Mama Bear Brain

By: Julie Gamberg

I’ve worked with children for years, and have what I think of as a deep understanding of the fact that young children have developmental stages where they do things that adults can find quite annoying, or even – in our less wise moments –  “morally wrong” but that are totally appropriate for a stage that they are passing through. Thus I was prepared to deal with my daughter going through a hitting (biting/kicking/pushing/hair-pulling) stage. I have an arsenal of strategies for dealing with a toddler exhibiting aggressive behavior. What I was not prepared for – at all – was how to deal with my own child being hit, and kicked, and pushed. I was not prepared for what it would feel like when someone else’s sweet little angel, bundle of love, little light and pure being, grabbed a handful of my child’s hair and pulled for all they were worth, my daughter screaming in agony.

We often term the kind of rage that emerges when you feel your child is not safe, or is not being treated well, “mama bear” behavior. I feel so incredibly Mama Bear when my daughter is attacked by another child. When my daughter is aggressive, which is turning out to be so far very seldom, I am somehow able to stay in my Logical Brain. I can remember that she is acting out of very different motivations than an adult would be, and I don’t see her actions as sociopathic, or her hitting as an assault. When she is “attacked” however, I see it as I would an incident of adult violence. If I were hanging out with my friends and one of them grabbed the other one and hit her hard, it would terrify and infuriate me. My adrenaline would be pumping, and I would want to take swift and decisive action.  When I see my child hurt, I feel the exact same way. I want to grab the other kid and scream, “No!” I want to see them punished. My Logical Brain knows that punishments are not effective. My Logical Brain advocates against them. But my Mama Bear Brain wants to see the offender put in the corner with no supper, and I want him to have to spend the night there, thinking about how he hurt my poor baby and writing lines over and over about how he will never do it again.

And when I do get out of my Mama Bear Brain long enough to see the offending child as simply acting on complicated developmental impulses which need to be addressed with empathy, compassion, and with an attempt to meet that child’s core needs, I often come up against a whole different problem: Judgment Brain. When the hitting child’s parents do not do as I would do, I feel infuriated that the offender’s parents are not doing more to address offender’s behavior. At a recent hippie-ish music circle I go to, one toddler singled out my daughter for a series of hitting and pushing attacks. The toddler’s parent was fairly inattentive, raising my alarm, fury, and general annoyance bells. Then, the parent and her toddler sat down right next to us. The toddler hit the mom.  The mom slapped her child’s hand. Hard. “We don’t hit!” she said. Really?

I moved across the room and realized that I would have to be the one to monitor this toddler when she came near my daughter, as her mother’s response was a combination of inattention and reactive aggression. I stewed about all of the things I wanted to say. I realized that many of my feelings were a combination of how angry and defenseless I feel in these moments of physical aggression visited up on my child. Judgment Brain wants to correct, lecture, wax pedantic on parenting theory and practice. Mama Bear Brain wants to lash out. Logical Brain is usually out getting a latte and flipping through a gossip magazine. What are your strategies for dealing with moments when your child is pushed or hit?


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