From Rage to Peace – How Parent Coaching Helped Heal

Posted: February 7, 2019

In July, 2009, Kristin Benning was at the end of her rope.  Since 18 months of age, her very intelligent 5-year-old son Julian had been aggressively hitting and kicking people, and throwing things during frequent explosive tantrums.  Kristin had since given birth to daughter Erin, and was now very concerned that her 8-month-old was at risk of serious injury from her brother.  In my mind, there’s nothing more agonizing than watching your beloved first-born son seriously hurt the vulnerable little daughter you also love with all your heart.  On school days, Julian fought getting dressed so intensely that it took two adults to get his clothes on.  Their pediatrician recommended that Julian have an evaluation by a psychologist.   

When Kristin, her husband Tony, and I met for our first coaching appointment, I listened intently to their story, and considered numerous ways we could approach Julian’s behavior improvements.  First, we needed to rule out hereditary issues.  Was either Kristin or Tony an intense child?  Not particularly.  Then we needed to consider allergies, which can be the cause of aggressive behavior.  Julian was allergic to milk.  We then needed to consider sensory integration issues.  Julian is sensitive to sounds, showing this by asking, “Will it be noisy?” whenever his parents planned a family-oriented event. He also showed tactile sensitivity by refusing to wear tight shirts and socks.

“I wanna hit Erin!  I wanna kick the dog!”  These were the comments from Kristin’s normally angelic-looking son.  She described how his eyes changed as a cloud of fury crossed over his face when things were about to erupt, which scared her.  The dog was afraid of him, too, and would hide whenever Julian entered the room.   Kristin also reported that Julian refused to eat, and that the kitchen table was a battleground.  Kristin worried that his behavior would worsen when his blood sugar got so low, a valid concern.

He was also “off” daddy, causing Tony to feel disconnected from his son and powerless to help his wife deal with Julian.  To add to Tony and Kristin’s pain was the fact that Julian never acted out in preschool. The teachers reported that he was “wonderful to others.”  Was this something she was causing by not knowing how to parent her child?  Why did it only happen at home with Erin, Kristin and Tony?  Kristin and Tony described Julian as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” when recounting that he hurled candles, magazines, and even a knife when his rageful moods struck.  Were they teaching him this behavior, and what horrible thoughts could people be thinking about them as parents?

After hearing the whole story, I made some recommendations for dealing with allergies, sensory integration disorder, and effective behavior interventions. We’ll deal with the last one here.  I encouraged Kristin to ask questions whenever she needed Julian to do something at home, to use his great brain as a resource, and engage him in the way she’s thinking. She should ask, “What would help you to feel better when I drop you off at school?”  Julian had very good ideas. He wanted to cuddle with his mom by the door on a specific bench.  Being that Kristin had ceased to see this as “giving in” to Julian, she willingly did as he suggested.  She was on the road to building a bridge to her son, rather than building a wall between them.

Fast forward to when Kristin and I met on the phone for our October 22 appointment.  She was filled with success stories about Julian!  She confessed, “I was mad at him for a year of my life. The last time we talked (three weeks prior) you didn’t say anything different, but something just clicked.”  Tony had even told her, “Kristin, you’ve done a 180, and it has changed our whole household.” The improvement in their relationship is palpable.   Now, he’s walking around the house saying, “I have love for daddy!” – a dramatic shift, one that Tony and Kristin both gratefully welcome.   Instead of hitting and kicking, he messes things up when upset.  Kristin can deal with that … at least no person or dog is getting hurt.  We both agreed that it’s a much better way of expressing his feelings. Seeing her opportunity, Kristin gave Julian heartfelt appreciation for expressing his feelings in a way that keeps everyone safe.

