Back to School is here and it’s a big transition for everyone. Transitions are powerful experiences for children--the anticipation of the change, the trepidation around the unknown, the shift away from the easy summer days. It’s normal for kids, and parents, to feel big emotions at transition times like these. Expressing those anxieties can be a positive experience, but, at times, kids might try to find control through challenging behaviors.
You might be seeing some of those today! Things like not wanting to eat breakfast, oversleeping, refusing to go to bed, etc… These behaviors invite us as parents to keep our boundaries firm, compassion active, and to stay connected to the warmth we feel towards our kids in more relaxed times, like in summer.
Although these behaviors are challenging, especially at a time when we ourselves are scrambling to adjust, it’s helpful to see them as symptoms of anxiety, not bad behavior. There are some simple tools we can use to soothe concerns and reconnect as a family in the new structure of the school year.
Some ideas you might try incorporating to reduce anxiety and ease into a smooth Fall schedule are:
Managing the back to school transition can be an opportunity to create your diet of connection and ease with your family to last you through the year.
If you are ready for more tools to help keep your family connected and soothed this school year, sign up for one of these Social Skills or Parenting Groups in San Francisco or Berkeley. Individual and Family Play therapy are available as well.
Schedule a 15-minute phone consult now:
Karen Wolfe, MFT Karen@SFBayPlayTherapy.com 415-420-9459
Nancy Wallin, MFT Nancywallinmft@gmail.com 530-902-1154
Where in your life do you feel most connected to play ?
Maybe it’s the small moments of quiet in the day when your mind can wander, or rolling on the floor with your child in hysterics, or maybe play for you is the focus and challenge of a job well done, or setting a goal and meeting it. Maybe you feel most at play when you are sarcastically bantering with your partner, or reading a good book, or losing yourself in your favorite TV show, or weeding and planting in your garden.
Whatever play looks like for you right now, and there are many many ways for play to appear, you can feel how important connecting to play is to your wellbeing and vitality. Without it, our lives are dry. One boring step after the next, an existence of subtle but pervasive overwhelm or boredom. And our relationships suffer without play as well. We drift from one another. We forget the joy that connected us at one time and only remember the responsibility.
I see many children in my office who don’t know how to play. They get overwhelmed by choices. They get deeply upset when they lose a game, or try with a hurricane force to make sure they win. They feel frozen with pressure when given the sacred space to “do just about anything you want” (as is the framework in play therapy). They don’t know how to let go and drop into play.
Children and adults alike who lose their ability to play, lose a vital connection to what generates both happiness and success.
Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute on Play and author of the ground-breaking book, “Play, How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul,” says play is anything done for its own sake that has the following qualities.
As parents it can be hard to drop into a state of play. There is so much to do, and we feel so responsible to get it done, and done well (even though we are exhausted!). Even things that are supposed to be fun can start to feel like chores or another evaluation of how we aren’t good enough. Drivenness and our own inner critic (fueled by the positive intentions to provide the best life for our family) are the killers of play.
We inherently know the importance of play. You can feel the longing for the freedom and lightness it brings it as I talk here about it’s lack. So what is getting in the way of letting ourselves play more? Truly play. I don’t mean running from life or quitting your job and pulling the kids from school to live off the grid and romp in the woods all day (though I can’t say I’ve never fantasized about that!). I mean how do we infuse play into all we do. How do we wash the dishes in a state of play? How do we drive to school and work and make it feel like play? How do we remind ourselves of the potential for play and the freedom that comes with that state, when we connect with our family and our everyday lives? How do we play again with those we love the most?
This is a question I, myself, have been pondering for a few years. Here is the part where I would normally share advice or stories of how things have changed for me and for the parents and children who do come to remember play. And I assure you, we all can come to that remembering again. It may not necessarily be easy. It may take strength and patience as we turn and look squarely at the life we have and finally say yes to that longing for more, terrifying as it may be. But I have found the nectar to change is in the questions. Answers too easily get hijacked by a sense of “should” and responsibility. “I should make sure I find a moment that feels like play every day” “I should make time for myself more” “I need to have one date per week with my partner”. Turning something pleasurable into a playless duty. But the questions have the power to guide us to what we are wanting, and to making it a reality.
So I leave you with are the following questions. May they work you from the inside out and guide you to your own truth. Again and again. In the face of uncertainty that they can be answered, and fear that they may not be. May they bring you to the invigoration that waits for you.
