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
Jul 232012
 

What parent hasn’t felt the emotion welling up within? Frustration, exhaustion, anger, confusion. These emotional responses are normal and impossible to avoid from time to time over the course of parenthood. The problem is that when we approach our children from this emotional state, we often respond to the moment impulsively with reactions that actually fuel the fire and have an impact that is the opposite of what we would like to see happen. In other words, our reactions actually make things worse!

Most of us, if not all of us, have been there. They are crying, we are frustrated. We get louder, they cry harder. We feel more frustrated and on and on….Ironically, most of these situations can easily be very different if we, as parents, are able to respond differently. The next time you find yourself responding from a place of frustration, exhaustion, or anger, take a deep breath and try one of these alternative responses instead. You may be surprised at the immediate difference.

 

If you want to say… …try this instead. Why it Works
“Because I said so!” “Why do you think we might need to do it that way?” This response usually signals that we have entered into a power struggle with our child over something pretty basic (putting on shoes, jackets, etc.) The child might be simply refusing to find power. Asking the child what she thinks turns her into a participant in the moment, rather than an object to be controlled. On the other hand, if the best response you have is “Because I said so,” it may be a sign that you need to let it go. Maybe you chose a battle that doesn’t need to be fought.
“I have asked you [3, 10, 100] times not to do that. You’re going to get hurt! Stop!” “I notice you’re doing X, I’m worried about Y. What do you think?” Our kids are never too young to start thinking about the natural consequences of their actions. Modeling and encouraging them to notice and think about the social, spatial and emotional relationships among themselves and others teaches them about the world, rather than simply forcing their behavior. It’s the difference between supportive parenting and micromanaging.
“I can’t take [this, you, it] anymore.” “I’m feeling so frustrated right now. I’m going to take a minute to breathe and think. What are you going to do?” You can and should let your kids know that you have real feelings too. This response lets you model healthy and helpful coping skills.
“STOP hitting your brother!” Physically block aggressive behavior, if necessary, while saying, “You’re so angry! I’m not going to let you hurt him, but what do you want him to know?” The goal is to reinforce the avoidance of violence while at the same time acknowledging the valid emotion and offering a pro-social way to express that emotion. Simply trying to stop the behavior doesn’t work. The child is left with internal angst that she doesn’t have an outlet for. I have written in more detail about this here.
“You are out of control!” or “Get in control!” “Sam, what are your feet doing right now? What are your arms doing right now? Can you feel your tummy?”or “Raise your hand if you can hear me.”or “Can you make your legs move verrrryyyy slllllooowwwwly? Can you make your body into a ball?” Sometimes kids can start spinning out of control. Many times, when this happens, it is almost as if their bodies are on autopilot, crashing around and waiting for something or someone to reel them in. Rather than physically restraining them, try helping them connect their thoughts with their bodies. Bringing their awareness to what is going on with their body can teach them to control themselves, rather than having us do it for them. This also helps to create a space that allows them to get into control. Does your child need a bigger space in that moment? Or maybe your child needs the opposite, a smaller space.
“Why are you crying?!?!” or “That’s nothing to cry about.” or “Stop crying.” “Oh, you’re so sad! What can I do for you?” Why the child is crying really doesn’t matter. Remember, to you it’s just a blue sippy cup. To the child, it’s his world. The emotion is strong and that’s what matters. Sometimes all that children need is for someone to acknowledge that their emotion is real. Asking what they think they need helps them learn how to start taking care of themselves and identify their own coping mechanisms for processing and handling emotion.
“Why aren’t your shoes on yet???”   “Here, let’s do it together….” or “It’s time for shoes. What do you need to do first to take care of that?” If you have had to tell a child several times to do something and it isn’t happening, it may not be about the child. Maybe your expectations are off. Telling the child to do it again isn’t going to change anything. Rather, you need to do something differently. Most likely, the child’s failure to follow through is her way of telling you that she is having trouble orienting herself to the moment, prioritizing, focusing, etc. Breaking down the steps, walking the child through it, or helping the child organize the task will facilitate the process and meet everyone’s needs.

 

Immediate, emotionally driven responses strive for control of a situation and result in shame and the suppression of feelings. They essentially exclude the child from the process. This leaves everyone feeling disconnected and alone. There is a sense of pressure for an immediate expected outcome. In contrast, the alternative responses engage the child, ask for his input, and give him responsibility and autonomy in the process while allowing for flexibility in the outcome. We, as parents, can relax into roles as empathic supporters and guides, rather than feeling pressured to be omniscient rulers of all things—a frustrating job when our subjects have a mind of their own!

Does it work? Try some of these responses and let us know what happens!

 

 

 Posted by at 1:29 pm
Jul 092012
 

We all have issues. No matter how wonderful our parenting skills, no matter how peaceful and loving and gentle we strive to be in our interactions with our children, at the end of the day we all have issues.  Often, our issues are clear. We know about them and work on them on a daily basis to try to keep them in check. Other issues may be more subtle or buried deep in the depths of our psyche. Or maybe we feel like we have conquered them. So when our children, our sweet-faced, big-hearted, little bundles of love bust out with something like, “Mama! Your butt looks like a million monsters stuck together!” we may be surprised at our own reaction.

True story. I will give you the full picture.

There I was, getting out of the shower, my children running in and out of the bathroom (I am sure all of you can relate) when my preschooler says, “Mama, you have a very big butt!” Now, he didn’t say it in his maniacal, I-need-attention-so-I-am-going-to-squeal-at-the-top-of-my-lungs kind of voice. Nope, he said it in the way one would notice a lovely tree or flower or maybe an overripe tomato on the vine. A sing-songy, quiet and sweet voice. A just-noticing kind of voice.  I swallowed and held back all of the societal beliefs and pressures and unrealistic notions that were welling up inside me. “Really?” I tried to respond as neutrally as possible. “Oh yeah, it’s like a million monsters all stuck together.” And though I tried to hold onto my self esteem, I could feel it going down the drain with the water.

