What is it about parenting that makes it seem so hard?
There is definitely both physical and emotional labour involved. But, if it was only the effort, it wouldn't seem too hard.
I think it's the anxiety that we come to parenting with. That sense that it all depends on us as parents to "get it right" or else.
But, what is the "or else"?
What if we make mistakes? If we admit it and apologize, we teach kids to have humility and integrity.
What if we drop a ball and things don't go according to play? They learn that life isn't always going to go "according to plan" and they learn to cope and problem solve.
What if we learn to bring a sense of serenity into our parenting instead of berating ourselves for our deficiencies or trying to control every aspect of our child's upbringing so they can be "successful"? Then maybe they learn what an adult who has a sense of "peace of mind" looks like.
Maybe we don't have to work so "hard"...
Responding to "subtext" is essentially about reading between the lines. Listening for the "real intention or meaning" the words are trying to convey. It's like when your spouse or friend says, "My day was okay," with a sigh. Chances are they did NOT have a good day.
But, it's not always easy. I get that.
And kids are generally not good at stating what they want or need clearly and leave lots of room for "reading between the lines"....with some exceptions like, "I want a [insert your child's favourite electronic game here]."
So, what's the best way to learn to practice listening for subtext?
Try something where there's no "risk" to get it wrong, like your favourite TV show. Listen to the lines and listen for subtext in the conversations. Since it's not the words that convey "subtext" (the words are the "text", after all!), pay attention to what gives you the clues you need. Think about tone, volume, or pitch of voice. Vocal inflections and rate of speech. Body language including posture, gestures and facial expressions. And remember, it's the subtext that tells the "emotional story" that's underlying the words.
Then try to apply what you learn to "reading between the lines" with your child.
When you think about using words to co-regulate your child, what words come to mind? (If you read yesterday's post, you'll remember that was the final question I left you with.)
If you're anything like me, you'll probably respond with, "it depends!"
On what your child is saying or doing at the time you need to say something.
But, I would also ask you to consider that, no matter what they say, if you find a way to "agree with them" (to get on the same page with them) and then communicate that agreement to them, you're pretty much. most of the way to helping them regulate their feelings - even the hard ones.
And still, after reading those two posts, you might also say, "There are some statements that are impossible to agree with! Like, if my child says, "I'm stupid!", how could I possibly agree with that and be a good parent?!"
But, I'm betting that if you said something like, 'You're not stupid! I can't believe you'd say such a thing about yourself!" (a completely normal response, I may add!), your child has probably responded with something along the lines of, "You just don't understand!" right before they stormed off.
So, if you can't agree with (or argue with) the content (the text) of what your child has said, what can you say? What can you possibly agree with?
Try finding agreement with the SUBtext. When a child says something self-deprecating, the underlying message is, "I feel really crappy about myself right now.". "Crappy" may mean embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, frustrated, or any number of other emotions. So, in this case, you CAN say, "You sure feel crappy (or other more appropriate emotion) right now. That's a really tough place to be." This response offers statements that are true, speak to the underlying message of a self-deprecating comment, AND communicate understanding for your child's present moment experience - they feel crappy!
What might you hear back if you spoke to the subtext of their words rather than the text?
Yesterday we talked about meeting children's needs as a way to help them be able to trust you - to know they can depend and rely on you - as a way to help them learn to regulate their own emotions. Essentially, through the actions of caring for them when they express a need (as infants, by crying), they learn what meets those needs - that hunger is addressed through eating; that fatigue is addressed through sleep, etc.
Over time, they learned to use language and communicate those needs verbally. And that's often when the troubles begin.
When we expect our children to "use their words", we are assuming that they know what words to use to understand the ever more complex feelings and ever more complex needs they are experiencing. Often, they do not have the words to express those feelings or needs, let alone understand them in the first place. This is where you come in - to learn to "co-regulate" them using YOUR words.
What words might you use to "co-regulate" your child?
Yesterday's discussion about "self-regulation" left off with the understanding that "co-regulation" is how children learn to "self-regulate" their attention, emotions, moods or behaviours, often in combination!
So how is a parent supposed to "co-regulate" their child?
Remember when they were babies and you heard them cry? You interpreted - goodness only knows how - what those cries meant. Or you took the time to figure it out. Were they hungry? Tired? In need of a diaper change? Under the weather? And, depending on what you determined they needed, you figured out what they needed you to do. You fed them. Helped them sleep by rocking or cuddling them. Changed a diaper. Got them to a doctor. You regulated them - their emotions, mood and behaviour - by meeting their needs.
When you met their needs, they stopped crying and were likely eating, sleeping, cooing contentedly, or starting to feel better. They started to know that they could depend and rely on you to take care of them - to recognize when they were in distress and step in to help.
So how could you apply what you knew then to helping them now that they're older and able to talk to you?
I ended yesterday's post with a promise to discuss "self-regulation" today...so here goes!
I looked this up in the dictionary...just to be sure we get off on the right foot with this topic. After all, I specialize in supporting children who have difficulties "regulating" their "attention, emotions, moods and behaviours" so thought clarity with defining the term was important!
Other than definitions related to "rules" (i.e. "laws" or "regulations"), the term "regulation" means, "the act of controlling or bringing under control" (as per Google's Dictionary). So when we say "thermoregulation", we mean controlling temperature - your home's thermostat is a self-regulating system that regulates temperature, just like your brain regulates your body temperature! "Emotional regulation", means "control over emotions". And when we say "behaviour regulation", we mean "bringing behaviours under control".
