Have you ever felt those burning eyes of judgment on you?

Mother Knows Best

Once when my son was 2 years old I had to take him with me to get a fitting for a bridesmaid dress. The babysitter had cancelled on me that morning and I didn’t have the luxury of time to reschedule the fitting. My Plan B was to get in and out as quickly as possible and bring lots of fun toys to keep him entertained. When we got there the boutique was quite empty with several sales associates standing around. One of them retrieved my dress and steered us toward the fitting room.
I surrounded my son with all the fun colorful toys, but the new environment was just too enticing. He wanted to explore and quickly crawled under the dressing room door and out into the store. I followed half-dressed and stumbling over my long hemline. The staff at the store didn’t seem pleased to have him there. I apologized and explained about the babysitter cancelling but no one gave me a kind smile nor offered to help as I tried to corral him back into the dressing room area. Somehow I managed to keep him nearby while the alterations lady pinned and marked my dress, but it wasn’t easy because he was a curious active boy.

After the fitting, as I waited at the counter to go over more details, my son wandered off to inspect the shoe section. As he approached a tall display of shoe boxes in the middle of the floor I saw in slow motion what was about to happen. Before I could get to him, he pulled on one of the boxes and the entire mountain of shoes fell down. The sales associates gasped in unison and then they all turned their burning eyes of judgment on me.

If you have ever been in a situation like this, then perhaps you are familiar with the feeling of embarrassment–and even shame–when you sense that you are being judged as a parent. That hot flushed feeling that washes over you when you perceive that you have been measured as a mom and found wanting.
I can laugh about it today, but back then I wasn’t as conscious with my parenting as I am now. I grabbed him up and quickly left the store, mumbling apologies and wanting desperately to become invisible. I roughly buckled him in his car seat and then I proceeded to have my own temper tantrum on the way home, yelling questions at him that he certainly couldn’t answer, “Why can’t you listen and stay put for just 10 minutes? Why do you have to touch everything you see?” Of course, his behavior was developmentally spot on for a curious 2 year old, but I had been sucked down the vortex of parental unworthiness and failure and I became a mean and hurtful 2 year old myself.

Dr. Brené Brown, a shame researcher, calls this a shame spiral. She has spent the last two decades studying shame. She has interviewed thousands of people, listening to their stories of shame and honing in on the qualities that seem to help some people be more shame resilient than others. One of the things that has become clear in her research is that shame brings out the worst in us. As Dr. Brown says, “When we are in a shame spiral, we are not fit for human consumption.”

One of the moms she interviewed told a story about getting gas at a gas station and when she went in to pay, her credit card was declined. The store clerk began to berate her and demanded she leave her credit card and her driver’s license while she went to an ATM for cash. This exchange was witnessed by several people in line. She walked out of the store feeling very small and chastised. As she got in the car she slammed the door and it woke up her baby in the back seat who started crying. Before she knew what she was doing, she was yelling, “Shut up! Shut up! Just shut up!” This is what shame does to us—it hijacks the reasoning part of our brain and causes us to lash out in destructive ways.

Think about it, have you ever lashed out at or been harsh with your child when you sensed that you were being judged as a parent? I expect most of us know what I’m talking about here. How about when your child doesn’t want to share with others in the playgroup and all the other parents’ eyes are on you and how you will handle the situation? Or how about when your child acts out in a store or restaurant and everyone is watching? Or perhaps it’s in your own home….your husband explodes when the kids misbehave so you find yourself walking on eggshells trying to keep the children on their best behavior and losing it yourself when they aren’t? Or perhaps it’s that subtle little raising of the eyebrow from your mother-in-law when the kids get chaotic at the dinner table?

Here’s what is important to remember: The shame we feel when we perceive we are being judged can be detrimental to our children, because we will often react in stronger and harsher ways than we would if no one is watching or judging.

Sometimes just having this awareness will help us to respond more effectively and compassionately to our child. I have found it’s helpful to repeat a mantra to myself, such as “I can handle this in a loving way,” when I am faced with my child’s misbehavior in public…with an audience. Sometimes just calmly talking through the situation out loud will not only help you stay grounded, but will let the audience know that you have this under control, that you are a worthy mom: “I can see you’re very upset. Here, I’ll stay with you until you calm down.” Or, “I know you want to explore that mountain of shoes, it looks like fun. Let’s go home and make our own shoe mountain with all our shoes. I bet it will be taller than this one!” How about we start giving the audience an eyeful (or an earful) by modeling kind compassionate ways to deal with “misbehavior.”

♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥

Here are some questions to consider about how you handle judgment and shame around parenting:
1. Do you hold your child more accountable than you hold the judging adult? Really, what business does another adult (especially a stranger) have with you and your child?
2. Are you harsh with your child to get them to conform to what another adult thinks is appropriate?
3. Where do your loyalties lie? With your child? Or with the disapproving adult?
4. Do you hold it as a reflection on you as a mom when your child doesn’t behave as others think s/he should?

