We sometimes get so frustrated with others that we simply explain their behavior with excuses like “that’s just how they are” or “she’s just selfish”. As if they are inherently bad people who purposely do bad things.
But people actually want to do good things, because when we do good things, we feel good about ourselves and are more appreciated by others. When we get frustrated with someone, that person isn’t being “bad” on purpose. Their behavior just seems bad to us because we don’t see the situation from their eyes.
I just read a story that so perfectly captures this that I had to share it with you here. The story is from The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by author Philippa Perry, and it’s a real story about the mom Sharon and her “naughty” 3-year-old daughter Aiofe. The story is first told from Sharon’s perspective, and then from her daughter Aiofe’s perspective:
From Sharon’s perspective:
“Tonight, I got stuck on a train for an hour coming from London so I did not get to nursery to pick up Aoife until 5.40, over half an hour late. When I got there she was fine, playing nicely with a little boy. But as soon as we left she began to be … I am just going to say it because this is what I’m thinking … so naughty.
She ran up and down the corridor screaming, ‘No, no, no!’ when I asked her to put on her coat. I felt completely out of control, like she was running rings around me. I was so embarrassed in front of the other parents. For the sake of trying to sound effective, I told her she would not get a pudding that night if she carried on … but of course it made no difference.
Nobody else’s child at nursery acts like this. Outside, Aiofe was just as bad. She would not get in the buggy or put on her hat. I had to go to the pharmacy’s, where she would not hold my hand then kept pulling things off the shelves. At the counter she started screaming and shouting. Trying to get her in the buggy, we ended up almost wrestling while she was screaming. I felt out of control and completely useless because my child was being naughty and I could not control her.
When I got to the corner of our road I realized, I’d left my shopping bag with the supper in it in the nursery porch. I ran back but it was all locked up. I felt despairing. I was so angry with Aoife, the angriest I have ever been with her because I was going to look even more stupid and like a crap parent at nursery.
When we got home and I saw my partner I burst into tears. I was literally standing with my back to Aoife, sobbing. That also made me feel terrible because who cries in front of their child? Why am I such a bad parent?”
From Aiofe’s perspective:
“Hi, Mum. I can not write yet and even my talking is on the limited side, but if I could explain myself, this is what I’d say:
It would really help if, instead of judging me as being ‘naughty’ and explaining me away that way, you tried instead to work out what is going on between us.
At the nursery, I had a feeling of uneasiness because it felt like you should have been there already and I should have been with you. Then, when you did come, I was playing a complicated game. You told me we were leaving right this minute and to put on my coat. I said, ‘No.’ Then you insisted and then I screamed and then you weren’t happy.
Let’s look at why I said ‘No.’ I have got into the habit of saying it when things go too fast for me and I want them to slow down. I’m not trying to be difficult or manipulative, it’s just an automatic reaction because I hate sudden changes that I’m not expecting. You were so distracted and rushed that I could not get a connection with you and that scared me, and when I get scared I get angry too. You are always thinking about what needs to happen in the future, but I live in the present and I need you to be in the present with me, otherwise I feel alone and get upset.
When you were late, I needed you to slow down and explain what had happened to make you late. Then I needed you to explain what was going to happen next so I could get my head round it. I have not yet learned how to be flexible so I need more time than you do when it comes to shifting gears. Putting on my coat AND stopping what I was in the middle of was just too much for me at once. I bet if you were in the middle of a complicated piece of work, which is what playing is for me, you would be frustrated if you were interrupted.
What I need when you want me to stop doing something, whatever it is, whether it’s playing or running about, is a warning. I need a specific warning for each thing: to stop playing, to put on my coat, to get in the pushchair. I need a space to take each thing in too. Tell me what the plan is when you know it and give me a chance to take it in and understand. I might need a 5-min warning before I need to stop playing, and to be told I might find it hard. Then a 3-min warning. Then a 1-min warning. One change I really hate is when I have to go from running about to getting in the pushchair. There is nowhere for my energy to go so it just bursts out of me in frustration.
When you tell me not to say ‘No’ or to stop running around and tell me what the consequence will be, it doesn’t help. That’s because I haven’t yet picked up the skill of looking ahead to the possible outcomes of how I behave. Those neural pathways will fire up in due course. At the moment, when you tell me off it makes me think you don’t understand, then I get more scared and angrier and have to say ‘No’ all the more. When I feel overwhelmed, I can’t be still and quiet.
What would help is if you could try to identify my difficulty and say it in a way that makes sense for me. For example, ‘You are feeling frustrated because you do not want to stop this fun game.’ By you putting my frustrations and fears into words, I will learn to use those words too. Then I will be able to communicate better and be less likely to lose control.
If you get cross, or tell me I’m being silly, I will just close down or scream. I know it’s hard for you when you’re stressed to relate with me rather than just getting me to do stuff. But when we have a to-and-fro exchange where I feel heard, loved and understood, then I feel calm and my feelings do not burst from me in the form of inconvenient behavior.
At the pharmacy’s, if you had told me what you were thinking and doing, I could have helped you. But because you just told me to be good, I copied you and got things off the shelves. Please include me in tasks, even though you think you have not got time. It takes a long time anyway because you spend that time admonishing me.
Even though you were crying, Daddy loved you and gave you a cuddle. How nice it was that he understood about forgetting the shopping. That’s what I need too. If we’d had a cuddle at nursery when I was upset because I had to stop playing I think we both could have managed better.
One day soon, Mum, I will be able to tolerate frustration, be flexible about plans, I will be able to put my feelings into words rather than behave inconveniently and I will also learn to take your feelings on board too, because I’ll learn that from you thinking about mine.
And do not worry about being good or bad at parenting. You are the best mummy in the world and the only one I ever, ever want.”
From Sharon’s perspective, Aiofe appears to behave badly for no reason. But Aiofe isn’t being “naughty” on purpose. She is just coming from a very different place than her grown-up mom, and what appears trivial to an adult might be significant to a 3-year-old.
The next time we feel compelled to judge someone, let’s remember Aiofe and Sharon. Instead of judging someone as “bad” and drifting apart, let’s seek to build our relationships by imagining the situation from the other side.