All of us have parts. We might have parts that want to avoid unhealthy food and parts that want to eat a cinnamon roll. We might have parts that want to yell at our kids and parts that feel ashamed when we do so.
Kids have parts, too. Sometimes, especially in stepfamilies, kids can say hurtful things about us and the ones we love. It can be difficult to hear them say things like, “I hate this family!” Or, “I wish she were dead!” Trust me when I say that it’s only a part of your child that feels that way. That part of your child desperately wants to be heard, acknowledged, and accepted.
What will likely backfire is shaming the child for those feelings or trying to silence them. These responses will likely only cause their angry feelings to grow. If they’re taught that those parts of them are not acceptable, they’ll develop a distrust of you, develop feelings of shame, and learn how to bottle their feelings. That can lead to behavioral issues, self-hatred, and other serious problems.
So what can you do?
Listen. Reflect back the emotion behind the words. Get curious about what they’re experiencing and see if you can normalize it. Show them some compassion. You can say things such as:
- It sounds like there’s a part of you that hates your new brother.
- I’m hearing you say you’re not happy about our new living arrangement. Would you like to tell me more about that?
- It sounds like you’re feeling really sad. Is it Ok if we talk about it?
- Thank you for sharing how you’re feeling with me. I want you to know that all your feelings are OK, even the big ones.
- It makes sense you’re feeling angry about what’s going on, given how many changes you’ve been through in the last couple years. I’m sorry you’re hurting.
There are no bad thoughts, no bad feelings, and no bad parts. The emotions and thoughts kids have – even big, hurtful ones – are normal reactions to what can be very challenging circumstances for them. When your child hears this from you, there’s a good chance that their feelings will soften, especially if your child trusts that you’re saying these words with love and sincerity.
What if I’m too upset?
You might decide to wait until your child or teen is calm before engaging them, especially if you’re having trouble feeling calm, too. When emotions run high, the rational side of our brains don’t work as well and it’s hard to be calm, curious, and compassionate.
If your child’s words make you too upset to calmly connect with them, take some time for yourself first. It’s perfectly acceptable to let them know that you’re going to take an hour (or however long you think you might reasonable need) to calm down and then you want to hear more about what they’re going through. This is good modeling! Perhaps it would help you to walk outside for a minute, take some deep breaths, or read something you find inspiring. You might also find it helpful to remind yourself: kids do well when they can.
We need to listen to all of our children’s parts. When they say hurtful things, it can actually be an opportunity to get a glimpse into their inner world. When they do that, then you can talk about it and help those parts to calm down. It’s also good to require them to show a baseline of respect toward family members, but do so in a way that doesn’t shut them down or make them feel ashamed of their thoughts and feelings. Let them know that while all their thoughts and feelings are acceptable, words can hurt people, too. If they’ve clearly crossed a line, tell them it’s important they make a repair by apologizing when they’re ready.
If you still find it too difficult to engage with them – and I assure you, you’re not alone in that feeling – then get some support. It’s likely in this case that it’s triggering something in you, and you and your family would benefit from some self-exploration. Don’t expect perfection from your child or from yourself. I hope you can be gentle with your kids, your partner, and yourself as you work to find solutions.