According to Dr. Brené Brown, if you’re caught in a shame spiral, there are three things you can do to start to break the cycle. This will help you to return to a loving space with your child as you work on the “misbehavior.”
1. Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love.
2. Reach out to someone you trust.
3. Tell your shame story. (Shame cannot survive being spoken)
     Rinse and repeat as often as necessary.  🙂

When one child is “mean” to another: healing both

When your child comes home in tears because someone was “mean” to them at school, the first line of defense is to listen to their outpouring of feelings and allow them to feel them….fully.  This is quite hard to do.  It’s heartbreaking for us as parents to be with our child’s painful feelings.  We just want to fix it for them, smooth it over and make sure that it never happens again.  But if we can just be with our child and let the tears fall (without trying to fix it), this is great medicine in and of itself.  Having someone to listen to them in this way, feeling fully heard and understood, will help your child develop inner strength and resiliency.  This simple, but healing, act of listening will help instill in them that they can weather life’s storms and come out okay.

Once your child feels fully heard and understood, you can help them brainstorm ways that they can “respond” to hurtful words or actions, rather than “react” emotionally or with their own damaging words.  Help your child come up with some key phrases that will help to protect her from the impact of a hurtful comment.  Some phrases may be, “That’s not nice and I’m not going to listen any more” (and she turns or moves away).  Or “It’s not okay to talk to me that way” (and she turns or moves away).  If the phrases and disengagement don’t work, then it’s time to get a teacher or adult involved.

While it’s helpful to teach our children tools so they can “stand up for themselves,” no child should have to go through this alone.  It’s our responsibility as parents, teachers, and adult mentors, to support our children in tough times and to model for them how to deal with others who have hurt us.  Usually, the impulse is to judge the “mean” child for their behavior and punish them for their wrongs.  But I believe this perpetuates the problem.  It adds another layer of blame and shame to what the “mean” child is already feeling, which is causing the behavior in the first place.  

I believe that a hurt-ful child is a hurt-filled child.  When a child’s needs are being met, they are loving and kind and have no need to act out in a hurtful way.  When one child is mean to another, there is something bigger going on below the surface, there are some needs that are not being met.  When we set up supportive systems (like peer mediation or restorative circles) in our families, schools, and other institutions to address this bigger issue of unmet needs, then we will start to see this type of behavior fade.

So instead of punishment for the “mean” girl, I would want her also to know that she is loved and cared about even after the harm she has done. I would want a loving adult in her life to sit with her and listen to what is going on for her to cause her to act out in this way.  And to help her understand what needs of hers she is trying to meet with such behavior and guide her to find better strategies to get those needs met with less cost to others (and to herself).  No one feels good being mean.

Here’s an illustration of how I used this approach with a similar situation in my family.  Recently, my son made an inappropriate attempt at humor by writing some text below another person’s photo and sending it out on Instagram.  Someone showed the Instagram to the person who was in the photo and that person was not amused and sent us (the parents) an email. 

Before I approached my son about it, I thought about my intentions.  I got clear that I wanted my son to learn how his actions affect others (especially how widespread the effect can be in today’s electronic world) and I wanted to give him a chance to restore his honor, to come back to his best self.  Above all, I wanted him to know that he is loved and cared about even when he makes mistakes.  And that he can count on me to support him through the uncomfortable and awkward stage of restitution—as he repairs the harm he has caused another and as he restores his own honor to himself.

I was very satisfied with our conversation.  Because I didn’t approach him with judgment and punishment, he didn’t become defensive.  He knew it was a stupid mistake and he sincerely regretted that his actions had caused embarrassment and hurt.  He sent an email to the person in the photo apologizing for sending the Instagram and for not thinking through how hurtful it might be.  The person in the photo responded with a very sweet email in return.  As far as I know, the hurt was repaired on both sides…and some valuable life lessons were learned to boot.

I’m reminded of a story I read in Alan Cohen’s book, Living from the Heart.  Here’s an excerpt which captures beautifully how, instead of punishing, we can love others back to their best self:

When a woman in a certain African tribe knows she is pregnant, she goes out into the wilderness with a few friends and together they pray and meditate until they hear the song of the child. They recognize that every soul has its own vibration that expresses its unique flavor and purpose. When the women attune to the song, they sing it out loud. Then they return to the tribe and teach it to everyone else. When the child is born, the community gathers and sings the child’s song to him or her.

Later, when the child enters education, the village gathers and chants the child’s song. When the child passes through the initiation to adulthood, the people again come together and sing. At the time of marriage, the person hears his or her song. Finally, when the soul is about to pass from this world, the family and friends gather at the person’s bed, just as they did at their birth, and they sing the person to the next life.