We can laugh. I laughed at the moment and I laugh now. But I am also aware of how it impacted me. I was acutely aware that he had, quite innocently, triggered an issue for me.  I am also well aware of the fact that he is four, has no idea about body image or ideals or the struggles women in general deal with in our culture surrounding their body. He has no idea that big butts are considered differently from small butts any more than he would think big rocks are different from small rocks. They are just that, different. There was no judgment in his voice, no motive, no devious plot to bring me down. It was just his observation, mashed together with what he was thinking about moments prior. My butt is bigger than his butt. Fact. He was thinking about monsters. Fact. They merged together. He spoke it out loud and went on his merry way. The drama happened inside of me.

So, back to the beginning. We all have issues. We have body issues and food issues and anger issues and love issues and relationship issues. We have guilt issues and mother issues and control issues.  We have deep issues and shallow issues, big issues and small issues. And the unavoidable truth is that our children will trigger these issues.  When our issues get triggered, the drama inside us unfolds. And when the drama unfolds, it tends to come out in ways that we don’t intend. When we react to our children based on our inner drama, a couple of things happen,

1)      We react to situations with misplaced anger, shame, guilt or control. We lose sight of what is actually going on with our children and steal the show, so to speak.

2)      When we let our inner drama lead the way, we have difficulty following through with our parenting intentions and find ourselves saying or doing things we don’t want to say or do.

3)      Maybe most importantly, when we let our inner drama lead the way, we make our children responsible for our issues. When we make them responsible for our issues, they lose their right to learn and explore the world in a safe and genuine way. They now have to learn to manage us as well as themselves.

So what do we do? Or, as a friend expressed it more eloquently,

“What to do when your preschooler rips out your soul, throws it on the ground, and goes number two on it?”

(the true and rightful title of this blog).

1)      Become aware of your issues. Use whatever method works. Journal, meditate, seek therapy, think, have wine with friends, whatever. Just be willing to take inventory and become aware of what your issues are. If you know that one of your buttons is being late, and you know that you become irritated and anxious and irate when people are late, it may explain why you hear your voice rising every time you have to get your family in the car. Dawdling children may trigger something in you that interferes with your ability to respond gently. But children are dawdlers. They just are. Feeling like they are doing it to spite you is your drama, not theirs. Can you identify your patterns and triggers? Can you notice how your responses to your children may be drama-led rather than child-focused?

2)      Once you have a grasp of your bigger-picture issues, practice becoming more aware in the moment.  Breathing and becoming aware of the thoughts and emotions that guide us can have a wondrous impact on our ability to respond gently in the moment. I strongly believe that the number-one, most under-appreciated parenting tool is simply breathing.  When we take a moment to become aware and connected with our breath, we have a chance to also become aware of the thoughts and triggers and emotions that are coloring our vision. This gives us an opportunity to assess the situation. I like to use the acronym CORE. I have written about it in other blog posts, but basically it is:

C- Connect and center. Breathe, take a moment, notice yourself, notice your child.

O- Observe the opportunity. What is actually happening? What do you need? What does your child need?

R- Realize the moment. What path do you want to take?

E- Engage. Sometimes this means doing something, sometimes this means doing nothing. But often, it means doing something different from your first impulse.

The whole process takes the space of a breath and can change a moment drastically.

3)      When you feel yourself triggered in the moment, take note of it and mentally file it away. Then respond to your child in the way that your child needs. Later (and this is the important part), process the issue in some way, shape or fashion. How is up to you. Use whatever you know works. You might try laughing about it with friends, journaling, getting help from a mentor, therapist, or coach, or just thinking it over.

So what’s the bottom line? The issues are our issues. Not their issues. And unless we want our issues to become their issues, we better make sure that we are fully aware of moments when the drama inside us is leading the way.  Because when we feel like our children are “ripping out our soul and throwing it on the ground and going number two on it,” they probably aren’t. They are probably just being kids.  And it’s our job to make sure our issues don’t get in the way of that.

 Posted by at 7:10 am
Jul 022012
 

Telling parents not to worry about their child is like telling a fish not to swim. Parents worry. It’s what we do. The problem is not with the fact that we worry; the problem arises when we try to eliminate our worry by limiting our children’s experience of the world. It is human to try to eliminate the things that make us anxious. But, in parenting, we are essentially expected to support and work towards the very thing that increases our worry the most: our children eventually being in the world without us! While it would be nice if we could teach our kids how to live while holding them snuggly in the safe cocoon of our arms forever, the truth is that we learn about life through living. Our children have to experience life, the good and the bad, in order to succeed. And in some way or another, they will do just that. And while they do it, we will worry.

I have come to the realization that much of parenthood is about tolerating worry. The balance is in knowing when to tolerate our worry and when it is a sign that we need to provide a mechanism of support. Sometimes we have to swallow our worry and let our kids fall. Sometimes our worry may signal that we need to put a pillow under them so their fall is a little softer. And sometimes it means we need to take them in our arms and move them to safety. Good parenting means providing a warm space, loving arms, an open heart and safe boundaries that children can rely on to support them through the trials and tribulations, successes and joys that make up life.

But how do we know when to take which approach? We can ask ourselves some basic questions.

1)      Is this worry about me or them?

2)      What will they lose if I take this experience from them?

3)      Is this a natural developmental experience they should be having?

4)      How big is their world now?

