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the weather inside

2011 April 18

They’re like weather systems, my children’s emotions.

The clouds move in with a sniffly hiccup, a lip-quivery frown, and soon escalate like a tornado ripping across the plains of Kansas. Sometimes I want to take cover, to crawl into the cellar, latch the heavy door and sit quietly singing “if I had a hammer…” while the storm rages outside.

And yet, I want to be compassionate, a safe haven for my children to express all their feelings, even the, y’know, stormy ones. It gets confusing, I mean, sometimes there’s a problem which makes my children grumpy, and other times it seems like the problem is that someone has become a needle stuck in the vinyl groove of grumpiness.

But what I am learning is that it doesn’t matter if the problem is the finger pointing at the moon or the moon itself. Underneath every emotional outburst there is a real need or desire.

Last week I got a call from Col’s school that he had a temperature of 102. I went to retrieve my limp boy, kissed his burning, blonde head, and carried him to the car. Suddenly, mysteriously, Rose developed a foot pain that prevented her from walking without sobbing hysterically.

Rose’s behavior made my own head flare with heat and anger, but what was her underlying need?

My friend Natalie, whom I’ve never met but feel strangely like I’ve known forever (thank you, internet), suggested that when Rose saw me carrying Col, she felt worried that Col was going to slurp the entire pie of Mama-love, leaving nothing for her. And so, Rose conjured up a 3-year old version of a strategy to snatch some back for herself.

And sure, the strategy doesn’t necessarily fill me with the desire to affix the sobbing child to my other hip and lurch up our front stairs like sherpa-mother. Truthfully, I felt protective of Col and annoyed that Rose wasn’t more empathetic to her sick brother. But Rose was born insanely healthy into a family with a child who has an underlying medical condition. And most of the time you would never know, but when Col’s respiratory issues flare up, Dan and I go into high-alert. We ferry Col to pediatricians and naturopaths; we ply him with breathing treatments, supplements and herbal syrups that Rose would drink for breakfast if she could. When Col’s been so sick that he’s landed in ER for respiratory distress, Rose begs for a turn with the oxygen mask.

Natalie suggests that naming that underlying need, without the intention to fix it, says: I see you, I understand you. For example, I could have said to limping, sobbing Rose, “Oh, you’re really wanting some special attention, Rose. You’re wishing I would carry you up the stairs right now. Being held feels good.”

This doesn’t mean that carrying her—fixing it—is appropriate or helpful. But letting her know she’s okay for feeling jealous, for wanting more from me (without shaming or punishing her) is appropriate and helpful.

The crazy thing about this style, this use of empathy, is that being seen without judgment or fixing is often enough. If I can stay put while the storm rages around me, loving my children unconditionally, acknowledging what I see (“oh, you’re really mad that your brother’s not ready to share his new coloring book” or “you want milk NOW but I want you to use a nicer voice and you’re frustrated“) my children will often come up with their own solution, if one is even needed.

And goodness, I didn’t mean to throw open the thick, coffee-stained psychology book of our family. But I do want to say that I want to do a better job seeing the needs under my children’s behavior, and of being a rock-steady presence of unconditional love rather than throwing a band-aid at the problem and running for cover.

For more inspiration on meeting your child’s emotional needs with empathy, check out these blogs:

Natalie Christensen (who is available for phone consultation, and so worth it!)

Mama Om (I bow down to Stacy every time I read her blog)

Natural Parenting Center (she recently discovered: the smaller the body, the bigger the emotion. Brilliant!)

And these books:

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn

Everyday Blessings – the inner work of mindful parenting by Jon and Myla Kabat Zinn

29 Responses leave one →
  1. Kathy permalink
    April 20, 2011

    What wisdom you have, your friends have. Wish I had known this… but learning to parent is an ongoing process. Next time… And the new response will by example teach Rose and Col how to treat others in their time of need/jealousy.

    Your crawling into the cellar reminds me of a story about a mother from many years ago, who with many children clamoring for attention, would cover her head with her long apron when she was overwhelmed. She had no other place to go in their small cabin. The children understood her need for quiet and order and would calm down.

    The first photo you posted is what our hill used to look like, when we were 7 and 4, maybe 1960. Can you imagine? What a gorgeous place to explore. Now our little acre is house, not land, locked, clamoring neighbors all around. But it shelters the deer and sometimes the bear. The children and animals all have walked the same path down the hill for many years. A fine place to wander, where I go in my imagination, to breath again. Thank you for the clear image.

