feel. I promise to remember her feelings in the future, and she promises to be more careful where she plays throwing games. I know she does not hate me, truly. But in that moment of white hot rage, she absolutely did. Her hate was strong, real, and painful. I am in awe of her ability to articulate pain, and to ask for what she needs with such vivid clarity.
She does not get this from me.
I would like to take credit for her self-awareness and her communication, but it is not behavior I frequently model. In my own emotional life, I am an old pro at swallowing my feelings and avoiding the unpleasant conflicts that dealing with them might provoke. I will beat myself to a figurative pulp before I tell someone how they have hurt me. Healthy? Absolutely not. So you see why my daughter’s forthrightness fills me with such pride and hope. I see her starting on a different path of awareness and communication, and I am vowing to do everything I can to support building the confidence in herself to identify emotions and regulate them through expression, not repression.
This thought made me turn to her older sister – the one who did not run screaming, but rather quietly apologized.
She behaved the way I would. Did she hate me? Was she swallowing her pain? After school, I asked her how she felt when I got upset with her the previous evening. She was surprised I asked. She thought about it, then said, “I was mad we got in trouble. But I was mostly mad I was doing something wrong.” This perspective makes perfect sense with her strong sense of responsibility. Is it fair to worry your child might sometimes be too responsible? I hugged her, told her I was angry in the moment, and spoke more sharply than I intended. We agreed to work on respecting each other.
I tell her, as I need to keep telling myself, that respect is a process, something we work to earn every day. We need to keep being honest, even when it is not pretty.
My porcelain figurine is not broken. And neither are my daughters. They are finding their emotional voices, both quiet and loud. I will work hard to keep listening, to let them know they are always heard. I will also keep pushing myself to be honest with them about how I am feeling too, in a way that is appropriate for their ages. My daughter’s letter gave me the realization that we can share pain without inflicting it. Thank you, Chickadee. This is an amazing gift.