 

I imagine a bubble. When our children are infants we support them physically. The parent and child occupy a pretty tight bubble. They depend on us and we respond immediately to their needs. Their world is us and we are their bubble. When we are worried about their needs, our interventions are usually physical. We support their bodies, we move them to safety, we hold them tight. But as they grow, their naturally emerging process of becoming their own person pushes this bubble. It grows and starts to envelope other people, things, experiences outside of us. I imagine the parent standing on one side of the bubble and the child, slowing and fatefully pushing against the side of the bubble, expanding their world.

 

As this happens, our worry continues, but our responses change. The way we support our children, the type of safety nets we provide them and the way we encourage their interactions look different as our children grow. They don’t need us any less, they just need us differently. So, what does this look like?

  • A toddler is exploring her world through climbing. One parent worries about the child falling and moves in to ease their own anxiety. “Be careful, don’t climb so high.” Maybe the parent physically stops the child from moving in a way she would naturally. Instead, another parent tolerates some worry, assesses the situation and allows the child to climb, but moves a shelf out of the way or places a mattress on the floor to ease a fall. The child is allowed to climb, in a safe way, and experiences a new relationship with herself and the world. She figures out she can do something she couldn’t do the day before. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.
  • A preschooler wants to help mama by returning the measuring cup to the neighbor next door. This would require her to go outside, walk next door and stay out of the street without adult supervision. The parent worries and says, “No, you can’t go to the neighbor’s house by yourself.” The parent prohibits the child from accomplishing a new developmental task and gaining a little more independence. Instead, another parent assesses the situation, tolerates some worry and allows the child to walk next door unattended. Maybe the parent watches through the window or calls the neighbor to make sure they know the child is coming. The child embraces their new responsibility and returns full of pride and accomplishment. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.
  • A school-age child wants to attend his first sleepover. The worried parent thinks the child isn’t emotionally ready for this and suggests that the child just go for dinner and then come home. The child feels anxious and insecure. Another parent tolerates their own worry and supports the child in the sleepover. The parent lets the child know he can call if he needs to, helps the child make a plan and processes some of the fears the child may be expressing. The parent also makes sure that the day after the sleepover is low-key and supportive for processing residual emotions. The child goes to the sleepover, experiences stress and anxiety AND has fun and success with his friends. The next day he struggles from being overtired and emotionally worn out from all the excitement, but the parent is there to support. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.

Parents worry about how kids will manage life at every stage, from wanting to protect toddlers from climbing to shielding middle schoolers from the harsh words of peers to minimizing the angst that comes from high school relationships. Parents are driven to eliminate not only their children’s pain, but also their own worry. But these “falls” are an important part of life. Without falling we can’t learn balance. Without anxiety we can’t learn calm. Without angst we can’t learn joy in relationships. The job of the parent is to tolerate worry and provide “just enough” protection so that our children can continue to push the bubble. We want their world, their bubble, to be as big as possible. We want it to be full of people and opportunity and experiences. We want it (the bubble, the world, our children) to never stop growing. And in order for that to happen, we have to tolerate the worry.

 Posted by at 12:25 pm
Jun 252012
 

Determined not to be a “do as I say, not as I do” parent and wanting to honor my commitment to be connected and present with my children, I have recently had the surprisingly unpleasant opportunity to find out just how addicted to screens I really am. I must admit that, for many years now, I have hidden behind the fact that my family does not have “television,” meaning we do not subscribe to cable and the only TV in our house is unplugged and in the basement. True confession: we do have a laptop with Netflix and DVD player, smart phones and tablets. And while the kids have had limited access to carefully selected movies, they have almost no access to other screens. So when, one day as we were leaving the house, my son yelled out, “Did you remember your phone? You don’t want to leave home without it,” something inside me cringed a little. I wasn’t sure in the moment why it bothered me so much, but I knew I needed to do something about it.

There is ample information available to suggest that screen time negatively impacts children. For example:

  • A University of Bristol research study found a correlation between increased screen time and psychological difficulties pertaining to behavioral issues, emotional difficulties, social interaction, inattentiveness and hyperactivity in pre-teens.
  • Screen time in children under three is linked to irregular sleep patterns, delayed language acquisition, later childhood problems (such as lower math achievement, reduced physical activity, victimization by classmates) and leads to habit formation (more screen now means more screens later).
  • Screen time is associated with increased aggression. (And this is not limited to viewing aggressive media!)

While it used to be that the focus was just on television, we are slowly becoming aware that any screen time results in the same kinds of results. TV, smart phones, tablets, movies, computer, video games. Even when we try to make ourselves feel a little better by choosing “educational” options, the negatives may outweigh the positives. And here is the kicker, research shows that these negatives not only apply to screen time that kids are actively engaged in, but “incidental screen time as well.” Researcher Daniel Anderson of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that background TV (regardless of what was on) decreased the overall amount of time children spent in play, increased the number of times children moved from toy to toy and decreased the amount of time children spent in focused-attention activities. Why does this matter? Because play is where it is at. Play is how children learn. It’s crucial. Play is their life-work. If we interrupt their play, we interrupt their life.

