When it comes to feelings of being out of control, angry, fearful, or guilty, what's ordinary in families? Not just for children, but for parents? These feelings usually create enormous stress, anxiety, and shame for all involved. It can be challenging enough to accept that children may express these feelings as an ordinary part of development, but intense negative feelings often feel taboo. Parents may shut down, withdraw, or give up over time if there are not enough opportunities to understand and reflect on what is happening.
Jennifer Kahn's New York Times article, ‘Can you call a 9-year-old a psychopath?' tells the story of a family whose eldest son, Michael, exhibits ‘callous-unemotional' traits. These children seem to experience little to no empathy for others, behave manipulatively, and swing between cold and controlled and extremely aggressive behavior in their interpersonal relationships. Research shows that while not all children who exhibit these traits grow into adults with antisocial behavior, all adults who exhibit antisocial behavior demonstrated these traits as children. The article documents the efforts and controversies related to categorizing psychopathy in children, and interviews Michael's parents about how they manage the emotional experience of parenting Michael. Anne, Michael's mother, describes her experience this way, ‘as horrible as this is to say, as a mom, the truth is that you put up a wall. It's like being in the army, facing a barrage of fire every day. You have to steel yourself against the outbursts and the hate."
The article has generated a lot of interest, unearthing primal fears of the ‘bad seed', the archetypal parental nightmare seemingly brought to life by events such as the Columbine Massacre. The recent film ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin' also gives voice to these fears through the telling of the story of two psychologically ordinary parents, particularly a mother, whose child goes on a Columbine-style massacre. Research suggests that this is a less likely phenomenon, as the neurological traits of psychopathy are largely inherited and then shaped by the caregiving environment. In Michael's case, his father describes being labeled ‘crazy' as a child, and having tremendous difficulty expressing feelings appropriately. Over time, he describes learning to control himself.
It is important to know that conflict and intense negative feelings, including anger, occur in all close personal relationships. Research shows that parents' ability to identify and reflect on these feelings builds their capacity to deal with these feelings in themselves and in their children. This ability is crucial in preventing negative parent-child interactions including aggressive/assaultive behaviors, verbal hostility, withdrawal, or pervasive negative labeling of a child, as in the idea that they are ‘bad' or ‘crazy' as in Michael's father's case.
In fact, the most powerful opportunities for close connected relationships arise from the most difficult moments. We know from research that what makes a child feel most secure is when their parents can help them make sense of their most angry and upset feelings. Showing them that you understand the connection between their feelings and behaviors eg. ‘you're furious at me because…', helps them feel seen, and grows their ability to identify, reflect on and ultimately self-regulate. As a parent, sharing your own experience, such as ‘I felt angry because…' or ‘I wonder how you felt when you saw me lose my temper?' invites discussion and an opportunity for repair.
When difficult parent-child interactions occur, it can feel painful to reflect on a moment, or series of moments, gone sour. It is particularly challenging if your child behaves in ways that are hard to make sense of, or if they seem to have limited awareness or curiosity about the impact of their behavior on others. However, non-judgmental curiosity, openness, and a willingness to be close to their experience as well as yours will be a protective factor against escalating cycles of negative interactions. Reflection and a willingness to acknowledge all the difficult feelings that parenting brings up, is the key.