Blackberries are ripening in Indiana. The warm, rainy summer has left our crop of berries abundant. Behind our barn on the east side of our property the blackberry bushes grow wild, twisting and climbing, weaving their way over old tree stumps and hiding the fresh fruit behind tall weeds. I love to grab a large bowl from the kitchen and make my way behind the barn to pick the dark purple berries. I reach gingerly past the thorns delicately pulling the berries free from the vine. By the time I’m finished, the bowl is full, and I head to the kitchen to make dessert. My hands are stained purple and tiny scratches cover my arms, webbed reminders of the delicate and painful work of harvesting this sweet treat.
Raising children can be much like harvesting blackberries. Delicate, careful, painful and sweet. Throughout my years as a parent of 8, I have had the full mix of experiences while raising children. Sometimes our children’s behavior is a prickly. A cranky toddler, rubbing their eyes, gulping sobs of over-exhaustion; A pre-schooler, screaming and throwing the untied shoe in frustration, convinced that they will never be able to tie it without help. The pre-teen switch from holding our hand to pretending they don’t know us. The teenager’s arguing, pushing parents to the brink of exhaustion.
The prickliness points to something deeper though. Just as the blackberry vine produces sharp thorns to protect its delicate fruit, our children develop prickly traits to let us know of something deeper. The toddler needs us to gently place him or her down for a nap. The preschooler needs us to guide with patience and a warm smile of encouragement. The pre-teen needs us to stand a few feet farther away when friends are around, not too far but just far enough for them to unfurl their own wings. The teenager needs us to listen to the argument for further understanding, the need us to guide and make space for them to climb ever further toward the sun.
Children who have experienced trauma may have prickly behavior that protects them from further hurt.
- A child who pushes caregivers away, may have experienced the loss of multiple caregivers in the past. She is afraid to let you get close for fear that you will leave her too.
- The child who steals from your purse may not believe that you will provide for him. He slips one dollar bills and half chewed packs of gum in his pocket without even thinking.
- The child who stiffens when you lean in to hug her may have been touched inappropriately by an adult who was supposed to care for her.
- A child who defies your boundaries, may be fighting for independence because he has never been able to trust anyone but himself.
When we see the thorns of our child’s behavior for what they truly are- protection, it is a lot easier not to take the behavior personally. We can delicately reach past the thorns and embrace the heart of the child that is fighting to survive.
As your child grows, here are a few things we can do to support them through the prickly parts of growing up:
- Try again – when a child pushes you away, be patient. Wait a bit and try again. It is important that children know that they are worth pursuing.
- Talk – Keep conversation open, children don’t always know why they are doing the things they are doing, they need your support to understand themselves better. Start by saying something like, “I know you took money from my purse, I also know that when you were little there wasn’t enough to eat. You never have to steal from me, I will always share what I have with you.
- Guide – You can re-frame the behavior for your child. Set a boundary around dangerous or destructive behavior but then point your child toward behavior that is helpful safe and constructive.
Have you seen prickly behavior from your child lately? Did you misunderstand it? How are you recognizing it for what it is now?