Amazingly, I saw this firsthand at the park recently. I watched five children playing quietly in a sand pit. The children ranged in age from two to six. A man (notably not connected to any of the children in the sand pit) sat on a bench playing a game on his phone. The volume was high and the game alternated between annoyingly high-pitched music and something that sounded like a missile being launched. Occasionally, his actual phone ringer (playing some type of classical music) would interrupt the game and he would answer, chat and then return to the game. I watched as the children, all intently trying to dig up a dinosaur bone buried in the sand, repeatedly turned their attention to the man and his smart phone. On separate intervals, about every two or three minutes, each kid would stop what they were doing, consider the man and then turn back to their digging. None of them interacted with each other. I could see that they were pulled to the sound and were deciding whether to approach the man to see the game or continue their own work. It was obvious for some of the children that it was a hard choice, while for others it appeared to simply be annoying. What amazed me was how noticeable it was that regardless of how they felt about the noise, they each had to put effort into returning to their play. They would stop, assess the man for a moment, look around, find a new shovel, remember what they were doing, start a new task, focus for a few minutes and then get pulled toward the sound again. After some time, I asked the man if he would mind either silencing his phone or moving to another area. He grumbled but complied and I immediately noticed a difference. I could almost see the children relaxing into their play and the digging continued uninterrupted. Then a magical thing happened. The children began to interact with one another and a cooperative story emerged, four of the five children developed a plan of action to work together. I doubt this would have happened if the background screen time continued.

So could it be that my own screen time was impacting my children’s life-work in a similar way? Over the past few months I have been experimenting with my own screen-free time. I have tried eliminating my use of anything with a screen in different ways: for hour-blocks, after certain times in the evenings and for entire weekends. What I realized through this process is that I am (and, yes, I hate to admit this) intimately connected to my media. Not television or games per se, but email, chat, text message and Facebook. Social media. I realized that it is my primary source of connecting with the world. So while on one hand I tell my children, “No media for you,” I am connecting through a screen on much too regular intervals. Turning the screens off made me realize that I check in with a screen (or at least think about it) every few minutes. Oh, my!

So how does this impact my children? What does it mean to have a phone ring or beep or ding or sing every few minutes as background noise? While the background screens in my children’s lives may not be as loud or pervasive as a TV or video game, it is certainly creating a regular interruption that must be notable to them. After all, my son reminded me to get the phone when I forgot it.

But I also had another realization. And this one connected the dots for me. It made me realize why my own screen time really does matter to my children’s development. When the kids in the sand pit were struggling to work (play) and attend to the media that was around them, the relationship potential between them got put on the back burner. The true interaction occurred when the media was eliminated. It was as if tending to the logistics of managing the media and their work was all they had space for. Once the media was gone, they could go deeper into the moment and recognize what was around them, and relationships and more meaningful interactions occurred.

It reminded me of trying to work while being disrupted by phone calls. I have a flow, get on a roll, then the phone rings. I stop what I am doing, tend to the phone and then return to my work. I have to think about where I was, maybe reread what I already did and adjust my mental state to return to the work flow. If this happens repeatedly, I get less done, feel less connected with my work product, make more mistakes and generally feel less positive about my task.

So what if my “work product” at the moment is parenting? How does my media (answering a text, posting something super cute to Facebook, checking email) or even thinking about my media (wondering if anyone has commented on my super cute post or replied to my email) take me away from my kids? Maybe my son’s concern that I left my phone at home disturbed me so much because I realized he has accepted as truth that he has to share me with my media. And that realization cut me to the core. This is not something he should even consider, much less accept.

So I put away the phone and the tablet and the computer. I’m not going to lie. It hurts. It is an adjustment. I am still working out what specific boundaries work best for me since I can’t give up all forms of media professionally. It is a process. But what I have already realized is that, like the kids in the sand box, when the media is gone, I am less scattered, more aware, feel more centered, have more fun and feel more connected to the people in front of me. I also realized that, when the media is gone, my children don’t have to compete as much for my attention, which leads to less acting out. When the media is gone, we all connect with the moment in a truer sense of the world. When the media is gone, I can do my job in supporting my children in their job. Life-work. In short, we all live better.

So while media is certainly not the only thing that keeps me from being present and aware and centered as a parent, it is impossible to ignore the moment by moment disruption that it has on me, my kids and our relationship. I’m not yet sure what the balance is, and it may look different for every parent, but balance we must find. And not just so our kids can do their life-work, but so we can really be there when they do!

 Posted by at 11:36 am
Jun 052012
 

Recently, through blogs, communication with other parents and discussion with my own family, I have heard myself talk about helping a child to learn to trust herself. I have become aware that for me this issue is at the heart of raising healthy, resilient children. A child who trusts herself is able to experience the world through her own eyes and heart rather than relying on an adult’s interpretation of things for her. A child who trusts herself can confidently take risks and try new things and also know when she needs a helping hand. A child who trusts herself knows when something doesn’t feel right and can ask for help. On the other hand, she can fully enjoy when something is right and feel empowered, taking ownership over her experience.

I have come to realize that so many of the childhood, adolescent and even adult issues that our children face boil down to trusting and knowing themselves. Three specific topics come directly to mind.

1)      Sexual Health. – In order to be sexually resilient, stand up to abuse and make sexual decisions that are healthy for them, children need to be able to trust their inner instincts. So often abusers use grooming techniques to blur the lines and confuse the child so that the line between fun and abuse is cloudy, grey and easily missed. Sometimes, the only thing that may signal that a playful behavior has turned abusive is an internal red flag. A child has to be able to trust that tiny voice in the back of their head that says, “I don’t like this.” And often, it means saying something bad about someone who is respected within the family. What a huge burden! In order to do this, the child has to trust that tiny voice, they have to trust themself, and they have to know that we trust them.

2)      Food. – Eating disorders and food issues are rampant in our society. We want our children to have a healthy relationship with food and a healthy relationship with their own body. In order to do this, in the face of overwhelming media and peer messages about food and bodies, our children have to trust themselves. They have to know when they are hungry and when they are not. They have to trust that when they feel hungry they really are and that food is a nurturing part of life.

3)      Bullying. – In order for our children to resist bullying (either being a bully or being bullied) and stand up for others and for themselves, they have to trust their own feelings about themselves and others. They need to have confidence that they are powerful, healthy, strong individuals and that others are as well. They need to have confidence in their own feelings and empathy for the feelings of others. But how can we expect them to understand or even consider what others are feeling if they don’t know or trust their own feelings?

