Facing Our Fears and Anger: The myth of self-control versus self-acceptance

Teaching a Child “Self-Control”

When we were children we likely learned from the adults around us that showing “strong” or “big” emotions like anger, sadness, even unbounded joy, is uncomfortable to others.

Then when we become adults, we are told that it is our responsibility to teach children “self-control.” And don’t forget that the tools we should use to teach children “self-control” include using power and control over children.

In the name of “teaching” children self-control, adults will threaten children when they express emotions that adults deem undesirable. “If you don’t stop crying or throwing a temper tantrum, we are going to have to leave.”

Sometimes adults will demean a child’s emotions or minimize them in order to get a child to stop expressing those emotions. “That’s enough, it’s time to stop crying. It’s no big deal.”

Children don’t learn self-control when they are threatened by adults with withdrawal of love and approval or threatened with punishment.

In spite of mainstream parenting advice that advocates teaching children self-control through timeouts or other externally imposed consequences, this is not self control. It is externally imposed control.

When adults use their power over children to force them to control their “negative” emotions, this isn’t about the “self,” it is about the other.

Adults use power and control over children when children express emotions that make adults uncomfortable. This kind of control is about the adult, not the child. It is about making others more comfortable around children who are doing their best with the emotions they feel.

When a child is angry or sad and we force or manipulate the child to impose some kind of control on that emotion as a way to “teach” self-control, all we teach is that emotions should be avoided.

We teach that emotions are bad.

We teach them that people don’t want to see their true emotions.

We teach them to not only hide their emotions from others, but to hide them from themselves.

We don’t show children how to embrace those emotions as a way of understanding themselves.

Mostly we don’t do this because, as adults, we don’t know how to do this with our own emotions.

All we do is continue to reinforce the notion that only control and force works on those emotions, because that is what we learned: control and force.

The Impact into Adulthood

This kind of “self-control” continues to impact us as we grow into adults.

In coaching parents who are trying to create and sustain relationships with children based on trust and respect, a common theme I hear is how they struggle when they’ve “lost it.”

When their fear, anger, and frustration spill over and they take it out on the children in their lives, they punish themselves, just as they were punished as children.

The reaction is to then use force and control internally. To hold the anger and frustration down because of the fear of letting it out and hurting others.

When we are children and the adults around us were uncomfortable with our emotions we learned to be uncomfortable with them.

When the adults around us didn’t have the ability to express their anger in ways that weren’t harmful to others, we learned to be afraid of that anger, for fear that it might hurt others.

I know for me there have ever been times in my life when I felt my anger was all consuming. I worked for many years to push the anger below the surface and hold it there.

I used force and control to hold the anger below the surface.

And it only worked temporarily.

This kind of self-control in the end was more harmful to dealing with my emotions. But, that’s what I was taught as a child. And it’s what many of us learned as children.

Finding Freedom and Facing Fear

As a parent, I wanted Martel and Greyson to be able to express their emotions freely.

I didn’t want to recreate for them this belief that some emotions are bad and some are good; some are to be avoided and some are to be embraced.

In that process, I had to be willing to face my fears about my own anger.

In many ways, learning to unconditionally accept the emotions of Martel and Greyson has been freeing for me as well.

But with the freedom has come a lot of fear.

Fear of unleashing my anger and frustration from a life lived according to others’ and society’s rules.

Fear that my anger would hurt those around me.

Fear that others would find me unlovable.

Perhaps that is some of the fear you feel.

Unconditional acceptance and love for the children in your lives would mean little if you are unable to apply that to yourself.

As I uncovered my feelings and fears one by one, I slowly learned (and I’m still learning) to accept them as part of who I am.

The Paradox of Embracing Fear and Anger

In some ways, that is the paradox.

We need to embrace and accept our anger and fear, in order to lessen its hold on us.

At times, this acceptance process seems so slow.

We want to be able to say, yes, it is okay for me to feel angry or hurt or upset.

Yes, my feelings are legitimate.

And yet it goes back and forth: acceptance – control – acceptance – control.

We want to be at the end of the journey and be in a place of acceptance, and yet, it is through the journey that we are learning what it means to be who we really are as human beings.

Our journey as parents is one that can lead us to healing our past hurts as a way to create a different life for the children who share our lives.

If we can begin the process of opening ourselves up to understanding the way the past impacts us, we can learn to move through it. As we move through it, the power it once had over us dissipates.

Each day that I learn how to accept my anger, it’s power over me lessens.

Each day that I learn to express my anger in ways that honor who I am and in ways that honor those around me, the less fear I have of it.

Honoring Our Anger?

When I able express my anger or frustration with clarity, I recognize that those emotions are my own and don’t belong to anyone else but me. In that process, I am honoring who I am.

When I can express my anger without blaming someone else, I honor that person.

And when I trust someone enough to let them into my inner world of feelings, I honor our relationship.

We can do this with the children who share our lives.

Even though commonly held beliefs about adult-child relationships are that they are a one-way street, we can share our emotions with children.

Not in a way that makes them responsible for our emotions. We don’t do it with shame, guilt, or blame. We don’t do it to make them carry our burden.

But we do it as human beings who love and care for one another. We do it in a desire to connect. We do it in such a way that children see adults who have learned to embrace their full selves and who are accountable when they hurt others.

We demonstrate in our actions that being human means we are not perfect all the time.

We demonstrate that we also feel the ups and downs of life.

And we demonstrate that we have the ability to weather the challenges we might face.

In fully accepting the wide range of emotions we have, in learning to express those emotions in healthy ways, we do so much more than teach a child “self-control.”

We show children what healthy self-acceptance and love really feels like.

We honor them and we honor ourselves in the process.

The truth is that we ALL need help on our journey self-acceptance as a gateway to improving relationships with children. But the power of being a parent is that your relationships with your children give you amazing opportunities for growth and healing. One of my gifts is the ability offer unconditionality in my consulting while helping you to move through your stuff! As one parent has said,”Teresa is an amazing woman who is gentle and skilled at helping you to draw out “stuff” you may not even know is lurking there!” Learn more about parent consulting and coaching.