Thomas and I had a few items to pick up from the supermarket on our way home. Always eager to help, Thomas likes pulling the wheeled basket along behind him and eating the free fruit the shop puts out for kids. The two of us usually have fun together at the supermarket.
When we got to the supermarket, there were no wheeled baskets and the fruit box was empty. You can probably guess how the rest of this story goes.
Thomas, being 2, insisted on carrying the regular basket with only handles himself. It was awkward and heavy for him but I gave him a chance to try and to see for himself that he couldn’t manage it. Uncharacteristically, he was getting himself in knots over it and our shopping wasn’t getting done. In the end, I had to insist that I would carry the basket myself. I was ready for crying and complaints but not for what came next.
Tears, screaming, pulling at me and the basket. He had himself in hysterics. I am not exaggerating when I say the whole supermarket could hear Thomas – and I could sense their ears listening. I needed the few items on my shopping list and I knew it wouldn’t take long so I forged ahead.
But I had a choice to make about how I was going to forge ahead – with love or with fear. I chose love. And I mean self-love, not love for Thomas (bless him). He was in no state for reason or, even, comfort. He just needed his moment. So I mentally detached myself from Thomas. I detached myself from the shoppers and the staff. I detached from my embarrassment. “My child’s behaviour is not a reflection of me or my parenting,” I told myself as I charged down the aisles on my mission to get our essentials and get out of there. (Well, limped, really, as Thomas was semi-attached to me – but with the conviction of charging.)
I sensed the discomfort of the staff and shoppers at being witness to the scene I was responsible for. My strength was wavering as I was heading for the one last thing I needed when…a stranger came up to me and said, “Excuse me, can I give you a hug?”. She gave me a firm squeeze and said I was doing a good job. With her kindness and understanding, I was fortified enough to finish my job with composure both within and without. I am so appreciative of her support and, whoever you are – thank you, enormously.
I headed straight for the self-check-out as standing in queue wasn’t an option. Like the parting of the red seas, people made room for me and my red-faced child. A staff member pointed me to the next available check-out. The customer at the check-out next to me offered to scan my groceries through for me.
The whole ordeal felt like forever but was probably under five minutes, due to everyone’s effort. They and I both wanted us out of there!
By the time we got to the car, Thomas was hitting me in his frustration and overwhelm. I simply told him, “no hitting, hitting hurts”. He wasn’t in a place to receive any lessons. I figured I’d let him get it out and offer him comfort when he was ready to receive it. (see my post Helping Children to Manage Difficult Emotions)
So I had the joy of driving home with Thomas screaming in the back seat. By the time we pulled up outside our house, he had quietened somewhat but told me he wanted me to keep driving and to listen to “Yellow Submarine”, which we’ve been playing a lot of in the car recently. So I ended up reversing back down the driveway and cruising around the suburb with “Yellow Submarine” on repeat. I looked in my rear vision mirror and Thomas was happy in the back seat, pretending to play the trombone along with the music. He was reset.
That morning, I had listened to a podcast interview with Gabrielle Bernstein, author of The Universe Has Your Back as I was filling lunchboxes. The interviewer had asked her, “How do you know the Universe has your back?” This is how I know – the hugging stranger, the eager helpers at the self-checkout, Ringo Starr. My quick stop at the supermarket didn’t go the way I would have had it, but there was help for me everywhere I turned. I love the title of Gabby’s book and it is a truth I want my boys to know.
“Jake! How many times have I asked you to put your things in the car?! We haven’t got time for this!” I shouted, wondering how many of my neighbours could hear me right now. It was cold and I was trying to bundle my boys and all their gear into the car to get Jake to school on time. I grabbed Jake’s coat & bag off him and put them into the boot myself. My uncharacteristic outburst shocked him into action and he was in his car seat in a flash, ready for me to do up the seatbelt. But, as I clipped him in, he said, “You didn’t need to talk to me like that,” his eyes becoming wet. Of course, I knew he was right. I took a breath. “You’re right”, I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t speak nicely to you. I should’ve said ‘Jake, I’m feeling angry that you still haven’t put your things in the car and I need your help to get to school on time. Do it now please’”, modelling a more respectful tone of voice.
