Parent peacefully BECAUSE it is hard for you

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor E. Frankl

So often I hear how hard it is to break away from the way we were parented to parent differently, more peacefully, more calmly. It takes every ounce of energy we can muster not to react how we were reacted to, not to continue a cycle of parenting violence that did not serve us but that we seem powerless to stop ourselves from repeating.

An icon illustrating a parent and child

An icon illustrating a parent and child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was brought up really quite peacefully. This is often thrown at me like a weakness in a ‘you have it so easy’ kind of a way. They are right. I do have it easier. Our brains are literally molded by the way we were parented. The fact that my parents did not beat or even ‘spank’ me, that they did not habitually yell at me and that their responses were not erratic and unpredictable has given me the ability to respond more thoughtfully and peacefully to those things that trigger me (and yes, I get triggered, too!)  And a life-time of spiritual practice has further helped re-wire my brain so that there is often a tiny bit longer pause between stimulus and response – so that I may choose how I want to respond rather than let my conditioning take-over or find myself reacting in ways I later regret.

Let’s be clear, though, I am NOT perfect. I am very much a work in progress, too. My husband and I have argued far more than I’d like, for example (and we are working on that, too). But generally speaking I am a relatively calm person and I find I often have a surprising amount of patience for my little one and that, in particular, I tend not to take her emotional outbursts personally. I can usually see past the mad to the sad (to quote my friend Tabitha). I can usually look past the behaviour and even the angry words to the underlying feelings and needs that are driving those behaviours. I can, in most cases, with some effort, reach in and find some genuine empathy for what she is going through, even when she is shouting that she hates me or is going to hit me or whatever… And I do think the fact that I was not punished, shamed or hit, yelled at or called names when I was growing up plays a part in making sure those are not my first responses to my child, either.

The other day, while I was speaking to a friend who was, in her words, ‘brought up pretty physically’ and who, like so many others is finding it hard to transition smoothly to positive, gentle parenting, it struck me that this is exactly why it is so important that we parent our children peacefully. We want their first responses to be loving and compassionate. We want their default setting to be to build connection, whenever possible. We want them not to have to struggle to change their own patterns in the future when or if they decide they want to live with more awareness and more peace in their heart – perhaps for the sake of their children.

And I know it is possible. I am surrounded by living examples of people who were brought up with repeated physical punishment and humiliation who are now choosing to bring up their children in more respectful, compassionate ways. I have friends who suffered repeated abuse at the hand of their parents and other family members and are now parenting in such gentle, loving ways they are an inspiration and a joy to behold. Their children, too, most often give out what they have received: respect, co-operation and attentiveness. Change is possible. I know this from my own experience, too. I am forever learning and growing (as I trust everyone here is) and working to overcome my own challenges – some of those deep and complex. And change comes.

Still, the harder you are finding it to move to peaceful, conscious parenting the more obvious it should be to you how very important it is that you do so. If there is in you yearning to parent your child/ren in non-violent ways that build connection, closeness and trust but you feel locked in by the conditioning that comes from how you were parented… then you know how much this stuff sticks. How we respond to our kids – especially in their first three years but throughout their childhood – shapes who they are, how they relate to others and how they react under stress pretty much for the rest of their lives until or unless they, like you, decide to get more conscious and put time and effort into building new habits. Let’s make it easy on our kids to be kind, gentle and empathic to others, in the future – let’s be kind, gentle and empathic toward them, now.

Toddler Tantrum ‘First Aid’

IMG_4151

IMG_4151 (Photo credit: justinhenry)

So, your 15 month old has started having daily meltdowns – how do you respond? So many people tell us to ignore them. That doesn’t feel right… but what is the alternative?

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We all know, connection parenting is 90% prevention… but what do we do when (despite or actually because of the safety of all that emotional closeness we have created) they begin to show some BIG feelings?…

Here’s the thing, when this happens our children are telling (or showing) us how they feel and, like with anybody, the most important thing for them is to feel heard and seen.

1. For me, the first thing is always to empathise: try and put myself in their shoes. What emotion is coming up for them (anger, frustration, sadness, jealousy…)? What triggered this? How would I feel in that situation? etc.

2. Then, I move in close, try and catch their eye and give them words/a story for what is happening, like ‘oh you couldn’t reach that *** and now you are really frustrated’.

What we are doing here is:

a) validating and acknowledging the frustration (and 15 months is a frustrating age, so much you just realised you want to do but you don’t quite have the motor skills or words to make it happen!!);

b) reassuring them we love them THROUGH their strong feelings (not suspending our love/affection when big stuff comes up for them);

c) by staying calm yourself we are helping them re-find their centre and begin to build the neural pathways for self-comfort in the future;

d) giving them the first tools in their future emotional intelligence kit – knowing how to recognise and name their own feelings (honestly, I know adults who are not in touch with their feelings well enough to say ‘I feel angry/sad’ right now). This is huge. In a sense we are helping them build their own future inner dialogue when big feelings come up. As they grow older we can continue to model and actively demonstrate ways to channel those feelings in a peaceful way – but the foundation is this: recognising and naming our feelings.

3. After that, I’d just stay with them until they are done ‘telling’ or showing me how they feel and then when they are ready offer a hug.

Meanwhile, you want to keep it light and match their energy to theirs (not over-dramatise, if they are ready to move on, move on with them :) – the most important thing is demonstrating that you love them, no matter what and all the time, and that their big feelings are safe with you (will not push you away). Isn’t that a lesson for life?