The Danger of Taking Your Child’s Behaviour Personally.

My journey as a parent has required openness to new ideas, learning from my best teachers (my children), and a lot of personal reflection. Sometimes, the most unlikely of situations can offer opportunities for discovery.

One light-bulb parenting moment was recognising the strong connection between me taking behaviour personally, and my anger.

I came to this awareness not through my children, but through my dogs, and their constant escapades outside our fence.

Let me explain. Our family’s much-loved dogs had a habit of escaping their fenced yard. Each time I went out to an unexpectedly empty yard, I felt more and more powerless to stop the dogs disappearing. In their absence, I became angry.

However, this anger was only the tip of my feelings iceberg’* Beneath my anger (which was a secondary emotion), lay many primary emotions which, when I felt them strongly enough, became anger.

I felt frustrated, annoyed, worried and helpless. And, if I’m totally honest with myself – I also felt hurt. Hurt! In my head, I knew feeling hurt was not rational. I knew my dogs’ behaviour was not about me. They did not escape to hurt me. Instead, they left because of their need to explore, to have fun, to chase rabbits. Often, however, when I discovered the dogs had gone, yet again, my pain and puzzlement would erupt as anger. “Why?” I would rant at myself. “We provide them with a loving home, stimulating walks, lots of love and attention. Why do they do this to me?”

I had taken my dog’s behaviour personally. When I saw the dog’s escape as a statement they were making about me, I was making many assumptions. Perhaps they intended to hurt me, or to ‘push my buttons’. Perhaps they just wanted to ‘get at’ me, or deliberately give me extra work by having to find and patch their new escape hole.

At the same time as hurt flooded my body, becoming anger, the thinking part of my brain was struggling to be heard. “It’s impossible for the dogs to have any of these thoughts, these intentions!” I explained to myself. “They are completely innocent animals - just four-legged creatures meeting their needs, and literally exploring their boundaries”.

My explosion of anger at the dogs was all about me. This called for some challenging personal reflection.

Why was I experiencing the dogs’ behaviour with such anguish? Were there stressors in my life that led me to vent at the dogs, rather than deal with myself? Was my reaction a legacy from my upbringing, erupting when I felt powerless to change my dog’s behaviour? Was I simply feeling tired or ill, so I had less resilience to deal with another escape that day? Was I worried about something else, and my pets’ absence was just the final straw?

Then I thought about the times I became angry with my children. Had I been taking their behaviour personally, when all they were doing was meeting a need? If I could become hurt by my dog’s behaviour (which was patently ridiculous), was I also wrongly blaming my children?

In reality, my children were as innocent as my dogs.

I confronted those shameful moments when I cast aside my parenting skills and blasted one of my little ones. I saw that my anger was about me, not them. When my five-year-old yelled at me because I was beating him at cards, it was because of his unmet need for competence. When my tween ran into her room and the door closed hard behind her, she simply wanted some space to breathe after a verbal duel with me. She did not deliberately slam the door. If I yelled back at my son, it was because I assumed he thought I was being mean. If I raged down the hallway, it was because I thought my daughter was being ‘rude’ to me. I was taking their behaviour personally. I was saying to myself “they are being negative about me”.

My reaction to the innocent actions of my dogs provided an uncomfortable mirror to my angry reactions to my children. At times I seemed to find it easier to see my dogs as innocent, as simply meeting their needs, than to see my children as innocent, as simply meeting their needs.

Dampen the Anger: Ditch Assumptions, Believe in Innocence, and Repair the Relationship.

My story may be achingly familiar to you. Here are some ideas and further reading, that may help you dampen the anger, then repair the relationship, when you’re taking things personally.

  • Become aware. Ask yourself “Am I taking this personally? Am I making assumptions about the reasons for my children’s behaviour?"
  • Breathe.
  • Try and identify the emotion you felt before the anger. Say the feeling out loud. “I am feeling frustrated/annoyed/powerless!
  • Put your feelings into a three-part ‘I-Message’: “when . . .(describe child’s behaviour) I feel . . .(a feeling word) because . . . (describe how you have been affected) “.
  • Recognise that you are responsible for your own feelings and reactions – your anger is not the fault of your child. This will help you stop blaming, and then reduce the anger.
  • Try to see your children differently. See your children as innocent, competent, trustworthy.
  • Look behind your children’s behaviour to find their need.
  • Understand yourself. What are your assumptions, expectations, values, beliefs? Why do you have them?
  • When you’re ready, repair the relationship with your child. Acknowledge your unhappiness with your reaction towards your child, using honest I-Messages. Listen to their response. Be prepared to hear that they may have been scared of you. Apologise to your child. This will send a powerful message of respect and regard, providing an example for your children to follow.
  • Perhaps seek outside help – a counsellor, a psychologist, a parent helpline.
  • Attend a peaceful, gentle parenting course such as P.E.T., that can practically help you with your communication skills and approach, and ‘find your village’.
  • Share the parenting journey with like-minded, non-judgemental parents. Be kind to your children.

And last, but by no means least:

  • Be kind to yourself.


* ‘Feelings Iceberg’ was a concept conceived by Thomas Gordon, the author of the parenting course, Parent Effectiveness Training, P.E.T.).


Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon

Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell

When Your Children Press Your Buttons, by Bonnie Harris

Three Ways Our Assumptions Affect Our Relationship with our Children.

How to Handle Your Anger At Your Child Aha Parenting.com

First published 16 May 2016 by Larissa Dann

© Larissa Dann. 2016.  All rights reserved

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