I could go on and on. But you get the point. If I could only give my children one thing, it would be this: Trust in themselves.

Of course we all want this. We want our children to have a deep and profound understanding and connection to themselves. It is easy to see how verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse would undermine and destroy children’s ability to trust themselves. But it may be harder to recognize the subtle and tiny ways that we, with all the best intentions, whittle away at children’s ability to trust themselves. How often do we tell a child how they feel or don’t feel. Most of us have responded like this on at least one occasion:

“My leg hurts.” “I don’t see anything, you’re okay.

Or, “I’m done eating.” “Take one more bite, I know you’re still hungry.”

Or, “I don’t want to kiss grandma.” “Go on, kiss her, you love her so much!”

In each of these scenarios, our best intentions give an unintended, yet pretty clear, message: “You don’t know how you feel. I do.

The examples are endless. Statements like, “There is no reason to be scared.” “Don’t be angry at me, this is a natural consequence.” “I know you have to pee.” “She is your friend, you like playing with her.” “This is your favorite color.” “Stop crying, this is not something to cry about” all send the same message. “You don’t know how you feel. I do.” A child who hears this message repeatedly learns that they can’t really trust their own emotional or physical sensations, they don’t know how to interpret internal cues, they can’t communicate these internal cues to others and if they do, someone will tell them they are wrong.

Of course none of us actually wish to transmit this message to our children. Rather, we respond this way for a variety of reasons:

1)      We don’t know what to do. – Children often have unexplained emotions. They have aches and pains and heartaches and struggles and frustrations that we can’t see and can’t fix. When a child is complaining that his leg hurts, and there’s no blood or scratch or bruise, we can’t diagnosis it. Maybe he is having growing pains. Maybe he needs a hug and doesn’t know how to ask. Maybe he needs an adult to come close because he feels anxious. Maybe he saw a sibling with a hurt leg and is expressing sympathy. Who knows! It can be overwhelming and frustrating to a parent, so we respond with, “It doesn’t hurt. There is nothing there.”

2)      We think it’s in the child’s best interest. – Parents worry that their child isn’t eating enough. Parents worry that their child will be cold. Parents worry that their child isn’t playing well with other children. So we tell them to do something because we feel it is best for them. “Eat all your food.” “I know you’re cold, put on a jacket.” “You like Jane, play nice with her.” But the problem is that we are negating and overriding a child’s experience of their own body or feelings. It doesn’t actually help them in the end.

3)      We think we are teaching them something. – Mind your manners. Be polite. Say hi to the stranger. Kiss Grandma. Don’t embarrass me. What we are actually teaching them is how to comply with parental or adult demands to make us happy and ignore their own internal cues. That’s great if we are training show dogs. Not so great if we are trying to raise emotionally intelligent and resilient adults.

Rather, our goal should be to help our children identify their own emotional states and trust that they can get their needs met by communicating this in some way. In order to do this, we have to be willing to let them own their own feelings, experience the world in their own way and explore possible outcomes. We also need to let them know that we trust them to do this.

Rather than directing or telling a child how they feel or what they should do about it, we can strive to support a child through their own process. We can do this by reflecting, sharing and asking.

Reflect what you see: We can help a child understand social context and cues by reflecting back to him what is happening.

Share how you feel: Reflecting our own feelings models a pattern of communication which is genuine and trusting.

Ask what they think: Asking them what they think or feel tells them that you trust and value their thoughts and feelings.

Through doing this, we can help them negotiate the outcome, rather than dictating one. Let them know that you are there to support them through it and that you will be there to help. Finding realistic and healthy solutions is part of the process. So instead of, “I don’t see anything, your leg is okay,” it may sound like this:

 

I notice you are very sad and hurt right now. You’re really holding onto your leg. (Parent reflects what is happening in the moment.)

I feel really worried and confused because I can’t see the owie, I don’t know how to help you! (Parent shares how they feel.)

What does it feel like? What do you think you need? (Parent asks what the child thinks and feels.)

It feels pokey and I think I need to go to Disneyland! (Child identifies a feeling and a solution.)

Oh, I love Disneyland, and I wish we could go there, too! That would probably distract you from the pokey feeling. But since we can’t, is there anything else I can do for you? (Parent validates child’s feeling. And asks to problem solve.)

 A kiss. (Child is empowered to find his own solution.)

Absolutely. (Parent sends message that they are there to support their child.)  

 

Reflect, Share and Ask. It works for any situation. What if a child refuses dinner?

-I notice you didn’t eat any dinner. And I’m worried that you’re going to be really hungry later. What do you think? How does your tummy feel?

– My tummy feels bubbly and I don’t want to eat.

– Is there anything else you need?

-Ice cream.

-Oh man, ice cream is yummy, but it isn’t available for dinner. Anything else?

-No, I’m just not hungry.

-Okay, snack will be ready at 7 if you’re hungry then.

 

This process encourages a child to self-identify and communicate emotions. It sets a stage for a pattern of communication in which each person is responsible for their own emotions and is part of the solution. It tells children that they can be responsible for themselves and ask for what they need. All of these are things that many of us struggle with as adults. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we learned how to do it when we were toddlers? When we encourage a child to explore their emotions and physical sensations, and we believe and support them when they do tell us, we are giving the message that we trust them. And if we trust them, they can trust themselves. And if they trust themselves, they can experience the world on their own, instead of needing others to do it for them. And that is the basis for authentic genuine living.

