The Discomfort of Not Knowing
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.
Hard Times and Young People
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.
Opening the Heart
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.
Words that Disconnect
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!
Understanding Our Own Emotions
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.
Be A Lighthouse
“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
When your children lose themselves in emotions, you get to be the lighthouse. Stay steady and clear, remembering who they really are. This will help them find a way back to themselves.
Emotions feel so strong that you can forget 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. Parents can also get caught up in a big reaction to emotions, saying unkind words, yelling, giving ultimatums or punishments, or hitting.
We know this doesn't help, right? But it's hard to stay calm. This week, I’m offering a series of posts about how (and why) to stay steady.
Remember that you are not your emotions. When a child is upset and acting out, let your own feelings happen without acting them out. It’s okay to be angry, disappointed, or frustrated with your child and you can feel that without losing it!
A wise parent knows that emotions are like an intense storm, they come and go. When your child is in the throes of a storm, remember who they really are! Respond to them with compassion, knowing that it is hard to feel such big feelings. Help them to be safe, stopping them if they're hurting people or objects. Care for your feelings so that you can stay steady for your child. Don't say much because they aren't able to listen. Wait for the storm to pass, keeping them safe, staying nearby if possible, and loving them.
It’s a lot, right? But these things are so important! When you stay connected, not adding your own big emotions to theirs, you are like a lighthouse, showing them the way. Once the storm passes, there’s more opportunity to work with them (more on that tomorrow).
“Each of you is perfect the way you are ... and you can use a little improvement.”
When a small child is angry, we can tell! They may lash out, hitting or kicking to express the uncomfortable feeling they're having. They may yell or cry. The feeling they are having is important! It tells them there's a problem. As children develop, they can learn to understand the feeling and take care of it without necessarily acting it out.
We help them to do this by listening to and acknowledging their feelings. We help them recognize the discomfort that underlies actions by slowing down, getting on to their physical level, and being interested in their feelings. We attune to their feeling, providing the template for them to become aware of their own feelings. Over time and with support, their awareness grows so that they can choose how to respond to the feeling rather than act on it impulsively.
At the same time, we can and should help children to stop their bodies from hurting us or other people. When a child has an angry outburst, we have an important role. We can stay close to them, setting a limit by holding them in a firm and loving way. "I'm here, I'll sit and hold you until you're safe to stop kicking." We can offer an acceptable alternative to hitting--"Here, I'll hold you and you push my arms as hard as you can. Now pull." This allows them to use up the physical energy that comes with being upset without hurting anyone. We can help them to take big breaths or do lion's breath to channel the energy. Children can learn practices that help them handle their feelings.
Each child's nature is perfect and wonderful. They come into the world needing support, though, needing loving connection and guidance to handle the complicated feelings and ideas that come up in them. That's part of the 'little improvement' that Shunryu Suzuki speaks of. Adults are the same, already wonderful and needing a little improvement through love, guidance, and support.
Holding Our Children
I was driving a few days ago and saw something beautiful. A mom was standing on the sidewalk with her daughter, maybe 10 years old, just holding her. They were both very still and quiet. This mom was so tender, patient and present. The daughter was so open, so trusting, not only allowing her mom to hold her but also letting her emotions be seen and cared for publicly.
This kind of moment matters so deeply. The time that we stop, let go of what we were trying to accomplish, and care for our child. It doesn't happen often but when it does is better than a thousand words about love and acceptance.
When your child is upset, sad, or hurt, try this. Just hold them. If they're open, put your arms around them and hold them with no words at all or only a few affirming words. Don't fall into the trap of fixing a problem or getting past it, but embracing your child just as they are in the moment.
Sometimes a child doesn't want to be held. When that's the case, we can still hold them with our awareness. An angry, hostile child needs holding just as much as a crying and helpless one, but they need a different approach. When your child is angry, don't wish their feelings away and try to get them into a better frame of mind. Open to it, allowing them to be exactly as they are. Offer a strong, clear 'yes' to their current mood even when it makes you uncomfortable.
To be in true service to our children, to all children, and to humanity is a wonderful thing. We are, of course, in constant service to our kids, and it is all too easy to get caught up in the busyness and immediate needs of our days and serve the urgent rather than the essential. We need to know, to recognize, and to remember the difference between serving a child’s wants and comforts versus their wholeness and purpose.
As we consider how to serve our children, we can ask:
Will this action help my child to grow whole and strong?
Sometimes our children need gentle presence, a sense of being rooted in our love. Sometimes they need a clear limit, the simple ‘It’s time for bed,’ or ‘No, I can’t let you push your brother.’ Sometimes they need to feel angry, helpless, sad, or uncomfortable. Sometimes they need to rise to a challenge without our help. This question will not magically tell us what to do, but it can point us toward remembering our child’s developmental purpose and work.
Will this help my child know his or her place in the world?
At all ages, people need to feel rooted in community, and we find that through family, friends, and broader groups. Much can be learned through the messy and complicated experience of spending regular, open-ended time in a self-directed way with a group of people. Learning about society, parts of the world, and social issues is important, and it begins with the direct experience of navigating human relationships. Give your child space to be bored, discover things to do, work things out, experience conflict, and learn through relationship.