What gives me the greatest sense of play in my life?
What do I need to let go of to allow more play into my life?
How can I connect to a sense of play every day?
Write these questions in your journal and list all possible ideas. Play a game with a friend or your partner in which you take turns saying as many possible answers to each question as you can think of. Write them on post-its and stick to your mirror. Make them repeating events in your calendar. Let the questions simmer and find the cracks that lead to your opening. Let them open you to your own version of play and discover the increased connection to your self and to those who love you that follows.
Qualities of true play:
I do it for it’s own sake, not to get something from it (even if there is a side effect of it)
It’s fun, interesting, or feels good (even if it’s hard) and I want to do it
I can lose myself in it and feel more free
I can access creativity and improvisation
I want to keep doing it
We all know that play wrestling with our kids when they are little can be one of the most fun and connecting things we can do as parents and as a family. Rolling around laughing together and sneakily finding ways to grab one another’s socks off or stuff a pillow under a shirt creates fun and hopefully hysterics for all. But did you also know that play wrestling can reduce symptoms of ADHD and is even a great tool to connect with your teen?
When children of all ages play wrestle, especially with an adult attuned to their feelings they experience these benefits:
Play wrestling is a fun and easy way to get more connection, less fighting, and even more compliance with homework in your household! All you need to do is keep a close eye on your child to make sure they aren’t feeling afraid or overpowered in the play (and if they do, then you mellow it out a bit) and be at the ready to protect yourself from a play-grab that could go awry. Be on your toes and snuggle your child with as much vigor as will get them laughing in hysterics (remember, no tickling! It can make kids feel powerless. Teasing towards tickling is just fine though).
Bonus points if you play wrestle before homework as your child will be more focused and able to complete the work from all that good contact with you.
Special Time is not easy. We want to give our children our undivided attention and love but we are pulled in a million directions. The busy mind defies our attempts to let go into presence. It will argue that there are so many other things that need to get done, how in the world can we just relax and play with our child?
There are other challenges too. Sometimes we find we are just plain bored with our child’s play. One parent working hard on creating Special Time lamented about how she couldn’t stand to play cars with her son one more time! It didn’t make sense to her why he needed to continue this monotonous play and it didn’t feel special. As adults we are trying hard to figure out the meaning of our child’s play and to validate that this time we are spending is worth it. The question we are really asking in these moments is “Am I enough?” For how could just our bare attention to our child’s meaningless play really be that important?
Your loving, joyful attention is so important for your child.
Most of us did not have parents that showered us with this kind of special attention on a regular basis. We were told to occupy ourselves in play outside of adults’ important time. If we had an achievement, an external product we created, that might be worthy. “Look at my picture, daddy!” “Watch my cartwheel mommy!” But if we just were, just being, not doing or producing anything particular, that was not worthy of attention, or so that was the message we absorbed. And this is reinforced again and again in our society.
We are told:
“If I cannot give an explanation of how what I am doing is valuable, then it is not important.”
We ask ourselves:
“Is my attention really that important to my kid when she is playing?”
Then when your child plays at your feet and you do all you can to follow her thread of play, but can’t keep track of why it’s important, you feel adrift. Your mind wanders.
You don't realize your importance.
Sometimes when we give our kids this special attention, it is more than just vacancy or boredom that arises. Sometimes deep feelings of pain surface. If you have experienced hurt in childhood then giving the equal amount of love to your children reminds that inner part of you just what was missed, and how you longed for it.
This is where getting our own support as parents is integral. Listening Partnerships allow parents to release their difficult emotions about parenting and hurts from the past, so that our minds are more free to be with our children.
There is a saying that goes, “You need to feel it to heal it.”
Talking with a trusted other can help you feel that boredom, irritation, the pains of how you were hurt, and your utter deservingness of love and attention. And in feeling it in this safe and time-limited space you can release a quantum packet of energy that can now be freed up for more productive and creative purposes in your life, including giving your full presence to your child at play.
To create a listening partnership do the following:
1) Call, text or email a person (parent or not) who you feel more or less comfortable with
2) Say you would like to create a listening partnership in which you can both share the frustrations of parenting and life (and share this post with them)
3) Set a time to talk, skype, or meet in a private space (the car works great for phone listening partnerships)
4) Set a timer for 5-20 minutes, depending on what you have
5) During that time one person talks, cries, demands, pounds, shakes, groans, growls, etc and the other person listens, encourages, and reminds the other that they and their feelings are important and will be listened to with full attention (a simple “I am right here.” and “Keep going” is usually enough)
6) When the timer goes off, ask a random question, like “What’s your favorite holiday drink?” or “Name 5 cereals” to get the speaker’s mind back to the present
7) Switch listeners and repeat. Remember to ask the random question at the end.