 Posted by at 3:00 pm
May 212012
 

How present are you for your children? When I ask this question, the response is usually both quick and vague, something like, “I’m pretty present, but I wish I could be more.” Most of us go to great lengths to be there for our kids. We provide them with a safe environment, we take them to museums and to the park and to the library. We attend story hours and play groups and make healthy meals and provide opportunities for art and interactions with other kids and help with homework. We work hard to ensure that their lives are full and busy. In fact, some of us can run ourselves ragged filling our children’s day with these opportunities.

But is that all there is to it? Is this the same as being present? And what does “being present” do for the parent?

When I think of being present with my children, I think of the times when I am truly and genuinely focused on them, in the moment. They have my full attention. I am not thinking about my phone, or my work, or dinner or the house payment. I’m not thinking about whether we are late to an activity or whether their lives are being developmentally enriched or whether I am saying the right thing or doing what my other mom friends would do. In fact, in these moments, I am not thinking of parenting at all. In these moments, when I am truly present, I am simply there, with them, doing whatever the moment calls for, while everything else falls away.

This weekend I took my boys to the park. I automatically took my place on the side of the jungle gym and watched them while they climbed and slid and swung. My mind wandered to work and what I was going to make for dinner and the laundry that was piling up. I looked at the time and nodded and smiled as the boys continually called out, “Mama, watch!” “Look, Mama!” “Want to see this?” That was when I realized that they didn’t really need me to see them go down the slide. Their constant calling was kid language for “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now.” I turned off my busy mind and started to play with them. I mean really play. I became a yellow moon monster hopping through the lava. I chased and got chased and giggled and actually participated in their game. I played. It wasn’t until I saw another parent laugh at me that I realized I had been completely engrossed in the silliness of the game and the interactions with my children. It felt amazing. And notably different from how our outing to the park started.

Another opportunity occurred last week during the hectic madness that comes around 5:30 every night. While I struggled to get dinner on the table, my youngest repeatedly came into the kitchen with a new “owie” which required tending to. There were no bruises, blood or bumps, and my half-hearted attempt to show empathy while making the spaghetti sauce was obviously not doing it for him. He would go back to his activity for a minute, only to return with another owie. First his toe, then his elbow, then his knee. I found myself feeling frustrated and annoyed, wishing he would give me 20 minutes to finish dinner. My reactions to him got less and less empathic, while his attempts to get my attention got louder and more frequent. And then I realized, he didn’t really need a kiss on his elbow; it was kid language for “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now.” So I did. I put down my knife, turned off the burner on the stove and plopped down on the kitchen floor. “Do you need me? What can I do for you?” I asked. He jumped into my lap and nestled his head into my neck, his arms wrapped around me. He held on for dear life. I have no idea what was going on inside his heart, but he felt sad and I found myself holding him tighter. I held him quietly for two or three minutes until he pulled his head away and looked me in the eye. “I love you, Mama” he said, smiled and stroked my cheek. Following his lead I offered him the same, love and gentle touches to his face and head. After a few more minutes, he started laughing, hopped up and ran into the living room to play. I got to finish making dinner without any more owies.

When I consider these two moments, I realize that there is a big difference between providing opportunities for my children and being truly and genuinely present in the moment. Providing opportunities is important. But, the truth is that forced to choose between an “opportunity” with a distracted parent or a few moments of your undivided attention, our kids are going to choose us. And when I think back over the week, it is these moments that stand out for me, too. These are the moments when I really feel the rewards of parenting: these unplanned, unscheduled, unstructured moments when I am truly connected to my children.

Lovely, right?

But, then there is reality. Dinner has to get made, bills have to get paid, laundry must get done. The kids are fighting, work is overwhelming, schedules are full and sometimes we just feel like there isn’t any more of us to go around. How can we be present with our children when it doesn’t feel like there is even room to take a breath? It would be so great if someone could just tell us the secret to easy, sure-thing parenting.

Well, I’m sorry to say, there isn’t a quick fix, magic word or parenting technique that works in all situations with all kids. What I can say is that finding a way to be present, for even a few moments a day, is the closest thing to a magic wand that I have found. So what is it about being present that works?

1)      Being truly present tells your child, “I’m here,” “You’re safe,” “You’re valid”: In the end, this is what a child needs to know. That they are loved, safe, secure, valid. This is what builds healthy, strong, resilient individuals. Our children need to know that they are connected to us and that we are connected to them. And the truth is, they need this more than they need another scheduled activity.

2)      A little goes a long way: Four or five minutes of undivided attention can work wonders and allow a child to feel safe and secure. This feeling of being loved and heard and safe stays with them and bolsters their confidence and ability to trust themselves, which may result in more independent play and give us time to make dinner.

3)      Being present is about quality, not quantity: There isn’t a magic number of minutes per day that children need. Don’t focus on the clock. When the moment is over, you will know it. Both you and your child will feel ready to move to the next moment. Sometimes it almost feels like a magic trick.

4)      Being present benefits the parent as much as the child: Parenting can be an unending, thankless job of never ending demands and needs. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Really, you need to eat again? I just fed you!” Being present allows us to really experience the connection that we have with our children. The joy, the love, the wonder, the fun. Yes, they need to eat…again. But, they also want to look into your eyes and stroke your cheek, and that feels amazing.

5)      Practicing being present allows us to feel the difference: Start to become aware of how present (or not) you are during your parenting moments. It may be surprising how much being present in the moment may impact our ability to know what our children need and to respond to them in a meaningful way, which in turn has a direct correlation with less tantrums, melt downs and power struggles.

So how can we start to increase the amount of time we are actually present for our children?

