Jul 172013
 

Emotion begets emotion. When our friends are happy or sad, we feel happy or sad. Maybe we feel twinges of tears during tissue commercials, or serious anxiety while watching contentious political debates. Being in the room with an angry individual, especially a loud angry person with big aggressive movements, can (and should) cause anxiety or mirrored anger. And parenting is no different. We come face to face with our children’s mostly raw, unhinged, loud and pure emotion once, twice or a hundred times a day.

 

Knowing what your go-to response is when you are faced with emotion is crucial to mindful parenting. Emotion is contagious and while empathy is a crucial and important part of interacting with the world, we also need to be aware of how our response pattern to emotions may be impacting our relationships and, most importantly, our parenting.

When we feel an emotion, our automatic response is to do something about it. If I feel angry, I want to get rid of the conflict. If I feel anxious, I want to get rid of the threat. If I feel frustrated, I want to change whatever is blocking my way. It mostly boils down to, “I don’t want to feel bad. Stop the emotion.” See the problem here? We may be saying, “tell me how you feel!” to our little ones, but if we react negatively when they do tell us, then our message is lost.

In parenting we are given the opportunity to see this unfold over and over again. Our kiddo has an emotion, it causes an emotion in us, we are driven to get rid of our own emotion, which means getting rid of our kid’s emotion. When they stop crying, I will feel better. When they stop being angry, I won’t feel bad. Our parenting choices are driven largely by our inability to tolerate our own and, consequently, our children’s emotions.

Mindful parenting asks us to stop this pattern. It asks us to tolerate everyone’s emotions. To be aware of our own emotions and to allow our children the space to feel and express and sort through their own stuff, without us blocking them. Supporting the emotional growth of our children demands that we allow them to practice emotional expression. Once, twice, maybe a hundred times a day.

It also means that we help them go a little deeper into their emotion. And in order to do that, we have to be able to keep our own emotions out of it. Let me be clear, I don’t mean escape out of the house or send them to another room to cry. I don’t mean ignore or take on an “I don’t care” attitude. I do mean that we need to realize that we are not always the center of the universe. I do mean that we need to realize that this emotion that they are having is not about us, and it is not ours to squash. Imagine if you went to your best friend to cry about something and she said, “Oh, stop crying, I hate it when you cry. Don’t you know we are late for the movie? Why do you always do this to me?” What you wanted was support and love while you processed some heavy emotion. It was not about her, it was not her emotion to squash.

It’s true. We squash our kids’ emotions. All. The. Time. But we don’t have to. And doing it differently can feel so good. In order to do it differently we need to Connect, Observe, Reflect and Engage (CORE). And say to yourself, “This emotion is not about me. This is not my emotion to squash.” Once, twice or a hundred times a day.

 

Here is an example of how it can look:

My five-year-old sat close by while my three-year-old lay on the floor and cried. I sat down on the floor and waited.

To say he was crying doesn’t really give justice to the moment. He howled and spat, “Bad mommy! Bad mommy!” He kicked his feet on the floor. He yelled, “NO!” every time one of us tried to comfort him.

“He is really mad at you,” my five-year-old observed.

I nodded. “That’s what I hear him saying. And that’s okay. He is very angry right now. But I don’t think he is really mad at me. I wonder what he is really feeling?” I pondered out loud.

My three-year-old would not let such a question go unanswered. “I AM mad at you! But also at these shoes. They won’t go on and now you’re going to leave me!”

My five-year-old piped up hopefully, “Oh maybe he isn’t really mad at you, maybe he is worried about if we are going to leave him.” He moved closer to his brother. “Are you worried we are going to leave you?”

“YES!” he screamed. “I can’t do this and you will leave me behind. I want to go to the park.” His agony and tears were intense.

“I can ask Mama for you. Do you want me to ask her?”

“YES!” he shrieked.

“Okay, Mama, are we going to leave him behind?”

“No. We will not leave him behind. Right now we are all sitting in the hallway together, trying to figure this out.”

My three-year-old, still crying, calmed a little bit.

