When I was little I had a beautiful Raggedy Ann doll with three faces- one side happy, the other two sad and angry. My older sister gave it to me. Ten years my senior she realized how difficult it was to be heard, let alone seen, in a family filled with five siblings. This was a quick and simple way for me to represent how I was feeling. Walk into my room and you immediately were forewarned- happy and ready to interact, sad and already withdrawn or angry and ready to rumble. I cherished that gift and mourned its loss when constant use and breaking seams became too much to fix.
As a single parent to a little girl shocked and overwhelmed by life altering changes outside her control I often thought of that doll. Immediately after separating from her father I sought help. Both of us were struggling with incredible emotions we needed to understand and process. One day I was asked to come up with synonyms to the word happy, in sixty seconds. I was shocked at how thinking of even a few alternatives became difficult: glad, upbeat… elated. . .excited. . .
If I couldn’t express myself, How could I expect my 3 year old to do any better?
Kicking, biting and screaming were not options. I was desperate to help her verbalize what she felt instead of acting out the emotions physically. I thought about that doll.
That’s when we drew faces on circular pieces of paper and stuck them to popsicle sticks – a happy face, a sad face, an angry face. Expressions that represented most of our responses to daily interactions and occurrences. She then showed that face to the world. Like most of us it changed throughout the day.
It may have been scared of the unknown in the morning, happy when I returned home at night, to quickly turn sad when it was time for bed. She used them to help convey her needs and issues when she could not.
But the catch- she had to explain why she chose that face. Showing the face was a great start but having to explain where it came from and sharing the reasons behind it was always the key. At such a young age I often had to help her find the word that best represented the look I though I saw on her face.
“You look sad, are you?”
“You appear excited.”
“You seem angry.”
All to better define and pinpoint what was percolating within. As time went on she’d often look away for a minute while putting her hands on her cheeks and think. . .One day responding, “No, I’m more frustrated, Mommy.”
Anger required an appropriate way to release pent up rage. It’s a natural and normal emotion often ignored or diminished, but all too often simmering just under the surface. Especially with those issues or people beyond our control. How do you get rid of anger against someone you can’t talk to? Someone who doesn’t care what you’re feeling? Or concerns that you can’t change, yet impact your life? As an adult it’s impossible at times to cope, how can we expect our children to fare better?
After a particularly tough day of hitting, kicking, biting and tantrums, I was at the end of my rope. That’s when it hit me. I copied a photo of her face and taped it to a old punching bag. Hitting an inanimate object wasn’t getting the job done so I ripped a photo of her face into pieces with every punch. She was horrified, crying, “You’re hitting me!” That’s when I made it clear, I wasn’t hitting her, I was hitting a picture of her. With each punch I explained the reasons for my emotions. “It’s O.K. to be angry. I love you but I don’t like when you hit or hurt me.”
That’s when she demanded my picture be placed on the bag as well.
The physical attacks stopped. For years we kept a stack of pictures available at a moments notice.
Sometimes we get so angry we want to lash out at anyone or anything, but that’s never acceptable. Hitting a photo on the other hand, can be cathartic, especially if you yell out why you are angry as each hit lands. How many of us could use those dolls, faces or punching bags today?
We all walk around with masks covering our true inner feelings, especially now. In a time filled with such anguish, unknown and heartache we could all use a way to get through the turmoil unscathed. In their stead, maybe a grabbing an old pillow to hit or drawing a face that betters shows what we are feeling when we just can’t speak the words could help to get the conversation started.