Parenting Aha Moments: Are children really resilient?
The biggest change happened for me as a parent when I learned to get right about what my child truly needed from me.
I remember the early years of being a new mum, spending hours getting my son to eat, as feeds had become an arduous, worry-laden task. My son had severe digestive and metabolic issues that caused his blood glucose to drop to dangerous levels, and he was hospitalized after nearly losing consciousness. My days were ruled by pricking his finger to check his blood levels, making organic, raw foods to regulate his sugar levels, and developing strategic feeding charts to help determine how many bites of bulgur pudding; for example, my son needed to keep him in the “safe zone.” I was deadset on healing him, and I had become a serious mom with an agenda: To make my child healthy and thriving and keep him out of hospitals. And my single focus on restoring my son’s body to health caused me to lose focus on other essential needs, as my son’s health condition did not prevent him from being a curious, playful, creative, fun-seeking child.
One morning, I was scrambling to get things ready for his feed, and he was trying to get my attention, “Mommy, mommy,” he yelled excitedly. “Not now!” I hissed. I remember the sad expression on his face as I had just stolen the light in his eyes and given him all my anxiety. I was flooded, a word I use in therapy when describing to my clients what happens when they are in the reptilian part of their brain that tells them to react to a threat. I felt awful from seeing how I believed my son saw me: A mum who can change the mood on a dime and become a scary monster. I remember a renowned parenting coach saying that one time when she yelled at her child, she went to the mirror to see what she looked like and was appalled at how frightening she appeared. So I dashed to the mirror to have a look at myself. And what I saw made my heart drop. I looked tired, exasperated, and like all the joy drained from my face. I had lost my exuberance — how my friends often describe me. And then shame entered me like shame does when you get on the negative-thought train. Shame loves to power up the yucky feelings. It made me think about a friend telling me how horrible it felt when he realized he had scolded his child for being a child. As my mind played out scenarios of being a lousy mother, my thoughts became louder: “I am ruining my son’s childhood.” “Why can’t you be a fun mum?”
My training as a therapist had taught me to look for the signs when I needed to take a break. So I left the room and went to a quiet place to breathe. I knew my son would be okay by himself for a minute and that Daddy was there to tend to him if he needed something. I became very still. I didn’t touch my yucky thoughts. In my stillness, I could feel tears welling up from the hurt my son felt when I snapped at him. But what was different is that I did not shame myself for it. Instead, I felt what he felt and owned my part in it. I could feel all the anxiety, frustration, and loss of patience, becoming less active in my sympathetic system. After a few minutes, I started to feel calmer and confident that I could respond differently. I also recognized that I needed more moments of stillness to prevent the build-up of stress and anxiety.
I went to my son and said, “Mommy messed up.” I let him know how I raised my voice was not okay. Then, I became engaged in what he was doing. I did my best to be intentional about course-correcting the moment. And I did not take lightly my commitment to doing better and filling up with loving energy each morning before greeting him.
The real lesson gleaned from all of this came from seeing for myself that children are not resilient in the way we are often taught. If that were true many adults would not be trying to heal past pain and childhood trauma. But what children are, in fact, resilient to is course-correction. When you actually see clearly and respond differently, you shed and purify it — that is, you cleanse shame frequencies, you shed feelings of inadequacy that originated from the past — the stillness burns up what doesn’t serve you and your well-being and renews the moment so that you are more fully and wholly in the Now. Children live and thrive in the now. So if the now is indeed better, they don’t attach or get stuck in the past or “personalize” what happened — like people who are stuck do.
When you stay in a negative-thought loop and fall into shame and guilt, it prevents you from seeing clearly, course-correcting, and, if necessary, changing.
This made me think more about how parents’ most powerful tools are connection and course correction. Moreover, it occurred to me that one of the most important things we can ever teach a child is how to be with uncomfortable feelings. Another way to put it is if children learn how to be with pain, they can more healthily handle challenges. But to do that, parents have to learn how to be with pain. Unfortunately, however, parents often do not know how to be with uncomfortable feelings because when they were young, their caretakers likely did not always know how to soothe them whenever they were upset or tend to their needs. To add, you tend to repeat how your caretakers responded to uncomfortable feelings.
As adults, you must learn to give yourself what you needed when you were a child and did not receive even from well-meaning caretakers. And one way to do this is by connecting and being with your child, especially when they are upset. This is what you call reparenting the inner child.
Often, the coping tactics used with a child, whether the parent is upset at the child or the child is having a meltdown, are one of three: deflect, punish, or give in.
Let’s look more closely at how children’s big feelings are often dealt with in the context of a child becoming upset to illustrate better what I mean.
Deflection: Using an external reward to take a child out of their feelings.
Example: “Don’t cry, sweetie.” “Would you like some ice cream?”
Punishment: Using fear tactics to get the child to stop crying.
Example: “We’ll have to leave the park and miss all the fun if you don’t stop crying.”
Giving in: Giving the child what s/he wants to get them to stop crying.
Example: “I’ll buy you the train set, but only if you stop crying right now.”
What all three of the above coping tactics do is take the child out of their feelings and out of their body. This sends the message and gets wired into their nervous system that big feelings aren’t good. Or being sad is not okay.
What happens when you learn to leave your feelings as a child?
Here’s the short of it:
First, you learn that feelings are negative.
You make leaving negative feelings as fast as possible the goal.
Because you learned to leave your feelings and your body as a child, you devise more sophisticated ways of leaving your emotions and your body. After all, you are an adult, so you have an arsenal of methods to “not feel” and “distract” yourself from “negative feelings,” like having an alcoholic beverage; being on social media; eating sugary foods; staying busy; having sex; and shopping.
Guess what else happens when you learn to leave your feelings and your body?
You leave your intuition.
When you stay with the pain for even a few minutes, you can get perspective, insight, and new information — then there is knowing what exactly you need to do — rather than giving your power to someone else to decide what you should do before you’ve had a chance to see if it’s right for you.
When I think about what happened when I took a break and could be with everything that was happening inside of me, I could feel my son’s hurt without feeling shame; I then was able to get perspective. More importantly, I could move into the heart and course-correct. If I had continued to. ruminate on what a horrible mum I was, I would have eventually wanted to “escape” my feelings. Then I would have found a quick way to make the moment better, like deflecting or giving in but moments like this would come again, and I would handle it the same way. Nothing learned, nothing gained — do you see?
It is so empowering to think about how we can always course-correct and that even as adults, we are much more resilient when someone that causes us to feel hurt can show us that they are genuinely sorry by turning inward, course-correcting, and not doing the same thing that caused hurt repeatedly. We are resilient to our evolving nature.
Children give the miracle of “resetting” you and reminding you to stay here, right here, in your body, in your feelings, in you.
Here’s what I hope you take away. When uncomfortable feelings arise or pain visits, let stillness hold it all, for the answers are there. You will hear what has always been available to you and is always turned on — your intuition. You will know what to do in challenging moments, and it will be correct. This is true resiliency — aha!
Originally posted on Medium on March 22