Responding in Our Most Difficult Parenting Moments
When I started working with children early in my career I remember often feeling powerless and out of control. As therapists many of us get into this field because we want to help people, we want to be a part of providing them with some relief and walking with them to a better path… a life experience that includes more joy, contentment, and peace. With children, I found I had no idea how to do this. So I searched for strategies and techniques which helped me feel better, but I’m not convinced did much for them. When I discovered child centered play therapy I realized that I had not found a strategy or a technique – but a philosophy of life, one that forever changed me and my work with children, families, and people of all ages. One of the most impactful things that I have learned is that my role – as a therapist and a parent – is many times to be the external calm to their internal storm. Children are overtaken with emotions in a way that is overwhelming and often scary. This is just in everyday life. When stressors and traumas are added this emotional storm can become very confusing and terrifying for them. There is no strategy that can solve this, no technique that can cause the storms to magically subside. With humans it is as it is with nature. The storm must rage and exhaust its energy, then it passes into calm. Often with the more pleasant weather and relief coming as a natural afterthought. This natural cycle is purposeful and so necessary. It is what helps nature grow and flourish. So we wait out the storm. We find a safe place and we wait, with gratitude and awe, for we know and understand the storms purpose, and we know what it will bring.
With children it is this way too. The pressure of life builds and they storm. This is a natural and normal cycle that we don’t want to stop. I mean we WANT to because it’s painful to watch and leaves us feeling powerless and / or like screaming (and maybe breaking something, yes I’ve felt this first hand!). But we don’t REALLY want to because they need this release. This buildup when suppressed leads to other more pervasive and difficult challenges that are more long lasting and destructive. So we stay with them, we offer safety, and most of all we offer calm. This can be hard as our own personalities and pasts often cause us to instinctively react in a way that ignites rather than calms. This is why parenting is often more working on ourselves than it is trying to change our children. Children have a powerful and innate healing quality that allows them to work through their challenges towards a place of calm and joy. When given the right environment and the crucial ingredients of safety and acceptance, they will do this on their own. This is by no means easy – in fact it’s the hardest thing to do. It’s so much harder than having a technique as it leaves us as parents feeling powerless as we watch them suffer. However, in being there, in being calm… in creating that safe and accepting haven for them to rage out – we are giving them all they need.
So next time you see the emotions starting to swirl – first ask yourself if they are reacting in proportion to a real problem in this moment. If they are – then deal with that. If the emotions seem larger than life, perplexing, and illogical – then you’re dealing with an emotional surge. The buildup of the emotions that are part of life – many times normal life and sometimes with added elements. In these moments where little ones (or big ones) are overwhelmed by these crashing and swirling emotional currents – this is when we become the calm. There are many ways to do this and it really boils down to the ways that you feel most calm. So singing, breathing, repeating a mantra – doing something that helps you feel calm and communicates that you are there with them. The other vital piece in these moments involves reflecting the feelings that you see and feel – I say feel because as the parent you more than not KNOW what they are feeling. Reflect this for them…
“You are so tired of things not going how you want”
“You have been feeling very left out”
“Things do not feel fair”
“Your so angry”
When children are young we do this to teach the English language: “that’s a dog”, “the stove is hot”, etc.
We do this same thing to build emotional intelligence and awareness, we reflect and verbalize for them their emotional experience so that they can understand – and one day – put words to it themselves. We do not explain, problem solve, rationalize, convince… we reflect and we put the period there.
And then we wait and repeat, and wait and repeat…. Until the storm passes. There is always time for the lessons later, when they are back in the part of their brain where they can absorb and process that. Then come the strategies, the talks… the lessons. But in the emotional surges and storms, they are in a completely different part of their brain, the reactive and survival part of the brain – a part that needs calmed and soothed. Not until they feel safe again will they be able to respond to anything else.