Knowing that I speak openly about the need to end spanking, people often ask me for advice on how respond to a parent who threatens or spanks their child in public. Their fear of course, is the offending parent will strike back with the classic response, “mind your own business” or “who the hell are you to tell me how to deal with my child!” And then later on, is the child the worse for it?
Alice Miller, author of “For Your Own Good,” talked about the importance of the witness in helping a child buffer the effects of abusive treatment. A witness sees and acknowledges the suffering of the child. I suspect in some cases, a witness who voices disapproval may cause a parent to feel shame, which may further provoke the parent to blame or attack the child at home. At the same time, the child does hear another point of view beyond the message of “I am bad. I do bad things and deserve to be hurt.” The child also hears, “it is not OK for me to be hit.” This is a very powerful message. Sometimes, witnessing may be the only thing we know to do. The role of being a witness for a child has often left me with a lingering feeling of powerlessness and dissatisfaction. Yes, I spoke up, but I still felt I was abandoning the child to his fate and was unsure if I had really helped the parent.
Awhile back, I tried something different.
I was at the airport with my granddaughter who was six at the time. She was getting ready to return home after a sweet summer visit. We were both pretty sad. We wandered into a gift shop looking for some kind of craft she could enjoy on the plane ride. As usual, I was overloaded with bags and suitcases and I accidentally knocked over a toy from the display. I’m not always the most graceful and my granddaughter started to giggle at my exaggerated “oops” face. A woman standing nearby let out a sigh of relief, “Oh god. At least it isn’t my son!” A young boy about my granddaughter’s age was launching through the isles flopping his legs and arms about nearly missing the candy trays and dental floss display. It was like his body was floating through space where there was none. His mother grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the store. Just watching those two gave me a pit in my stomach.
My granddaughter and I found our way to the waiting area after we purchased some greasy airport pizza. The worst. We ate a few pieces just in time for the intercom announcement, which was urging her to board. She waved me goodbye after our elaborate hug, handshake, love you more than the ocean is deep goodbye ritual. My heart ached with that deep sadness that comes from your children and grandchildren living too far away, followed by waves of love and gratitude. My husband and I decided to wait and watch the plane take off, a sweet and lost ritual in today’s airport experience where usually only passengers can linger at the gate.
It was then that I saw the mother and that rambunctious boy sitting on the floor, also watching my granddaughter’s plane. The mother was yelling at the boy, threatening to spank him “if you don’t knock that off!” Things were escalating and the mother rose up to grab hold of him. It always makes me cringe when I hear a parent threaten a child. My initial feeling is always an urge to retaliate against the parent. It enrages me. I took a deep breath and heard myself exhaling. Her son was becoming more and more upset, yelling back at her, and then it happened. He punched her and ran away. He did to her, what I felt like doing.
Maybe it was my grieving heart that opened me up to the suffering of this mother. Maybe it was because he hit her. But when I looked at her furious face, I could feel her exhaustion. I could feel her feelings of being defeated, overwhelmed, and completely alone. I walked over to her.
I just let all the judgment and anger go. I opened my heart to her and felt tears welling up inside of me. I gently rested my hand on her back and said, “Be kind to yourself, mommy. I can see you are doing the best that you can.”
I guess in that moment it didn’t occur to me that she might turn her fury on me. She slumped down and started to weep. She cried and cried and told me everything. Everything. How her son is autistic and he gets crazy, how her teenage daughter who is on the plane hates her because she didn’t do right by her when she was younger, and yet she did the best she could and didn’t know what to do, and how she is working full time and moving soon and needs more time with her son, and isn’t sure about how to make ends meet. She talked and she talked, sharing her worries and pain. I mostly listened, while rubbing her back and smoothing her ponytail, gently pulling the bangs from her eyes. I listened. As she talked, she softened. I listened, nodding, and understanding. Her son, who had been ramping up for a fight, started rocking himself moving a little closer over time. The mother didn’t seem to notice. She had so much she needed to tell me. As her tears subsided, her son crawled into her lap. She held him, kissed his forehead and started rocking herself with her son in her arms. “Thank you,” she said, as I stood up to go. I don’t remember what I said at that point. The whole day was so surreal. I know I didn’t change her life, and that her son would continue to struggle along with her. But somehow, the harshness of life seemed a little less so. There was this moment where this mother found relief and her son found comfort, and I felt compassion where I often mostly feel despair.
What we see in others is so often just the surface of their deep struggle and suffering. Parents who bully and aggress their children are parents who are out of control and who need those of us who can, to connect with them. Feeling into the world of another person and problem solving with them takes time. In neuroscience, it is called co-regulation. It sounds scientific, but it really is an art form. We all want our children to manage their emotions and relate to others with courtesy, warmth, and empathy. Children learn these skills by developing a capacity for self-regulation and this essentially happens through our connection with them. Deep connection is the art of co-regulation. Psychiatrist Alan Shore, MD explains how the development of self-regulation occurs within relationship with another brain. We essentially are our relationships. The beauty of co-regulation is when we are able to stay connected with another person who is distressed, feel into their world and create a sense of safety, we feel better. When I was able to connect to the mother at the airport, when I was able to listen and rub her back and understand – I felt better. I felt connected. Connected to her, to my family, to the little boy, to my granddaughter, to all the mothers and fathers that struggle and to myself as a mother and even to myself as that vulnerable child.
Robbyn Peters Bennett is a psychotherapist, educator, and child advocate who specializes in the treatment of mental health problems due to early abuse and neglect. She also helps parents whose children struggle with tantrums, anxiety, bullying, and ADHD using sand tray therapy, with a sensitivity to advancements in neuropsychology. She believes children do well when they can and that behavioral problems stem from unmet developmental needs and lagging skills. Her work with children supports the attachment between the child and parent, so that the child’s developmental needs can be met within the parent-child relationship. http://robbynpetersbennett.org