Will this help my child to be happy?
People who can not tolerate and experience fear, sadness, pain, and uncertainty are not very happy. Life offers a whole range of emotions, and happiness is only one part of this. If you want your children to be happy, allow them and support them to fully experience each emotion that arises. Allow your own challenging feelings, your child's feelings, and the time it takes to be present with complicated emotions. This will support real happiness!
Try Doing Nothing
When something difficult happens, it is so easy to feel pressured to act. We think it's important to know the right thing to say and do. Sometimes it's best to do nothing. Instead, try being.
When your child is upset with a friend, be with it. Yes, you have good ideas about how they could fix the problem, of course you do! But they don't probably don't need your ideas, they have their own ideas. They may only need your presence.
When a friend is upset, it's hard. But don't interrupt, explain how it's going to get better, ask them what they've tried. Just listen. That is a rare and beautiful gift!
When your child has a big project due and doesn't start until the last minute, don't worry, intervene, explain, or lecture. Don't focus on what you should have done to prevent this, what they should have done, how the teacher could have handled it better. Stay nearby, stay calm, and let them be in charge. Help if they ask, but don't take over.
When you feel crappy and angry, don't do anything. Don't write that email, post that complaint, or yell at that innocent bystander.
When one of your kids does something really stupid (and they will), don't lecture about why it was a bad idea. Allow them to discover that if possible. At the same time, don't rescue them from the fallout. Allow them to experience it and learn from it. Stay nearby and love them quietly and calmly.
Hard things can be our greatest teachers. But for that to happen, we have to be receptive to them. We can't run away into action.
Reading Kids' Emotions
As parents, we tend to focus on what to do about our children's emotions, but it's wise to start by simply noticing them. Sometimes we assume that we understand what our child is feeling without really paying attention. Sometimes we even to forget the importance of understanding in our rush to help them or set limits or get something done.
Considering some basic emotions (fear, anger, sadness, joy, surprise, and disgust/contempt are considered by basics by some researchers), do you know how your child expresses each? Every emotion has a physical component, and it can really help to get to know how each is expressed physically.
When your child is scared (anxious, worried, nervous, feeling excluded), how does it show up in his body? Are there characteristic physical gestures, body movements, facial expressions? How do his eyes look? What does he talk about?
When your child is angry (aggressive, jealous, indignant), how can you tell? What do you notice about her physical expressions including gesture, expressions, tone of voice? Where does she go? What does she talk about? What do her eyes look like? Does she get restless or still, hot or cold, loud or quiet?
Consider the same type of questions for each emotion, noticing how your child looks, moves, and expresses sadness, joy, surprise, and disgust. When you are curious about your child's emotions, it helps you to shift from reactivity to curiosity. This creates space, allowing you to respond more slowly, more thoughtfully, more spaciously. What a wonderful gift for a child! This week, see if you can cultivate more awareness of your child's feelings and less action.
Some of the biggest challenges in our families grow out of discomfort with emotions. Last week I wrote about the importance of listening to feelings because many of us bypass feelings (children's and our own). Today I am approaching feelings from a different direction, that of having the courage to let kids get upset.
Life includes big and small upsets. Kids don't always get invited to birthday parties. They don't necessarily get the part that they want in the play. Many don't go to prom with their first choice of dates. Pets and even family members get sick and die.
These experiences are rough for parents and kids! When children are upset, they may express it in not-so-evolved ways. This can trigger our own big feelings, perhaps anger, shame, frustration, and/or fear. Many of us consciously or unconsciously work hard to avoid these moments.
Have you gotten into the habit of going for drives to help your child fall asleep? Making a special meal for your child when they refuse the one you prepare for the family? Buying a toy because your child saw it and wants it, even though you do not want to? Letting your child use the car even when they haven't taken care of a responsibility? For a parent who is uncomfortable with conflict, these choices can seem sensible and logical, but they actually limit a child's chance to build emotional resilience. Children, and all people really, need the experience of having big and challenging emotions within the context of a loving and safe relationship.
A child who gets upset that you won't buy a toy in the store may throw herself on the ground weeping. If you are able to stay both loving and firm, she learns that it's safe to have big feelings. Her emotions don't make you go away and they don't necessarily control your choices. A child who is managed so that upsets don't happen can't actually learn how to work with big feelings, can't test the safety of the connection, and has less experience with emotional maturation.
If you find yourself over-managing situations to keep your child from being upset (pay attention with this idea in mind and you will start to sense when you are doing it), consider what is happening for you. Are you afraid of their feelings? Or afraid of how your own feelings may get triggered? Are you worried about how other people will judge you? Can you imagine seeing emotional situations as teaching and bonding opportunities? A chance for your child to feel loved and accepted even during a tantrum or outburst? And for them to learn that the outburst won't trump your decision.
What do you think?
Feelings Come and Go
I write and talk and teach a lot about how to help kids with their strong feeling. Of course, helping ourselves with our own strong feelings is important, too!
