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.
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.