8) After the question say goodbye. Don’t ask about their life. Don’t bring up what they talked about. Don’t talk more about what you talked about. Save it for your next listening time.
If you would like to explore how to create listening partnerships in more depth I recommend this self-guided class by Hand in Hand Parenting.
I know a beautiful and bright 7-year old girl whose daddy is sick. She adores him. He is the sun and the moon. She is helpful, and she is strong. Tough as nails. And stubborn to boot. Before her daddy got sick most of our play sessions involved her leading us in a competitive game, one in which I must lose terribly or the game would abruptly stop.
At first I would plan our sessions with lessons to teach her behavior skills, ways to lose gracefully, to say sorry, to talk about what she is good at. But when I started to really see change was when I started doing Special Time with her, Hand in Hand Parenting style.
When we were working on her ability to play cooperatively, this shift in my approach resulted in dramatic changes. Suddenly her timidity when she entered my office melted, she would smile despite herself when I hugged her and let her tackle me. She would dissolve into peels of laughter as I did push-ups and mock-meditated to work up enough strength to beat her at our ball game (I never did). Outside the office her parents reported that she was getting along better at school and at home with her sister.
Then daddy got sick.
Then the real work we were doing became clear.
It wasn’t about the skills. It wasn’t about external success in the world, measured by grades and concrete achievements. It was about love. Feeling loved and treasured, the queen of her life, to feel that an adult’s undivided joy and attention were directed lovingly at her and her whims. This is what changes people. This is why I do what I do. This is the only reason we do anything in life: because we need to love others and we need to feel their love.
This is why you had children.
Even if the children weren’t planned, every parent longs for the depth of love one can only feel as they hold the future in their arms and look into eyes that are so helpless and so trusting.
Now when this brave and strong little girl and I meet there is an inherent joy, even in this trying time. I tackle her and she feels loved and wanted. She tackles me and feels her strength. And she knows she can let her guard down.
I know that 45-minutes per week with me is not going to completely change her life. I know I can’t control the pain she might experience. I can’t make daddy get better faster or provide any guarantees. But I do know this:
Every week she gets a little dose of joy. She gets to snuggle and feel held. She can push and feel her strength. She gets to be the creator of her world. She can even cry or scream and I will listen. And hopefully she leaves feeling a little more resilient against the waves of life.
When she is an adult she may not remember all we did, or even my name, but I trust her day will be a little brighter because she has felt the truth of her inherent value through my undivided presence and attention.
Special Time is special precisely because of the quality of presence you bring to it. It is outside of time and space.
Even if you play with your child regularly, setting up one or two days per week in which you throw all of your quiet, loving, fierce attention at your child for 20 minutes makes a difference. It is protected time.
During Special Time you put aside all the cares of the world. All the things you cannot change in your life or your child’s. All your frustrations and worries. All your to-do’s. Every agenda you have to teach your child and your need to be the one in charge.
You put all those things aside and you just love.
Let your child lead and love every moment with all your strength. You will see the connection grow between you and your child.
And then when things get tough, when there is a loss, when your child grows into stormy adolescence, when your child is faced with difficult decisions in life, he will know you care. He will know you will listen. He will know, deep in the depths of his being that he is loved and very very important. And so will you.
In Special Time she is the boss and I am her willing, (and often dim-witted) servant. My goals are simple. I shower with her presence and attention. I follow the thread of her feelings and thoughts carefully. I find opportunities for affection and laughter whenever possible without disrupting the content of her play.
Make the commitment to yourself and your family today. Carve out 20 minutes per week with each child in which their job is to do whatever they want and yours is to shower them with your undivided and expectant attention. Put aside all the tedium and pressures of parenting for just this small amount of time and watch as the joy of parenting grows roots deep in the earth and sprouts into an undeniably vibrant blossom.
...even while running from you in the store in defiance, crying because you won’t buy him that toy today, ignoring your requests to turn off the computer, continuing to jump on the couch after you’ve told her 10 times! Even then your child is not being a bad kid.
This is a radical concept.
