Whether your children are young or old, they know that rough things have been going on in the world this week. Babies and tiny children don't need to understand what we're talking about to sense that something is wrong. They feel it in their bodies. Our tension, the heaviness or emotion in our voices, and changes in how we move or pay attention are easy for little guys to read and respond to.
School-age children know that something's going on even when we are careful not to talk about the Orlando mass shooting (or other shootings and shocking and violent events in the news) in front of them. Kids sense our feelings, reacting not to how we think we feel, but to how we actually feel. Consider if your child ever says "Why are you mad, Mommy," and you assure them you aren't mad, all the while wondering how they can tell. They sense it.
Tweens and teens are certainly hearing about these tragic events in school, from their friends, and/or on social media. Some may read, talk, argue, collect information and try to make sense of what's going on. Others may say nothing about it at home and avoid conversations, but may be thinking about it. Others may ask questions or express anxiety or other emotions.
So if your child (at any age) has been unsettled, fussy, restless, clingy, or irritable, they may be processing their feelings about this shooting. Be careful! Don't watch or discuss the news in front of your children (unless they are teens). If they're ready to talk about it, make sure you talk in developmentally-appropriate ways. Listen to their stories, concerns, and emotions if they bring them up, but don't add your own feelings to the burdens they already carry, talk to an adult instead. Help them have space to have their feelings, even when their feelings make you uncomfortable. Be extra gentle, remembering that they are affected even if they aren't talking about it. And be gentle with yourself, remembering that you may be heartbroken, angry, or scared, too.
“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
When our children lose themselves in emotions, it is our job to stay steady and clear and to remember who they really are. This will help them find a way back to themselves.
Emotions feel so strong that we forget, in the throes of them, that they will pass. An upset child may be so hijacked by their feelings that they say unkind words, yell, even throw things or hit. As parents, we can also get caught up in a big reaction to the emotions. We may say unkind words, yell, even issue ultimatums or punishments or hit.
We know this doesn't help, right? But it's hard to stay calm. This week, I want to offer a series of posts about how and why to stay steady.
We begin by remembering that we--and our kids--are not our emotions. When a child is upset and acting out, we stay very clear about the distinction between this beautiful child and the feeling they are having. We respond to them with compassion and love, knowing that it is hard to feel such big feelings. We help them to be safe, gently but firmly stopping them if they're hurting people or objects. We care for our own feelings so that we can stay calm for our child. We don't say much while they're in an emotional storm because we know they aren't able to listen. We wait for the storm to pass, keeping them safe, staying nearby if possible, and loving them.
These things are very important! We don't disconnect from them because they are having rough emotions. We don't add our own out-of-control feelings to theirs. We don't let ourselves get caught in fear or stories about the emotions ('Why does she act like this, there must be something wrong,' or 'He is such a brat.'). We are like a lighthouse, shining loving acceptance of our child's true self.
When the storm passes, we will work with them. More on that tomorrow. For now, see if you get a chance to watch your child have emotions without reacting.
Adolescents need both a solid connection with us (attachment) and space to separate from us and discover who they are. Although these appear to be contradictory needs they’re really connected. One of our cultural myths insists that we’re meant to be independent, but human development culminates with interdependence, not independence. We need healthy, safe, close relationships with people at every age.
During adolescence kids have a developmental need to shift from more dependence to a growing interdependence with us. Each adolescent moves through this in their own timing, and often with a ‘two steps forward and one step back’ kind of process rather than a simple linear one. What they really need from parents is a steady, accepting and loving presence that they can trust enough to push away from.
Kids become more peer focused sometime during adolescence. This does not mean that they don’t need us, but it may mean that they reject or criticize a lot about us--how we look/act/drive/talk/etc. They model on their peers more and more. These peer relationships are pretty conditional and kids have to adapt themselves to fit in. It’s only with securely attached relationships that they truly feel safe and free to be themselves. Teens bring the most difficult, dark aspects of themselves home to us because these parts can’t be expressed in the conditionally accepting world of peers or school. If we can send them the message during this time that they are absolutely accepted, even though they’re acting like brats some of the time, it goes a long way to helping them accept themselves.
Our parenting task at this stage is to see and affirm their true nature. When the things they do are not acceptable (which is bound to happen), we can differentiate between who they are and what they have done. We don't need to let their mistakes threaten our love or acceptance (even though they may trigger our old stuff and bring up a desire to send them away, walk away, tell them they better shape up, etc.).
Just as they become more impulsive and less cautious or eager to please, teens need to experience the right to make choices, make mistakes and be responsible for their mistakes. Our parenting is tricky, like threading a needle through our newly middle-aged eyes! Ideally we talk with them about the 'why' behind choices rather than emphasizing the 'should.' When they mess up, we trust that they are strong enough to experience the results of their mess up and fix it when possible (with support and guidance rather than a rescue). Sometimes we need to sit on our hands rather than fixing things that they can handle, sometimes we need to keep our mouths shut instead of lecturing.
We can remember this passage from Kahlil Gibran’s poem On Children:
"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you."
My life and work are guided by the these core understandings: that all beings (including me!) are capable of transformation and joy, that healthy parenting matters profoundly, and that simple practices can support each of us.