I offered my support. “Seems like you are frustrated that your shoes are tricky and you’re worried about keeping up. What can I do to help you?”

“Can you wait for me?” He needed to hear it one more time.

“Yes. We can wait.”

He took a breath, wiped his nose, sat up and got to work putting on his shoes. It took a while. The laces were tied and the tongue was pushed down. His brother and I sat in the hallway with him while he worked. We started talking quietly about the wood grain in the floor. He worked and worked, his breathing settled.

Success! His shoes were on and tied.

“I’m ready!”

We all jumped up and headed to the door.

 

It took a lot of breaths. It took of lot of saying to myself, “this emotion isn’t about me,” which is hard to do when your little one is screaming that it is your fault. It took a lot of checking in with my own emotions and keeping them separate. But what happened was bigger and better and deeper. It was about exploring emotions, showing my boys that emotions don’t have to be squashed, that they can be worked through, together. It was about showing them that what feels like anger may really be fear, or frustration, or worry.

 

And that is big work for a little person. Or even a big one.

And doing that big work makes parenting feel a whole lot better.

 

 

 Posted by at 10:01 pm

  13 Responses to “Don’t Squash My Emotions”

  1. Thanks for writing this article; great tips on working with and holding space for emotions. I wonder – what do you do when you have to set a boundary around time? I appreciate that parenting is of the utmost importance, but I also think part of it is teaching children about respecting others’ time and keeping commitments. Any thoughts? Thanks!

    • Amy,

      I feel like this would make a good blog post of it’s own. Watch for it soon! But in the meantime, I will say that it is very true that we dont always have the luxury of sitting and waiting for a child to work through their emotions. Sometimes, we really do have to get in the car. Now! In those times, I recommend 1) using language/concepts that a child understands. Consider development. “We have to leave in five minutes” means nothing to a three year old. “We have time for two more trips down the slide” does. 2) Make the expectations very clear, both to yourself and your child. “We have to move to the car. You don’t have to stop crying, but we do have to move your body. Would you like to walk, or would it feel good for me to carry you.” (Wait, count to five in your head, if no movement occurs. “It is time for us to get in the car. I am going to pick you up and move you. I know your angry and that’s okay. Here we go.”

      Realizing that time is a little bit irrelevant to the under five crowd, process through the transition in a way that make sense to them. Understand that they are going to have to stop doing something they are engaged in now and move to something else.

      “I know you want to keep working on your project, but we told your friend we would meet them at the park. It seems like you have time to cut out one more shape and glue it on before cleaning up. What shape are you going to choose?” Say this rather than, “you have five minutes to finish”. This helps them understand that there is another commitment coming, helps them organize their thoughts and choices around transition, and helps them move towards closure of the activity they are doing. When you see they are done cutting the shape, move to the next transitional step. “Oh great, I see you are finishing up! What can I do to help you clean up?” I usually find that the biggest hinderance to moving on to the next thing is not being done with the current activity. When we help with this we may find less resistance to moving on!

      You can also check out a previous post I wrote on transition trouble.

  2. At what age do you start doing this? How about for a two year child with autism? I’ve been told by the child psychologists/specialists/pediatrician to acknowledge his feelings for a little bit, then redirect, which to me feels like I’m ignoring his feeling by distracting and redirecting. How long do you let a non-verbal special needs toddler go through their emotions/tantrums?

    Any advice is greatly appreciated:)

    • I dont think there is an age too young to support and help teach a child emotional intelligence. With any child, autistic or not, a parent has to use what they know about the child to make decisions about how to parent. So the information that you have about autism (how your child’s brain works is extremely important.)

      The key to this, is giving a child time to self regulate. If an autistic child (or any child) is locked into a thought, or idea, or emotion so intensely that they can not calm, it can feel extremely terrifying. So helping a child to shift their focus is actually teaching a coping skill. Especially if they can internalize it as such. So I wonder if it would feel differently to you if you narrated what was happening. “It feels like we are locked on this toy and it feels really intense. I wonder if looking at this book would help our body feel more relaxed right now.” I may do the same thing with a toddler who is escalating. If I as a parent am connected and observing closely, I can tell when my child is going from experiencing emotion to being overwhelmed by it. If they are overwhelmed by it, I want to step in and offer more support. But I want to be clear about what I am doing and why so that they can eventually internalize it and use it as their own coping skill. “I’m going to move us into a quiet room so there isn’t so much around to distract us.” “I’m going to get a book for us to look at so that we can sit quietly and think about something else while our bodies calm down.”