My best 'low tech' strategy is so ridiculously simple--just wait a while. If I can just do and say nothing about a feeling for a little while, it often passes. Some feelings, of course, need a response and I'm not thinking we just need to let everything go. But lots of my feelings seem so important and even urgent in the moment, and then 20 minutes later they seem kind of ridiculous.
Feelings don't only exist in the emotional realm. They cross right into our bodies, triggering stress hormones and a physical reaction to protect ourselves from perceived danger. When we're upset, we get flooded with chemicals that make us want to DO SOMETHING. A wise person can remember, feelings come and go. Waiting for even a minute can give the feeling time to pass. If you can wait 20-30 minutes, much of the physical response will dissipate and the more sensible 'you' is more likely to be back in charge.
I can get pretty emotional, and it really helps me to remember that feelings will pass just like clouds on a windy day, often without my doing anything.
Listening to Feelings
One of the simplest and most powerful things we can do for children (for anyone) is to listen to their feelings without reacting. It can be so hard to be present for feelings--our own or someone else's. It isn't comfortable. It hurts to see someone upset. It is tempting to respond mentally, trying to rescue, fix, explain, teach, or justify the situation, rather than staying with feelings. But if we can slow down enough to notice our discomfort before acting on it, we can see that fixing it isn't an option. Feelings can't be fixed, they can only be felt.
It is a radical act to be with a feeling rather than trying to fix it, one that goes against our training and against the norms of our culture. It takes courage to try. Once you try, you'll be hooked because it's so powerful.
Try it! When your child gets upset, see if you can listen deeply without doing anything. Say you child gets upset because you say it's time for bed. What if you listen to their upset with no judgment about whether they should feel that way, no logical explanation of why they need to get ready for bed, to argument, discussion, or explanation. Just listen. Maybe nod a bit.
Acknowledge their feeling in your own authentic way, "Wow, the idea of going to bed feels really bad," or "It seems like you're really mad about getting ready for bed," then listen some more.
Mirror back what they're saying if you can, "I get it, you always feel like it's time to get ready for bed just when you get excited about the game you're playing," or "It doesn't seem fair that you have to go to bed when your brother gets to stay up."
Expand on their feelings a bit. "I bet it would feel good if you could just stay up until you FEEL like going to bed!"
Take it slow, they may have a lot of feelings that need to get expressed. Sometimes the issue really is bedtime, sometimes it's stored up feelings from the day or weekend. If you allow the feelings to be expressed, even when they don't come out skillfully or kindly, those feelings will begin to dissolve naturally.
Stay clear, it really is time to get ready for bed, even when your child has big feelings about it. Empathy and caring does not mean we change our mind. We simply allow feelings to be expressed and gently remind our child of the limit. "It's so frustrating sometimes, isn't it, to have to get ready for bed when you want to play? I hear you! And still we need to go upstairs." If you are patient, consistent, and confident, your child will respond (sometimes there are big issues with connection, with timing, with trauma or pain that interfere, but if the relationship is pretty strong your child will respond).
No need to rush, simply stay clear and firm. To get into a power struggle is to lose! Simply restating, "It's time for bed," while staying caring and nurturing about the feelings can allow a lot of feelings to be released with loving support. Bedtime may not happen as quickly as you would like if you approach it this way, but it's probably going to happen more quickly than it would if you argued, pleaded, or threatened, and you will do it with much more dignity.
Give it a try! Please let me know how it goes.
It's Not About Me
It's so easy to react when kids are rude, unkind, bossy. And not so easy to look past the behavior and wonder what's up with them.
When I take things personally, I make up a story about myself along with the story I make up about my kids.
They shouldn't act that way.'
'I haven't done things right.'
But sometimes, with all people, there's just a problem that I know nothing about. They bombed a test at school today, a friend is having trouble, they don't feel well, they're tired. Something.
It's not about me.
I'm learning, learning to listen when one of my (now teenage) kids is complaining about something I've done, yelling, overreacting. When I stay quiet enough to pay attention, I can see the pain, the worry, the suffering under the difficult behavior. Sometimes I can just listen and love them, recognizing that what's under the unpleasant behavior is their own pain.
Some parents think this makes kids entitled and rude. And the truth is, it doesn't help anyone if we treat them like they're fragile and can't handle life's up's and down's. It's good to stay real with them. AND there are (not so frequent) times to talk about their behavior and other times that modeling behavior is more powerful. When kids feel heard, seen, and loved they develop the ability to hear, see, and love more fully.
If you think you're been taking things personally that might not be about you, join me in getting curious about your children. Ask yourself some questions.
What is s/he feeling right now (watch for body language, expressions, word choices that will clue you in)?
Is this really about me? Or is it them?
Would it be better to jump in and talk about this or wait and see?
For me, the outcomes are almost always better when I respond more slowly.
I'm a person on a messy journey--healing, learning, discovering and rediscovering. Sharing, writing, talking, and teaching help me to understand myself and the world more clearly. I hope it can help make your journey a easier, too.