We can't always be calm and present. It isn't realistic. We're only human.
But it's at these times - when we're distracted, thinking about something else we need to take care of, focused on another agenda or have emotional experiences about events unrelated to the present moment - that we're most likely to say or do things that we might not say or do if we were calm and present.
It's at these times that we're likely to leave our children feeling unseen, unheard, or misunderstood....or even hurt and alone.
It's at times like this when we have a different opportunity. A chance to practice the art of the apology...and model humility, imperfection and renew (even strengthen) connection.
In the post two days ago I used the phrase "emotionally regulated and relationally present". I wanted to revisit that briefly.
What do I mean by "emotionally regulated and relationally present"?
It's the feeling you get when someone you're with is calm and present - attentive, responsive and engaged WITH you. They're not even slightly annoyed that you're trying to engage them in conversation because they're distracted by the TV, text messages, emails, or video games. You're not wondering if their eyes darting to something else in the room is going to take them away from your interaction.
It's the feeling am image of a mother playing peek-a-boo with her child conjures up. Or the image of two children playing pat-a-cake (or more complex versions of it).
It feels safe.
It feels secure.
It feels connected.
National Resources on Vaccines and Immunization
The Federal/Provincial/Territorial Committee on Health Workforce has shared the following links to national evidence-based resources for vaccines and immunization. If you have any questions about vaccines and immunization, please refer to these resources for best practice and current evidence. If you have any specific questions about your particular situation , consult with your physician or other health practitioner who is familiar with your individual needs and circumstances.
So, we know how to meet our children's needs when they can't talk and we know that we may need to remain detectives long after language develops. We also know that caring for our children's needs begins with self-care so we can stay calm enough to be attentive to their needs. So what next?
Two words: self care!
Parental self-care is paramount for children of any age irrespective of whether or not they have "special needs" so you can respond to their need...in a way that "feels" emotionally regulated and relationally present.
You may be wondering, "If I'm meeting their need, why do I need to be "emotionally regulated and relationally present" too? Isn't it enough that I changed their diaper? Tucked them into bed? Helped them get a snack? I have to be calm and present while I do that?
Infants from birth tune into the emotional experience of the primary caregivers and if the caregiver is emotionally overwhelmed or absent, even as they are engaged in meeting these basic needs, the infant experiences overwhelment or abandonment. We all know we can be in a quiet space with few people present and still need the proverbial knife to cut through the tension. Or we can be in a room full of people and feel disconnected and alone. Babies are no different. They are wired to attend to the emotional quality of the caregiver because their lives depend on it.
So, taking care of your children means tuning in to and meeting their (often unspoken) needs in a way that is calm and present. That means you have to begin by tuning in and taking care of your own needs in a kind caring way on a regular, ongoing basis in order to be able to do this. Much like self-compassion being the root to compassion for others, caring for others requires that we care for ourselves first.
So, because your children matter to you, what do you do to take care of yourself?
When we think about becoming detectives (or remaining detectives for longer than we think we should have to) in order to understand and meet our children's needs, we can look at their needs as fitting into one of two categories. First, to prevent or interrupt their experience of feeling overwhelmed. Second, to prevent or interrupt their experience of feeling alone and vulnerable.
When parents respond to their infants needs with "just right" care delivered "just in time", they interrupt their children's experience of distress (they 'regulate' them). This decreases the feeling of overwhelm and offers connection. It's the "just right" balance.
Let's think about the diaper change. A dirty diaper presents the child with an overwhelming sensory discomfort that must be eliminated and a desperate need for the caregiver to be present and offer comfort. When the diaper is changed, the experience of overwhelm is eliminated and the caregiver is seen to be loving - reliable, trustworthy and capable; a "safe" person in the child's eyes.
Same thing when a parent responds to a hungry infant. Or a tired one. Or a bored one. Or a lonely one....
When we accurately understand and meet a child's need (whether or not they can verbally state them), we have the ability to "regulate" their distress while nurturing our bond with them.
How do you know what your children need? How do they communicate those needs when they don't use their words?
If all children need the same thing - to develop a secure attachment with their primary caregivers - but have differences in how they present those needs, how is a parent supposed to figure out what they need?
The answer to that question is the title of this blog post: by "becoming a detective".
Like a detective with a magnifying lens that allows them to see more clearly, becoming a detective to determine what your children need in the moment requires getting a hold of somewhat different "lenses" through which to understand the situation; paying attention to what you see, hear and "sense".
In truth, most parents have considerable skill at being detectives...and exercised those skills consistently when their children were infants. Most parents figure out when infants need feeding, diapering, soothing, sleep, play and so on fairly early in their child's life. The problem arises when they become toddlers and we shift from tuning in to their needs and start expecting them to "use their words". Unfortunately, this also happens at a time when they tend to challenge us with tantrums to "act out their feelings" in rather dramatic ways....in part because they don't have all the words to begin to express themselves adequately.
So what's a parent to do?