  2. April 20, 2011

    Thank you thank you. Your writing adds such depth to this way of being with our children. Loving that you are where you are!

  3. April 20, 2011

    Wow. That was a particularly potent writing for me. I can relate to Rose and I can imagine the whole train of emotions of parent with a sick child and a child feeling sick.

    My older sister has Cerebral Palsy. She is a year older than me and I remember being very jealous of all the attention she got, all the presents when she was sick or in the hospital. I was assigned to be her helper but sometimes I wanted to be the center of attention and not the one giving help and comfort. Wow, the tears really welled up when you said the part about acknowledging that Rose wants to be carried. That is potent consciousness and I can only imagine how challenging and powerful that is to say in the middle of fears rising over a child not well and just trying to get the next thing done.

    Your post brings me right back there and definitely stirs the emotions around it all. Thanks for sharing. It’s such a Big Life, isn’t it? And so much to “get better at”. Thank goodness for the baby steps.


    • 6512 and growing permalink
      April 20, 2011

      Thank you Sarah. It took me a long time to realize that even though it seems like Col deals with a lot of physical suffering that no one would wish for, to Rose it may look like a lot of special attention.

  4. April 20, 2011

    Thank you for all the links. I guess as parents we can just take everything for what it is on the outside. It’s hard not to get pissed at my little ones for needing attention. Like my Eli who can’t walk down the hall by himself to use the bathroom. It gets pretty tiring after a while. Especially if I’m cooking or something. But, being a parent is about figuring this all out and growing as a person. I always marvel at how much these little people teach me about myself. It’s an amazing journey!

  5. April 20, 2011

    Beautiful. And the “if I had a hammer” bit made me laugh. I did some mediation training with Braided River Peace Project in Durango years ago, and the big take home message I got was that the need to be heard doesn’t stop with childhood. We were trained to listen for the “position” and then try to figure out what the “issue” was. The position was the person taking a stance and saying, I will not budge. But if you could figure out what the real issue was, and address it, the position often evaporated, because they had been heard. It is actually really hard to do with no judgement, a skill, like parenting, that takes lots of practice, and deep breaths.

  6. Melissa permalink
    April 20, 2011

    We just got back from a little trip to Seattle/Bainbridge Island . . . super fun, wonderful time with the family. It helps me get some perspective on these difficult parenting moments, which for us usually occur when we are trying to rush out the door in the morning . . .

    Funny story–I was with Avi in a restaurant bathroom and while I can’t remember what prompted the exclamation, I said “oy vey” under my breath (which is a good alternative to an expletive) and Avi piped up, “Oy vey what, Mommy?” And a mystery woman behind her stall door laughed audibly.

    They are such sponges, these little ones. Staying with empathy is so hard sometimes but also so important! Over and over again. I’m like a broken record, “It’s okay for you to be upset but you still may not have another cookie,” or whatever. And then after 20 rounds of this I hit my limit, “And we are not talking about this anymore!”

    Avi has learned to tell me about his feeling states when there isn’t a meltdown, which I love, eg, “I feel a little sad right now that I’m not riding on that boat out there.” This practice of empathy is just the beginning of a special closeness and intimacy that hopefully will have our children feeling like they can confide in us during those difficult teenage years . . . but probably they will tell us we don’t understand anything. Sigh.

    I loved catching up on a few posts just now! Love the curtains. Love your writing, as usual. xo

  7. woowoomama permalink
    April 20, 2011

    yes, i just want to say that i also am working on this way of being. the other day when pea was have a tantrum – i mean tornado – and i was really struggling to find empathy i found i was able to name what was happening and that worked out as well. it was like halfway where i wanted to be able to go but that was better than no movement at all. anyhow, i just was saying “you are crying. you are crying. it is ok that you are crying.” i carried on like that unable to even find emotional language and next thing i know it was all just over. fancy that.

    i find that i get so sucked into wanting the intensity to end that i start flinging bandaids at them. bribes? yelling? shaming? i will try it all. just reminding myself that the intensity is safe and ok for me seems to help me immensely.

    anyway, i love reading about other parents on this journey. thanks for sharing!

    • 6512 and growing permalink
      April 20, 2011

      “i find that i get so sucked into wanting the intensity to end that i start flinging bandaids at them. bribes? yelling? shaming? i will try it all.”

