A mother and her two children, a boy who seemed about six, and a girl about four, were standing near me on the bus. They were both eating apples and the boy in particular, was giving much attention to eating his. The mom said something to her son about the apple that I couldn’t quite hear, but the boy’s response was, “I didn’t do that because I didn’t want you to be mad at me”. The mom was quite taken aback and assured him that she would never be mad at him for something like that.
This mom’s tone of voice, and upset reaction to her son’s comment seemed to express the feeling that her son had portrayed her as an angry mother always down on him about something – and in the hearing of strangers! From what I could observe about this little family, nothing could be further from the truth. Yet the child’s perception of her as the mother heard it, felt really critical.
The anger of others – and our own – feels dangerous. Anger is a response to something or someone who seems to threaten what we need or want. Anger in itself feels threatening. At its most primitive it expresses the wish to destroy the source of the threat. We’ve all heard someone say – or said ourselves – “I could kill you for doing that”. Although most of us do not go around killing each other when we are angry, anger does bring a temporary loss of approval and love – a small death. To the degree that our security, well-being, and survival depend on the love and approval of someone else, to that degree does anger feel risky.
That description certainly applies to childhood. The wish for a parent’s love and approval provides a major motivation for children to develop appropriate behavior. The wish not to lose that love and approval is a major factor in a child giving up inappropriate behavior. In fact, children as they deverlop, internalize their parents’ approval and disapproval until it becomes their own, and they begin to take responsibility for their own behavior.
Whatever behavior the little boy on the bus was referring to, his idea that his mother would be “mad” at him was keeping him from it. That didn’t mean she really would have been mad at him. He may have been using his own ideas of right and wrong and attributing them to his mother as a means of enforcing the “right” behavior. We sometimes still do that as grown-ups. Have you ever said, or heard someone say, “My mother would have a fit if she saw what I was doing.”?
But what about the mother’s reaction? Why was she disturbed by the implication that she might have been mad at him? She obviously thought this unfairly reflected a picture of her as an angry mother – in other words a “bad” mother. Is a “good” mother supposed to be one who never gets angry? Everyone would deny that, yet children’s anger often make mothers feel as though they are being attacked as “bad mothers.” The intensity of a child’s anger is a times heard not as a statement of how strongly he feels but rather of how bad she is – a statement about her instead of a statement about him.
On the other hand, a mother may feel unjustly accused by her child’s anger, and feeling attacked may become angry herself. When that happens, it is easy to lose sight of the issue at hand and to find oneself in the middle of a confrontation between two angry people. The issue becomes the child’s anger rather than whatever provoked the anger in the first place. It can turn into a matter of either the mother being bad or the child being bad for getting angry.
Mothers often will say to a child in a very reasonable tone of voice, “I know you feel angry”, and think that is supposed to dispel the angry feeling. But people – especially children – are not reasonable when they are angry. Children may express their anger in unpleasant ways. Often it is a child’s unreasonableness in the face of a mother’s reasonableness that leads to her own anger. This sometimes puts children in a double bind: they not only don’t get what they want, they are not allowed to be angry about it.
Mothers sometimes think that if they were doing things the right way children wouldn’t get angry. This suggests a fantasy of an ideal mother-child relationship with no anger, and implies that such a relationship is both possible and desirable. If fact, if your goal is that your child should never be angry, you are in for trouble. It can lead to either always giving in to what your child wants, or punishing him for being angry.
A child’s anger doesn’t mean a mother is wrong in what she wants. It also doesn’t mean the child is wrong in feeling angry about it. Even when what a mother wants is right for a child, a child has a right not to like it. The problem for many of us is that we want our own way, but also want our children to act as if they like it. We want to feel – and our children to feel – that we are “good mothers” even when asking children to do things they find disagreeable.
But the fact that anger feels bad, does not mean “bad mother” – or bad child.