Children are a mirror, they reflect back what they see, not what you wish they would see. Thus if you show a child violence, it will reflect violence back on those around it. Perhaps not immediately, but in time certainly. All forms of abuse; be it neglect, sexual, emotional or physical, embed themselves so deeply in a child’s psyche that in many cases they can never be uncoupled. New research shows that children subjected to severe neglect before the age of two have abnormally shrunken brains, up to a third smaller than their luckier counterparts. Significant sections show up entirely black on scans, meaning they are empty. Voids where love and care and kindness should have been poured in unconditionally and which heartbreakingly can never later be filled. A tragedy visited upon the innocent by the malignant, truly a thought to make loving parent weep, but also something from which we can all learn.
Even a well meaning parent reveals their ugly and damaging traits without intending to do so, and the child sees and absorbs it all. Think you are hiding your bad self image from your little one? Think again. Negative comments and actions filter down to your child like water through layers of rock and soil, leading them to wonder ‘If mummy thinks she is fat and ugly, maybe I am too. If mummy doesn’t love herself, then maybe I am not worth loving either.’ Or try this one for size ‘Daddy shouts very loudly at his phone sometimes. He says bad things and he hits the wall. Will he hit me if I do something wrong?’ Scary isn’t it? The power and responsibility we wield as parents is both awesome and terrifying, and it is part of what makes parenting the most demanding job ever.
As Felix zooms towards two I am more conscious than ever that I can no longer talk or act in ways that may affect him negatively. This has been complicated by the fact that in the last couple of weeks he has started to have full blown tantrums. Always an independent and opinionated baby, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Felix has started to make hisfeelings known sooner rather than later, but nevertheless the first took me entirely off guard. I assumed it was nothing more than a normal complaint, but as he grew red with rage and wrestled himself from my grip, sinking to the floor like a popped balloon whilst uttering blood curdling shrieks I realised this was something more complex. The issue at hand was the choice of shoe; it being a warm day I had picked up the sandals. Normally he likes them but on this occasion the thought of these going on his feet was tantamount to torture. As he sat on the floor of the hallway, shaking his head frantically no no no and weeping fat tears of woe, I backtracked mentally. Did it really matter what shoes he wore? Yes, his feet may get hot in trainers but as we were only heading to the local playpark any discomfort would hardly be life-threatening. ‘What shoes do you want to wear then?’ I asked him, and instantly he got up and went over to his wardrobe, pulling out his high top trainers. Whatever, I thought, pulling them on, but wondering what I would do in other situations. The choice of shoe is one thing, but food, sleep and behaviour are another entirely…
True to form, a day or so later while daddy bear was away he pulled an epic tantrum over dinner. One minute we were sat at the table, a bowl of his favourite pasta before him, the next he was thrashing in the chair like someone being electrocuted. I looked on in disbelief as he tugged at the straps; face contorted with anger, body arched away from the table and the bowl as it were poison. ‘Felix’ I cajoled, thinking back to the months previous when he had refused to eat, ‘You love this pasta’. Shake shake shake went his head, tears rolling down his swollen cheeks, his face a picture of desolation. His water beaker was sent flying, the bowl almost flung over the room in his efforts to get it away from him. Suddenly I lost my cool. ‘Eat the bloody food’ I snarled, heart pounding, the sour taste of anger in my mouth. I was tired, I was alone with him, and all I wanted was for him to eat his dinner and go to bed so I could relax. My mind whirled. Still he contorted and flailed and screamed blue murder and I felt my frustration spill over into rage. Leaving him strapped safely in the chair I left the room and stood shaking in the hallway, scene of his earlier meltdown, wanting for all the world to pick him up and shake him till he stopped screaming. His howls increased in volume and urgency as I tried to get ahold of myself, and just as quickly as it had come my rage burst and love flowed back into my heart. ‘What was I doing? He needed me. I could handle this’.
I went back in and scooped him out of the chair, his body at first tense with wrath then suddenly limp as his tears soaked my shoulder. ‘Mama’ he said through wracking sobs and then I too was crying, feeling all my anger drain away like a tide, replaced with the desire to care for him. This tiny person who had suddenly realised there were choices to be made, who had glimpsed his own power and was quite naturally exercising it. Who perhaps was not hungry, or did not fancy pasta, or who had a sore throat or a bad tummy and could not explain. Deciding we both needed a change of scene I took his high chair out into the garden where he sat and ate the whole thing calmly, even following up with desert. After he was safely in bed I pondered how close I had come to lashing out at him, to showing him the wrong side of the mirror. I’m not saying that children have to be treated with kid gloves - far from it - but watching me lose control just as he has lost control, when he has none of the tools to fix the situation, is to put him in a place he does not belong. It is my role to be the bringer of calm, to show him how to come safely out of the shadows and into the light. I am his mother and I must always rise above and set an example that he can follow. I have to reflect back love when he shows hate, kindness when he shows anger, patience when he shows confusion. I promise never to put him in the drivers seat, for who wants to be in a car controlled by a toddler? Bring on the tantrums and the tears, mummy is ready and willing.