As some of you will no doubt remember, last Spring we signed our family up for YMCA Soccer. Echo played on a co-ed team of 5 year-olds, and though she’d never met any of them previous to being on the team, she formed some fast and fun friendships with her mates, and had a rocking good time with the whole endeavor. So, naturally when Fall Soccer came around this month, we all pretty much assumed that Echo would get right in there and play for another season. We registered with the Y, only to find out that there wasn’t a team forming in our neck of the neighborhoods — though, not to worry, there was another team near enough to us that we could just jump in with them.So here Echo is (middle right) in her shin-guards, cleats, and excited state on the first day of soccer practice with the new — all girl — team. She was stoked!
But then, as the coach got the girls to circle up for some calisthenics, something started to dawn on Echo. Not only was she on a team that bore no resemblance or relation to her former team, not only were they all essentially strangers to her, and not only were they doing these weird exercises that she alone seemed not to know how to do — but a majority of them all already knew and cliched off with each other… Can you hear the storm clouds gathering over Echo’s idyllic parade?
Here’s an interesting bit: If Echo had, just for a moment, been able to broaden her perspective just slightly — she might have noticed the coach’s elder daughter doing the “jumping jack” tutorial with the teammate to Echo’s left (below). But she was just self-conscious enough, and struggling too much in order to “keep up”, that she failed to notice that she wasn’t the only one who didn’t know these particular warm-ups. I think that information might have helped her at the time, but since she didn’t get it, she instead slid slowly right off the edge into hopeless defeat.
About half way through these beginning movements, Echo slumped on the ground and quit participating. I jogged out onto the field and sat with her for a few moments trying to find out what had happened. It turned out that the combination of not knowing any of the teammates, some of them knowing each other, and most of them knowing how to do what Echo did not yet, had all come crashing in at once and left her feeling so far outside the group that she didn’t even want to be on the field with them. The buoyant soccer enthusiast had melted into a puddle of self-doubt…
So this is how we spent the majority of the rest of practice.It wasn’t easy, I’ll be honest. To begin with, though you might not guess it, Natalie and I are pretty reserved people — we wouldn’t normally involve ourselves in any of this team sporting type thingy at all, and are only doing so to serve Echo’s interests. Furthermore, we’d already had some experience, last season, with Echo benching herself right before a game, leaving her team a player short as they took the field. Natalie and I both had adrenaline hot-flashes of body memory from the anxiety and embarrassment we’d fought to manage during that event. Then there was that inane comment one of the moms had innocently made upon meeting us about “guessing Echo was homeschooled” still ringing in my ears. And of course the cherry on top of this delicious treat was that I didn’t want any of those feelings to be getting in the way of being right where Echo needed us. When you think about it like this — and allowing that we all have about this much stuff floating around in our heads when we’re trying to deal with our children’s upset(ting) emotions — it takes some powerful executive control on our parts, it’s a wonder we can do it at all.
Of course we don’t all, and we don’t all always, pull it off. Of course we blow it sometimes. When there is a hurricane of emotion in our own heads, it’s tough to keep focus on helping our little ones process their emotions. It takes more than just the idea that “I want to use empathy with my kids” to manage it. But with patience and time, the brain training that comes from repeatedly succeeding, a fervent intention to develop the skill, and just a little grace — we can develop what I’d call the “habit” of being able to empathize despite our own emotional distress. One key strategy that Natalie has taught me is a quick flash of self-empathy. That’s kind of a funny term, since by nature we ought to be automatically, always, already identifying with how we’re feeling, but the weird truth is that we don’t. Often — one might even say regularly — most of us tend to be somewhat removed from what we are feeling, usually until we have a big enough emotion that it registers as action or impulse to action. But whether you are that sort of person or not, it can be quite helpful in moments of trying to offer empathy passed your own sense of duress, to take an instant inventory of what’s going on for yourself before and/or as you attempt to reach out. The method I picked up from Natalie is just saying to myself the names of feelings that I am having. Those of you familiar with the term, may think of it as “sportscasting” what you see going on inside rather than for your little one(s). So in this particular case, it went something like: “Whoa, I feel embarrassed, and nervous, oh and some sense of foreboding because of what happened last season, oh and a lot of tenderness — this is hard for her…” See how it clicked over me? It takes mere milliseconds, but it works wonders.
So I was quickly doing an inventory of all the things playing in my head as Echo and I first sat down, and in flickers intermittently as she told us about what was going on for her, just so that I could stay in a place of being able to be with her instead of re-acting out of my own emotional distress. As we sat there, holding, processing, and listening to Echo, a number of things started to become clear for all of us, some notables among which were: 1) Although Echo has extensive social experience and can readily handle interactions of all sorts with people of all ages, she has extremely little experience in making that initial contact. Once it’s made, the interactions immediately become what Echo would call friendship — but she didn’t quite have a concept for this part of the interaction during her initial meeting with the new teammates. She wanted to learn some “playground ice-breakers”. 2) Even though she is a “very big kid”, Echo still likes to have our support when she is making her initial approach to new endeavors. So like last year, she’d wanted one of us to be beside her for the initial moments of practice — something we would seek to remedy if she was interested in playing in the first game. 3) She wanted to learn to do push-ups, sit-ups, and cartwheels.
We eventually left practice that day, a little bit before it was over, unsure whether or not we would be bringing Echo to join the team for the game that weekend. It was admittedly pretty embarrassing to saddle up and roll off on our bikes in relative defeat, but it felt worse to keep sitting there while Echo didn’t want to participate, and we wanted to create some distance so she could more easily process, and of course, we wanted to get the hell out of there… We spent the next couple days practicing cartwheels and discussing tactics for initiating friendly relations; we also talked about team member responsibilities like participating and whether Echo felt committed to that or not, etc..
By the time Sunday rolled around — well, let’s just say that we all rolled tentatively toward the soccer field. Echo was “pretty sure” she was going to be able to get in there, get connected to at least some portion of her team, and play ball, so to speak. Natalie and I were crossing all of our digits.
But when we finally crossed the wide prairie of fields to get to where The Pink Bunny Ninjas were playing that day, Echo sprinted out to join her team as though there’d never been an issue at all. That’s Natalie in the corner of the photo, heading out to stand near Echo, as per the above request, but it wasn’t even needed. Echo launched into jumping jacks; and then the game was on and she was racing down the turf in a swarm of pink.
About 2 minutes into the game, Echo turns to the girl on her right (below) and says, “My tongue is cold!”. The girl, Annie, replies, “That’s funny! Mine isn’t.”. And then they were friends. By halftime, Logan, the girl in front of Echo (below) was also added to the list of teammates that Echo was casually calling “my friends”.And by the end of the same game, Echo was as much in the thick of it, and as much part of the team as any one of the rest of them. She just needed to make her own way there — and she just needed us to support her while she did it.
It is often an easier-said-than-done sort of task to manage our own stuff in order to help our kids manage theirs, and we don’t always do the kind of job that we’d like to on that — but when we do, man it feels good, doesn’t it!?
One day, one step, and one feeling at a time, friends.
P.S. If you haven’t gotten word yet, Natalie and I are kicking off another round of ecourses next week. Parenting on the Same Team part 1 and part 2 start up simultaneously on October 1st! If you haven’t had the chance to join us for an ecourse yet — now’s the perfect opportunity, you don’t want to miss it. Follow this link for more information and to reserve your spot. Can’t wait to get going with you all for another 6 weeks of life-altering game-changing fun. “See” you there!