Even I, who love and respect kids immensely, have devoted more than a decade to learning about their needs, and advocate for them fiercely, sometimes have a hard time with this one (conditioning runs deep). When your child (or kids you are teaching) just won’t listen, it’s hard not to hear this line running through your head: "Why are they being so bad?"
Even when you get that your kid might have particular sensory needs and has to wiggle, jump, climb, fidget and move in order to learn and release emotions, it can be hard not to buy into the message our society tells us that, “If your kid isn’t listening, they are doing it on purpose!” In essence, they are being bad for the thrill of it or just to be naughty. We are told….
"Your kid just doesn’t want to listen!"
How do you counteract that voice you know just can’t be true?
Here’s an example from my child therapy practice: I was working with two adorable and sweet kindergarteners trying to have them sit in a small circle with me to look over the plan for the day (which involved all kinds of fun games I had planned). Of course they didn’t want to sit; they just wanted to play with the larger than life therapy balls in the play room, bouncing and falling all over them as I tried all my tools to get their attention. For a millisecond my mind said, “Hey! Don’t they know I have fun therapeutic stuff planned! These kids are being naughty! They should listen!” Luckily I can catch myself (I know that’s not my voice in there, but the voice of my teachers and parents from my childhood in their worst moments).
The voice Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, ran through my mind:
“Children are never bad.
They are only connected or disconnected.”
When a child is connected it means they are using all parts of their brain in sync, they are not overwhelmed by emotions or sensations and they feel loved in your presence. When a child is disconnected the higher level thinking parts of their brain that manage impulse-control and decision-making are hijacked by the emotional brain in fight/flight or sensory overload.
I could use this message from Hand in Hand Parenting right in that moment. I thought to myself, If kids are only ever connected or disconnected, then if these kids aren’t listening (and my expectations are not inappropriate) then they must be disconnected. The question then becomes:
How can I help this child feel connected?
When our children are disconnected they need our presence and attention.
This helps them connect the brain’s emotional center to the higher thinking centers. Sometimes they also need some sensory input to connect and harmonize the brain stem, which controls nervous system regulation.
This is the gold. This is where the healing is at. When you notice your child is disconnected (and you’ll usually notice because you feel irritated at ‘how bad they are being’), you can bring this question to mind: “How can I help my child feel connected?” It reminds you that their behavior really has nothing to do with you. They aren’t acting out specifically for the purpose of irritating you (though that may be part of the fun and adrenaline-kick they get from it). They are acting out because they aren’t connected. And they need your attention and presence, and maybe a big squeeze or high jump, to get connected again.
Just so I don’t leave you hanging, this is what I did with those sweet children in my office after I realized the right question was not “Why aren’t they listening?” but rather, “What can I do to get them connected?”: I told them before we do circle we should bounce on the balls and asked how many times we should bounce. This gave them some control over the situation, the sensory input their bodies were craving, and the connection with me as I held their hands, looked into their eyes and counted with joy for every bounce.
So next time your child won’t listen and you’re finding yourself irritated, stop what you’re doing and muster all the attention and presence you can for your child and ask yourself:
“WHAT CAN I DO
TO HELP MY CHILD FEEL CONNECTED?”
Write this new question on a post-it and stick it to your fridge, your mirror, the dash of your car. In time you will find that you have reprogrammed those old voices and are parenting from a more centered and peaceful place.
Want to dive deeper into learning Parenting by Connection or other tools for your child?
Sign up for a consultation for individual or group parenting support.
Karen Wolfe, MFT
Setting limits with your child in public and even with extended family can bring up all sorts of challenges. Feeling judged by others if your child is misbehaving is awful. And trying to get stuff done out in the world when your child is not cooperating can turn even the most patient parent into the Hulk.
It’s hard enough to manage tantrums and stubbornness at home, but how do you keep your cool and get out of these sticky situations in public?
I suggest three ways:
1: Maintain high expectations and high connection with your child.
2: Don’t just set the limit, bring it.
3: Make sure you are getting support.
1- Have high expectations and high connection
Research shows that the parenting style that raises children that are resilient, healthy, and well-adjusted is one that is both moderately high in behavioral expectations and high in warmth and connection. Parenting that is too strict leads to children who are rigid and can’t regulate their emotions and parenting that is too lenient leads to children who engage in risky behavior. But when parents have reasonable expectations for their child’s behavior and a lot of love and warmth, children tend to behave better, deal with their emotions more productively, and make better decisions in the long term. Armed with this information, you as a parent should feel confident in setting behavioral expectations for your child and empowered in meeting your child’s feelings with warmth.
