I realized that part of what I experienced in writing yesterday's blog post was a "touch" of shame. I mean, I'm talking about helping parents "be with" their children in attuned, emotionally responsive ways - you know, with 'empathy' - and I failed!
That goes beyond, "I did something wrong" (guilt) to, "What is wrong with me?" (shame). There I go again, going down the proverbial rabbit hole!
So, what's a parent to do when they experience that big bugaboo "shame"?
Well, for starters, recognize that you're only human and you'll make mistakes. So, here goes: "I'm only human! I made a mistake." That means there's nothing wrong with me - of you!
And then work on figuring out what to do about it.
After writing yesterday's post, I talked with my daughter about my understanding of what had happened as we left the bus stop. She had seen the couple but hadn't thought anything of it as she had assumed that some of the other people waiting for the bus were with them and they seemed, in her estimation, confident....but, I guess I have been doing something right because she then expressed understanding ('empathy'!) for my part in our conflict given that I was distressed by my thoughts and worries for this couple. Her empathy was really what shifted me from "shame" to "guilt", so here's the tough part: Typically, your child will not be able to offer you empathy, so you will need to make sure you have a community of adults you can truly trust, with whom you can share your feelings about your struggles (yes, even your shame). And be part of someone else's trusted support system - you get as much from offering genuine empathy for others as you get from receiving it. Consider this your "parenting with empathy practice group"!
Who offers you the empathy you need combat your shame?
So once we know how to stay calm when our child can't, we're good to go, right?
You see, just because you know how to do it doesn't mean you can always do it when you need to.
I had a life lesson in that yesterday evening meeting my daughter at the bus stop. I was a bit rattled (and please forgive this - it is NOT intended to be a pun) at the sight of two blind people waiting for the bus...at the stop my daughter was arriving at. I found myself triggered with a deep sense of anxiety as I could not imagine functioning in this world without my sight. I was overcome by waves of what I can only describe as distress... Wondering how their parents coped with them leaving the house by themselves? Wondering about their 'story'...what tragic circumstances befell them? Worrying about how utterly vulnerable they seemed....when my daughter's bus arrived with her disembarking in a slightly tired (though not grouchy or grumpy) state.
Guess what I didn't do?
You got it! I didn't stay calm.
And she wasn't even distressed! Just complaining about being tired!
I apparently couldn't "stay calm" because I wasn't calm in the first place...and I couldn't regain my sense of calm, either. Compared to the distress-trip I had been on, being driven to anxiously wondering and worrying about these two young people, her "fatigue" seemed so "lame" and I didn't seem to have the patience for it.
So, yes, we had a little squabble on the walk home from the bus stop - over nothing that mattered - and she was confused about what had transpired. As much as I understood what had happened, I was not able to explain it.
So, what would be my take-away now?
You have to have a plan to "stay calm", regain calm, AND accept that you will mess up sometimes and need to apologize.
Since I didn't "stay" calm or "regain" calm, I needed to apologize, and that was okay too!
One of the hardest things about offering our children empathy through their difficult emotions is tolerating our own distress.
When our children are having difficult feelings, we will inevitably be triggered and struggle to remain calm as we try to remain present and engage them with empathy.
So what do we do?
We stop. We breathe. And we try to remember what we value most and how our values inform the way we choose to "be" as parents.
We do our best to "stay calm" when our child can't.
We do our best to remain warmly responsive, available, and present.
How do you tolerate the distress you experience when your child struggles so you can remain "be with" your child's emotions?
WHAT TO DO WITH GUILT?
One of the struggles parents have when faced with a child who is experiencing guilt is balancing accountability with emotional support. That's the magic formula for helping kids assume responsibility for their actions without turning their "guilt" to "shame". (More on "shame" in a future post!). And it exactly that balance - between accountability and support - that helps kids (and adults too, for that matter) learn how to appropriately resolve guilt by admitting and accepting responsibility for their actions and, if it does not risk further harm to those who have already been hurt, making amends in a meaningful way.
Say your child comes home and talks to you about feeling badly about something mean they said to someone on the playground. Maybe they joined in with peers to tease a classmate or exclude a child from play - or maybe they initiated the teasing or excluding behaviours! If they feel safe enough to come to you with this, CELEBRATE! and keep your cool! (This is one of those moments that calls for "parenting with serenity" - Keep Calm & Carry On Parenting!). Assuming you've kept your cool, you can then move to talking openly about what happened and BE SUPPORTIVE.
Now you're wondering how in the world anyone can be supportive when your child comes to you with such a violation of your family's values? Well, you just DO. You decide that the open, honest relationship you have with your child is worth more than venting your frustration, embarrassment or disappointment at them in this moment and you just offer support and validation.
What could that sound like? Try this conversation:
Child: I think I hurt the new girl's feelings today. I joined my friends in teasing her at recess.
Parent: You joined your friends in teasing the new girl and you noticed that she felt hurt by that?
