Over the past months and years, I’ve often found myself in over my head as a parent. One of my boys has been recently struggling with separation anxiety – and learning how to respond and offer support has been an ongoing, often stressful journey. I’ve often felt like I’ve been wading through dark spaces, at a loss as to what to do with the big feelings being expressed. At the bottom, navigating transitions has been difficult. And – no matter what is unfolding, I believe my son is trying to tell me about his broader experience, even if I can’t yet entirely understand.
So what to do? After months of limping along and struggling, I decided to reach out for help. Since the spring, I’ve been having ongoing coaching sessions with a professional counselor who focuses on a psychodynamic approach, with an emphasis on development, attachment and neurobiology. I’ve also been exploring my own strategies – trying new things and seeing what works. Here are a few take-aways from this process.
When the going gets rough, model your own ways of coping. One of the things I often found myself doing in rough moments with all of my children was to offer verbal advice. And yet, there are times when words alone don’t help. All the chatter and suggestions and reassurances were seeming to get us nowhere. Instead, I began to describe my own feelings and experiences and share what helps me during difficult moments. What if I could intentionally model staying with my own hard feelings and give voice to what I do to stay grounded and resourced when facing challenges? “I feel anxious right now too. Goodbyes are so hard. Sometimes it helps if I move my body. Want to march with me?”
My coach reminded me that during difficult moments, our systems are often trying to find balance. When we are in balance, we are regulated and our emotions aren’t bigger than ourselves. When we aren’t in balance, we might be hyperactive or we might shut down or ‘collapse.’ We can serve our children by showing how we face difficulties from a place of regulation. “I’m feeling anxious. I’m going to shake my hands or rub my legs. Want to join me?” We can share our own challenges and how we work with them. I wanted to model staying with hard things. I began to do more describing of my own experiences and what helps. “I’m starting to feel sad and worried too about saying goodbye. It helps me when I feel my feet on the ground and take a deep breath.”
Bring it back to the body. Bringing awareness in each moment to what is going on in our bodies is not only grounding and resourcing, but also can help to cultivate a greater sense of balance. It also helps to decrease any mental anxiety or churning. During the hard moments, I began to pay more attention to what was going on in my own body, while also getting curious about what was going on for my children. Getting to know what the body is feeling is a skill and takes practice. I began to model paying attention to my own experience in this way, and also ask questions that bring that awareness to my kids. “This moment is feeling really hard. I feel it in my chest. And, my stomach is starting to hurt. I wonder what you feel right now in your body?” Checking in with myself can also help my kids check in with themselves. I began to name my own experiences more, inviting them to join me in noticing and paying closer attention to what was going on in their own bodies.
Just breathe together. One of the main reminders from talking with my coach was around the importance of just breathing together. She would often say, “Use fewer words. Do more holding and breathing.” Just breathing together and having more physical interaction helped me to slow down and connect more. “Let’s take a few minutes to just breathe together,” I would say. These moments of breathing together didn’t always assuage the underlying difficulties, but it did offer up important moments to pause and connect, and bring us back to the simplicity of feeling our bodies and taking a deep breath together. Even for a moment, it provided a brief respite – and a reminder of how a deep breath is always available as a way to calm down.
Make concrete observations. I wanted to find ways to say “I hear you. I see you. It is hard, and you can do this.” So I started paying closer attention to the tangible things happening in any moment, and began naming those things. “I see you walking in circles right now. Are you getting nervous about school?” I wanted my kids to know I was paying close attention to them. Beyond listening to them when they were trying to communicate something verbally, I could also let them know I was really seeing them too. It helped me to connect more to what was going on in the present moment – and to also bring awareness to the concrete things that were happening. It was also a way to bring me out of my complex mental churnings about what was going on – and trying to assign stories to those things. Instead I could stay more focused on each present moment and what was arising. I could use observation statements to let my kids know “I’m with you. I’m paying attention. I see you.”
Express empathy. Connect heart to heart. My coach calls this “joining and affirming.” I can say, “you’re really hurting. That’s hard.” Or, “Wow, this feels big.” At first I was trying to connect during difficult moments by saying “I love you no matter what…I’m right here…” Then I realized that expressing empathy and connecting heart to heart is so much more than expressing only our love and appreciation. When a fellow adult comes to me with a trouble, I never respond simply by saying “But I love you!” No. I listen. I mirror back what I see and hear. All of the sudden it seemed ridiculous that I was trying to patch up the moments of anxiety with my kids by saying “I love you.” Perhaps I wanted a simple fix. Perhaps I didn’t know what else to say. I wished that love would be enough to assuage the hard spaces.
Those words of love are of course important – but more so in moments of smoothness. During moments of separation anxiety, confusion, anger or frustration, expressing empathy is better shown when I name what I see and try to join and affirm. I began to try to see the struggles wanting to shine through. “You feel scared. You feel stupid. That must feel icky.” I could say, “I hear you. I want you to know though that I don’t see you that way.”
At the heart of all of my efforts to meet my children during their difficult moments was a simple reminder. I must take the time to really listen deeply. I can revisit the tough moments to debrief and connect. I can learn from my own mistakes and fumbles (which have been many during this particular season of parenting!). In this way, we connect and reflect. We learn and grow, together. Resilience is slowly cultivated. Over time, we come to accept more gracefully that things happen that aren’t comfortable – and, we find ways to get through them. As Naomi Wolf says, “Obstacles, of course, are developmentally necessary. They teach kids strategy, patience, critical thinking, reslience and resourcefulness.” We could now at least face our obstacles together with a deep breath.