Sep 182012

Today I heard a story from a man about the moment he first knew he loved his wife. He saw her across the room. She was in the kitchen, making tea, unaware of his presence. He paused and observed her. The color of her hair and how it fell just so across her forehead. The way she held her shoulders, the way she stirred her tea while staring out the window. They were dating at the time and he was suddenly filled with an unexplainable emotion. Strong and pure and deep and true. He was swept away and drawn to her and could essentially feel the essence of her being in every cell of his body. He loved her.

And in that moment, she didn’t have to do anything. She didn’t have to return the love or be grateful for his love or even know about his love. He loved her just for the sake of loving her. He smiled quietly at the memory. I could tell he could actually feel it in that moment.

As I listened to the story, it resonated profoundly with me.

It immediately brought to mind the feeling that I get when I see my child asleep, or when I watch them from afar. That huge ball of emotion that fills you to the brim, that brings tears to your eyes and raises goose-bumps on your arms. The wave of joy and awe that sucks the breath out of your lungs. For a moment, you can’t breathe, but it’s okay, because you don’t need air when you have pure, life-sustaining, true love. In that moment, you don’t love them because they make you smile, or because they say the funniest things, or because they gave you a hug, or because they need you or don’t need you. You simply love them because you do. Because they exist. They don’t have to earn it or return it or even know about it. You just love them, pure and simple. As I sit here right now, I can feel it. Welling up within me. My kids aren’t even in the room, but I know that the love I have for them is profound and deep and untouchable.

And then the man went on. He talked about how he sometimes wonders whether he is still in love with his wife. About how she doesn’t give him what he needs. About how she frustrates him and doesn’t listen to him and doesn’t appreciate all the things he does for her.  And the anger wells up and the frustration grows and the disappointment lingers until he wonders whether or not he really loves her after all. His smile fades.

Countless poets and thinkers and philosophers have long debated the difference between loving and being in love. For me, this man’s story captured the essence of it all. Loving someone is about what you bring to the picture. It is about embracing someone with empathy and awe and a full-hearted connection, simply because. Loving someone requires nothing from the other person. Nothing. No acknowledgement or reward or returned affection. Loving someone simply is.

On the other hand, being “in love” with someone is about what they give you back. It is the mirror they hold up to us that reflects our good and bad. It is about the twinges of excitement we get when we know we are loved. It is about the feeling of security. It is about the things they give us that make us feel amazing, fulfilled, connected. Being in love is tremendous when things are good. But, in the end, no one can give us all these things all the time, so we are destined to also feel disappointed, hurt, frustrated and resentful.

What does this have to do with parenting?

When you think about it, the true-love versus in-love conflict represents one of our deepest struggles—and maybe also one of the simplest solutions to our parenting challenges.  An amazing mother I know gave the most beautiful example of this when, in the angst of one of those nights we have all had, said to her child, “Can’t you think about me for once in your life?”

Her painful statement resonated with me, not only because I have surely thought those exact words before, but also because she is speaking to the heart of this issue. We love to love our children, but let’s face it: our children are horrible at giving us what we need. They don’t care about our agenda. They live in the moment and they always put their own needs ahead of everyone else’s. We find ourselves feeling disappointed, hurt, frustrated, and resentful.  “Why are you doing this to me? Just get in the car!” “Another meal you refused to eat.” “Don’t you know how exhausted I am?” These thoughts and feelings are hints that we are operating in the what-does-this-relationship-give-to-me mode rather than the pure-true-love mode.

I don’t think it is crazy, unusual or even unhealthy to enjoy the conditional type of love. Our kids give us lots of things that make us feel amazing. The challenge lies in our awareness. Realizing that our feelings of disappointment are impacting our parenting. Understanding when our feelings of resentment get in the way of our ability to be present. Accepting when our feelings of hurt stop us from seeing our children with empathy and awareness.

Mindfulness in parenting means that we become aware of and stop reacting to the internal struggle that wages war on us. We have to work at detaching from our “in-love” reactions, which are based on what our child gives to us, and instead approach and interact with our children from a “true-love” place where our empathy, compassion, love and support of them requires nothing in return.

I find it incredibly difficult to hold two conflicting feelings about someone at the same time. In that moment of complete awe I feel while my children are sleeping, it is almost impossible for me to invoke the feelings of frustration and anger I felt only hours earlier as we struggled through their bedtime routine. In the same way, the feelings of anger and frustration interfere with my ability to feel that no-strings-attached, pure love that I know is somewhere inside of me.

