How to help our children understand their feelings

What is your reaction when your two-year-old throws herself on the floor kicking and screaming in the store aisle because she wants that new toy?  Or how about when your two children are fighting over whose turn it is to send the hotwheel cars down the track?

 Often, we are so caught up in the undesirable behavior that we just want to do whatever it takes to make it stop. We may try to stifle our children’s feelings because they are too intense, too much, too embarrassing.  Big scary feelings can be hard to invite in. And if it’s hard for us as  parents, imagine what it’s like for our kids.  Often they have no understanding of the emotion (energy in motion) coursing through their bodies.  Who has ever asked them, “What’s going on for you? Help me to understand?” 

 What if you could be that “understander” for your child? For starters, you could pause, take a deep breath and say to yourself, I can handle this calmly and with love.  And then get down on the floor with your child and those big feelings and say, “Wow you seem really really frustrated right now.  You really want that toy.  It’s okay to be upset.  I’ll stay here with you.”  Notice I’m not saying that you give in and buy the toy; rather, you allow your child to feel whatever she is feeling with no blame, shame, or guilt.

When my two boys were younger and used to fight a lot, I would sometimes have to put myself between them to keep them safe.  They would be raging on either side of me trying to get to the other one, and  I would shout something like, “You are sooooo mad right now.  You just want to hurt your brother.  But this feeling will fade.  It’s just energy going through your body.  If you can bear with it just a few minutes, it will fade and then you can work this out.”  Once they started to calm down, I would say, “It won’t always be this way.  I know you guys will figure out a better way to work things out.”  Perhaps I said that last piece for my own sanity, but eventually they did figure out how to be together without the physical fighting. 

The message I wanted to impart to them is that feelings are a natural part of life. It’s okay to feel our feelings. Feelings come and feelings go. What’s not okay is to hit someone because you are mad at them.  When we allow our children to feel intense emotions without blame or shame and when we help them understand and name the feelings, it allows them to release that energy from their bodies. This reduces the stress state and helps them to be able to think more clearly and make better choices.

Do your kids have to fight for power?

INTRO
In my parenting classes we often have lively discussions when we start to consider the partnership parenting approach that I teach.  What does it mean to share power in your family?  Can kids really handle more choice and power?  Isn’t it our job to make most decisions for them while they are very young and limit their choice-making to wearing either the blue or the red socks? In my experience, children can handle way more power than we, as the adults in their lives, are willing to give them.  In fact, I believe we unconsciously foster, to a great extent, powerlessness in our children.  And when children feel powerless, what options do they have but to submit or rebel? Submission turns them into nice dead people and rebellion turns them into very challenging children to raise.  If you see submission or rebellion in your kids, put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself honestly, “Do I feel power-full?  or do I feel power-less?”

In my own family, I know that my life would be so much easier if my kids would submit to my power and just do what I tell them to do.  But I’m not interested in just getting compliance if it’s going to come at a cost, if it harms the relationship in the long-term.  Plus, I want my children to realize they are powerful beings and to recognize and be in touch with their own needs–even if it means disagreeing with me and what I think is best for them.  After all, it is their life and their journey.  I don’t want to stand in the way of what they are here to learn.

Do your kids have to fight for power?

The shift to a power-sharing parenting paradigm can be mind-boggling and a lot of inside resistance can come up.  it usually goes like this, “If I open that can of worms, if I let my child have some power in making decisions that affect him, then all hell will break loose and I’ll never get back any control.”

So you start white-knuckling it, trying to keep control at all costs.  And, eventually, it does come at a cost.  They don’t stay young and pliable forever.  And that’s if you’re lucky enough to start out with a compliant child.  I didn’t start with a compliant child so my learning came early and quick!  Within the first year I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that control was just an illusion.  Once I loosened my grip on that illusion, things started to shift for the better.

There are sometimes very good reasons not to share power.  But I believe that are more good reasons to share power with our kids, starting when they are young.  Allowing them to have choice and leadership in their lives (within safe limits) in ever larger doses as they age, instills in them confidence that they can manage their lives, make decisions–even bad ones–and bounce back when they make mistakes.  It instills in them a knowing that what they think and need matters in this world.  This inner trust in themselves (or the lack of it) will be their guide into adulthood and will impact every relationship they have, especially the one with themselves.

There are too many grown-ups walking around today with this harsh voice inside that says things like, “You’re not worthy.  You’re not enough.  You’re not loveable because you are flawed.  You don’t really matter.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if our kids grow up to hear a different voice inside, a nurturing one that says things like, “I’m not perfect but I’m still worthy and loveable.  I am enough; I don’t have to be something I’m not.  I matter.  I have the power to create the life I want.”