In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them. The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity.

When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another. A friend is someone who knows your song and sings it to you when you have forgotten it. Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made or dark images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly; your wholeness when you are broken; your innocence when you feel guilty; and your purpose when you are confused.

May we all be surrounded by family and friends who know our song and who will sing it to us when we need it the most.

What I would ask Nancy Lanza

Memorial for Sandy Hook victims

Even as the New Year dawns and I’m teased with new beginnings and bright possibilities, I’m also still mourning how the Old Year concluded with the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I find that I keep vacillating between tears and numbness; I can only hold so much sorrow and despair before I have to shut down for a while and not feel. Then slowly, the sadness and grief return.

What has touched me most in this ordeal is reading about Adam’s mom, Nancy, and how it appears she was so isolated while dealing with her son’s increasingly extreme social withdrawal. Aside from a few conversations with casual friends, it appears that she faced her uncertainties, worries, and hard choices alone.  Her acquaintances are quick to describe her as happy and cheerful, but I imagine a different Nancy Lanza living behind the closed doors of her big beautiful home in Newtown.  I imagine a mom who desperately wanted her son to “fit in” and who was sick with worry about how to reach him as he slipped away, receding further and further into his own world.

This breaks my heart because it hits close to home for me. When my son was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder and we were dealing with some pretty severe behaviors day in and day out and I, too, felt he was slipping away, there were times when I thought I would lose my mind.  If I hadn’t had a couple good friends around me to hear my painful stories, to witness my struggles and to just be there to love me through it, I don’t know how it would have turned out. (Thank you Faye and Donna!) What I learned from that experience is it’s easy to become isolated when you have a “problem” child.  It’s hard to find sitters and play dates and friends who will go the distance with you.

I see this isolation often as I work with parents who have children with challenging behaviors, whether it’s violent outbursts or extreme social withdrawal.  It’s easy to wag a finger at the parent and find fault with their parenting.  It’s easy to give well-meaning advice of just do this, and that should solve the problem.  But unless you’ve ever lived with a child who doesn’t respond the same way as a “normal” child to “traditional” parenting techniques, then I’m here to tell you, “You don’t have a clue!”  What these parents need is not finger-wagging and advice, but compassion and acceptance, so that they feel like part of the human family again.

We can second-guess Nancy and think, “if only she had done this, that, or the other,” and we can blame her for taking Adam to shooting ranges and teaching him to fire a gun—just like we can judge the actions or inactions of other parents who have “weird” or “unruly” or “bully” kids.   But I don’t think fault-finding helps anyone.  I think it fuels the shame and fear of judgment that parents of children who are “different” often feel.  And shame and fear is what keeps these parents and families isolated.  What I would like to see is for us to love and support the Nancy Lanzas in our communities–the parents who are struggling with family life, often very much alone.

If only I could get in a time machine and reach out to Nancy before this awful tragedy, I would ask her, “You seem worried.  What’s going on?  How can I help?  What do you need?”  I would listen with my whole heart and I would hold a safe non-judgmental space for her to share her struggles, and to begin to heal.  Because I know when parents heal their own pain, they can help their children to heal too.  When parents receive compassion and acceptance themselves, they can extend the same to their children…and there’s a lot of children out there starving for compassion and acceptance.

As a parenting educator/coach, I’ve seen the power of a group of parents who come together to support each other.  A foundation of my classes is developing empathic listening, so parents are paired up and spend time outside of class just listening to each other.  Not giving advice, not trying to fix or console, but just listening. The parents are always astounded at how much this simple practice supports them.  As one mom recently said, “My friends and I talk all the time about parenting stuff, but this is a different quality of listening.  The word that comes to mind is transformative.”

Who knows what kind of ripple effect a supportive listening ear would have made for Nancy and possibly many other lives?  Would it have been enough to change the trajectory of what was to come?  It’s too late to know the answer in regards to Nancy Lanza, but there are many struggling, exhausted parents out there right now who need our support—perhaps it’s your neighbor, perhaps it’s your sister-in-law, perhaps it’s you.

My vision is a world where we create emotionally-safe, judgment-free communities where parents can come together,  share their struggles, be accepted no matter what is happening or how they are handling it, and be supported and nurtured by each other.  If this sounds like the kind of community you would like to be a part of, I invite you to join me in this quest and reach out to a parent who is struggling in your community today.
Rest in peace…Nancy, Allison, Ana Grace, Anne Marie, Avielle, Benjamin, Caroline, Catherine, Charlotte, Chase, Daniel, Dawn, Dylan, Emilie, Grace, Jack, James, Jesse, Jessica, Josephine, Lauren, Madeleine, Mary, Noah, Olivia Rose, Rachel, Victoria, and Adam.