We also acknowledged that at 5, Julian has plenty of growing up time ahead to refine his actions when angry.  In parent coaching, we look for improvement, not perfection.  Kristin and Tony have backed off on insisting that Julian eat his dinner.  Following my advice, they simply put good food in front of him, enjoy their own food, and talk about their day, sharing their world with their son.  He’s eating MORE, which relieves his parents’ fears about low blood sugar and the tantrums that used to ensue.  The family plays board games after dinner now.  Kristin has taken the “clinical parent” perspective,” commenting, “It’s amazing to see what he needs to do with his body as he plays.”  She’s now observing and noting Julian’s needs, rather than judging, blaming and punishing him, or feeling guilty herself. The fights over getting dressed in the morning are gone.  And even the dog will now sit with Julian without fear.   “It used to be him and me against the world,” states Kristin.  “Now I feel so much better.” After four months, the behavior issues Tony and Kristin dealt with are largely past, and the family can look forward with peace.

For help with your intense child, email or call 651-453-0123.

Copyright © 2011 Tina Feigal

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I See You Letter

“I See You” Letter

Another tool for helping a child with a traumatized brain, or any child who is asking for attention by showing unwanted behavior, is an “I see you” letter. When something is put into writing, it weighs more. The child can read the message without having to hear the adult’s voice, which is more effective because adult voices have sometimes not proven trustworthy in the past. I encourage caregivers to write the letter in a notebook, so the child can write back, if she so chooses, and review the letter at any time. The re-reading can be very healing. When I’ve encouraged other adults to write this type of letter, they’ve told me that they’ve found it later, stashed in a drawer or other safe spot, but never thrown away, which speaks to its significance to the child.

               You can write a letter to a child of any age. If she is old enough to read, just leave it on her pillow. If not, write it out and read it slowly, then hand it to her.

               If the child is so hurt that listening to you read a letter is too much, try posting notes that say what you see in her all over her room. Use the components below to craft your letter or your notes.
               The components of the “I See You Letter” are:

  1. I see what you've been through (in details that are significant to her, maybe just the things you know she remembers). You may want to add, "And other things, too, that we haven't talked about." This could spark a response where she shares more.
  2. In light of your experiences, I realize that none of your recent behavior is your fault. You were just trying to express your pain.
  3. I'm sorry I blamed you when I just didn't realize that your behavior was your pain being expressed.
  4. Together we'll work on making it better, and here's how: ______

An example:

Dear Ana,

I just wanted to tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a kid who has had some very rough experiences. When you were younger, your adults did not do what they needed to do to keep you safe. No child should have this happen, as every child deserves and needs to be kept safe. Your mom left you with people who hurt you, and your dad left without saying why. That must hurt so much. I want you to know that this was never, ever your fault. You were an innocent child.

I see a kid who is sensitive and smart. I see a kid who is amazing at figuring out other people. I so appreciate hearing you express what you know long before others your age can do that. I see a kid with artistic ability, and one who cares deeply for our pets. When I watch you with younger children, I am so impressed with how tender you are.

I realize I have gotten angry with you and yelled when you were upset with me. I now get that you just felt threatened, and you did not mean to hurt my feelings or disrespect me. I’m sorry and I will try very hard not to yell in the future. If I make a mistake and yell (because we all make mistakes), I will apologize and have a do-over, because no one deserves to be yelled at.

If you feel like writing back to me in this notebook, that’s great. Feel very free to do so. If not, I’m fine with that, too. I’m just happy to be able to use this notebook to say what I want to tell you in writing.

I am so happy you are in my life. Thank you for all the gifts you give me, especially your smile.


Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa/Other caregiver

I encourage adults not to ever mention the letter, nor to expect him to say he read it and liked it. For a traumatized child, this may be too much vulnerability. But what often happens is that adults notice a softening in their child, a better attitude, more affection, more focus, and more cooperation. That’s the goal of writing: to see the child clearly, communicate it, allow the amygdala to register that the child is seen and therefore will survive, watch the result in a much more relaxed and relieved child and in an improved relationship. I often describe this process as being “like physics,” as predictable as proven science. It’s truly remarkable how dramatic the results are! And when you think about it, the seeing is the tool for calming the threat alarm. No wonder the child can now function so much more rationally. The more rational front brain is able to work!

I See You Letter