By giving Jake an example of a better response, I was trying to show him that it’s ok to express emotions but not to let them run riot. I started replaying verbal exchanges in this way a couple of months ago. The idea came to me once when the roles were reversed and Jake was shouting at me. I just said to him “try that again”. He knew I meant, “say that in a respectful way please” and did so straight away. I see adults and children as equals so, on that cold morning, with the clock ticking, I had to “try that again” too.
The above situation was not monumental, but it counts. The little, everyday interactions we have with our children are frequent and provide both the example & the practice ground for “bigger” emotional events – practice for adults and children alike!
HOW CAN WE HELP OUR CHILDREN TO NAVIGATE DIFFICULT EMOTIONS?
As parents, our hearts bleed along with our children when they are upset. Our first instinct is to defend and protect them but what we really need to do is to build their ability to cope with emotional pain in all of its forms.
How do we help them to accept their emotions instead of avoiding them?
How do we help them to express their emotions without disrespecting others?
How do we help them to grow from difficult emotional experiences?
How do we help them to respond wisely to situations that have resulted in uncomfortable emotions?
I could list many more questions that I had when I started writing this post. Through the writing process, I’ve come up with 3 steps that I think can help to answer them. Honestly though, I haven’t yet had to nurture my boys through any really overwhelming emotions so it’s a largely untested approach. As they get older, I expect it to be thoroughly tested out and can let you know how it goes! As I’ve said on my website, my posts are simply the explorations of an ordinary mother, intended to prompt other parents & caregivers to reflect, not necessarily to agree. So, see what you think –
STEP 1: VALIDATE & BE
When my boys are experiencing difficult emotions, I initially just “validate and be” with them & their emotion.
To validate, I name the emotion and offer my understanding, eg. “I can see you’re disappointed that it’s time to leave the playground, you were having fun”. When we’re upset, having just one person understand and acknowledge how we’re feeling helps at least a little, doesn’t it?
Then, I offer just to be with them and their emotion until the bigger part of it has passed. “Being” looks different depending on the age & personality of the child and the situation that has given rise to the emotion. It may be having a cuddle on the sofa, sitting with our child while they pace the room or giving them space but having them know I’m on hand while they take time out in their bedroom, for example. This “being” stage may last from one minute to, I imagine, a number of days. Whatever form it takes and however long it takes, the essence of “being” is that we adults do nothing but be fully present with our child – not judging their emotion or trying to stop them from feeling it or fixing the situation. We’re just there, letting the emotion take its course.
As a toddler, Jake rarely got upset but, when he did, he was loud and inconsolable. Nothing worked to calm him down. All I could do was wait it out and this is how I learned to “validate and be”. Once, at a mothers’ coffee group get-together, something upset him and he launched into a good, loud cry over it. I just sat and cuddled him, while some of the other mums looked at me as if to say “why aren’t you doing something?” They seemed to think there was a problem to be solved and started offering him toys and food to distract him – with no effect. I told them he’d soon calm down on his own – and he did. When I sensed he was ready, I played with him for a few minutes before he returned to playing happily alongside the other children.
“Being” with an emotion results in more calm but the journey to calm is often not calm itself. Our bodies and brains do all sorts of things to make us feel our emotions. So, stamping feet, crying, sulking, scowling is all permmited. My opinion is that everyone is allowed to be in a mood and to express it, but not to take it out on others. I’m finding this a hard line to judge. Jake has taken to expressing his anger with a loud dinosaur-like roar and it’s difficult to tell whether a roar has been directed at me because I’ve told him to set the table or whether it’s just a release to get it out.