Continue to be a detective long after you think you don't have to anymore. But, instead of just following up by meeting their need, verbalize your own understanding of what is happening. Use YOUR words to tell them what you think may be going on for them. Take a best guess based on your honed ability to know your child's needs. It will probably hit the spot more times than you would think. In the process, they learn the words that they could use the next time they have those kinds of needs to express.
Give it a try and see what happens!
Here's the unvarnished truth. Kids with "special needs" have the same need for autonomy and connection (aka "attachment") that typically developing kids do.
Let me say that more bluntly.
Kids diagnosed with Autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, and other developmental challenges have the same needs for "attachment" that their typically developing peers do. They just may be expressing those needs differently.
That means, they need caregivers to have a much more detailed understanding of their developmental profile (strengths and needs across all developmental areas - sensory, motor, cognitive, verbal, social, and emotional) in order to engage and respond in ways that come across as equally strong (so they know you can protect them), clear (so they are not confused) and kind (so they know you really do care). All in - so they can feel truly safe.
After all, if your child has developmental coordination disorder and cannot tie their own shoelaces, they need you to express a high level of confidence in their ability to learn this skill (to support their need for autonomy), while having a deep level of empathy for just how difficult it is (addressing their need for emotional connection).
A child with attention difficulties needs you to have confidence in their ability to achieve whatever they set their mind to (autonomy) while having deep level of empathy for just how hard they have to work to stay focused on their goal (emotional connection).
And you need to be able to communicate these important things to them in a clear, concise way that they can understand.
And what do you need in order to do that (beyond a good diagnosis and some best practices to help them learn skills)?
You need to be kind and gentle with yourself first in order to be able to help your children. You need to have compassion for yourself in order to be strong, clear and kind - in equal measure - with your children (with or without special needs) so they feel safe and loved.
...So, once you are able to consistently be compassionate to yourself - truly kind and gentle - you're likely going to notice a couple of things happening without much conscious effort.
One, you'll generally be feeling less distress on a daily basis and may not need to do much else to find yourself being compassionate towards those other important people in your life; the ones most likely to trigger an expression of frustration when you're fatigued or overwhelmed.
And, two, you'll find yourself wanting to learn more about how to help your child be compassionate with themselves...and eventually others.
So, here's a quick teaching tip: children learn what they live. As for teaching compassion? It's a language we speak. It's a language that is gentle and kind. We first learn to understand it ourselves and then, when we are more competent, we speak it to others. And, just like any language, we teach others to speak it by speaking it to them; by letting them hear it often. So, just like any other language, the people we are close to will learn to understand it by hearing it first from us, and then they start to speak it. They may need to begin slowly and deliberately - just like you have had to - but with regular exposure, learn it, they will.
The best part? Your relationship with them will deepen and strengthen in the process.
P.S. As you get to this place of teaching others how to be compassionate by speaking the language of compassion to them, there may come a time you need more guidance to deepen your understanding and skills. If and when that time comes, get in touch! We're sure to have the resources to be of help.
So, yesterday we created a goal, identified a strategy and hopefully, you gave it a go! So...how did it go? Were you able to notice when you were being harsh with yourself when you felt frustrated? And did you then pause long enough to offer yourself kinder, gentler, more truthful statements?
If you did, GREAT! Keep it up and notice what that's like for you to pause and allow yourself the consideration, respect and the time to make that important shift.
If you didn't, GREAT! You get to learn how to make adjustments to your self-management plan. Begin by taking a look at what didn't quite work. Was it something about the goal you want to adjust - after all, it was a goal I suggested, so it wasn't truly "yours"? Was it something about the strategy? Do you want to adjust the goal? The strategy? Both? Or give it all another try just as it is? You get to decide.
Small changes made mindfully can lead to profound results for you and those you interact with in your daily life. Truly, small changes are really all we are able to make in a sustainable way. And consciously choosing how to change and grow is the only thing that makes that possible.
So, keep going and heal, grow and love.
Did you try to speak to yourself in a kinder, gentler way yesterday? What did you hear yourself saying? Were you able to be more compassionate with yourself when things did not go the way you had hoped?
If you're anything like me, that harsh voice (your inner critic!) is hard to quiet when you're in the midst of turmoil. It can get ahead of you and offer perspectives that are not only mean, but plain untrue. And that's not helpful.
When you think about approaching improving your ability to be more compassionate with yourself (and that is the first step to be able to be more compassionate with your children), a good way to begin is to try to self-manage your learning and applying this skill - remember the acronym S.I.G.H.S. and begin by setting a S.P.O.R.T.Y. goal.
It may need to be a small first step from where you potentially are today (noticing) to pausing and coming up with an alternative - one that is kind and true. For example, I could set a goal like, "When I catch my inner critic saying unkind things to myself, I will pause, take a deep breath and think of what I could say that would be both kind and true." So if you notice yourself saying, "That was foolish!", you would stop, breathe, and think about intentionally saying something like, "That was really unfortunate. It's frustrating to have to deal with this right now."
Give it a try.
Because compassion (for your child, your spouse, your friends and family, all beings, the world) begins with YOU.