You do want to make sure your expectations are age-appropriate or you will be banging your head against a wall and hurting your child’s esteem. Parents.com has lots of good information on what to expect from children of different ages like in this article. And if your child has special needs of any kind, consult with a professional to keep his/her own personal developmental level in mind when setting your expectations.
Try your best to meet your child exactly where he is at, and ask for one step more. No more. No less. Maintain that expectation, communicating your faith that your child can do it and that you love him no matter what. And if others around you don’t like it, well perhaps they don’t realize what an important job you are doing in that moment, and that you like all parents are finding your own unique voice. You can rest assured that if I was there with you in that store or that family gathering, you would have a strong advocate who is not afraid to stand up and tell those judges to back off while you are being the awesome, unique parent that you are. You are meeting yourself with love where you are at, and asking for one step better. No more. No less. And that’s the perfect amount.
2- Bring the limit
When you are reasonably sure your expectations of your child are more or less on target then you can feel empowered to set your limit. Today parenting has become very child-centered, focusing on peaceful parenting and empathy for children. This is a healthy swing-back from the damaging authoritative “do-as-I-say-or-else!” parenting most of us were raised with. However, in my experience parents who want to raise their children consciously often feel timid about setting limits, as though if you don’t give in to every whim of your child then you are not a loving parent. Quite the contrary. Children need limits. It’s how they learn what is appropriate in the world and also how to deal with feelings about having limits (which will come one day or another). It’s how the limits are given that makes the difference.
So when it’s time to set the limit, don’t just set it, bring it. And do so with love. Bring the limit directly to your child. Use your warmth and your attention. Look your child in the eye, put a hand on her shoulder, remind her that you know she knows how to do it better. That you know she wants to keep playing. That now it’s time to go. Bring the limit. And be there for your child’s feelings as you bring it.
It’s all too easy to get caught in calling across the aisle to your child in the store when it’s time to go. But the second you start to feel frustrated, that is your cue to go directly to your child and using your love, warmth, and attention, to bring that limit directly to him. Don’t wait until you are about to lose it. Bring the limit to your child, even if that means stepping away from a family conversation to avert a big meltdown. It’s worth it and you can rest assured that you are backed by lots of science saying that this type of parenting raises resilient, healthy children. So don’t just set the limit, bring it. With as much warmth, attention, and presence as you can muster.
3- Get support
It’s normal and natural to get flustered while parenting, especially in our modern fast-paced world. There’s a lot of information out there and not a lot of support for this big job. Seek parenting support so that you have a place in which you can vent your frustrations and concerns on a regular basis. Having a place you know you can go to and let out all your worries and stress from the week will allow you to meet your child with more love and connection in those heated moments. Not only will support allow you to release emotional tension that builds up, but it will also provide a buffer for your overwhelm. Listening Partnerships and parenting groups are great for this. I can’t tell you how often a situation will crop up that would in the past make me feel angry, frustrated, worried, or downright depressed, but knowing that I will have my 20 minutes to vent with my listening partner every Friday allows me just enough space to set those feelings aside until I can release them in a healthy non-destructive way. It’s as though I can say to myself, “I don’t have to get upset now, I know I’ll be able to cry and scream about this in my Listening Partnership.” If you aren’t sure how to set up a Listening Partnership (LP) or what exactly it is visit Hand in Hand Parenting’s website for more info and read my blog on venting in LP’s .
So next time you are dealing with a public tantrum remember:
1-High expectations and higher connection
2-Bring the limit. Gently. Directly to your child.
3-Get support to release emotional tension.
All children feel powerless. They live in a world in which they have no control over their lives, from what they do with their days down to what they eat. Nor should they. Children do not have the cognitive capacity to make good decisions for their long-term health and well-being. They should have some say, but in general you are in charge of these little guys. It’s good for them. And it totally sucks for them.
We all know what it feels like to have no power in your life. Having someone else tell you what to do, even if you know it’s good for you, is no fun. And kids also have the added challenge of everything being new. Imagine constantly being around other people who can do it better than you. You’ve just mastered the monkey bars, but miss 4th grader over there can do a flip. You’ve figured out 2-digit multiplication, but your older brother goes on about how easy that is that a dummy can do it. You’ve finally mastered sitting in class and focusing on your work by 6th grade, and suddenly the social milieu just became really really complicated and confusing.
