As parents, we are almost constantly saddled with various repairs, clean-ups, re-workings, and resettings for our children. In fact, we get so used to being the ones to restore order and serenity in times of trouble, that we can become a bit trigger-happy with fixes. We can get two-thirds of the way into a great solution before we even notice that no one is yet interested in “working it out”. We can even get ourselves into quite a tizzy if our kids won’t “chill out” long enough for us to fix the problem(s) making them suffer.
We tend to think that fixing the problem is the best choice we can make for our kids. We believe this is how to help them feel better when they are “upset about the problem”. We parents can even wind up fixated on adjusting the circumstances of our kids’ lives (whatever they may be at any given moment) in order to ease any particular upsetting emotions our children have in correlation to those circumstances. We do this for them when they are young, and through them as they get older. And when they don’t calm down long enough for us to fix it, so they can feel better, we can get — well, rather upset about it, and even upset-ting. When this becomes habitual, we risk inadvertently creating a taboo against certain emotions, and in turn leave our children feeling inappropriate or inadequate or unloved for having those emotions. (See any flashing warning lights here?)
All right, so what is a nerve-frazzled, wits-ended, about-to-f*ing-lose-it parent supposed to do? “The kid is pissed because he wants a decaf double skim mocha. I am going to get the kid a decaf double skim mocha if he will just shut up long enough for me to do that!” Well, even though it is understandable, with parent logic, to think that fixing the problem will help the feelings, and so being on the way to fixing the problem should be helping some of the feelings already… There is a good chance that everyone will feel better if we simply pause long enough in our quest to fix in order to just be with our kids having their feelings for a minute or two.
I know on the surface it defies adult reason. We think we are short-cutting the distance to their happiness by ignoring, denying, trying to talk them out of, or fixing the circumstances of their feelings. I imagine Humphrey Bogart saying, “We just get rid of the feelings, see, and that’ll be the end of the trouble…” But what actually goes faster, and feels infinitely better along the way, is to dive right into the upset, welcome the feelings out into the room, and let the children have the space to be — yes — a little emotional. Once kids feel they’ve had room to be bothered (or whatever the specific feeling is), they can more easily move on. Actually most adults work this way as well, but it is less politically correct and generally considered impolite for us to show it in public, so we become skilled at suppressing emotions of all sorts.
So what to do? Well the shortest possible suggestion I could make is that we allow the feelings. In whatever way it makes the most since at the time, we can make space for and be open to our children expressing their feelings — whenever and however they need, so long as they remain safe. Just let them be, and let them know we love them, even while they are upset.
Want specifics? The following is a brief list of some of the ways and means of creating space for our kids to fully feel what they are feeling:
- One of my favorite bloggers, Karyn Van Der Zwet, an ex-teacher, mom of three from New Zealand, makes a great case for “Boring Cuddles“. She borrowed the term from Diane Levy, a New Zealand Family Therapist, who writes and lectures extensively on the subject of parenting and various parenting techniques. The basic idea is simply to offer, and when accepted, to hold the upset child during the discomfort. For Levy and Van Der Zwet, the idea is simply to be something like a world-pausing parent-envelope for the length of time it takes for the child to move through the emotion. We don’t have to do anything but be snuggly. No fix. No shame. No exploration even. In fact, Van Der Zwet suggests that the parent be totally quiet, and not even engage the child visually. Just hold and wait while the child self-processes.
- My fellow Feeleez co-creator, Kris Laroche, a teacher and mom of two from here in Missoula, Montana, is known for her prowess at the emotionally engaging version of the same thing — let’s call it “Engaging Cuddles”. The idea, here, is to turn in toward the child’s emotional process, to help the child explore it, and to seek the underlying need that the emotion is expressing. If a need can be discovered, then Kris may seek to meet that need, or may simply continue to empathize with the grief her son or daughter may be experiencing over not getting the desired need met at that moment. So when they are upset, Kris holds them if they want it, and asks lots of questions about the feelings they’re having. This technique winds up being as much (or more) about nourishing the parent-child bond as it is about the child processing the particular emotions.
- One of my other favorite bloggers, moms, writers, and business co-owners, Natalie Christensen, my esteemed life partner, also wrote an article for Mothering Magazine (Nov/Dec 2010) entitled “Building an Emotionally Safe Household”. You can read my blog post copy of the article here. One of several important things that she suggests is simply to “express yourself”. The point in doing so is on the one hand to model to our children that feelings themselves are nothing to fear or ignore, that they are worthy of, and safe for, discussing; and also to show them that feelings shift, and change over time, and like many other phenomena in life, are almost constantly in a state of process. By seeing us deal with our feelings, our children learn to make more space for their own feelings, and if all goes well, they also learn constructive ways to live through the feelings for which they’re making space.
- Further, and in a more general sense, I would also suggest creating a culture of emotional intelligence in the home. We can make feelings part of what we teach our children. Point them out (without pointing, of course) when we see emotions in public, asking our children about the feelings they see, and encouraging our children to imagine the feelings of others. When there are politeness issues, or behavior information we wish to discuss with our children, we can use their ability to empathize in order to help them understand — as in, “Do you like to be asked when someone wants to use the toy you are playing with? I think other kids like it, too.” In this way, even in times when no emotional discomfort is at hand, we continue to make space for our children to process their emotions (including difficult ones) just by making feelings part of their home education.
Once tuned into the idea of doing so, it becomes fairly easy to find a myriad of other ways to allow and make room for our children to work through upsetting feelings they may be having at any particular time. Of course, the best gauge of any idea for creating emotional space in your home is going to be your own family. You will need to look at the individuals involved, and the manner in which you each work together, and what works for each (and all) of your family members.
What do you need to do to make space for you and your children to have the feelings you’re each having? What do you need in order to let go of the fix-it trigger? What do you need in order to let the feelings be (and shift)?
Good luck finding the right ways for your family.