1)      Set an intention: Choose one of the activities that you have planned for your children and make an intention to be truly present and engaged throughout it. Commit that this time will be screen free (no TV, phone, texting, email, computer, Facebook, iPad). Really challenge yourself to focus only on your children. Sit on the floor, climb the slide, put yourself in their world. You may be surprised at how it looks from their perspective. Intentionally be present; mind, body and spirit! 

2)      Respond to a frustrating moment by becoming fully present and engaged: Often it is the times when I am at the end of my rope, frustrated, pulling my hair out that I know I need to take a moment to fully engage. Whatever I am doing to try to “get control” of things isn’t working, and I’m missing the boat. It’s likely that my kids are trying to tell me something (in kid language, which can often be tricky) that I’m too distracted to hear. We are in a power struggle and I’m probably losing. It is in these moments that I know if I stop, breathe and connect with my child, things will probably feel a whole lot different. Unfortunately, these are the times that I feel the least capable of being present; these are also the times that it is the most productive and rewarding for everyone.

3)      Participate in cooperative play with your child: Many parents can tell you that they were  aware of the moment that their child began engaging in cooperative play (engaging in play that depends on the interaction between two or more children) rather than just parallel play (children playing side-by-side, but not acknowledging each other). But, how often do we engage in cooperative play with our kids? Try it! One idea is to choose an obscure object and ask, “What should we do with this?” inviting your child to play with you. Rather than sitting back and observing, or directing or commenting, go on and actually play. The connection that develops may surprise you. I once asked my child what we should do with wood chips. “Build a boat.” Obviously. So we did, and, as we built, he asked about countries I have traveled to and wanted to hear stories of my life before he was born. We talked and built and dreamed and imagined. All because I was prepared to really be present for a few minutes.

In the end, remember that childhood only happens once. These moments are fleeting and while I will soon forget about the brilliant art project I set up or the fact that dinner was on the table at exactly 6 pm, I will likely always remember my stint as a yellow moon monster and that moment of tenderness on the kitchen floor. I will treasure the moments when they said, “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now!” and I listened. Those are the moments that make parenting great and those are the moments that can make us great parents.

 Posted by at 3:41 pm
Sep 062011
 

Some moments it is easy to stay present and thoughtful and aware and centered as we interact with our little ones. In those moments things work out. They flow. They flourish even. We seem to move from interaction to interaction with our children as if this parenting thing is the most natural thing in the world.

And then, in an instant, everything changes.

Maybe something doesn’t go their way. Maybe something doesn’t go our way. But suddenly we find ourselves struggling to make sense of who this person is in front of us and what in the world we are supposed to do with them. Suddenly, none of the parenting tricks, rules, recommendations or advice work. We can feel our discomfort growing. It is small at first. A nudge in the back of our mind. A whisper really. What if I can’t handle this?

And, of course, it is usually in those moments that this little person in front of us is relentless. They push. They pull. They poke and prod. They have amazing accuracy when it comes to pushing buttons from a distance. At least it feels that way in the moment.

And the discomfort grows. It’s churning now. Maybe it feels like anger. Maybe it feels like fear. Or frustration. Or annoyance. It’s morphing and materializing. What am I going to do? I must get this under control.

And then it happens. We hear ourselves do the thing we hate. The thing we always say we wouldn’t do. It’s kind of like slow motion. We know we are going to do it. We don’t want to. Our mind flashes to all the “appropriate” parenting strategies we “should” be using in this instance.  But. We. Just. Can’t. Stop. Ourselves. You know what I’m talking about. It’s different for all of us. Maybe it’s yelling or using the dreaded words “because I said so.” Or “wait till your father gets home.” Or “no dessert.” Maybe it’s giving a spanking or slamming a door or whatever. It doesn’t matter because the point is, in the moment, we all wish we had it together, but we still find ourselves being less than perfect.

Of course it happens to all of us, but what does it mean? How do we reconcile the parents we want to be with the parents we are and, worst of all, the parents we know we could be? Do we pretend that our shortcomings don’t happen? Do we blame others? Do we give up and stop aspiring to be better parents?

The truth is that there are no perfect parents. And, if you ask me, that is a good thing, especially if perfect parenting means always being in control, always responding consistently and appropriately, always keeping our personal feelings in check as we interact with our children. If perfect parenting always means being calm and fair and well…perfect, then it also means missing out.

If parents were perfect, then how would children learn about real life? How would they learn about healthy adversity? How would they learn about emotions? How would they learn how to tolerate stress and ambiguity and how in the world would they learn that it is okay to be human?

Don’t get me wrong. We can be hopeful that most of the time we respond and interact with our children in a way that is consistent with our views on optimal parenting. We should strive for that and we should never resort to anything that is abusive or harmful. But we should also know that we won’t always be perfect.

Rather than expecting perfection, we can use our “human” moments to teach our children life lessons: how to admit fault, take responsibility, make amends, recognize the need for change. We all know that children learn from what we do rather than what we say. Why would we assume that we can simply tell them how to do these things when we can show them? Rather than expecting perfection and hiding in shame when we fail, we can talk to our kids. These moments can be learning experiences for everyone. We can apologize and role model coping skills like taking a deep breath or a moment to ourselves. We can show them that we are human and in doing so we give them permission to do the same.

But maybe more importantly, it gives us the ability to relax just a little bit. Remembering that there are no perfect parents helps me to take a step back. It allows me to say, “I’m not sure, I’ll have to think about that” or “I was wrong” or “I don’t know.” It allows me to say, “Mama needs a minute” or “I’m feeling really frustrated” or “I’m not quite sure what to do here, got any ideas?” Not only does this awareness help to avoid those dreaded reactions we all fear so much, but it might just help to shed some light on the situation. Maybe we think to ourselves, “I’m out of my league here, what would (my mom, my mentor, my friend) do?” or “maybe I should call in reinforcements.” Or maybe, we can even ask the kiddo.