So, yes, it’s tough being a kid. But what can you do about it? At least they don’t have to worry about a boss and bills to pay and taking care of little growing human beings!! Well there is something you can do to help make all this change that kids naturally experience feel easier. And, surprise surprise, it involves play.
Playlistening is the Hand in Hand Parenting Tool that engages the healing power of laughter to help children work through challenges and feel more powerful in their world. Feeling more powerful leads to higher self esteem. Higher self esteem means a child that perseveres more when the going gets tough and is more resilient when they fail. And let’s be honest, success involves a lot of failure.
Here is how to playlisten with your child:
Get your child to laugh.
But not through tickling. Tickling can in fact create more feelings of powerlessness. Instead, find the gleam in your child’s eye and go for it.
Play the less powerful role.
Let them be the king or queen and you the willing servant. And incorporate themes about what your child is struggling with. Getting to be in the more powerful role in regard to a challenge helps children feel more in control of their lives and more able to meet the day.
Here are some examples of Playlistening.
My 4 year old nephew hates getting eye drops. His preschool has had several outbreaks of pink eye so he’s had to get them a lot. Logically, he knows they are good for him. His parents have talked with him a lot about how the medicine helps his boo boo, and he understands. He repeats this information himself with confidence and pride after he gets the eye drops. But the getting of them is absolutely terrifying. His parents have to literally sneak up on him and hold him down in order to get the drops in. Poor parents! They want to help their little guy. They know it helps, he knows it helps, but he feels so out of control in those moments that it’s just plain scary. Enter Playlistening. One day while he and I were rough housing on the bed I recalled this issue. So out of nowhere I started to back away from him, exaggeratedly yelling, “No! I don’t want eye drops!” He lit right up! He immediately started to smile broadly and his body language changed to look like someone who felt powerful and in control. He grabbed his sister and together they pinned me down while he pretended to put eye drops in my eyes. I wailed, but kept track of his response to make sure it was funny to him and not going over the line to feel scary. He feels enough of that in the real eye drop situation. Afterwards he soothed me and told me how the medicine helps. We did this several times over the course of a weekend visit. And each time he got to feel some control over the emotions that felt uncontrollable, by acting out the opposite role with me.
Here is an example with an older child:
S. is a 12 year old boy. He is super intelligent, a wiz with the computer, and has trouble following his mom’s instructions. They get into fights, usually in the morning over the routine. One day I came over and he and his mom had a bad fight that morning. I engaged him in one of his favorite games. He throws a ball against the wall and I try to get it from it. We always end up rolling on the floor fighting for the ball, peels of laughter coming from both of us. This day after he was warmed up with laughter I asked him to tell me exactly what he would like to say to his mom, totally uncensored. He unleashed his thoughts with a huge grin on his face and I acted the part of his mom, only in a very exaggerated evil villain sort of way. We yelled back at each other for a few minutes until it turned into a knock down fight, again laughing all the way.
He knew it was play. He knew he can’t talk to his mom that way and he knew exactly how to control his body to keep it playful, just like my nephew did when we played. No one got hurt. But in both these instances these children got to express what was being bottled up and do it with laughter with someone who cares about them. And that’s the crux of Playlistening.
Get your child to laugh, usually by laughing at yourself. And connect through that laughter to the love that is underneath the anger, the pain, the tears.
Want to dive deeper into Playlistening or other parenting tools?
Sign up for a consultation for individual or group parenting support.
Sometimes we lose it on our kids. We don’t want to. We want to be loving, caring, parents present to our children’s challenges and helping them learn better ways. But sometimes we just don’t know what to do and we find ourselves relying on things our parents did, that we hoped to do better. We aren’t bad parents, we just don’t know how to keep it together in those tense, stressful moments.
According Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting and author of “Why we ‘lose it’ with our children in the “Building Emotional Understanding” booklets:
“When you were a child, chances are that your parents did not hold you and listen to you warmly when you needed to cry. They probably were not kind when you had tantrums. And they may have forbidden the wild play that made you and other children laugh and feel powerful. They loved you, but the main parenting ideas available to them were based on controlling a child’s emotions by threat or by force. So it’s likely that many of the feelings you had as a child are still waiting to be heard. Your limbic system manages the memories that contain those unheard feelings, keeping them under wraps when you feel connected and competent. When you face challenges or you are tired, you run out of energy to guard those feelings. Then, your stored upsets are easily triggered.”