So, this week, I am challenging myself to be aware of which love I am driven by. Is it the one that my children have to live up to? The one that fuels the inner voice that screams, “Why can’t you just think of me for once in your life?” And if it is that one, can I quiet that emotion, acknowledge it and gently put it aside, and invoke the deeper true love I have? Because it is from this space that I will be able to engage with empathy rather than blame, understanding rather than frustration, and patience rather than resentment.

Maybe it isn’t as hard as it seems. Here is the practice.

1)      In quiet moments, find the image of your child that you hold in your heart, the one that brings up that “true-love” reaction. Let it fill you. Pay attention to it. What is it that really hits home? Is it the way she smells, the sound of her breath, her laugh, the way she scrunches up her nose while reading? Allow it to resonate in your awareness.

2)      The next time you notice your frustration, short temper, and anger creeping up, invoke the image. Tell yourself, “This is the same person.”

3)      Breathe out, letting go of the frustration.

4)      Breathe in, embracing the memory of your true love.

5)      Repeat. Remember, usually there is no need for immediate reaction and you have time.

Like the man with the lovely story of his wife, a smile may creep across your face as you connect to your own gentle, compassionate, true love for this little person and are reminded of what is real.  The moment, and your child, will undoubtedly look different to you.

Want to take the challenge with me? Give it a try.  Please share your experience!

 Posted by at 10:59 pm
Sep 042012

In my work as a psychologist with adults in therapy, I am reminded time and time again of the importance of our inner dialogue, the stories we tell about ourselves. The way we think and talk about ourselves not only reflects who we are, but also defines, reinforces and shapes who we become. The power of these stories can move us in one direction or another and can quite literally change the course of our lives.  Our identity is intimately intertwined with the stories we choose to focus on.

How much can these stories really change who we are? It’s a question of Nature versus Nurture: While there is ongoing discussion about the weight and importance of one versus the other, it is clear that both are at play in our developing selves. How is the book of our life written? Genetics, predisposition, temperament are the paper, the binding, the cover. Experiences, thoughts, and beliefs are the words, the sentences, the paragraphs. The story we become would not exist without both. The self-view and beliefs about ourselves and the world are innately part of our person, our own individual book.

So where do those beliefs come from? Children are constant absorbers of data, of information about how the world works and how they relate to that world. In short, they collect stories. The power of this becomes clear when we consider the fact that we are, essentially, the storytellers for our children. When we talk about them, they listen.  When we make defining statements about them, they believe us.  They incorporate the information into their belief system about themselves and then act accordingly.

The other day, I heard my son tell someone, “I would rather ride bikes than anything else in the world.” Admittedly, this is a fairly benign statement in and of itself. But what impacted me the most was that I had said that about him. Word for word. I was talking on the phone to a friend and hadn’t even realized he was listening. He absorbed it. It may or may not have been true before I said it, but now, it seems, he is beginning to incorporate it into his understanding of himself. My simple statement to a friend shaped his understanding of his identity.

But what if the statement weren’t so benign? How many of us say things like:

“He is such a picky eater.”

“She has trouble with aggression.”

 “Math is not his strong suit.”

“She is shy.”

All these statements are global and finite. They send the child the message that this is a true and stable fact. A true story.  As a child starts to incorporate this view of herself, she will act accordingly.

But what if, instead, we said this?

“Today he didn’t feel like eating broccoli.”

“She was having strong feelings and didn’t know what to do with them.”

“He is working really hard to figure out math. It’s hard right now.”

“Today at the playground, she was feeling nervous with the other kids.”

 All these statements reflect what the child may be feeling or experiencing in the moment, without attributing it to a global trait. There is room for the child to change or grow or do things differently next time. There is room for the child to experiment with different stories and, in the long run, find the ending that is right for her.

The stories we tell about our children not only impact how they act, but can also profoundly impact how we treat them.  It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. If a parent believes his child is a picky eater, he may worry and stress and make comments about a child’s eating. The parent may offer or restrict certain types of foods. The child is busy collecting information about this, incorporating it and acting accordingly until, in the end, the child refuses to eat certain foods and grows to believe she just doesn’t like them. It’s the chicken and the egg. Maybe the child really didn’t like them, maybe it was just a phase, maybe it was just a fluke. There is no way to know because, in the end, the story has been told.