Child: Yes. I feel so bad about it. I didn't want to be left out and I guess I didn't think about what she would feel...until I saw how sad she looked.
Parent: So you joined in because you didn't want to be left out but noticed she looked sad and now you're feeling guilty about teasing her?
Child: Yeah. (probably crying by now).
Parent: [HUG]. I am so proud of you for coming to tell me about this. Guilt is a hard feeling to have. It means you've done something that you don't feel proud of doing or that you know wasn't the right thing to do. That's a good thing that you're noticing that.
Child: But it feels awful.
Parent: Sure does. What do you need from me to help you work through it?
Child: I don't know. I'm gonna see the new girl again at school tomorrow and I don't think I can face her. She may have told her parents or Teacher and we'll all be in trouble, so I am afraid of that, I guess, but, I just don't want her to think I'm a mean person.
Parent: Sounds like you want to try to make things right with her. Why don't we sit down and figure out how you might be able to offer her an apology? Maybe by talking to her, or by writing her a note? What do you think?
Child: Sure. That would be good. But what if my friends bug me for doing that?
Parent: Well, then you'll come and talk to me about that and we'll figure out what we need to do then!
Child: Thanks Mom!
What do you think? Do-able?
I think so!
In yesterday's post, I wrote about "legitimate" guilt - distress we experience when we have done something that is unethical, immoral, illegal or causes harm to another. But I also threw in "illegitimate" guilt at the end and framed that as "anxiety". Let's dive into that one today!
You know that distressed feeling you get when what you say or do doesn't match what you feel is expected of you? What you feel you "should" say or do? That feeling of knowing that people will judge you as not being a "nice" or "good" or "kind" person can sometimes feel like "guilt", but in truth, the distress that happens when you are concerned with, "What will people think?" is a form of anxiety.
You see, if you're basing your choice on what you do around the answer to "what will people think?", instead of whether or not it's "the right thing to do", you will experience anxiety.
If you're doing or saying something based on moral, ethical, or legal grounds, or with an interest in avoiding harm coming to someone, you have no reason to feel guilt. AND, even if you make decisions about what you do with the highest moral, ethical, and legal considerations with a priority on "doing no harm", you won't be able to please everyone. So if you're interested in having no one think ill of you, you will feel anxious, because you can NEVER please everyone.
You know the story of the man, the boy and the donkey? The moral of the story is that you can't please everyone, so stop trying! I would add (if I could re-write the story somewhat) to focus, instead, on doing your best to be ethical, moral and endeavour to do no harm to others.
Sometimes our children come to us with just such dilemmas - they want (or don't want) to do something but feel they have to in order to please others. If they go against their better judgement and do what is expected of them, they betray themselves and possibly their higher values; if they don't do as others wish, they feel anxious about the pending disapproval of others.
What decisions have you made in your life based on "What will people think?" If you have not done what you "should" to avoid disapproval, what have you felt? Legitimate guilt? Or anxiety?
What did you need in those moments? How about: A listening ear? Confirmation that it's a tough place to be in? And help to make the choice based on your higher values? That may be what your kids need in those moments too.
Guilt is one of those loaded emotions. It's something that has a risk of either steeping us in feelings of not being worthy or has the potential to launch us onto higher paths of taking responsibility and making amends.
So let's try to understand "guilt".
Legitimate guilt happens when we have done something that has caused harm to someone else - intentionally or accidentally. I think of times that children I have known have said something that was either mean or could have been perceived as being mean and hurtful. They notice in the moment their words reach the other child's ears that they have caused pain. The feeling of distress that comes with this kind of recognition of the pain one has caused another is guilt. Legitimate guilt.
Guilt also legitimately happens when we've done something that we knew was not the "right" thing to do. As a result, we may have caused harm to others; though we may only have caused harm to ourselves by disregarding our higher values and ethical principles. We cut someone off in traffic. We accepted credit for someone else's work - think of homework that parents complete! We cheat on a test. We lie to avoid getting into trouble. We betray the trust other people have placed in us. This is legitimate guilt.
When we know we have done something "wrong" - unethical, immoral, illegal, or just plain unkind - we rightly feel guilty as a result. What we do about this is a matter of rather extensive considerations by philosophers, ethicists, spiritual leaders, and psychotherapists throughout the ages, but, to keep it simple, when we feel guilt, we need to own our mistakes, the harm we may have caused, and make amends...if we can do so without causing more harm.
BUT...sometimes when we say we're feeling "guilty" we actually mean we're feeling "anxious". That's "illegitimate guilt". But, more on that tomorrow!
In the meanwhile, consider what you feel like when your child comes to you with their feelings of guilt.
At the end of yesterday's post, I put in a P.S. to say that my father had protected me when I was afraid. Essentially, he identified that I was being bullied, took charge and met with the Principal, and made sure to follow up with me and the Principal to confirm that the issue was dealt with & I was safe.