Brain research in "Parenting from the Inside Out" by Daniel Siegel, MD and Mary Hartzell, Ed.D. lets us know that:
"When caring for children, it is inevitable that our own leftover issues will become activated in our minds….making it difficult to think clearly...and creat(ing) obstacles to collaborative communication with our children." (p.163-4)
Even if we are not completely taken over by restimulated emotions from the past, our perceptions of what is happening may be subtly biased and we might find it difficult to find creative ways to solve the problems our children confront us with.
There are myriad ways to address these stored feelings: everything from exercise, time with friends, alone time, therapy and other stress-relieving activities. But to truly release the feelings we need to vent.
My definition of venting is: allowing yourself to feel and express all your feelings uncensored (even from your own internal sensor, who is the most judgmental of all!).
No one wants to be a complainer, especially in this world of gratitude journals and above-all-negativity spirituality. And we certainly don't want to blame or unleash anger on anyone (which is hurtful and damaging). But to be human is to have experienced frustrations, disappointments, helplessness, confusion, shock, anger, worthlessness, the list goes on and on! We need to vent these feelings! Otherwise they stay unprocessed in the brain's limbic system.
Venting is different from complaining in three major ways:
1- You know that your feelings are connected to old hurts from the past (even if you don’t believe it in the moment).
2- You and your listener are consciously choosing to vent in order to feel and release feelings (It is a planned vent, instead of just complaining or losing it on a whim).
3- You are using your venting to feel and release as much as possible (as opposed to avoiding the feelings, which is what complaining does).
You vent with an adult so you don’t “leak” that vent (aka “lose it!”) with your children. You may still want them to change their behavior, you may still want more from your spouse, and you can have all those changes! In fact, after venting your ability to have the conversations and make the changes needed happen will be much easier as your limbic system will be freed up from the stuck emotions.
So here’s your call to action: Find a friend who will do this kind of venting with you. Set up a time and set a timer. For the first half you vent and your partner just listens; no advice, no suggestions, just heartfelt listening to those buried feelings. Then switch. That’s it. Then notice how your days are different over time. This is the basis of the Hand in Hand Parenting Tool called Listening Partnerships.
No, it’s not 1, 2, 3 magic. And it has nothing to do with time outs. This approach goes beyond all that. This is about the real reason we set limits with our children: to help them (and sometimes to help us) to calm the &%#@ down! (okay, yes, and also to raise emotionally healthy, well-adjusted children).
You know you don’t want to lose it and freak out on them (though, to be honest, we all lose it sometimes...more on that another time). But you also don’t want them running around like crazy people (there are not enough headphones and baths in this universe to keep you sane with that kind of chaos).
So how do you let your kids be kids and also keep your cool?
Last week I talked about noticing your desire to to set a limit is for yourself or for your child and the week before I talked about just how important letting them rough house play is to healthy emotional development. This week we get into the nitty gritty: How to actually set the limit.
Hand in Hand Parenting suggests a 3-step formula:
1- Listen to your child: what is s/he experiencing? Why? Listen within yourself: what’s the limit that will need to be set about, both for your and for your child.
2- Set the limit. Do it early. As soon as you notice your kid’s behavior is off track, move in close. Make eye contact. Offer your warmth, and your connection. Put your hand in the middle of whatever is going on. Set the limit. “I can’t let you hit your brother.” “I can’t let you have ice cream for breakfast.”
3- Listen again: What feelings in your child come up from having this limit set? Setting a limit with love and connection allows whatever ucky feelings that are getting in the way to come up to be released. Listen to them with love. “I can understand that sometimes you might want to hit your brother.” “I get that it would be fun to have ice cream for breakfast.”
A plethora of research shows that when discipline includes listening with warmth in this way and the gentle, but firm setting of limits, children has more self-esteem, self-control, and resilience.
Most of us did not have limits set in the way I am explaining here, so it might feel a bit (or A LOT) like swimming upstream at first. And, yes, it is a lot more work, which means parents need more support. But it pays off in the long run.
Children whose parents listen with warmth as they express the feelings that come up when given a limit are able to regulate their emotions, delay gratification, and in general make better decisions for themselves later in life. They develop what Sam Goldstein and Robert Brooks in their book “Raising Resilient Children” call "the emotional clutch."
So next time you feel the call to set a limit remember:
Karen Wolfe, MFT is a psychotherapist in San Francisco and the East Bay. She is passionate about helping children and families thrive and has particular expertise with children with exceptional learning and sensory styles.