Letting a child’s story unfold naturally may be one of the hardest things to do. Maybe, in the end, it is impossible to completely avoid shaping their stories with our perceptions and beliefs. But being aware of the profound impact we are having on a child when we label, diagnosis, or otherwise define a behavior can change the way we think and talk about our children.  Our children are ever-changing, growing, developing, thriving beings. They are learning about themselves and the world. Sure, they have temperaments and proclivities and natural strengths and weaknesses, the structure of their book. But there are also infinite ways the words can arrange themselves on the page. Uncountable ways their story  can come to fruition. To declare that we “know” the ultimate truth about their journey is to sell them short.

So I challenge you to become aware of the stories you tell about—and to—your children. What kinds of things do you say that may be defining their path? And how might the stories you tell be impacting their behavior? Here are some things to practice:

 1)      Become aware of times when you are talking about your children when they are not around. Listen to yourself. Are the stories respectful, accurate, loving? Do they leave space for growth? We all need to vent sometimes, but the way we talk about our children in their absence can definitely color the way we interact with them later on.

2)      Become aware of times when you are talking about your children when they are around, even if you think they aren’t listening. Assume they are listening. (They probably are.)

3)      Become aware of times when you are talking about your children when they are actually listening. Change the way you do this. Include them in the conversation. Ask their permission to tell a story. Maybe they want to tell it themselves. Maybe they don’t want it told at all. Realize that not all stories are yours to tell just because you are bigger.

4)      Become aware of the language you use in talking to your children about their behaviors. Does your language suggest a global and permanent truth about them (“You are a picky eater”)? Can you change this language to reflect what is happening in the moment (“Today it seems like you don’t feel like eating much”)?

The balance of honoring the innate qualities in our children and allowing their stories to naturally develop may be subtle and tricky at times. It means being present and supportive of what we observe and understand about our children right now, while at the same time being open and excited about the changes and developments that are to come. It means being flexible in action and respectful in the stories we tell. It means more time spent reflecting on the moment and less time spent labeling in the broader sense of the word. And, in the end, it means remembering that our child’s life is her story, not ours.

 Posted by at 12:32 pm
Aug 212012

Over the past week or so, I have found myself having very similar discussions with various parents. Whether it is a mom of a two-year-old boy or a father of an 11-year-old girl I hear the same question: “How can I get them to stop tantruming?” The toddler who wails at the top of his lungs and throws a truck across the room. The child who yells with fury and clenched fists. The preteen who stomps and slam doors and sobs about the unfairness of it all. Oh the pain, the agony, the drama. The emotion!

But what is a “tantrum”? What is it really and what does it all mean? In the heat of the moment, tantrums can feel overwhelming to everyone involved. The child may feel out of control, the parent may feel at his/her wits’ end, other children in the home feel unsettled or even unsafe. From an adult perspective, all of this drama because the eggs were scrambled instead of fried, or because the blue shorts are in the wash, or because a friend can’t be called until chores are done. To our adult brain, the emotional output does not match the input. “All this over something so silly?” Our frustration rises. It can be hard to make sense of it when we think about it with our rational, problem-solving, goal-oriented,get-the-kids-in-the-car-and-on-to-the-next-task parent brain.

When someone asks me “How can I make this stop?” (or I hear myself asking the same question, because I do), I immediately counter with, “Why do you want the tantrum to stop?” Usually this is met with a blank stare, as if I were an alien. What a silly question. “No really, why do you want it to stop?” And here is what we come up with:

Because I don’t want them to turn into adults who tantrum. Okay, so clearly, we wouldn’t want our children to learn that throwing themselves on the floor and crying for 30 minutes when the eggs are scrambled instead of fried  is a reasonable response. But when is the last time you saw an adult do that? Children have been “tantruming” since, well since children have existed, and I would venture to say that the number of adults who do that is statistically insignificant. I’m not saying that adults know how to handle emotion. Many of us don’t. But worrying that your children will forever throw trucks across the room is just unrealistic.

Once we get past the fear of raising tantruming adults, we get to the real reason we want the tantruming to stop. It bothers us. It’s loud. It’s inconvenient. It’s annoying. It’s disconcerting. It’s scary. It’s emotionally draining. I could go on, but in short, we want it to stop because we can’t or don’t want to tolerate emotion.

In reality, adults who have difficulty identifying, processing, displaying, or recovering from emotions do so not because they did or didn’t “tantrum” as a child, but because they somehow got the message that emotions were not safe, tolerated, or respected.  They somehow came to understand that feelings should be avoided, should not be shared, create distress in others. They somehow never figured out what to do with big emotions when they arise, much less what they mean or what they feel like. So in reality, if we are really worried  about our children growing up to be adults who throw themselves on the floor, we should be working towards encouraging as many opportunities as possible to work through big emotion now.  That way, they can become well versed in the language of emotion and develop an intimate understanding and awareness of what emotions feel like and what works and doesn’t work for dealing with those emotions. In short, we may want to actually embrace the tantrum.