      I can totally relate. I’m finding the old neural pathways (bribes, yelling, punishment) are deep and it takes a lot of practice to remember empathy, for my children and myself.

      Growing children at 6512 feet:

      • April 28, 2011

        Yes, we’re rewiring our brains, which wouldn’t ya know it, are wired directly to our hearts. <3


  8. rose permalink
    April 20, 2011

    Yes! so beautiful! i read unconditional parenting in my first months of motherhood along with The Natural Child by Jan Hunt. those ideas caused a revolution in my soul that my family has benefited from so. very. much. it cannot be overstated.

    i often find that silent presence is all that is needed. i sit and breathe and know that my heart is big enough to shelter them from any storm. until they learn to shelter themselves. which they will, and do, so beautifully.

  9. April 20, 2011

    So well put.
    Everyday Blessings was a seriously turn for the better parenting read for me…. I never parented the way my family had and felt really lost figuring things out on the early days.
    There is a passage in the book where Jon is walking away from a store with a screaming child pounding him with their fists and even though he felt his self getting angry he kept his cool, authenticated his child’s feelings and then let go of it.
    This type of parenting is so releasing. These days parenting a teen is much like parenting a toddler. A big toddler, that is. And in a moment of not the best chain of events I can usually take a deep breath and calmly remind my kid they own their actions…. (as do I, and you’d better believe thy call me out on my own misgivings… talk about humbling!) Somehow it works…. we all move on… we all let it go. As a mama to a 12 & 14 year old who still spill the beans to either their dad or I about *everything*…. we feel like we’re doing something right.
    And in the less than perfect moments when I do lose it and shriek like a crazy woman or totally disregard their feelings (accidently, of course), I am never too big to apologize. And they happily deliver the same move on & let it go that they receive in their own rough moments. None of us are perfect, but we all know we’re loved.

  10. Molly permalink
    April 20, 2011

    Well, thank you. I haven’t been all that thrilled with my “Mommy feels less battered by less screechy requests” approach. We certainly do cuddles and such when she’s throwing up walls in all directions, to just recalibrate her to the day. Which helps in major situations. But I’m glad to hear and talk about more nuanced strategies. I confess to having half an eye on my old age, considering how I would want to be treated by her when I am less able to cope with daily tribulations.

  11. April 20, 2011

    I’m proud of you for choosing to write about this, because it’s one of those things that moms tend to sweep under the rug. This is one of the forms of the “F” word (Favoritism) that so many of us can relate to, both in our own childhood, and in parenting. I struggle with this everyday with my twins, not because of health conditions but because one is just so much more needy than the other. I have to make an extra effort to make sure they both feel special and loved – not an easy task as there is only one of me!

    • 6512 and growing permalink
      April 20, 2011

      Thank you Lena, I felt vulnerable and sort of nervous posting this, like “can’t we just talk about garden vegetables and cute kid moments?” It is so hard when one child regularly needs extra attention and asks for it in a repelling way, and you feel sort of repelled. And yet if you act repelled, the need for attention becomes greater. And I’m hoping the converse is true: that the more I can turn lovingly towards that need, the less I will be asked to “prove” my love.

  12. April 20, 2011

    YES. thank you for posting this. and i’m so glad you cracked open the family shrink book, coffee stained pages et all. i keep coming back to your blog because inevitably there is always a kernal of synchronicity to my own parenting process, and the way your wisdom and love for your family hums along between the lines is always a good deep breath for me.

    as fern becomes a toddler, so too do her emotional storms become bigger and more specific. last night at 3 am she was tantruming, for multiple, but undistinguishable reasons. soothing talking and lullabies, and even the boob were of no help. so eventually i stopped trying to “fix” and just held her tightly as she squirmed and wailed. after a few moments the storm passed and she relaxed into my arms. i think when we throw band aids we reaffirm a belief for them that how they are feeling isn’t ok. to instead be that unconditional rock sends a much different message…i’m here, i love you, i see you, and what you are feeling is normal. maybe not pleasant, but normal. by keeping our seats, i think we teach them how to keep theirs.

    thanks again rachel, and thanks for the links too. mama om is such a good one.

  13. April 20, 2011

    Thank you for posting this! Parenting is hard work.

