From the second day of her life, my daughter has been feisty. At 48-hours-old, she was kicked out of the hospital nursery for screaming so loud the nurse was afraid she’d wake the other babies. The nurse placed her in my arms and said, “This little one is mad she’s not with her mama.”
I proudly gave my daughter a fist pump. “You show them, Sweetie. Your rage is always welcome with me.”
And I meant that. I had no intention of raising a daughter who had to stuff her anger down. All of her emotions were going to be celebrated and supported in our house: joy, wonder, sadness, anger—but especially her anger. I believe access to anger is one of the most important things we can let her have. We were adamant about constructing a no-repression zone, and I charged into motherhood eager to keep my promise. As my daughter has grown and evolved so have her emotions.
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I’ll never forget the epic meltdown she had at 18 months old and we brought her baby brother home from the hospital. She thrashed and wailed and tried to bang her head on the floor. I wanted to smooth over her anger by showing her how cute he was and tell her about all the fun they would have one day. Instead, I kept my mouth shut and let her emote. That was the first day I realized that if we were going to let her express her feelings, then we also needed to create some boundaries around how she expressed her frustration. Hence, one of our early family rules: No banging your head on the floor.
No one has the luxury of knowing she is doing it right, certainly not in the heat of the moment.
Throughout her preschool years, I clung to the notion that the worst thing I could do would be to give her the message that she had to be happy and smiley all the time. I don’t have that kind of personality, so why would I expect that of her? It took me years to un-learn the false idea that “good girls” don’t get angry. My daughter wasn’t going to suffer through that, even though it’s way easier to parent a kid who is not seething.
As she’s gotten older—and more verbal and stronger—my daughter’s fits of anger have been harder to detach from. When she began to melt down at a museum one day, I longed to pull her aside and say, “Can't you just put a smile on your face?” The answer was no, she couldn’t just suck it up, in part, because I had never taught her how.
When my husband is out of town and I’m parenting solo, I want to beg her to make my life easier. Like when I see that look in her eye that tells me she’s going to blow, I have the impulse to pull out my wallet and say, “How much, kiddo, to keep your fucking cool? You want an American Girl doll? How’s $100?”
As I watch other parents cajole their children out of bad moods with soothing words, promises of frozen yogurt or brute force, I wonder if I’m doing it right. How will I ever know? No one has the luxury of knowing she is doing it right, certainly not in the heat of the moment.
Even though I’m riddled with second thoughts about my approach, I can’t bring myself to tell her to stuff it. I can trace too clearly the path from repressed anger to bulimia, anxiety and depression. Like all parents, my history shapes the choice I make around parenting. And while I’ll never know if my approach is best, a new book by psychologist Susan David suggests that letting kids have their emotional reactions is good for them. In “Emotional Agility,” Dr. David writes that too often parents try to minimize their children’s emotions so the child never learns to help herself. When we rush in with platitudes or solutions to our kids’ big emotions, we are robbing them of the chance to feel, express and move through them. Dr. David urges parents to validate their children and to avoid minimizing the temptation to minimize them. She also agrees that families should agree on what type of behavior is acceptable for displaying emotions.
While I read Dr. David’s book as validation for my instincts about my daughter’s anger, I know there are probably 10 other books that say something different. But for now, I’m holding firm to my belief that letting her stomp, punch a pillow, scream and cry is good for her in the long-run, even if it makes for one hell of a long and noisy night.