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Monday, July 7, 2014

Being Authentic with Children

There is a ton of info out there on what to do with emotional children, but what about emotional parents?

Almost all the parenting literature out there, even the very best stuff, encourages parents to be fake with their kids. Kids get to cry and we accept their feelings, but kids cannot see their parents be upset. Teach kids to cry and rage, but if a mom wants to cry or rage she should do it into her pillow with her door closed so as not to upset her children.

How am I supposed to teach my son to accept and not repress his emotions, if I model repression of my own? And why would I want to pretend that life is something other than it is? My son doesn't need a fake perfect-mom. He needs reality. And the reality is that adults have tons of strong emotions, just like kids.

Science shows that kids generally ARE terrified when they see their parents upset--whether crying or yelling. I think the problem is created by parents who hide their emotions most of the time so when they do emote in front of their kids, it is scary in its difference-from-the-norm. The other part of the problem is that when parents do finally show emotions they do scary things. Mom is calm, calm, calm and then blows up and does something mean to the child. If Mom's strong emotions always equal something horrible happening to the child, of course he will react to emotional people (and his own emotions) with fear. So I strive to remedy these two things by--

1) Being authentic with my son. I share feelings I have throughout the day every day. Feelings of joy, peace, appreciation, gratitude, love, and also feelings of frustration, anger, hurt, sadness, and exhaustion. How we are feeling is something we talk about often--my son's feelings and mine. None of these are foreign concepts.

2) Our strong emotions are not scary because we don't behave in harmful ways when we are feeling them. My being sad or mad does not mean anything for Anders except that I am experiencing a strong feeling. I'm not suddenly mean to him--what I am feeling is about me.

Which means there is no contradiction in the messages Anders gets. When he has strong feelings, I stop what I am doing and connect with him and see if he wants me to hold him until his emotions have passed. When I have strong feelings, his father stops what he is doing and connects with me and holds me until my feelings have passed (and vice versa).

The result is that Anders does not exhibit signs of shame or fear when one of his parents is upset, rather he is comfortable in his skin and confident in his efficacy--well, here is what happened last night:

[It is the end of a very long day. Anders is in bed waiting for Mama. Mama is coming back from the bathroom and stubs her toe. That's the last straw for Mama, she starts crying.]

Anders: Mama sad?
Mama: Yeah, I stubbed my toe. I'm just really tired.

[Anders pats the bed.]

Anders: Come here, Mama. I cuddle you.

[Mama lies down in the bed and Anders puts his little arm around her neck.]

Mama: Thanks, Anders.
Anders: Tell me about it. Tell me what you feeling.
Mama: Well... I was sad because I was feeling so tired and then I stubbed my toe and it hurt. But now I am lying down resting and I feel very cared for so... now I feel happy.
Anders: Mama happy?! Oh yay! I like you, Mama.

[Anders gives Mama a kiss and rolls over. He is sleeping in less than thirty seconds.]

This is life as Anders knows it! This is how Anders will react to his upset girlfriend one day! This is how Anders will talk to his own kids! This is how Anders will talk to himself!