It is amazing, but when parents do this, little ones may just surprise us with their response. One day as my three-year-old made his thirtieth or so lap around the house screeching at the top of his lungs, I caught him and whispered in his ear, “I just don’t know how to help you right now.”  He responded with a high pitched, “I NEED TO GO TO  SLEEP!!!!!!!” and took off for lap number thirty-one. Alrighty then…at least I knew what direction to head, which is more than I could have said a few moments earlier.  I had admitted defeat and he had given me a clue. But that was only possible because I reminded myself that I wasn’t perfect.

Aug 232011
 

I have not set my alarm in over 2 years. Who needs one when there is an intense scream from the next room of “mommy!”, “daddy!”, or “wake up!”? As I struggle to open my eyes, roll my body out of bed, feel around for my glasses and slide into my slippers, I greet my child for the day. I would love to be able to claim that our day together starts with him wanting to be held for a moment as we slowly adjust to being awake…instead he is singularly focused on a mission for food. “Eat!”, as he signals with his hand going to his mouth. “Yes, granola” repeated over and over until we finally begin the trek downstairs to fulfill his needs. There is some comfort in starting the cycle over again. Buckling my child into his booster seat, serving him granola and milk, turning on the tea kettle, letting the cat up, emptying the dishwasher. And we start another day. As the breakfast routine comes to a close, I reflect on the day and what it holds for us.

Did I manage to plan ahead and arrange an outing or do the next 10 hours (till Daddy comes home and it is not just me and my child) stretch out in front of us like a huge expanse? Am I determined to “get things done” like laundry, shopping or some other project in the house or am I going to surrender completely to the whims of a toddler? Either choice has proven to hold both inner struggle, outer struggle and mixed sense of satisfaction. The accomplishment of getting laundry washed and folded while supervising the play of a little one does feel significant – especially if it can be done with little to no whining, neglect or feelings of guilt. On the other hand, the constant battle of putting off a child to do something as trivial as carrying a laundry basket downstairs doesn’t seem worth it in the big scheme of things. These are those precious days of parenting. He will only be this young for such a short time. That said, when I hand over a whole day to my child – who in reality doesn’t need me 100% of the time, just 70% of the time or every 2-4 minutes, I often find myself feeling a lack of purpose, a sense of emptiness, particularly if I have no meaningful interaction with another adult.

For me, I pride myself in being attuned to my child – perhaps at the expense of staying connected to what I want. I try to stay open to what I’m really feeling but often after so much deferring to the demands of my child, my heart has shut-down in a way that it is not that easy to reconnect quickly. I shift to a mode of “doing” that makes sure food is provided, naps happen, appointments are made, and dinner is at least identified, purchased and perhaps started. After days of not being in touch with my own heart, various stirrings creep up and suddenly I find myself wanting to sneak a Little Debbie’s Nutty Bar into my purse so that I can eat in the car while driving to the store. My son has starting asking what people are doing. Sure enough as soon as I opened the crinkly wrapper, from the backseat (good ears since his car seat is facing backwards) I hear “Mommy doing?” and I feel busted! The guilt of eating it to begin with, then trying to evade his question…I had to laugh at myself for the ridiculousness of the situation I had put myself in and how much I was projecting on to a 2 year old.

It is this type of inner dialogue I have over and over again – trying each week to discern my needs as well as those of my child to spontaneously and with careful planning, design the “perfect” day. Too often finding the balance on a daily basis eludes me, but often enough I feel a splash of joy with a smile on my lips as I go to sleep at night.

 Posted by at 1:32 pm
Aug 122011
 

Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack.  In between is wake up, diaper change, trips to potty, nap, get out the toys, put the toys away, into the car seat, out of the car seat….And repeat. As I moved through the never ending steps of day to day parenting I suddenly became aware of my thoughts. “Get through blank so we can blank.” Fill in the blanks with the appropriate duty. Other thoughts floated by. I should get them outside, we should go to the zoo, an art project would really enrich their day, the boys need their toenails cut, pick out their pajamas before bath, what are we going to have for snack, I can’t believe he is hungry again.

Admittedly all of these thoughts are parenting related. They are all important, necessary and wonderful parts of parenting.

But I realized that my mind was overrun with these thoughts while my body and spirit went through the motions of the moment.  While changing a diaper I was thinking about getting them loaded into the car. While I was loading them into the car I was wondering if I was going to have to use that obnoxiously huge car cart at the grocery store. As I was pushing my way through the grocery store I was wondering if I would make it home in time for lunch….My mind was always on the next parenting step while my body was left on autopilot, going through the motions of the moment.

I wondered to myself what is parenting? Is it all the planning, thinking, and worrying? Surely my day is smoother when I am prepared for the next step. But in doing so I lose out on so much. I lose This Moment. I lose this opportunity to connect and really be present with my children. And if I am always one step ahead, what is the cost of an infinite series of lost moments?

I stop thinking about what is next and ground myself in the moment. I make eye contact with my child. I smile and connect with him. In This Moment. He touches my hair and laughs. I notice how it feels to be in This Moment, whether it is changing a diaper or clicking a car seat or pushing a huge car cart. And it feels amazing. I realize that children are experts at being  in This Moment.  They engage fully in it with their entire body, mind and spirit, giving anyone who joins them the amazing opportunity for connection. And when I am here with them, parenting feels more joyous and real and less stressful and overwhelming.

Of course I can’t always be there. Someone has to plan meals and tend to schedules and see the future. But my goal is to remember that stuff is the secretarial work. No doubt it is crucial to a finely tuned family system. But it’s This Moment that matters. This Moment IS parenting.

 Posted by at 6:40 pm