When we talk about "SELF-regulation", we mean bringing some aspect of ourselves under control BY ourselves. So "self-regulation of emotions" is about bringing your own emotions under control, by yourself.
Now here's the rub... Children do NOT born being able to self-regulate their emotions. They LEARN this through what is called "co-regulation" which requires the attuned, responsive, compassionate efforts of caring adults. Adults who can empathize and understand what a child might be needing (or is able to take the time to do the detective work involved in finding out!) can then step in and help a child learn to understand their feelings, needs and develop the kind of neural connections in the brain that support a child being able to manage their own feelings....eventually. And when children are able to understand and manage their own feelings (sometimes by asking for help from a caring friend - like when we as adults talk to a friend about something difficult that is happening in our lives), they become able to be in charge of their own attention, moods and behaviours.
Empathy then is the foundation for children developing the capacity for "emotional regulation", specifically, the empathy shown by a caring adult.
And, when adults need support with "emotional regulation"? They need to have their own strategies, tools and other empathetic adults (i.e. NOT their children) to be integral parts of their lives.
In yesterdays' post, I used the example of anger being one of those emotions that is difficult for us to "be with" because we may not have had the opportunity to express anger in our family of origin. As a result, I may have left you with the impression that other emotions are not equally at risk of being triggering for us as parents.
You may be surprised to know that all emotions - from anxiety, to guilt, to shame, to joy, to anger, to sadness, to fear, to anything else - is equally at risk of creating discomfort in us if we have not had the opportunity to learn how to "be with" those feelings and how to manage those within ourselves. And so we need to learn to notice and manage the distress that arises within us - essentially, we need to learn to "self-regulate" our emotional experience so that we can help our children make sense of (self-regulate) their emotions as a foundation for them being able to learn and grow in healthy, life expanding, values-based ways from the experiences life offers.
The first answer to the question, "Why is it so hard to go on those emotional journeys with our kids?" is: those emotions weren't something we learned how to manage in our family of origin (see yesterday's post). And, so the second answer to the question is: because we didn't learn how to safely experience and express those emotions in our family of origin, we still need to learn to this skill.
In other words, we still need to self-regulate our own emotional responses to our children's emotional expressions in order to be able to go on those journeys with them.
More on self-regulation tomorrow!
EMOTIONAL JOURNEYING WITH KIDS
I left off on the last post with a question: "Why is it so hard to go on those [emotional] journeys with our kids?"
So, today, I thought I'd actually try to answer it!
Our emotional "heritage", what we learned about emotions from our family of origins is definitely one of the reasons it can be hard to go on emotional journeys with our children. If anger was not an emotion that was allowed expression in your home, you're most likely going to be uncomfortable when people (including your children) are angry and will do what you need to in order to suppress it.
Because, if you were not taught through daily life how to deal with anger, it will make you uncomfortable. You will almost hear the judgement that your parents would offer for how you're handling (or not handling) your child's expression of anger as you find yourself becoming distressed by it. There may be a part of you that wants to "fight it" and do something different, but, if you're not sure why, you're going to struggle. Heck! Even if you do know why, you may still struggle, because it's not easy "living your values". It often means having to choose, despite discomfort, to do what you have deemed to be "the right thing" for you, for your child, for your family, for the heritage you want to create for your future generations.
So if you're not sure where to begin, try learning to tolerate distress.
Have you ever stopped to consider what it is about your favourite movie, book or story that you find compelling? I was contemplating this as I went through the fiction books on my shelves this weekend looking to see which ones I might want to re-read and which ones I might want to find new homes for. As I read the recalled the plots of each of the books, it occurred to me that reading fiction is all about going on a journey - an emotional journey.
All my favourite fiction books and movie were all about the emotional rollercoasters they took me on.
I loved the suspenseful thrill of "who-dun-its". Was moved to tears by the "coming of age" tales. And I got off the roller coaster in the middle of one emotional saga, overwhelmed by the grief.
Even my TV shows and favourite movies.
The emotions may be different from one story to the next - no two heroes journeys are identical - but the thing that keeps us coming back for more is characters' emotional journeys.... And we love going with them.
So why is it so hard to go on those journeys with our kids?
Today is Heritage Day in Alberta, Canada. The provincial holiday gives Albertans a chance to celebrate the many social, culinary, and artistic aspects of Alberta's diverse cultural heritage.
And so...I decided to consider another aspect of "heritage": our emotional heritage. The way we understand, engage with, manage, and address the broad spectrum of emotions we experience as human beings (with the full acknowledgement that many other groups of animals - mammals & birds in my life experience with my multi-species family - also experience the same breadth and depth of emotions - we just can't talk to them about it!).
You see, whatever cultural background people come from, it occurred to me that, with no known exception, we experience diversity in our emotional heritage. Some families from my cultural tradition are able to experience and share joy, but not anger. Others engage with shame, but not fear. Some are open to most emotions. Some are open to few. From "wearing ones heart on ones sleeve" to "keeping a stiff upper lip" and everything in between, the combinations and permutations of our emotional heritage vary from household to household, irrespective of cultural heritage.
This are our emotional heritage: the emotions that were welcomed, tolerated, or otherwise acknowledged in your family of origin will be easier for you to express, engage with and support in your family and children; the emotions that were not allowed expression, tolerated, or acknowledged in your family of origin will be more difficult for you to express, engage with and support in your family and children.
What emotions were acceptable in your family of origin? Which ones weren't?
How can you learn to be open to the ones you were unable to express in your family of origin?