Our willingness to be with their emotion shows our children that emotions are not to be feared or avoided. They are part of our experience in life but not part of us, so will come and go on their own, if allowed. Often, “validate and be” is enough on its own. Our children will talk if they want to, but they won’t always need to.
STEP 2: PLUG INTO LOVE
“The best way to get rid of the pain is to feel the pain. And when you feel the pain and go beyond it, you’ll see there’s a very intense love that is wanting to awaken itself.” – Deepak Chopra.
This quote popped up on my Instagram feed this week. I had to use it because it is so relevant to my post. I don’t think I understand yet all that it means but I think step 2 relates to it.
When I was losing patience with Jake as we were getting into the car that cold morning, without thinking about it, I took a breath get me back to centre. For me, even one breath can act as a switch. It doesn’t turn the emotion off but it helps my mind to plug into my higher self instead of the emotion. Plugging in, helps me to see the situation differently, in a way that is more loving and useful. Using their “breathing switch” is definitely something I could teach my boys.
In this step, we are choosing compassion. Compassion both for ourselves and for any other people involved. I think Love has a lesson or message to offer in every difficult situation. And, even when we are sure that we are the one who has been unfairly wronged, there is a lesson for us and about us. We can’t undo whatever has happened, but we can choose to grow from it.
After school yesterday, Jake was upset because he had been called a nasty name in the playground simply because he was in another child’s way. Logically, it seems simple – the other child had called Jake a name and he shouldn’t have done that. What more is there to it? But switching from the emotional position of seeing my son as a victim to seeing through the eyes of Love, I saw an opportunity for Jake to learn about self-love. I wanted to help him to understand that people won’t always treat him nicely but it doesn’t mean that he deserves to be treated poorly. I also wanted him to realise that the other child’s behaviour was not to be taken personally, it was simply that he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are seemingly little lessons but, remove the context, and they are very important ones. Through the experience and our discussion of it, Jake has begun to learn that he is worthy of good treatment and that, when he’s not treated well, it’s not personal. (If only I had understood these things about life earlier, I would’ve hurt so much less!)
With my eldest being only 5 years old, I currently have to do most of the work in this step. But by showing my boys how to look for Love’s lesson, they will eventually learn to do it on their own. As they get older, my job will be more to ask questions than to explain – questions that help them to connect with their true selves so they can interpret and respond to the situation upsetting them with Love, rather than with the emotion itself. They can also remember the lesson next time they find themselves in a similar situation, which may lessen the emotional blow.
STEP 3: RESPOND
Responding to an action comes only after validating, being with the emotion and tuning into Love’s wisdom. In the grip of difficult emotions, we are not able to deal effectively with the situations we find ourselves in. We might resort to blame, shouting, self-medicating, avoidance… Then we are left to deal with both our unattended emotion and regret over our reaction to it. So, once our child is present, calm(er) and plugged in, they are in a better position to decide on a response that is loving towards both themselves and the others involved.
Again, I will usually direct my boys at this stage while they are so young. As they get older, my role will shift from making suggestions to asking questions that lead them on their own answers. One day, they will be ready to decide for themselves.
Sometimes the conclusion is that there is nothing to do but accept the situation as it is and be prepared for a similar situation if it reoccurs. In the case of Jake being called a nasty name at school, he walked away at the time and there really was nothing more to do once he’d got home, had a cry and realised that it wasn’t personal to him. He agreed he will just walk away if he finds himself in a similar situation again.
IN SUMMARY: EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE
If we take these 3 steps when our children are experiencing difficult emotions, I think we can help them to navigate the emotion of their current situation but also begin to build their emotional resilience. By this, I mean their ability to tolerate difficult emotions without handing their power over to them. Instead, they can choose to receive the wisdom that comes with their pain – wisdom that can help them to respond with love to this situation and that may reduce the extent of their pain the next time they’re in similar circumstances.
PS: These 3 steps are the same for adults. Doing them ourselves will help us to guide our children through them.