The other day I was driving and the memory of a dear friend of ours who passed away some years ago, just before our wedding in fact, popped into my head. Perhaps I never grieved his passing properly as I had so much going on at the time. I really wanted to cry, to get the emotion all out and ‘get over it’ once and for all, but I could not because I was driving.
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Once, when I was a waitress at a casino (long story), I dropped a tray full of glasses and they broke. This was before the casino was open and my colleagues rushed around me to help tidy up. I burst into tears. My friend said ‘but they are only glasses’. The tears gushed forward. It was NOT about the glasses. That was just the last straw. All that stress and pent-up emotion I had been carrying around the last few days, was finally bursting out. I picked up the glasses but let the crying flow on. It seemed to be what I needed at the time.
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Very often I have had the experience that I feel so much better after sharing. Having someone you can just let it all out with and really vent about what is going on in your life, knowing they create a safe listening space, don’t judge and don’t take things personally (or try and make it about them or whatever). Sometimes you just need to tell someone how you feel for it to shift.
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Today, I listened to my child cry for over twenty minutes. I was there, right up close to her, holding her at times, touching her at other times, engaging in eye contact whenever that felt right to her. She cried until she cried herself to sleep in my arms.
I would not have done this some time ago. I would have done what most parents do and tried hard to distract her (“look at the doggy”; “do you want a cookie?”) or tried to fix it (“is it because you are scared of the noise?”) or plain placate her (“there, there, you can have that toy and that one, too, if you want” – okay that is too far, but you get the picture). This time, I just stayed firm and weathered the storm with her, peacefully, lovingly.
This is NOT an easy option. It is hard emotional work for her and for me, as her ‘listening partner’. I am doing it because I have come to a place of understanding that for children (as well as for adults) the road to emotional health and wellbeing comes through full expression of our feelings. Whenever we do not allow ourselves to fully accept, express and release whatever emotions come up for us, they stay within us, lingering, festering, clogging us up.
Sometimes the difficulty lies in admitting we could have these feelings in the first place. ‘I shouldn’t be upset about something so little’ or ‘only a petty person would still be angry about that!’ – we judge ourselves and think we should be above these base feelings. But we are human. Feelings come whether we want them or not. Then our only choice is how to deal with them. Many of us (consciously or more often unconsciously) distract ourselves with other thoughts or by staying busy and/or we stuff the emotions down with food, alcohol or narcotics. Anything to stop us from admitting we feel things we ‘shouldn’t’ or don’t want to feel.
These emotions, packed down like this, continue to affect us and come out in strange ways, everything from passive-aggressive comments, defensiveness, a chip on our shoulder and the like to actual physical ailments said to be caused by ‘stress’; not to mention a difficulty in attracting and maintaining happy, stable, mutually supportive relationships, on all levels. Whenever we move to honestly look at and ex-press (literally: ‘push out’) our feelings we feel lighter, happier within ourselves, stronger and more capable of moving forward.
I have known this for myself for years. It is only slowly dawning on me that this could be the case for the little ones in our lives, too.
We are often so afraid of children’s emotions that we move Heaven and Earth to stop them coming up, but who is this helping? And are we doing this because it serves them or because these strong, passionate, free-flowing shows of emotion make us feel uncomfortable? Or even because they make us feel inadequate as parents – ‘if they are crying it must be because I did or failed to do something’, ‘there is an un-met need I did not attend to… what is it?!’, ‘I am just not good enough’…? Or perhaps we just fear judgement and what others will think of us if they see our child crying or raging in a public place. And these are all understandable fears but should we let them guide our behaviour toward these innocent beings we love so much?
I am lucky. As a mama-blogger and living among this powerful community of natural mammas in Northern California I have learned so much. Through many different channels, I keep coming across this idea that there is another way to approach and support a crying, distressed child. Time outs are not for me. I have read too much Alfie Kohn (or should I say ‘enough’) to know that if I respond to my heart’s desire of hugging my child at her hour of need (rather than outcasting her) this is actually the best and most effective thing I could do, as shown by research. [I don’t mean being soft or permissive. I am actually quite assertive on many levels with her. My ‘no’ means ‘no’ but when she is sad or mad about it, I don’t punish her for it. That is a whole other huge topic though and much has been blogged about it, so let me stay on track here.]
Anyway, one of the main ‘authorities’ I kept being pointed to in this field is called Patty Wipfler and she is the leading light at an organisation called Hand in Hand Parenting, here in Palo Alto, CA. Here is the thing though. I kept hearing about her. Lawrence Cohen who wrote Playful Parenting (a book I LOVE) recommends this organisation. This is an internationally famous book, what are the odds that he would recommend a center just down the road from me?! And that is not all, my online blogger-friend and inspiration Genevieve co-founder of the Peaceful Parent Institute also talked of the amazing teaching from this school called Hand in Hand Parenting. She is based in New Zealand. That was that, I thought: ‘I have to go check these people out’. So I signed up for one of their courses.
Given the international exposure this place has obviously got, I expected the workshop to be in a shining, modern room filled with eager parents. Nope. There were three of us on this course, in a dingy room in a local church. Hey, I am not complaining, it was very cosy and family-like, rather than big and corporate (which is what I expected). It was run by Todd Erickson who has trained with Patty.
The mini-course was called ‘Tantrum Training’ and though I joked a lot about the fact that they were going to teach me how to shout ‘noooo!’ at the top of my lungs and stamp my feet with aplomb, it was actually freakin’ fabulous!
