"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:
“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.
When things are not going well, when everything around us feels like it's falling apart, it is a good time to be strong and clear and loving. Don't fall into the darkness, be the light.
When my kids are sick, part of me starts to fall into it, beginning to feel sick, too. I need to remind myself that although I love them, I am a separate person. Their sickness is theirs, not mine. I return to my own body and am better able to care for them.
When my kids are angry, sad, or upset, I can feel pulled into that, too. Without noticing it, I can adopt their mood, or an opposite mood. I have to catch myself and return to my own center. I have to remind myself that it's okay for them to feel what they feel AND that I don't have to feel it with them.
Sometimes things just feel bad in my house, like everyone is off center. Or I'm with someone really sad. Or I'm in a group of people who are arguing or complaining. In each situation, I know how easy it is for me to collapse in to the emotional state around me, and how important it is to to stay clear. When I am grounded in my own self, I am available to be loving, supportive, and present with my children and other people.
Do you ever fall into your child's (or someone else's) experience? If so, try this:
Parenting is really hard sometimes. We're exhausted, frustrated, shocked, disappointed, etc. When things are hard, a big part of me wants to run away!
When your little one is sick and needs to be held for hours after you wanted to be in bed, there's no real 'away,' right? But maybe you get hooked by being angry at your spouse for not being more helpful. Or jealous of a friend whose child never gets sick. Or you lose yourself in imagining all the wonderful things you wish you had--a beach vacation, a cleaning service, a donut. Each of these is a kind of running away.
There are many forms the 'hard' can take. As a parent of teens now, those hard days are different than when it was about cleaning up messes, dealing with tantrums, handling fights. Or actually maybe it's the same, just different content!
Right now I'm trying a three step response to hard things.
First, always, feel it. It takes courage, to be vulnerable, tender, and present with the feeling. How am I feeling in my body and emotionally? Feeling means we stay with this a while, not running into mental stories (blaming, telling a story, working, reading), or physical distractions (shopping, a drink, chocolate), or emotional acting out (yelling, criticizing, falling apart). Sit and feel it.
Next, open to it, saying ‘yes’ to the experience. ‘Yes, I can be with this. I am willing to be here right now.’ However crazy it feels to be with it, it's less crazy than running away from what is really happening.
And then attune to love within yourself and consider, ‘What would love do in this moment?’ That will lead you where you need to be. Consider how love would take care of you, knowing that it isn't likely to be the same as your first impulse. Consider how love would respond to your child, knowing that it may not be how your parents would have responded to you.
Let me know how this goes if you try it!
Our world can be a heartbreaking place. Even within our own families there are deep challenges, let alone things we hear about in the news, the refugee crisis, injustice, climate change, war, and so much more. I often want to turn away from difficult news to protect myself from feeling it all. I feel angry, maybe because it’s somehow safer than feeling the pain. I want to cut myself off from 'those people' who are doing bad things, demonizing them rather than feeling my heart connect with their hearts.
I’m not saying that we need to be okay with everything people do, we don't. But we can be present with each person as a human being, recognizing the imperfect expression of their divinity just as we recognize that within ourselves.
When we pull into the rational mind and bypass the vulnerable and sensitive response to tragic things happening around us, we grow numb. And when we are numb to one part of our experience, we are numb to it all, there's no way to stay selectively open. So the only thing to do is to practice getting close and listening to the sad, irrational, needy, angry parts of ourselves. Of the world. Of our kids. We just need to slow down, listen, and feel.
To build your ability to open your heart, consider trying loving kindness practice.
Sit and breathe, following the breath and resting a hand on your belly or heart. Notice where you are and simply be present with yourself without judging, rushing, or bypassing. Remember some wonderful things about yourself, some of your most loving and kind moments, and watch the memories like movies in your mind to remember your best nature.
And then say these words to yourself, slowly and imagining each one as you say it:
May I be filled with loving kindness (picture what you look like, what you are doing),
May I be healthy and strong (imagine how you look, where you are, who you are with),
May I be calm and peaceful (again, picture it),
May I be happy (smile).
Repeat this a few times. And then consider a person you love, picture them, and send these words to them a few times. Notice how you feel.
When you're ready, consider a person you're having a hard time with and send these words to them several times. Again, notice how you feel.
I read a book once that mentioned a sign posted in a kindergarten classroom, "Start out slow and taper off." It's good advice.
There's a natural sense of timing in the world that is slower than my habits. When one of my boys was in middle school, I was rushing him one day, and he looked at me and said, 'You know Mom, I hurry all day." He explained the rush to get off the bus, to get from one class to another in 3 minutes in crowded halls, to get to practice, to run faster, to get home and do homework. That was a deep teaching for me.
The world, whether it's school or activities, teams, social media, won't help our kids to operate at their natural speed. But we can. Even when there are time constraints, we can our cultivate an unhurried, spacious inward approach. This minimizes the drama of parent-child interactions and things usually actually get done more efficiently. For me, as the intent to be present in each moment gets stronger, my ability to be spacious with kid timing has naturally developed.
This starts with inner awareness, getting very clear about time constraints and how to handle them. Simple information and agreements can support the practical part of timing. "Guys, we need to leave by 9. Do you need help being ready?" Things won't always go as planned, but a simple plan helps.
Ive needed to work with the hurrying, anxious, pushing energy inside of myself rather than let it control the morning. I feel the energy in my body and consciously choose how to respond to it. Sometimes it needs an outlet so I do something that will use it up ( by by taking the compost out to the back yard, getting laundry organized which takes me up and down the stairs a few times, or walking around dusting). Sometimes I just need to notice how it feels and breathe into it for a bit. Other times I acknowledge the feeling and remind myself that it's okay, that I feel like this nearly every day and somehow it works out. Often I need to offer a quiet and calm reminder to my kids.
No matter how young or old a child is, rushing is not a great practice. As parents, when we create a slower flow, things still get done. And our children learn, without emotional drama, how to work with time limitations.
Easter morning is a time of new beginnings, beauty, and the triumphant rising of the Divine. How is the Divine arising in our own regular lives?
Looking at our children today, let's see the Divine in them. There are so many things we could worry about, try to correct, and find exhausting. But let's greet them as our saviors, those who are here to wake us up to the magic and beauty of the world. I don't mean let's insist that they act like the Divine, but let's see it operating in them in the midst of everything that happens.
If your child is here as your savior and teacher, what are they teaching? Get curious. Are they offering you the chance to develop patience?
Steadfastness?To remember how to play? Maybe you're in the midst of hard teachings, learning how to accept what seems unacceptable, letting your heart open to the pain or suffering your kids are experiencing, being present with the loss you experience.
Whatever it is, I wish for you and for me and for the world the courage and openness to discover it, to welcome it, and to allow it to transform us. Happy Easter!
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.