Maybe we can start by redefining what a tantrum is. The word itself is fraught with strife, negativity and connotations of “spoiled,” “rotten” children who “manipulate” and “connive” to get their way. I wish this idea could be deleted from our lexicon. Rather, let’s see the moment more clearly. It is Big Emotion in a Small Body. The eggs or the shorts or the phone call are not the point. The emotion is the point. And the emotion IS REAL. And real emotion presents an opportunity for children to learn about themselves, their feelings, their work in this world. And we, as their parent or teacher or caretaker, have the opportunity to help them, or shut it down. They are having big emotion and they don’t quite know what to do with it.

Have you ever had big emotion that you shared with someone and they responded with, “Well, that’s silly, you are overreacting.” Or “I know exactly what you should do instead.” Or, “Well, it’s your own fault, you did it to yourself.” Generally, these responses don’t feel very good. What we want is to have someone say, “Wow, you’re in pain. I’m here for you.” We want empathic connection. We want to know it is safe to feel how we feel. In the moment of big emotion, we don’t want to be told it is our own fault (even if we know that it is). We don’t want to be told that we are over reacting (even if we are). We don’t want to be told how to solve it (even if we really need help). In that moment of crisis, we want to know that the other person recognizes and respects the feeling we are having. In crisis, we want connection. It’s true if we are two or 82.

And if we can do this for our children in the moment of the big emotion, amazing things happen. When we reflect the emotion to them, we help teach them to recognize their feelings. We connect with them and they feel validated and heard and safe. Simply saying “You’re so angry. I get it!” can go a long way. Just feeling validated can often ease the pain and lessen the intensity of the moment. When we give them space and time to feel their emotion and help them process different ways of handling it, we actually work towards our first goal of creating emotionally competent adults. They can learn that feelings are safe and they can experiment with what happens when they do different things.  So here are simple steps to begin practicing a new way of thinking about and responding to big emotion:

1)     Breathe, observe, wait, and tolerate emotion. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Throughout the entire process. Continue to breathe, observe, wait and tolerate.

2)     Reflect what they are feeling. Let them know that you are there, you see them, you hear them. “You’re so disappointed right now. I can see that!” “It’s so frustrating!” “You’re so angry.”

3)     Set safe limits on behaviors, not emotions. “You can be as sad as you need to be, or as frustrated as you need to be, but I won’t let you (hit, throw, bite, etc.)” “I know how angry you are and I see you stomping. But I also know that the stomping is really scary to your little brother. If you need to stomp the basement is a great place to do that.”

4)     Let them be the experts on their feelings. Ask what they need. “What can I do to help you through this anger?” This doesn’t mean that you do whatever they ask. We have to remember that the lesson here is working through the feelings. If the child responds by saying, “I need you to make new eggs” we don’t need to do it. Instead try “Oh, I know you’re disappointed about the eggs. New eggs aren’t available, but I would be happy to support you in another way.”

5)     Back to step one. Repeat.

So the next time your child has big emotion, change the way you think and see and respond in the moment. Change your thoughts from “Oh no, not again!” to “Yes! Another opportunity to practice emotional competence!” Take a deep breath and be amazed at the hard work your child is doing. Learning about emotions is difficult, engaging work. Be there, by their side.

 Posted by at 11:23 am
Aug 142012

The other day, after returning from one outing and immediately starting to plan where we were off to next, my preschooler said, “The thing about me, Mama, is that I really like to stay home mostly.”

It’s true. He does. Oh, sure, he loves to go the science museum and ride bikes around the neighborhood and climb at the park, but he also needs downtime at home, by himself, with his own “stuff” and special places. Time when he can just hang out. After a busy day out, back at home we often find him in small, quiet, safe places: forts, cabinets, and the back of closets. He gravitates toward activities he has mastered and is comfortable and familiar with. Legos, puzzles he knows he can do, books he knows by heart. It is as if he is trying to remind himself that the world is smaller, knowable, and predictable. What I know about him is that when I make sure I give him this, we have fewer meltdowns, less transition trouble (you know, those times when you just can’t make it out the door without everything in the world getting in the way), less sibling conflict, and even better sleep.

