I have recently come across The Aware Baby and have found it so useful and life-changing with how I am parenting my daughter (she’s my second child). She’s now six months old, and I already see what a difference it is making compared to when my son Jack was that age. The thing is, I don’t know what I can do to help Jack, who is now 4. I didn’t ever listen to his feelings – I always thought that to be a good mum, I needed to stop all his sad and angry feelings, and I did a lot of feeding him when he was upset, and trying to do anything to get him to be happy when he was a toddler. I used lots of rewards, and sometimes I used time out when I was desperate and didn’t know what to do. When I read The Aware Baby, I felt really sad, because now I see that he has got lots of built up feelings inside, and I want to help him. He hits me a lot, and has started to call me stupid, and he throws his toys on the floor and breaks things a lot, especially since Felicity was born. It’s such a habit for me to try to calm him down with food and rewards, and I want to help him feel comfortable to cry like Felicity is. I see how calm and present she is when she lets out her feelings with me, and I want to help Jack be like that too. I feel like I’ve lost connection with him. What do you suggest?
Thank you so much for your email. I hear how sad you feel when you think of Jack and the some painful feelings he has learnt to hold in. I also hear how you want to connect deeply with him, and help him regain his natural sense of presence, awareness and gentleness.
I enjoy your understanding of the essence of Aware Parenting – that when babies and children are given the opportunity to express all of their feelings, they retain their connection with themselves, and their ability to connect intimately with others. They generally enjoy cooperating and contributing. As you have gathered, they are also able to regain these through expressing pent-up stress with your loving support.
My first suggestion is to find someone you trust to share your feelings, including your sadness, with. Someone who won’t give you advice, and who instead will simply listen empathically to you. Having your own feelings heard, you will become clearer. The clearer you are of your own pain, the more you will be able to be truly present with Jack’s feelings.
My next suggestion is to work on creating emotional safety for Jack. This means stopping all rewards and punishments, (including time-out), and using democratic discipline instead. (You can find out about why to stop using time-out here: http://www.awareparenting.com/timeout.htm )
You might consider reading more about democratic discipline in Aletha Solter’s book Helping Young Children Flourish. http://www.awareparenting.com/books.htm#hycf
Democratic discipline is based upon finding ways to meet everyone’s needs. That means we need to understand what a child’s needs are. For example, when children do things that we don’t enjoy, it is usually because of one of three reasons: an unmet need; a need for information; or a need to release painful feelings related to stress or trauma. You can read more about these here: http://www.awareparenting.com/misbehav.htm
If you practice democratic discipline, this also requires you to get clear about your own feelings and needs. You might find this article helpful with that: http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/index.php?pageid=3132
What else helps create emotional safety? Talking to Jack about feelings in a compassionate way will help; for example, if you see a child in the playground having a tantrum, explain to Jack that she is letting out all the feelings that have built up. If a boy in the supermarket is talking in a “whiny” or frustrated voice, explain about needs and unexpressed feelings. Aim to give Jack empathy when he does show feelings, instead of trying to fix things, or diminish what is going on for him. You might enjoy reading this, about children’s feelings: http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/index.php?pageid=906
Emotional safety is also built up with regular closeness and what I call “Present Time” – this is when you set aside a batch of time, preferably each day, and give your full presence to Jack. Let him choose what you play, and what happens in that time. Be your warmest, closest, most aware you that you can be. This connection creates safety for him to let out his feelings at other times. Don’t be surprised if he starts showing you more of his uncomfortable feelings after you start doing Present Time.
Remember that children express upset feelings differently to how babies do. I’d recommend reading Tears and Tantrums for more clarity about this. http://www.awareparenting.com/books.htm#tt
Aletha Solter calls one of the ways children bring up feelings the “Broken Cookie Phenomenon.” Perhaps Jack asks for a cookie, and there’s only one left in the packet, and it’s broken. You give it to him, and he starts to rage and cry in a big way. In this case, he’s not expressing upset feelings because of an immediate need; he’s letting out feelings from past painful events. The intensity of the feelings gives you the clue to this. You can probably relate to this – have you ever felt “grumpy” all day, and then suddenly your partner says one thing you don’t enjoy, and then you burst into tears? It’s a similar thing – the broken cookie is a pretext for all the accumulated feelings. For a child to be able to freely express pent-up feelings, he needs to believe that the feelings are real in the present moment – in other words, you don’t need to tell him that you know it’s not about the cookie; just be with him, and be with his feelings, and don’t try to fix things. You could say things like, “Jack, you really want a whole cookie, and this is the last one, and it’s broken. I see that you’re really upset.” When you are able to just hear his feelings, in the present, without trying to fix them, he will be able to let chunks of feelings out.
Young children often bring up feelings in these kinds of ways. Key to learning how to help the feelings out in these situations is learning about Loving Limits. Loving limits are based on the understanding that when children do things that other parenting paradigms call misbehaviour, it is often because they are harbouring pent-up stress. Instead of being permissive – and fixing everything, or authoritarian – and punishing them, we instead love them, be present with them, and help them stay connected with their feelings with a loving limit. You can read more about these here, at the Hand in Hand Parenting website: http://www.handinhandparenting.org/news/59/64/Setting-Limits-with-Young-Children
Setting loving limits is something you can do if Jack is about to throw a toy, break something, or hit you. There’s no need for lectures, or shaming, or anger, or blaming. Simply speaking in a compassionate tone and setting the limit, “I won’t let you hit me,” allows the feelings underneath the behaviour to come tumbling out. When he has raged and cried, he won’t want to hit you, and will likely want to cuddle up with you instead. After the chunk of feelings have come out, he will become more relaxed, and calm, and will be more connected to feel his real self; loving and caring. Bear in mind that he has a fair amount of accumulated feelings, and it will probably take some time, and regular releasing, for him to catch up.
I also have a model that I find helpful whenever I am in a challenging time with my children. I remember that I always have three choices – pure connection; connection plus laughter games; and connection plus loving limits. You can read more about laughter games here: http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/index.php?pageid=3992
When we trust our children and their innate desires to connect, cooperate, and contribute, we can move in between these three choices. This requires letting go of all old beliefs about misbehaviour, wrongness, punishment, and withdrawal of love, and replacing them with the belief that our children need loving connection most when they are acting in ways we see as “unreasonable”. Thus we are more likely to be able to give love to our children whatever they are doing. Loving them, plus laughter games or loving limits, will help them move back to their more compassionate selves.
Presupposing all of these is connection with ourselves… the more space we give for connecting with ourselves compassionately, connecting in to our thoughts, feelings, and needs, the more clearly we can offer loving connection to our babies and children.
One last thing I’d like to mention – Aware Parenting with a baby and a small child is no small feat, particularly when your son has accumulated stress to release. You might want to keep checking in with yourself. Are you getting enough support? Rest? Nurturance? Connection with yourself? Finding ways to meet your own needs is paramount if you want to offer your most loving presence to your children. You might consider setting up a regular empathy swap with a friend, or joining an Aware Parenting group or forum. Your own physical and emotional wellbeing is central to Aware Parenting.
I’m celebrating all that you are doing and giving to your children; and trust that you will find that connection, love and joy continue to grow as you practice Aware Parenting.