I used to jump into the middle of issues with my kids, reacting impulsively before I even thought about how best to proceed!
For me, that might have looked like:
Over the years, practicing mindfulness and taking care of my emotions has changed me. The reactive habits are still with me, but they aren't as strong. I appreciate this shift, and at the same time it makes me realize how uncomfortable it is not to know what to do. Because I often don't know what to do.
I do know that it helps me to sit and feel my feelings, but it's still not easy for me to do it. I usually avoid them first. I get busy with work, run mostly errands, spend time on Facebook, eat, think about how I wish things were. Sometimes I even clean, go for a walk, or balance my checkbook.
Eventually I realize that I have to direct my attention inward and sit with my feelings. Because knowing how I feel isn't the same as feeling it! Once I turn inward, feeling the discomfort of not knowing, my irritation or worry about my child, or my helplessness about something going on in the world, then I start to create inner space. I notice how my body feels, to feel my emotions, to watch my thoughts. I breathe into the feelings, allowing them to be here.
Sometimes there's a dramatic shift--I relax or cry or soften. Other times it feels like nothing much happens. But doing this creates the space for my wisdom to show up.
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.
I started my journey as a mom with so much to learn, so much opening to do. It's exhausting and hard and even painful to be a mom, and it's also truly beautiful.
I'm feeling, as my children grow up, that they're leaving my heart completely transformed by this experience.
I know that I have changed deeply over these years, and I am grateful to celebrate another Mother's Day. I hope for myself, and wish for you, that this Mother's Day helps us to realize how strong and big our own hearts are. May we look at ourselves with kindness, generosity, and honestly. May we keep showing up for the hard times, allowing them to crack our hearts open, again and again. May we be guided by love, not fear. May we be brave enough to keep learning and growing and speaking our truth. And may we have a wonderful day, whether it's a Hallmark card kind of Mother's Day or a messy, imperfect one.
True connection and intimacy are essential for human beings. They develop when we slow down and listen deeply to each other.
This week's posts have clustered around the issue of dealing with our kids when they're emotional. Today, we're considering some 'don'ts' because that can help make all of the 'do's' clearer.
Don't teach, explain and help. Maybe you've heard or said things like these:
Don't hurry them:
Don't shut them out:
"Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn't want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through."
This quote from Parker Palmer's column, The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice published by On Being is really speaking about adult relationships, but it's not hard to see how it applies to parenting. When our kids are suffering, they don't want advice. They don't need us to fix or save them. They simply need to be seen and 'companioned.' It hurts to watch other people suffer and struggle and feel, but by doing it we provide a genuine, generous service.
When we are sit with an angry, scared, or sad child without reacting, just allowing them to feel what they feel, they can work through those feelings. This process is kind of like compost, though, it can be messy, unpleasant and time-consuming. Just as food scraps compost into rich, fertile soil, difficult emotions transform into presence. When a child moves fully through their feelings, something changes. They may just run off and play. They may fall asleep or find a quiet place to be by themselves. They may have a good cry in our arms (or out of our arms). Something in them is transformed.
To do this for a child:
Following the same thread as my other posts this week (Be A Lighthouse and Understanding Our Own Emotions), I humbly offer this next step. I'm breaking it down step by step because emotional changes are complicated and things seem to come up incrementally.
Emotions are just feelings happening, there's no need to confuse them with actions, events, and choices in the past or future. Even when your emotional child is ranting about something ('I hate you guys, you never get me anything! Everybody else in the world has a phone. I know you hate me or you would let me get one!" for example), what they are really sharing is a window into how they are feeling. Don't get engaged with the thoughts spinning our from their emotional experience, stay with their emotions. See if you can 'hear' their feelings.
That's a kind of radical suggestion. Don't get caught up in what they're saying (obviously, listen deeply and pay attention, and if there are concerning things consider how to handle them, but don't interrupt the emotional sharing to investigate them). Listen to the feelings, even when they are not talking about them directly. Listen to the feelings, even when they make you uncomfortable. Listen without redirecting, problem-solving, explaining, teaching, or convincing.
If your child says something like, "Nobody ever sits with me at lunch because everyone thinks I'm stupid and even when I sit with people they just walk away and I hate my whole life . . " imagine listening without any judgment or agenda. Maybe you would just nod. Maybe you would say something little, "Oh wow," without breaking their flow. Maybe they're open to more, so you say, "Honey, that sounds really hard. I hear how sad you feel." They may correct, saying "I'm not sad, I'm angry. I hate them all." Just follow them.
Here's the important thing--stay away from logic! An emotional person does not need logic, they need presence. Forget what you've learned about emotional support and try gentle and affirmative listening without fixing. See how it goes. Be patient, it can take longer than you might think, especially with a child who isn't used to it. They may have a lot of feelings to express.
Let me know how it goes!
Yesterday's post 'Be a Lighthouse,' was about the importance of staying clear and calm when our kids are emotional. Today's follows up on that by making sense of emotions and offering some suggestions about how to work with our emotions.
An emotion is just an emotion--until we react to it. A feeling is not good or bad, and it isn't a choice or an action.
Emotions are grounded in the physical body and begin as a physiological response to a need that is met or unmet. We can feel that as sensation. That sensation is like a physical call to action that moves us to take care of the unmet need. This has served a good purpose evolutionarily. It helps a person who is being chased by a wild animal because it releases lots of energy to help them run.
It's less useful in our modern lives. If you are trying to get your child to school on time, you may feel stressed, frustrated, even angry in response to their dawdling. The adrenaline and cortisol released trigger a flood of physical energy which is unlikely to help you get your child out the door in a calm and reasonable way. Without a natural outlet (like running), your emotions may find expression through yelling or they may be stored up as stress.
So what do we do? Begin by recognizing the physical experience of emotions within yourself. What does it feel like when you're angry, worried, scared? If you know that fear or worry feels like tingling in the shoulder blades, for instance (as it does for me), you can learn to use that sensation as a reminder to be present rather than react.
When you recognize the sensations in yourself, establish a new habit of staying with the feelings rather than acting them out. You can give the physical energy a useful outlet by waving your arms hard for a minute, doing some push ups, or even washing dishes. Consider a physical outlet that you could try when you're flooded with energy.
You can also try a calming practice like deep breathing. As you breathe in, feel the inbreath. As you breathe out, feel the outbreath. Consider breathing in to the count of 4, holding your breath for 4, exhaling for 8, and holding the breath out for 4 several times. Or just make your exhales at least twice as long as your inhales.
These practices can help you to work with your emotions and sensations in healthy and constructive ways so that you can respond to parenting situations by staying calm, clear, and present for your child.
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.