I always dreamt of having a child - I wanted to love someone in the way that I was never loved. I now have my beloved daughter. She is three and a half and beautiful, but she makes me so angry and I can't cope. I know that having a child is demanding, but she makes me despair. I don't hit her but I can feel the build-up of resentment towards her, even though I know this isn't really about her. My parents hit me and I resent them for it - I could never do that to my child. However, I am frightened by the wave of anger that comes over me when I know that she is probably just behaving as a child.
Catherine

It isn't just our behavioural responses to our child that affect their behaviour but the emotional content of those responses. These emotions are known as projections - feelings from within us that are linked to our own pasts and histories and that we then project on to our child. In effect, we emotionally dump on our children while all they are doing is responding as a child who is developing and learning the rules of the game of life.

I wonder whether, through your analysis of your relationship with your parents, you are left with an understanding of your own history that has left you feeling uncomfortable? These are the feelings that to some degree you have been projecting on to your child. Except that you are taking responsibility for that, so your daughter can carry on being a child. I congratulate you for doing this - it is tough, but is also an essential part of parenting - not using your child as your emotional outlet. You are tolerating the difficult feelings like an adult and not making them your child's problem.

When you find yourself in a situation with your child where you acknowledge that their behaviour is stirring up such intense emotions in you, try to step back and begin to question your behaviour. In doing that, you will start to build an awareness of how your own emotional issues are being keyed into by your child - many people would say that their child “knows which buttons to press”. These buttons are our insecurities and emotional vulnerabilities, but is it fair to blame a child for pushing them? Do we honestly believe that they are scheming in their little mind to get what they want by profoundly upsetting us? No, they have learnt because we have taught them that certain behaviours give us the greatest problems and in those situations we are likely to give them the most attention.

It's a mismatch of behaviour and interpretation of behaviour. And the projection comes from your own belief systems about yourself as an adult. If you believe you are a failure, or not good enough, or even worthless, you label yourself in a negative way. The moment your child does something wrong, or something that embarrasses you, or keys into that sense of “I'm a failure” or “I'm out of control” or “I am a terrible parent”, then you will go into meltdown. It becomes about you, when actually children are supposed to make mistakes. If your child's mistake compounds your negative beliefs about yourself, which are in turn linked to your own childhood or difficulties in your life and relationships, then your child is going to find themselves in the path of a huge response that is completely mismatched to their behaviour.

It's important for us as adults to accept that we can at times project our own inner feelings outwards, and a very good receptacle for those feelings can be children. It is easy to fall into the trap of pushing our anger, sadness, pain, frustrations and stress on to them and make them responsible for it, rather than taking responsibility for these feelings ourselves and understanding what they are really about. You have this insight already and you are stopping yourself hitting your child - this makes you a good parent.

My advice is to monitor these situations (keep a diary) and work out the specific triggers that set you off.Then, when you see situations about to occur, employ a range of creative distraction techniques when possible. When this is not possible, ignore the difficult behaviour and distract yourself (count backwards from 100 in threes; sing a song).

In the most difficult situations, use the “time out” method, whereby your child is separated from you for three minutes (one minute for each year of life in a safe place such as a bedroom). This allows them to learn that the behaviour will not be tolerated, gives you time to calm down and reduces the chance of hitting. Once you have managed the behaviour, do not bear grudges; move on with the day and praise them for every wonderful thing they do.

Finally, find support about your own history, either through talking about your feelings with those you trust and are close to or by having psychotherapy.

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