But I have met many adults over the years whose parents had not noticed that they were being bullied at school as children and so the bullying persisted until the situation resolved because they grew bigger than the bullies and "handled the situation themselves", transitioned by chance to a different school separate from the bully, withdrew, found a peer group that was protective (though not necessarily healthy), or the family moved and they got to start fresh with a new peer group. While these alternatives "solved the problem" of being bullied, none are ideal. In situations where parents were not part of the solution, the children did not feel able to turn to their parents to talk about their needs, or their parents did not notice that their children had anything to talk about, or more likely BOTH!
So, the key here is that parents need to be able to NOTICE when their children are in need of emotional support, encouragement, or help with problem solving.
My father noticed that I was "off" and persisted and insisted that I talk to him about what was troubling me. I had not told my parents about the situation because I did not want to trouble my them with such things - they had enough on their plate. However, when he insisted, I opened up and he took charge and made sure I was safe.
So, my question to you today is, what signs would you look for to know that your child needed you to protect them?
Remember the distinction between fear and anxiety? Anxiety is a feeling of dread about bad or difficult things that "could happen". Fear, on the other hand, is a feeling of dread you get about a "REAL & PRESENT DANGER" (just like the movie!)
So, whereas with anxiety you help them walk through the feeling and the situation to learn that there is nothing to worry about because "they've got this!"; with "FEAR", you need to take charge and protect them.
They're afraid of the bully at school who has belittled or threatened them? Talk to the teacher, the principal, the bus driver - talk to whomever needs to know and can help - and ask for appropriate action to take place to make sure that they're safe - both emotionally and physically.
They're afraid of that large spider in their room? Trap the spider and let it go outdoors where it belongs! (I know, the spider probably couldn't hurt them, but, some do bite and there are a couple of a species of poisonous spiders in Alberta, so I err on the side of "better safe than sorry" on this one!)
They're afraid of being told to do something that they feel unsafe doing? Like what? It depends. If your child is being asked to do something that challenges their abilities beyond their capacities and it is a known area of weakness, they're going to be afraid. A child with poor motor control being told he must complete the rock climbing activity to pass gym is going to be legitimately afraid of being hurt and needs to be protected. A child with a history of choking and gagging on unfamiliar food is going to be afraid when they are forced to eat something they have not been offered before and will need to be protected.
The gap between anxiety and fear comes down to knowing what is "real and present danger" for your child - in part, from knowing their strengths and weaknesses and leaning into THEIR perspective - and what is a worry (anxiety) about things that could go wrong, but are highly unlikely. Essentially, it's a matter of probability.
How do you know the difference?
You talk to them and make sure you know what's happening in their lives - and protect them when they need you to.
As a side bar: My father did this so well when I was growing up - he read the cues, engaged with me, heard me out, and stopped bullying in its tracks. This allowed me to feel (and actually BE) safe at school and so I could be ready to learn. I hope I did the same for my daughter!
As I offered in a previous post, FEAR is about a "real and present danger". It is not worry about something that "could" happen - it is a dreadful feeling about something that IS happening.
This distinction is key, for our purposes.
To be clear, the physiological and biological mechanisms of the experience of "anxiety" and "fear" are, for the most part, quite similar. However, if we do not make a distinction between these two experiences (anxiety being about the dread of what "could" go wrong while fear is the dread about what IS posing a real threat), we cannot deal with the situations in an appropriate way.
As we've discussed, we help children walk into, through and out the other side of anxiety. We do NOT do this with fear.
Consider the times during your childhood when you have felt afraid - truly afraid - about something that was happening in that moment. Maybe it was a large dog barking directly at you, a peer threatening you with harm if you don't comply with their requests, or an angry adult issuing threats of corporal punishment. This was real fear and you did not need anyone to help you "walk into it".
What did you need?
WHAT DOES ANXIETY NEED?
So you've acknowledged your child's anxious feelings. You've stayed calm so you could stay with them in their feelings - which means you've agreed, in principal, that feeling anxious is a yucky way to feel and of course, you understand that they would feel anxious in that situation.
But then what? What does your child's anxiety need from you?
In a nutshell, it needs to be challenged.
Challenging anxiety means that your child needs you to help them walk up to it, into it and through it. Remember, "anxiety" is not about a REAL threat to their safety. It's a "perceived" threat. Your child needs you to help them slay the anxiety dragon by doing whatever it is they feel anxious about. As slowly and carefully as they need, and as boldly and bravely as you can manage.
Small steps (as slowly and carefully as they need) are more effective than big ones - remember, we climb stairs, ladders and mountains one step at a time, so go slowly. But not so slowly that you communicate that there really is something to fear (go as boldly and bravely as you can manage).
They're anxious about delivering a presentation to the class? Acknowledge that it will feel hard AND, be confident in conveying that they will get through it. And make a plan to talk about other parts of their day - recess or art class - at the end of the day.
Anxious about the first day at a new school? Have a plan for a hug or high 5 at drop off, convey confidence that they will get through the day, and commit to doing something fun together at the end of the school day.
Anxious feelings beg to be defeated. How can you help your child slay their anxious dragons?