    I don’t have a good blueprint for parenting – my mother has an undiagnosed mental illness that for years was blamed on me – it was my fault she was that way. I am just now realizing it’s not my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it. Becoming a mother myself has helped me to see she is mentally ill. I sometimes really struggle with those tough moments of motherhood, but I always manage to keep in mind my daughter just needs me to love her and give her good attention and be a good role model for her. It challenges me to the depths of my being, but I often find remaining calm and sometimes even admitting to her “I just cannot handle this right now. What’s really going on here?” goes a long, long way.

  14. April 20, 2011

    man i needed this today. thank you wise friend.



  15. Emily permalink
    April 20, 2011

    argh. You and Mrs. Stacy (mama-om) both put out beautiful, mindful, wonderful posts on a day where I was a bear to my children. It’s an conspiracy ;>) Thank for for helping me grow. grumble.

    • April 28, 2011

      Today I was a bear. Agh! Because I am working on a new website. Could the irony be any thicker?

      Rachel — thanks so much for continuing and furthering this conversation. Reading your post and these comments is giving me some much needed nourishment today.

      Beginning again—

  16. April 21, 2011

    Oh, thank you so much for this. “I see you. I understand you.” I needed to read this today after weathering many storms with my 2 year old last night. Humbling for sure as I was not the best moma I could have been yesterday. Thank you.

  17. April 21, 2011

    i’m excited to check out natalie’s blog, as i’ve never “met” her, i too find so much wisdom in stacy (mama-om)’s posts (your title reminded me of her ‘i am the weather for my kids’ post a few months back) and unconditional parenting (AK) is a dog-eared, underlined mess at my house. and i have a list of mindful parenting tips from the kabat-zinns taped to my fridge, though i haven’t read their book. finding the need beneath, or even just reminding myself, “there’s a need in there, i don’t know what it is, but there is a need” de-fuses things for me more often than not (meaning, helps me stop flinging bandaids, and stop feeling like intensity is not ok). one of my most-used “tricks” when i can’t remember what to do, and am feeling like a complete flunkie as an unconditional parent, is to “state the obvious”. it has resolved many an upset, just all on its own, for me to just “see” the upset. “i see that you are upset” is sometimes all it takes. the energy of that is just enough different than “i am not ok with you being upset.” oh and the neural grooves- man are they deep. we’ve been training for this job of mama all our lives, and unlearning some of that training can be brutal. so many stories we create about what it means for our child to act a certain way… we have so many attachments and connotations and fears that are hard to overcome.
    all that rambling to say, thank you for this…

  18. April 21, 2011

    THANK YOU! i needed to read this right now. my willful girl has been testing the limits of my patience lately and my coping skills have been less than stellar. i needed this reminder to slow down and be with her in her frustration, instead of adding to it with my own.

  19. April 22, 2011

    I’m totally in on naming things. Hurt feet, healthy kids, sick kids, kids who want hugs. Whew! A name is a powerful set of eyes. Visibility is the ticket.

  20. April 22, 2011

    As parents we often know that there is an underlying need masking as tantrums and odd ailments but when we’re knee-deep with issues aplenty – adult things, life things, all kinds of things – we scarcely have the time or patience to address what lies beneath.

    Sometimes when I pick my daughter up from preschool after being at work for 10 hours, and she’s behaving badly and throwing a fit, I get upset with her because there I am, looking forward to seeing her and all I get is this willful, sullen child who’s testing her boundaries. So one day instead of being mad at this crying child in front of me, I just pulled her close to me in the car and just held her, whispering over and over again, “I know, I missed you too. I know it’s hard. Believe me I know” and within a minute, she was quiet. And it was blissful.

    It was the epiphany I needed to help me handle pickups on difficult days like this. And it has worked quite well. It’s amazing what it did, just trying to empathize and reaching back out to the part of them that’s in dire need of us.

    • 6512 and growing permalink
      April 22, 2011

      Justine, that is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  21. April 24, 2011

    Sometimes all I can do is simply reflect back what I see, hear and understand them to be feeling. Over and over at times. And many days it is enough. But not always. And as my children grow, and their feelings become more complex it stretches me further than I had any idea I could stretch, exactly like it was birthing them. Helping them birth their emotions is a neural connection to my experiences of birthing each of them, and I know in the moment I can survive it and we can all triumph, but man it is a hard push to get there!

    Thank you for being willing to go out there and befriend vulnerability with all of us:) I am in awe of the bloggers (you included) who can go out there so regularly and share this amazing, healing stuff, and I long to confront more of my own fears while going deeply within myself, and sharing those moments about life with my own kids.


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