In this blog entry, I hope I can provide some alternative approaches and ways to communicate and connect with your child. With that being said, I feel I need to write a disclaimer emphasizing the importance of reading with an open and compassionate mind. Typically, when parents read anything on parenting, the first thing that starts happening is the ‘Shoulds’ and ‘Second Guessing’ come knocking, bringing ‘Guilt’ and ‘Shame’ to the front door. Please remember there is no handbook on parenting. You can read all sorts of books about ideas, strategies and tips on "What to do when your child…" None of them will know your child better than you. The best parenting strategy I use with parents is helping them identify and foster trust in their own parental intuition and strengths.
I think we can agree that children and adolescents are FULL of emotion. Although, this doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to connect to or express these emotions. Imagine trying to pour a 50 gallon tank of water through a small funnel. This describes the overwhelming and outpouring of emotion we often ‘see’ in children and adolescents. You know, the temper tantrums or the defiance that make you want to run to the bathroom, lock yourself in and never come out! This often leaves parents scared and dreading the intense emotions of their child. So, let me tell you about “The Day My Mom Offered Me $20 to 'Be Happy'.”
Fortunately, my mom and I can laugh about this experience now, but it wasn’t so funny at the time. I was in my early 20s and going through a tough time, feeling a little down-maybe even depressed. I was trying to open up to my mom and tell her how I was feeling. I can see now, how uncomfortable this made my mom. Similar to many moms, my mom’s greatest wish for her children is for them to ‘be happy’. So, when she offered me $20 to go do something that "will make you happy", you would have thought she was trying to force me to into washing windows or eating cow intestine by my response. Knowing my mom, I know every bit of her intention was good and loving. However, what I heard was, “My sadness was not okay or not normal.” I interpreted her request to mean I should do whatever I can to ‘get over it’- and do it quickly. My emotion made my mom uncomfortable and triggered the "I want to help" button. I was demanding understanding and validation. I didn’t want my feelings to be fixed. I wanted them to be heard. Now, when I ask my mom "If we can talk", the existing joke is, “Yes, and I promise, I won’t offer you $20”.
Naturally, sadness, fear, and insecurity, in our children, make us uncomfortable. My mom wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was exercising her desire and role to protect, which comes with being a parent. When a daughter tells her parent she thinks she looks fat or ugly, you probably know what happens next. …the ‘dreaded parent response’…..”That isn’t true dear; I think you are the most beautiful girl in the world.” Sometimes this is all your child needs to hear. But most often, you receive the typical ‘eye-roll response’ and the conversation changes or ends. Another reliable parenting response is using the “Why” approach. “Why are you sad?” Why are you anxious?” Try being curious and interested not questioning and demanding. Notice the difference in your child’s response.
I encourage you to get creative in your response and try something different. Consider finding out more about what your child is feeling by asking, “What do you feel when you look in the mirror?” “Where do you think these thoughts/feelings come from?” You are sending the message, “Your feelings are okay and normal. I can handle what you tell me.” Once you have her talking and engaged, you can help her develop her own coping and ‘rescue’ resources. You might continue with, “What helps you when you are feeling down?” Or, “Who do you feel most comfortable talking with when you are sad?” The message here is, “I trust you and am confident you have the ability to solve your own problems.” You are supporting as well as teaching. Can you see the difference between ‘rescuing’ your child verses 'allowing’ your child to experience and express their feelings? Children have feelings just like we do. Our job is to help them identify and express them not prevent or fix them.
- Another child tells his parent, “I am worried about my test tomorrow.”
Typical parent response: “Don’t worry son. You will do great!"
Creative parent response: “Tell me more about what is making you anxious.” “What does your body feel like when it is anxious?”
Creating connection and trust response: “What seems to help you when you are anxious?” “Can you think of another time you were anxious? How did you get through it?”
Just to reiterate, this blog is about finding creative ways to connect with your child. It is not about what’s right or wrong in parenting. There is not one ‘right’ way to respond to your child’s needs and feelings. However, in parenting, we have our typical ‘go-to’ responses because let’s face it; we have many distractions, limited energy and not enough time to always be creative and attentive with our children.
Suggestions for cultivating creative connection:
- Next time you want to jump in and be the ‘super hero’, pause, take a deep breath and see what feelings are surfacing for you before responding.
- Have someone to talk to, who provides understanding and validation. Finding trusting support makes you feel like you are not alone and less anxious as you navigate through the challenges of parenting.
- Providing a relaxed and open presence will invite your child to go deeper and build that connection.
- Modeling what we want to teach our children can be the most powerful parenting tool to practice. (relaxation, positive self talk, asking for help, using your support system, taking responsibility for your own feelings and behaviors)
- Before responding to your child, remind yourself not be scared of your child's sadness or feelings. It means if they are sharing their feelings with you, in that moment, you have a connection. Embrace and nurture it! You got this!
Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do. - Benjamin Spock ~American Pediatrician