Don’t just do something – stand there.
Yes, that’s backwards from how you usually hear it.
Sometimes it is important to take action.
But other times it’s important to hold space or give your presence.
When your child is upset and expressing an intense emotion like sadness, anger, or frustration, it’s the perfect time to give your loving connection.
You might think you understand what connection IS, but just to be sure let’s talk about some things that connection IS NOT.
I first learned about true empathy, which is a big part of connection, though the book Nonviolent Communication. (That’s an affiliate link.) I recommend everyone pick up this book to learn more! In the meantime, here are 12 things that do NOT create connection in tense moments.
If you are making a moralistic judgment about your child, you are NOT connecting with them. We are TERRIBLE about this in our culture. There are so many opportunities to use labels, insults, and diagnoses. Judgments classify a person or put them in a dichotomy.
These dichotomies are all around us. But when you choose to label your child you are connecting to your judgment and not to your child.
I am so guilty of this one! When someone is in the middle of an intense emotion, they don’t want to be interviewed!
“What happened?” “When was this?” “Who did that?”
Your child will share the important details with you when the time is right. But that’s only IF you aren’t pouncing on them and making a bad situation worse!
If your child DOES tell you about what happened, for goodness sake don’t jump in and correct them! When you dismiss their version of events you are not connected with what they are telling you.
What if they are saying something that is absolutely, factually, objectively incorrect? It’s okay! They are telling you other things that ARE true about themselves and their experience. It’s important to start your connection there.
Connection is always about the one person right in front of you. If you are making a comparison you are connecting to something external.
Comparison isn’t always as obvious as “You’re not as good as your brother.” It can be more subtle, like comparing your child to their own past selves, or comparing them to your expectations.
Stick with your child in the here and now.
There’s a big difference between asking a question and making a demand. If your child feels ANY threat of punishment or disapproval if they don’t comply, then it’s a demand.
Demands connect you with your own desires and your fear of not getting them met. They DON’T connect you to your child.
It takes a LOT of practice to make sincere requests instead of demands. Some warning signs are your child clamming up at questions or backing out of previous agreements. Be on the lookout for any sneaky coercion your child might be feeling.
The only person responsible for feelings is the person having them. Do you have a bad habit of putting the blame in all sorts of other places?
These all shift responsibility and attention AWAY from your child’s actions and feelings. They disconnect you both from the present moment.
You don’t have to pay 100% of your attention to your child at all times. But sometimes you might find yourself ignoring them for the wrong reasons:
When you find yourself separating from your child check in with yourself. What are you feeling? How does your body feel? Are you taking space because it’s nourishing for you or are you doing it for an unkind reason?
When you give advice you connect with your own intellectual understanding instead of with your child.
Advice sounds like: “You should try this…” “Why didn’t you do it this way?” “Here’s how I would have done it…” “Have you considered…?”
In general, if someone wants your advice they will ask for it.
Educating is similar to giving advice. It’s a terrible habit with parents, especially. We imagine that it’s our job to teach our kids important lessons. And sometimes that might be true. But it’s never true when your kids are upset.
If you find yourself trying to teach a lesson or make a point out of a situation, you’re educating. Kids learn from all their experiences, but all they learn from educating is how to tune out.
You want to help your children feel better when they are upset. And they will! No tough feeling lasts forever.
You want to reassure them. “It’s okay,” “I’m not mad,” “You did your best,” “Hush,” “There now.”
Or you might use physical soothing actions like hugs, pats, and rocking. Some kids will appreciate consoling and soothing more than others. You’ll have to feel your way through here.
You can ask yourself whether you are trying to help your child STOP feeling what they are feeling. Are you uncomfortable with their emotional expression? Then you might come off as dismissive or like there’s something wrong with their feeling.
It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be mad. You don’t have to soothe these feelings away. Everyone gets through them in their own time. The most valuable thing is someone who can be with you WITH your feelings.
Raise your hand if this is you! You think “if I can just make them smile!” then everything will be okay.
You make silly faces or voices, make light of the situation, or start up some antics. Or you just change the subject, start a new activity, or do something startling. I’m talking about any effort to make your child have a different feeling than the one they’re having.
I know you do this with good intentions! But it is fundamentally disrespectful and disconnecting.
Sharing your own story that relates to your child’s experience CAN be connecting. It works best when your child is in an open, receptive, and sharing mood. If they are currently upset, now is not the time to focus on yourself. It can accidentally seem like one-upping, educating, or distracting.
You might be used to responding to your child’s emotions by giving advice, trying to soothe them, or distracting them. These are impulses that we ALL have – parents and non-parents alike – so don’t beat yourself up!
After reading this list you might be thinking, “What’s left?”
What CAN you do that builds connection with your child during their powerful emotions?
Go right back to the first thing I said: “Don’t just do something – stand there.”
To truly BE there in an open, loving way that doesn’t make demands, add pressure, or try to cause change is a wonderful gift you can give your child.
It will take practice.
At first you will feel frustrated and maybe even resentful about it. You just want to help! You want to DO something!
But as you practice, you will find yourself loosening up. You will find a peacefulness open up inside you, and you will share that with your child even in the midst of turmoil.
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