Field guide to weathering the (emotional) storm, and *an invitation
We are at 10,100 feet. The sky hangs heavy. The distant mountains, like an art lesson in shading, are veiled in deepening obscurations of grey. Lightning roams faraway peaks. Dan and I exchange raised eyebrows, noting without words that a meteorological smackdown is likely coming our way.
The rain comes gentle at first, tapping an exploratory tune. We gather under our 12 X 12 tarp stretched across spruce trunks. The kids grow quiet and watchful, concern flicking across their faces. Dan and I put on our “we’re the adults in charge!” game-faces. The thunder crashes through the mountains and rain batters the tarp. The storm is fierce and powerful, loud and humbling, and we are at its mercy. We watch the sky inject yellow bolts of electricity into the peaks.
Time passes. The rains slows. Clouds lift and scuttle away. Beams of sun beckon us out from under the tarp. The lights have come back on, and we laugh and bask in the invitation.
The wild storm of emotions
These wild, quick-moving mountain storms are a metaphor for so much. Our children’s feelings swirl in like heavy clouds, like thunder. They are fierce and powerful, loud and humbling. And yet, they evaporate, and the light returns.
On our way up to the mountains for a recent camping trip, Rose was conducting an intensive Q & A session, as some of us do when a little anxious. (The woman who tested me on the driving portion of my Driver’s License test said, afterwards: “Were you a little nervous?” “Yeah, why?” I answered. “You never stopped asking questions that whole 15 minutes.”)
Rose wanted to know if there would be mosquitos, how long the drive would be, what our first snack would be. She became desperately hungry the minute we got about 100 feet away from our refrigerator. (Even though we purposely tanked up on food before piling in the truck). She no longer wanted to go camping. She wanted something fun to do, now. She wondered why we always made her go camping and if we were going to have to hike and if we were going to have any fun. She didn’t think so. She made the whimpering sounds of a hurt animal.
I’ve noticed that when I get into a panic that the storm of my children’s emotions will never end, I begin to believe that the most important thing is to Stop The Thunder Now rather than connect with what’s causing the weather. And really, all our children’s “bad” behavior is a function of them trying to get their normal, human needs met.
And really, this is good news. When all our efforts towards initiating “appropriate consequences” and tiered systems of punishments are put towards determining our children’s unmet needs, the road to peace becomes shorter. Your child will always benefit more from the lasting power of being understood than the short term faux-fix of a time out.
Field Guide to Weathering the (Emotional) Storm
1) Put your own oxygen mask on first. It takes a lot of patience, resolve and compassion to meet a child’s anger, complaints, fears, etc… We don’t like to see our children suffer, and their big emotions can feel scary and endless. When you feel that storm brewing, ask yourself what you need to be present. Deep breaths are a good place to start. Direct some empathy towards yourself. Shit. I really wanted to enjoy this beautiful drive. It’s hard to give up my agenda. Remind yourself that this is not an emergency. (If your anger needs more attention—and I have been there—give yourself some space to calm down before addressing your child. We usually regret things said in anger).
2) Set an intention. It can help to set an intention to listen, to connect, to not interject with solutions, to stay present and calm.
3) Empathize with the feelings. As long as no one’s in danger, set the behavior aside for a moment and look for the feelings. Empathizing means “feeling into,” letting your child know they’re heard, not that you necessarily agree with them or will change to accommodate their wishes, but that their feelings are safe and allowed. You sound anxious, Rose. You sound worried that you’re not going to have any fun this weekend.
4) Avoid judgmental labeling. Pointing out to your child that they’re complaining or whining can put them on the defensive, or bring up shame, and take you farther from connection and resolution.
5) Investigate Needs. What is the need behind the emotion? Make some guesses. Are you feeling sad and worried about being away from home all weekend? Is it hard to leave behind the familiar and head into the unknown? Are you annoyed that Daddy and I often choose to go camping on the weekend even when that’s not your first choice? (The needs might be for comfort, reassurance, familiarity, fun, autonomy).
6) Find a win-win solution. Often being heard and understood is enough and no solution is needed. If it seems a solution is needed, see if you can come up with one that meets everyone’s needs. How about as soon as we get the tents set up, you choose a special snack while I read you a chapter from our book?
This is all a true story. Sometimes our kids get anxious and sad as we drive away from the familiar luxuries of home into a wild world which may demand a little more resilience, imagination and flexibility. When they’re in this place of worry (which can look a lot like complaining) we don’t remind them how much fun they always have (which is true), nor do we give up our desire to be in the mountains as much as possible in the summer. We also don’t numb the discomfort with snacks. Instead, we wade right into the storm, naming the feelings, giving them space and love, knowing it will all pass.
Why not just punish “bad” behavior and move on? If we remember that all our children’s behavior is a function of them trying to meet their normal human needs, we can see clearly that punishment, or consequences will never address the root issue. In fact, it may weaken connection, trust and respect between parent and child. When children are allowed space for all their feelings, they understand that feelings come and go, are nothing to fear, push away or numb. The more emotional safety your child experiences, the more they can state their feelings and ask for what they need rather than act out.
I have been asked by some local parents to facilitate a biweekly group on Peaceful Parenting. How exciting! Here’s what it will (likely) look like:
We’ll meet for roughly two hours twice a month for 4-6 months for discussion, practice and questions.
We will discuss:
* How to turn praise into appreciation.
* Effective alternatives to punishment.
* How to motivate children without rewards.
* The five love languages and how they relate to parenting.
* The difference between strategies and needs.
* Becoming aware of the stories we tell ourselves.
* How to say “yes” more without compromising your boundaries.
* How to determine the needs behind your child’s behavior.
* How to make empathy your first response.
* How to make requests, not demands.
The cost is $25/person per session.
Space is limited and the group is half full already. Please contact me if you’re interested.