How do they learn this power and how to manage it if we never give it to them?  Or if they have to fight so hard for it that they never learn the give and take of sharing power with others?  I don’t have the “right” answer, but I sure do love the questions!  We encourage our children to share with others.  Are we modeling the same when it comes to power?

Who’s your momma? Is it Dr. Spock?

It’s 2 am in the morning and you’ve finally gotten the baby back to sleep after more than an hour of nursing, rocking, walking, and trying various baby holding positions. 

Or… it’s 2 am in the morning and your teenage son, who was supposed to be home by midnight, is just now sauntering through the door.

As badly as you just want to crawl back in bed, you also know you can’t go through another night like this one.  So you tiptoe downstairs to the computer, type in “Amazon” and “parenting books” and voila! 105,924 books on parenting show up.  Each one promising the solution to your problem.  So you order a dozen or so and hit “overnight shipping!”

The problem is, even if you somehow find the time to read the books, you will start to notice a curious thing–they contradict each other.  One says it’s okay to let a baby cry himself to sleep.  The other says always respond to the cry.  One says set strict rules and clear consequences and the other says talk to your child, find out what he’s feeling and needing.  Each parenting expert has his or her own tips, techniques, methods, routines, and philosophies that promise to solve your problems.

From the moment we bring the baby home, we are perpetually looking for that elusive instruction manual.  And if we could only find it, then everything would be alright, we’d get through it and we’d know what to do. 

 Well, guess what?  The manual doesn’t exist and still everything will be alright and we’ll get through it even if we don’t know the perfect thing to do. So much of parenting is going with your gut, trying something and if it doesn’t work, trying something else. 

In today’s world of information overload, we seemingly have all the “answers” at our fingertips and to be sure, there’s lots of very beneficial advice, techniques, philosophies and inspirations out there.  The downside though is that when we become overly reliant on information outside of ourselves, we can quickly lose our parenting intuition and inner guidance

 It’s easy to do and it’s tragic.  If you’ve fallen into this trap, here’s 5 ways you can reclaim your power as your child’s parenting expert.

 1.  Put the books back on the shelves (for a while anyway).  Just be present with your child.  Get to know her.  Notice what she likes and what she doesn’t like.  What interests her.  What makes her scared, or sad, or happy.  The best way to do this is to listen.  Listen way more than you talk.  In fact, you have the right to remain silent.  I dare you to try it just to see if you can do it!

2.  Whether it’s whining, temper tantrums, waking at night, picky eating, or sibling fighting…when you feel triggered by your child’s behavior, take a step back and get a bigger perspective.  Noticing what triggers you and what your habitual reaction to it is will help you decide if you want to parent on auto-pilot or if you want to have a more thoughtful response to the behavior.  What’s happening may look so important right now and you may want it to STOP.  But in the big picture, does it matter if your child lies on the floor in Kroger for awhile and kicks and screams while you are present with him and his big feelings, or if he refuses to eat anything with burnt edges?  Will it really kill his chances of being president some day?

 3.  Be flexible, creative and open to new ideas.  All children are different. Just when you’ve finally figured out this parenting thing with your first child, your second one comes along and unravels that tightly knit sweater of parenting confidence you were wearing.  Nothing you’ve painstakingly learned works with her. You have to figure out a whole new parenting paradigm for this kid. The same thing happens as your children mature and develop.  You better be ready to roll with the changes and adjust your parenting practice.  Parenting is not a static thing; it’s an ever evolving convoluted dynamic chaotic growth opportunity in perpetuity.  Which is to say it’s eternally fun!

4.  Not every problem has to be solved.  If you’re mindful, you will find that balance of what must be dealt with now and what can wait.  I can almost guarantee you that your child will not be crawling into your bed in the middle of the night when he is 13.  She will not be insisting that you cut the crust off the bread and don’t let the peas touch the carrots when she is 22.  Time will take care of a lot of things.  Don’t add a layer of suffering.  This too shall pass.  In the meantime, have some fun and enjoy your kids!

5.  Take care of yourself or find someone who will.  The best parents know that the secret to being able to actually implement all the wonderful things you discover and learn as you become a parenting expert is to take good care of yourself.  When you are rested and healthy and your cup is full of love and vitality, it’s much easier to give these things to your children and to parent in alignment with your parenting integrity.  If you don’t trust you’ll  take good care of yourself, then all you have to do is find and marry someone who is totally devoted 100% to your happiness and wellbeing.  (sigh….)

It’s okay to share your “expertise” with other parents and support each other in finding ways to make parenting as peaceful, easy and joyful as possible.  Some parenting “experts” have experience in working with lots of parents and they may have some insights that will be helpful.  By all means, seek them out, learn from them.  Try this, try that.  And run everything through your own parenting filter. Take what is helpful and leave the rest. 

