Preparing to leave the house can be challenging in ours. Kind, encouraging prompts to find a jumper and get some shoes might begin to deteriorate into exasperation as each time I catch sight of the child, they are no closer to being ready. Sensing my building impatience, the child’s resistance increases sending me into hyperdrive and now I’m just barking orders and people are beginning to unravel. Tired of leaving the house with at least one person fuming or in tears, I took a Mindful Parenting class with Niamh Barrett and I began to tune in to what was really happening.
There’s a time crush in the mornings, so the stress is already building in me. Gentle encouragement isn’t working. I’m feeling tingling sensations and heat rising in my chest. Here is where things get interesting. I ask myself, what is this? It feels like defiance or being ignored. I realise I’m having a reaction to that and I’m beginning to get angry. I know that because I’m stressed, I’m going to raise my voice to assert my authority and get the child’s attention. Instead, I pause to feel my feet on the floor and move my awareness as far away from my head as I can. I take a complete breath and I choose a different response.
I’m still in a hurry. I still think this child is not listening to me but I can stop looking for my keys, get down on his level, and ask him if he needs help finding his shoes. If I can calmly help him, we can go. I can change the dynamic here by practicing awareness and tuning into my own reactivity. He can’t do that yet, he’s six, so I need work on regulating myself.
Once I started observing my child more closely around transitions, I realised it wasn’t defiance that was keeping him from getting ready to go. It was anxiety. Even though he wants to go, that moment of arrival into a new activity or an unknown activates him the same way that time pressure activates me. We had created this automatic, stress reactivity cycle when trying to leave the house. Becoming aware of it opened up an opportunity to change it. In the space created by the awareness, I also realised that adding 15 minutes to the morning routine would take the time pressure off and allow some room for big emotions when they come up.
Awareness gives me insight into the behaviour, mine own and my child’s. Whether he’s genuinely experiencing anxiety around transitioning into a new activity, or he’s really just not looking for his shoes, I can make space for that. Allowing him to be in his experience fully, without attempting to impose a change in his behaviour will give him the space to move through the difficulty and, over time, learn to regulate his own feelings. External pressures don’t always allow for that, but I can do the best I can to create the opportunity by not adding to the pressure. There are two ways that I do this.
”Just like me” and #mefirst.
Last year, I joined Mari Kennedy and Nina Nassar on a conflict course. They guided us through the concept of #mefirst, the first of the “3 Medicines in the Alchemy of Conflict”. By turning toward my own bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings when I am feeling stress, I can notice the reaction building in me. Instead of being focused on the child’s behaviour, which I have no control over, I can observe my own impulses and make an effort to regulate my own feelings. In the space created by the pause I remind myself of Pema Chodron’s teaching, “just like me”.
Just like me, my child’s reactions are automatic and he’s not always sure what he’s reacting to. Just like me, he needs patience and kindness when he’s having a difficult time. Just like me, he wants his feelings to be respected, regardless of the agenda.
This reframing invites a more compassionate response. He’s feeling what he’s feeling whether it’s convenient for me or not. He’s not intentionally trying to make things more difficult for me, he’s in his own experience. If anyone is going to have to find a way to be calm, measured and in control of themselves it’s going to have to be me. I’m supposed to be the adult here.
I’m disappointed that my earliest reactions to this hesitancy to get ready were combative. Imagine being commanded to get it together in a moment when you are experiencing paralysing anxiety! Hardly helpful. I felt shit. Like a bad parent, maybe even a bad person. Moving back toward awareness, I notice that my thoughts are headed toward berating, negative self-talk and I meet another opportunity to break a reactive cycle in myself.
Getting it wrong sometimes is inevitable. I’m not perfect, nor am I supposed to be. I made some space around something that felt bad which lead to a correction that improved things for everyone. So I’m grateful that I was eventually able to see that a little more space and support could make transitions smoother for all of us. Ultimately, by slowing down, my son and I learned that we can work together to put words on difficult experiences and begin to understand each other better in moments of frustration. Self-compassion keeps me from piling more pressure on myself which spills into my family. The result of being kinder to myself is that I am kinder toward the people that I love.
I don’t have this “all worked out”. It’s something that I practice and still get wrong from time to time. Three years have passed and we have moved beyond that particular struggle. The one certainty in parenting is that another is on its way. There will be many more misunderstandings and with them, many more opportunities to practice compassion.
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You can join Michele with Yoga Dublin on an 8-Week in-person Course, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, starting Saturday, January 22nd at the Quaker Meeting Hall on Churchtown Road Lower. 10am - 12:30pm
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