Their work is all about what I was talking about, above. It is about meeting and honouring the child’s emotions, rather than trying to repress, suppress or otherwise distract from what is going on, inside them. As one participant said, allowing her kid to work on and release his emotions, now, was helping him not accumulate baggage to carry around with him, later – hahaha. Loved that one.
Hand in Hand’s approach, in a way, brings together many practices I have been gathering from many sources over the years (some way before being a parent). NinjaDad said theirs was like the SmartPhone of parenting philosophies. Old phones just made calls. New phones unite phone, camera, games console, video recorder, computer, etc… lots of things you love all in one place. Hand in Hand Parenting did that for me: it brought together lots of disparate ideas and practices and organised them neatly into one system AND added in some new components that made the whole run better. Perhaps it is apt that they are just down the road from Apple :)
A quick summary of their teaching (as I understand it) goes like this: set aside some ‘Special Time’ to connect through play with your child each day and build a strong bond with them – that is the ‘prevention side’ (and they have specific advice, tips and guidelines for doing that); if/when a strong emotion arises for your kid, don’t move to distract or otherwise suppress the emotion coming up. Let the feeling come and be expressed fully. Know that the tears, the raging, the trembling are just the way to ex-press (push out) the feeling that is trapped and welling inside them. The crying, the tantrum is not the ‘problem’ but your child’s way of solving the problem and letting the hurt and frustration out!
This is genius stuff and so different from what we are taught and see modelled in the world most of the time. And the most important thing is: it works!
Yes, it is hard to see your child cry and ‘do’ nothing but actually you are doing a lot. The advice we are given by Hand in Hand, when the child starts to tantrum, cry or rage, is to move in closer, touch them in some way that feels natural and comfortable to you both (i.e. don’t force it) and engage in eye contact (or at least provide opportunity for them to see the love you have for them pouring from your eyes, when/if they are ready to look at you) and stay with them as they feel it all out. You can literally say to them ‘I am staying with you, I am not going anywhere’ along with other short (non-intrusive) support statements like ‘I know you are feeling sad’ or ‘you are very mad that you can’t play with your trucks anymore because it is raining’ (or whatever). But mostly you just stay with them, holding the space for them to express anything that they feel.
If you go back to my initial examples from my life, you’ll know there are times I wish I could have done that for myself and times I am grateful others were there holding a non-judgemental space for me when I cried or just talked about how big my feelings were getting about whatever little thing sparked it that day.
And here is the thing, with this new approach to my child’s upsets came huge relief for me. You might think this is ‘harder’ than distracting and in a way, it is (as I said). It is deeper work. It involves pure, unconditional listening, empathy, caring and emotional availability. But in other ways, once I got past some of the objections in my mind (like: ‘isn’t this just like ‘cry it out re-packaged for more sensitive hippies?’ or ‘will all this crying damage my child?’ or even ‘will letting her tantrum openly this much make her spoilt and soft?’), once I got past those though, this felt lighter to me. This act of stepping toward rather than away from my child’s pain felt empowering to me, too, as a mother. Before, each time she cried I felt a stab of helplessness followed by a flurry of activity to try and stop that noise. Now, the invitation is to stay calm and centered as I invite her into my certainty that all is well, even as the tears, the feelings are flowing. And with this she can follow her own instinctive pull to express her feelings in the most natural ways that come to her, until all of them are spent.
And, as I said, the beautiful gift is that it works. Anya woke up from the nap she fell into, between tears, and despite my fear that she might be withdrawn, brooding or angry at me, her mood was happy, trusting, playful. And in general, since starting this work on a more systematic basis, she has been calmer, more at ease and more confident. Even her dad commented on it. I am new at this, but she really seems MUCH less anxious about separating from me, too, which is huge and I am (despite continuing to find my own individual path through this teaching) seeing more and more ways this is bringing us closer together and helping her release a back-log of fears, anxieties and upsets. Bless this system and others like it, for helping us parents find new ways to dance to rhythm of our own hearts.
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Sources of further information:
- The Right Use of Will – this is an… uh… unusual book I read a while back. But I have got to tell you it changed me and it introduced me to what I still think is the best method for identifying and releasing pent up feelings. If you can embrace the hippy in you, suspend your disbelief and read this with an open mind, it might really speak to you. It did to me.
- Hand in Hand Parenting – online courses (for those of you not based in the Bay Area)
- Hand in Hand Parenting Blog – full of fabulous real life stories of how connecting through ‘Special Time’ and deep listening (what Patty Wipfler calls ‘StayListening’) are benefitting the families using these powerful tools for whole-family-emotional-intelligence
- Aletha Solter and the Aware Parenting Institute – Aletha Solter is a world-renowned author and teacher in the area of effective, gentle parenting. Her website (linked her) has a wealth of articles and resources to help us learning parents
- Playful Parenting– information on Lawrence Cohen, PhD’s brilliant books and lecture series
- BabyCalmer – a facebook community of like-minded parents
- The Way of the Peaceful Parent – the facebook page of an inspiring gentle parenting instructor, full of wisdom and practical advice
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Do you do this for your child – practice what Patty Wipfler calls ‘StayListening’ or what, Aletha Solter calls ‘crying in arms’? How does it work for your family? Are you seeing the ‘results’ – a happier, more connected child that expresses their feelings easily, often, fully?