When I work with parents, I consider myself a “facilitator” because my goal is to facilitate each parent’s uncovering of their own inner wisdom.  It’s there.  It’s never not been.  The only time I consider myself a parenting expert is with my own kids.   And you are the parenting expert with yours.  Take back your power and unleash your parenting “guru” within.

When the unthinkable happens

Early Saturday morning, my older teenage son climbed in bed with me and my husband.  He spread his long body between us and announced, “I’ve made breakfast for you.”   

 “Yeah, right,” I said.  He hasn’t done that since he was 7 or 8 and used to bring me breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day–strawberries, oreo cookies, and milk.   

 “I’m not kidding,” he said. “I made eggs and french toast sticks.”

 “What’s up?,” I asked, mystified.

 “Something tragic happened last night and I’ve been thinking,” he said. He had my full attention now.  He had been hanging out with some friends the night before at one of their homes.  Did they do something stupid? Did someone get hurt?

“What happened?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know.

His lower lip started quivering as he said, “Zander’s mom died last night.”  One of his basketball buddies.  “I knew she had cancer but I didn’t know it was that bad.  I got a tweet from Zander last night that said, ‘Thanks for everyone’s support.  Rest in Peace Mom.’  It’s so tragic and I just got to thinking about if that happened to one of you.  I’d be so sad.”  I started crying and he put his arm around me. 

 I didn’t  know Zander’s mom.  I only saw his dad at the basketball games.  But I felt the grief of what she must have gone through knowing she was leaving her two sons behind.  And I was so sad thinking about Zander and his brother growing up without their mom.  I don’t know which would be worse…to lose a child or to leave a child behind. 

My heart was breaking and it was also so touched that my son was displaying vulnerability and deep caring, which I don’t see often–especially now that he’s a teenager.  It’s sweet to know there’s still a tender place in his heart.  Today, he told his Dad how much he appreciated him fixing up a car for him to drive.  He has given me more hugs this weekend than I’ve had in the last 6 months.  He’s even been nice to his little brother. 

Death can change you in that way. Shake you awake and open your eyes to the fleeting brilliance and vibrancy of life.  Death is a reminder to the living:  Savor now.  Love now.  Appreciate now.  Express it now.

It is heartwarming to see how his circle of friends is supporting each other…in their teenage boy way.  Tweeting messages to Zander to let him know they are thinking of him.  Planning to go over next weekend to be with him.  It’s the first death to touch their group and they are handling it with such care and concern.  It’s a flashback to an earlier time when they were little boys and innocent and more open to showing their soft side. 

So just know, if your kids are entering the murky waters of adolescence and starting to “act” like they don’t care or don’t want you around or are embarrassed of you in front of their friends–they do still have a tender heart beneath that brittle shell.  And I have faith they will come back to it once that protective layer is no longer needed.  

 I send a prayer to Zander and his family to keep their hearts open and to live their lives fully as their mom would want.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 
— Mary Oliver, poet

What to do when your child says “no!”

I don’t believe there is a parent on the planet who hasn’t heard the word “no” coming from their child’s lips.  It seems that almost as soon as they learn to speak, this word becomes a mainstay for kids.  Particularly during those early years, when they are discovering they have their own preferences and testing the limits with how far they can go in making their own choices. 

Often, our impulse is to get them to change their minds.  We try to get them to say yes to our requests through convincing, cajoling, or coercing.  We persuade, we try to reason and when all else fails, we either use power over them or we give up, we submit.  Power struggles are very common when our child says “no!”

What if there was a better way to respond when you hear a “no”?   A response that discharges the power struggles and leads to connection with your child instead?  Well, guess what?  There is and it’s simple.  You just have to hear the “yes” behind the “no.”  Would you like to give it a try?

Here’s how it works. The next time your child says “no” to a request you have made,  listen for what she is saying “yes” to instead.  For example, if you ask your child to pick up the toys and put them in the toy chest, and she says “no,” perhaps she is saying “yes” to playing longer.  Or “yes” to deciding for herself when she will pick up the toys.  Or “yes” to ease and efficiency.  Make a guess and see if it’s right. 

“When I hear you say ‘no,’ I wonder if you want to play a little longer?”  If  you guess wrong, she’s likely to let you know and give you more information, such as, “I’m just going to get them out again in the morning.”  Go with the new information and guess again, “So you want it to be easy in the morning and have your toys right here on the floor ready to play?”  “Yes!”  Surely you can relate to that “yes”; aren’t there times when you want ease and efficiency in your life?

