One day, back at the start of winter Col was heading outside jacketless, in sneakers. Six inches of fresh snow had just fallen. I stared at his snow boots in the hallway and immediately flashed ahead to his adulthood, where I saw him living in a cardboard shanty, still unable to match his clothing to the season.
No one likes unsolicited advice, so I practiced my childbirth breathing, still forming a response when Dan stepped in and said, “Col, I bet those sneaks are way more comfy than your boots.”
It was like someone pressed the decelerate button on my nervous system. Dan tossed out every other potential response (condemning, warning, advice-giving, ridiculing) to say, essentially, “I can understand that choice.” And then Col, having no position to defend, explained how last year’s hand-me-down boots rubbed his heels uncomfortably. And then we bought him new boots. And he’s worn them everyday since then.
I have approximately 647 blind spots when it comes to my children, all of which have to do with fear.
Our fears often come from stories we tell ourselves about how it should be, stories in which our agenda is in conflict with what is actually happening. This activates anxiety. Maybe we value resiliency and optimism, and when we hear our child express negativity we panic. Maybe we want a child who always tells the truth, but there was an incident where the truth didn’t feel safe to tell. If we can relax our agenda and look deeper, we can make room for understanding.
Understanding: The antidote to fear
Generating understanding can be a powerful antidote to our own fear, actually dismantling our anxiety in the moment. It is an act of love that shines light into the dark, cramped places where we stuff our scariest feelings. Receiving understanding, or empathy, is like putting down the pack full of rocks you’ve been toting around while being led to the sunny meadow of relief. (We’ve been studying empathy experientially in my nonviolent communication group for the past 6 weeks, and I swear, we all walk out of there purring).
I’ve noticed that there are many things we want for our children. We want them to be confident, responsible and to communicate clearly; we want them to resist peer pressure, to care for others, and to always start written sentences with a capital letter. We forget that their brains are still forming, that everyday is an opportunity for practice, that we can help plant seeds by modeling our values. When they receive understanding or empathy, their system floods with oxytocin, a neurochemical associated with care and connection. It is from this place that their frontal cortex, “the reasoning brain” can make decisions and act.
Sometimes, as I’m searching for the right words, I just start with, “I can understand that,” because it sends a quick signal to my brain to prioritize connection over being right. Sometimes it’s easy, like when Rose plops on the couch after eating 5 waffles, and says, “I want to do cartwheels but my belly is sooo full.”
And sometimes it’s harder, like when Col says something hurtful to Rose, something aimed to wound. If I can tamp down my Mama bear sirens, I can say, “Hey, are you angry at Rose? I can understand how sometimes when we don’t express our anger or disappointment or jealousy, it can fester and come out ugly.”
Examples from our own life: (most from today!)
I can understand that this math feels pointless. You’re not using much math yet in your day to day life.
I can understand that you want everything to be exactly fair between you and your brother. You feel left out when he gets something you don’t.
I can understand that you felt jealous at your friend’s birthday, watching her open so many presents was really hard. You’d like all those new, fun things.
I can understand that you don’t want to walk to shared school, it sounds much easier to drive.
I can understand that you don’t want your sister around when your friend comes over, it feels like she takes over and that’s not fun for you.
I can understand that it feels more enjoyable to read than respond when we’re asking you to help out. It’s normal to gravitate towards what feels good.
I can understand that you want some time to snuggle all alone with me without your sister. That feels really special.
- Understanding, or delivering empathy doesn’t mean looking for a solution. We still walked to shared school this morning. Col completed his “morning math.” We didn’t “fix” Rose’s jealousy by buying her something. Being understood is usually enough to soothe the painful feelings and move on.
Steps Towards Understanding
1. Deliver Self Empathy. This is like a rescue breath, or putting your own oxygen mask on first. This slows the spinning out into fearful story (see above: cardboard shanty). Self-empathy is simply recognizing what you’re feeling, without necessarily needing to act. Ex: I’m feeling anxious and triggered. I want to be assured that my kid can always make beneficial choices. This is really hard. Watch how this self empathy relaxes your nervous system in the moment.
2. Recognize your biases and labels. If you’re thinking in absolutes, this may be a sign you’re seeing something in a biased way. Ex: my child always…, or my child never…, or my child is unmotivated, rather than, my child didn’t complete this week’s homework assignment on time. Erich Heller said, “Be careful how you interpret the world; it is like that.”
3. Employ true observations and get curious. True observations are statements about what you have seen or heard, free of evaluation, judgement of blame. It’s like looking through the lens of a camera. Be specific and unemotional. Describe the sights and sounds you observe. “I noticed it’s 22F outside and you’re wearing a light jacket. What’s up?”
4. Prioritize connecting over being “right.” Your child will always benefit more from the lasting power of being understood than hearing your opinion or advice. In fact, all your excellent advice is indigestible until your child feels truly heard and understood. And then, in a “green light” moment, you can check in and see if your child is ready for information and suggestions.
To judge is human; to be understood is divine.