      Gina Osher, of the Twin Coach, has a private discussion group on Facebook called “The Parents’ Break Room”.

      Here is a description:

      “This group was created to allow parents, caregivers and teachers, whose children are not developing in a neuro-typical way (of any sort). Here we can come together to take a break from worrying about our kids. Here we can take a break from going to therapy appointments and just “be”. Here we can take a break from feeling like the only one who has a “challenging” kid.

      Perhaps most importantly, here we will focus on respectful parenting, being empathetic, being supportive of each other and offering advice – if asked.

      We are not posting as doctors or therapists. We are parents, just like you.

      Many times parents whose children have more mild delays, are considered “gifted” or “twice gifted”, or have an amalgam of conditions, can’t find a home within online supportive communities because we haven’t felt that our children’s issues “fit” in with the focus of these groups or we haven’t felt comfortable discussing our family situation in such a public forum.

      This group was created so that anyone who feels their child is not developing in a neurotypical way can feel welcomed, supported and have a place to “take a break” with other parents who just get it.”

      I would recommend you join if you are on Facebook!

      • Thank you for taking the time to respond and for sharing your advice. I will also look into the FB page you suggested.

  3. I really like your example and this method and it worked well when I only had one child. Now, with two, I am struggling with my almost three year old’s tantrums because to sit with her takes attention and time away from my one year old. He has needs and I would like to be with my older child, but I can’t just leave the baby. She gets very upset when I leave her to cry. Any suggestions?

    • Balancing the needs of everyone in the family can be so hard. I wrote a post on just this very thing! When Needs Collide.. The specific developmental needs of a one year old and a three year old is a particularly tricky combination as well.

      While I advocate for being available to sit with emotion, I think it is also okay (and important) that our children hear that sometimes, we just are not available. Which is not the same thing as saying we dont care or are not there for them. So for example. If you are feeding the baby and the three year old starts to express big emotion, you could say “I can see that you are so upset. If you want to try and calm your body so everyone is safe, you could come lie your head on my lap. Otherwise, you can be sad or angry as long as you need to, but I am not available to go in your room right now.” Then, if she chooses to “tantrum” you can continue to give verbal reminders. “We are out here in the rocking chair when you are ready!” or “We are just in the other room waiting for you! We will come back and check on you in a few minutes when snack is over”. After you tend to the baby, make sure you check in. “Okay, I am available now! What can I do to help?”

      I also like to try to engage siblings, even little ones in tending to each other. Not because “you’re the big sister, so take care of little sister” but because we are all family. So I may say to the little one. “Your sister is very sad. Would it work for you to play with blocks in the living room so we can be close to her while she works it out?”

      Building empathy, compassion and connection between siblings (“would you like a hug from your sister?” or “Maybe it would feel good to help get your sister’s food ready for snack”), rather than competition (“I can only give attention to one of you at a time”) can go a long way in building the relationship between them. It is never too early to start! In fact, the earlier the better!

  4. Love this article! I came across it at just the right time, we just had a baby 3 months ago and our 3 year is having some BIG emotions right now.

    • So glad! I would also recommend a post I wrote on siblings. Adding a new member to the family shifts dynamics. Helping your three year old find her own relationship with the little is important, right from the start!

  5. My problem with this article is a question of degrees. Aren’t we as parents also suppose to teach children that crying and having strong negative emotional responses to everything is actually not an appropriate response. For example…if your boss told you that you have done a specific task incorrectly and you go bananas and scream and yell because you are frustrated with the criticism
    Not ok. Isn’t it our job to help them process frustrations without acting out and name calling. And throwing a fit?

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