Now that you know what she’s saying yes to, validate her yes.  “That would be so easy, wouldn’t it?  To walk in here in the morning and everything is right here, ready to play!”  With this new understanding maybe leaving the toys on the floor will work for you.  Or maybe it still won’t.  Maybe you have a need for order so you can relax at bedtime.  Maybe you’re concerned that someone will trip on the toys and get hurt. 

Then you can share with her what you are saying “yes” to.  “I understand that would make it easier for you when you come in to play in the morning, not having to get the toys out again.  And I will be up later than you tonight and would like the room to look nice.  When things are in their place, it helps me to relax.  I’d like to be able to walk through the room without tripping.” 

When you share the “yes” behind your request, you allow your child to consider if she wants to contribute to making life more wonderful for you.  You are planting a seed in her, which, if watered gently over time, will blossom into consideration and regard for others. She will learn not to do something just because she is told to do it, but because she is in touch with her natural capacity to contribute to others.

Perhaps she will choose to pick up the toys because she knows it will help you relax.  Or perhaps she will still insist on leaving them out.  Don’t worry; your child’s capacity to care for others grows over time with lots of practice.  If the latter is the case, you can still water that seed of consideration in her by modeling it for her.  You lay all the “yeses” out on the table to be considered and together you brainstorm how to make it work for both of you.  “I hear you want it to be easy to start playing right away in the morning and I want the room to look nice and not have to worry about tripping over toys.  What can we do?”

First let her explore ideas and then offer your ideas if needed.  This will help her develop the skill of collaborative problem-solving.  You just might be surprised at the creative ideas that bubble up from both of you.  “How about I put my toys on this blanket and slide it over in this corner?” 

“Thanks for trying that.  Hmmmm, it still doesn’t look tidy enough for me.  I really enjoy looking at an uncluttered room.  How about we bundle the toys up in the blanket and put it inside the toy chest?  That way, it will be easy to pull it out in the morning and lay it back on the floor.  Will you try that?”  Thus begins the dialogue, the connection, the consideration of everyone’s input.

It can become a game, guessing at the “yes” behind the “no.”  The more you can develop your curiosity and the less you take the “no” as a rejection of your request, the more joyful your interactions with your child will be around that dreaded word.  🙂

I Will Make Time Because You Matter To Me

During my parenting classes I hand out slips of paper to each parent for them to fill in.  On the piece of paper it reads:

“Dear _____, I want to support you in building healthy self-worth.  For you are loveable and you are valuable.  One thing I will do every day this week to spend quality engaging time with you is: ________________.  I will make time for this because you matter to me.” 

This is an attempt to get the parents to think concretely about things they can do with their children to build connection and nurture the relationship.  It’s easy enough to think, “Oh, I will pay more attention to my children this week.”  But–unless you can concretely visualize doing that in your mind and you set a strong intention–daily living, responsibilities and distractions tend to get in the way.  I encourage parents to fill in the slips of paper (one for each child) and put them on the refrigerator or the bathroom mirror or somewhere where they are daily reminded of their intention to connect and nurture.

One mom reported at the next meeting that initially she was a little confused when I gave her one for her new baby.   She had no trouble envisioning activities she could do with her 4 year old (like reading a book together, creating dinner together, going to the park with their bikes) but what can I do with a baby? she wondered.  

After some thought, she decided to give it try.  She wrote “Dear Samuel, I want to support you in building healthy self-worth.  For you are loveable and you are valuable.  One thing I will do every day this week to spend quality engaging time with you is: to look into your eyes while you are nursing.  I will make time for this because you matter to me.” 

She reported that when she started doing this, looking into her baby’s eyes instead of doing other tasks (like checking emails) while he nursed, that she felt a sweet connection with her baby who also gazed up into his mother’s eyes.  She also noticed what a difference it made in her, as her body relaxed, as her mind enjoyed a peaceful moment, and as she let the responsibilities of the day fade into the background.  The moment became  just about mother and baby, connecting and bonding. The shift helped her to connect with herself and with her baby and she came to enjoy these precious nursing breaks in her day, instead of seeing them as a necessity that got in the way of doing other things.

Haven’t most of us been there before?  Overwhelmed as parents and multi-tasking to get things done? I can clearly remember standing at the stove stirring a pot with one hand, holding a nursing baby with the other, while talking on the phone which was wedged between my neck and ear.  Really?  How much would it have cost me in time if I had put the pot on simmer, told my friend that I would call her back, and sat down in the comfy chair with my baby and gazed into his eyes as he nursed?  Did I really save that much time by doing it all at once?  And more importantly, did I lose something with that choice….like a moment of sweet connection and bonding and a message with my eyes that said, “I will make time for this because you matter to me.”

I invite you to look at the choices you are making today.  What messages do they send to your child?