What I know about me is that I love to be on the go. So, sometimes, I let my own needs take precedence and we can spend days on end going here, there and everywhere.  Over time, his stress builds up and he starts to ask for what he needs in his four-year-old way: tantrums, increased aggression, and more out-of-control moments. I imagine he feels depleted. His time at home rejuvenates him. It is my job to remember this and build time into his world for meeting this need.

Often, when our kids are struggling with something, we look for answers outside. We read books or blogs or we ask our friends what they would do. But, in reality, the starting point should be within the kiddos themselves. When a parent presents a “problem” he is having with his child, I like to start by asking, “What do you know about your kid that could help us understand what she is trying to communicate here?” Most of the time, the parent starts to tell me about his child and, through this dialogue, the “problem” suddenly makes more sense.

We have to remember that, just like adults, kids are individuals. Their personalities, proclivities, likes, dislikes, temperaments, and natures vary indefinitely. When we say, “Two-year-olds are this way,” or, “Six-year-olds should be that way,” we have to remember that these are amazingly broad generalities that don’t account for the infinite personal differences that make our children unique and amazing individuals. If we stop paying so much attention to developmental schedules and what our friends’ kids are doing, and we start emphasizing what we know in our hearts about our own kids, we can respond and offer support in ways that work for them, rather than becoming frustrated when they don’t follow a certain pattern!

In workshops, I often have parents write out thoughts on the following questions. Thinking about these questions can help you to organize your understanding of your child.  This understanding can lead to insights about how you can support your child’s interaction with the world in a way that makes sense for him.

What kinds of things make my child feel safe?

What kinds of things create anxiety for my child?

What does my child like? Dislike?

What five words best describe my child right now?

If my child could choose one place to be, where would it be?

How does my child respond to new situations?

What does it look like when my child has had enough?

How would I know if my child were uncomfortable?

What is the best part of the day for my child? The hardest?

What happens when she is hungry? Tired?

Parents are often surprised to discover how much insight they already have about their children. Sometimes the most difficult part of this process is that:

  1. We confuse what is true for us with what is true for each of our kids (just because I feel the need to be moving constantly doesn’t mean this works for my child), and
  2. We have trouble remembering that kids are dynamic, changing beings. What is true right now may not be true next year.

As our children grow, develop, and thrive, the answers to some of these questions may morph as well. We must strive to see our children with open eyes and a flexible mind. The best strategy for supporting an individual child depends on the picture that emerges as we think through these types of questions. Thinking of our children as autonomous individuals can allow us to be creative and think outside of the “parenting book guidelines” to discover what really works.

 Posted by at 12:01 pm
Jul 242012

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about the primary principles of parenting that I and so many others embrace. As I read blogs and articles written by various experts and bloggers and mothers, I am struck by a commonality of underlying assumptions that is moving the parenting world forward. The collective voice is growing. I believe that it has always been there, but the voice is gaining strength and momentum and courage, and it is impacting the lives of children in an amazing way. We are moving away from viewing children as merely an extension of ourselves to be controlled and molded, toward an understanding that children are in fact people in their own right. As our consciousness shifts, our parenting truths shift. Here are my top ten principles in no particular order:
• Practice gentle communication with our children.
• Be truly present in our interactions with our children.
• Build deep and enduring connections with our children.
• Respect the person each child is in their own right.
• Support and validate children’s experiences, thoughts and emotions.
• Encourage the personal growth and development of our children.
• Create a safe and nurturing environment in which our children can thrive.
• Understand that parenting matters. What we do and say has real impact on our children.
• Learn from our children. Relationships are reciprocal.
• Trust our children to be exactly where they should be in life.

As I read over my tenets, I replaced the word “child” with husband, partner, friend, employer, neighbor, stranger. And it hit me. Perhaps gentle parenting really is a bridge to a gentler world. I know when I am practicing these principles with my kids, I feel better inside. Softer, kinder, relaxed, connected. My relationship with my children is fuller and more rewarding. I see a difference in them and I see a difference in myself. I hear the same thing over and over again from other parents. And so I wonder, Why am I limiting my practice and awareness of these ideas to my children?

I am struck by the realization that as we practice these types of interactions with our children, not only are our children more likely to engage with others in the same fashion, but WE are more likely to engage with others in the same fashion! Imagine it: A whole family, community, region, world where people approach each other in the same way we are striving to approach our children! That is the world I want my boys to live in. That is the world I want all our children to live in.

The Center for Non-Violent Communication lists as one of their visions a world in which “people joyfully and compassionately contribute to each other and resolve conflicts peacefully.”

Joyfully and compassionately contribute to each other. Let’s do that.

 Posted by at 1:46 pm