Let the tiger out: Validating my daughter’s anger

Last night Lei and I happened upon Elahe Bos’ blog, Plant Love Grow. We were loving the artwork and the creative approaches to social emotional development when we stumbled on The tiger in my chest, a printable story about anger that includes calming exercises to avoid losing control. As we read it, I reflected that we can’t just keep the tiger caged up all the time. So I asked Lei about her anger, and what she wants to do about it.

Roaring tiger from The tiger in my chest, by Elahe Bos. This and more excellent printable social-emotional development tools area available at http://www.plantlovegrow.com

Like many gifted kids, Lei was highly explosive until well into her 9th year. In the toddler years, time-outs were a complete non-starter. We tried the Love and Logic thing of saying, “You can cry as much as you want in your room.” Uh … no. She would just get more and more upset until she threw up. So then we had a totally freaked out kid and vomit. We tried “time-ins” but they just went on and on, and usually ended with me or the hubby getting bitten (me) or kicked in the pills (him). Meltdowns happened many times a day, and we had to simply get through them without anyone getting hurt.

In Lei’s first grade year she became extremely aggressive, I think because of the socially isolated, uninteresting and punitive environment at school, and probably the stress of having a new baby in our family. It was a hard year in which I created a calendar reminder for Sunday afternoons: “Expect outburst.” At least once on a Sunday afternoon she attacked me while I was holding her brother.

Were Lei’s meltdowns all anger? Not necessarily. She craved sensory input but became overwhelmed, overpowering emotions surging through her, but she had little innate ability to calm herself. It was hard to be her – and hard to be her parent – for much of that time.

And don’t let me mislead you: Lei was not the only one getting angry. Her dad and I also struggled tremendously during those years. Scared, frustrated, wondering if we were to blame; it was a long, difficult time for all of us.

Last night after reading The tiger in my chest, Lei showed me her angry look: Her eyebrows drawn down, nose drawn up, her lips pursed tightly; she clenched her fists and raised them to her chin, then, exhaling through flared nostrils, lowered her fists to her belly. Yup. That’s my girl when she gets mad.

Considering that we’ve spent a lot of time trying to help her restrain herself when angry, and that girls are frequently discouraged from expressing anger, I thought I should ask her if she ever feels angry about what happened at her school last year.

She nodded. “They treated me like I was retarded because I’m deaf. They acted like I was below them, not good enough for them because of being different.” She raised her hands, palms out, “I don’t mean anything bad to people who are retarded, but the kids in my class treated me like dirt.”

“When I think about all the times I asked the girls if I could hang out with them at recess, and they just said, ‘We’re practicing,’ so I asked if I could practice with them, and they said, ‘We’re not really practicing, we’re playing a game.’ So then I asked, ‘Can I play with you?’ ‘No, we have enough already.’

“It was always that way,” she said. “Every day. Then by the end of the year I just gave up asking them.”

She continued, “I am really angry at my teacher for not doing anything when the boys would bully me.” I was relieved to hear this because frankly I was worried about Lei’s apparent devotion to a teacher who utterly failed to protect her.

“When the boys would do things to make me angry,” Lei said, “I would tell them, ‘I know all about bullying, and I’m not going to keep my mouth shut. I’m telling a grown-up!’

“But then my teacher would just get them together and say, ‘hey, let’s be nice to each other, okay? We’re one big family!’ And the kids would smile and charm her, then go right back to doing what they had been doing!”

Listening to this made me angry all over again about the complete lack of sense that this teacher demonstrated. But I calmed my own inner tiger and asked Lei if she would like to write a letter or an email to her teacher or go to the school to tell them how she feels.

Lei answered, “I just want to go over there and yell at them that I’m getting the hell out of there and they can’t do anything to me anymore! And they can’t punish me for cursing since I don’t go to school there anymore!”

But then her eyes softened and she said, “I do want to recognize the kids who were nicer to me, though. Patrick, Maddie and Lexie were at least a bit nicer to me. When Lexie would cry, I would comfort her. When I cried, she would comfort me. And Patrick and Maddie were pretty nice, even though they weren’t close friends, they didn’t treat me like I was a freak.”

She smiled, “Hey, I’m proud of being a freak! I love being an artist and being different. But most of those kids didn’t appreciate it.”

I gave her a hug and told her I’m proud of her for getting through that hard year. And that it’s perfectly fine to be angry about how she was treated, and about any injustice we see around us.

I have no way of measuring if or how much our talk helped Lei process and release some of that anger. I look forward to having similar talks again. I know how toxic it is to carry anger inside and let it turn inward, and I don’t want that for my girl. She is indeed sensitive and creative, and if nothing else I can let her know that what she feels is legitimate. And that’s easier, of course, now that her feelings aren’t totally overwhelming both of us.

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