I assume that every parent goes through phases when communicating with your child feels like
getting your hand caught in a meat grinder a challenge.
This summer has been one of those times.
Anytime I start to feel a little insecure in my parenting abilities, I visit The Box.
The Box is my box of parenting books. I’ve got everything in there from Dr. Spock to Dr. Phil. But the book I always come back to (yet can’t seem to master) is the one written about reflective listening: how to allow your child to feel ALL her emotions without labeling them as good or bad.
How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk says to follow these four steps:
- Listen with full attention.
- Acknowledge her feelings.
- Give a name to her feelings.
- Grant her wishes or fantasy.
With Phoebe, it works like a gem. A few nights ago she was flipping out about putting on her pajamas:
“I don’t WANNA wear my JAMAS! I wanna wear my POLKA DOT PAWTY DWESS!”
“You really want to wear the polka dot dress.”
“YES! I DO! I WUV IT!”
“You’re mad that it’s time to put on your PJs and not that dress.”
“YES! PUHWEASSSE MOMMY!”
“I wish I could wave my magic wand and make it tomorrow so you could put on that dress right now.”
(She smiles) “You not a wizard, you a mommy. Mommy, YOU A CWAZY KOOKY SNAKE! DO THE KOOKY SNAKE DANCE!”
And that was it. She put on the pajamas and never mentioned the dress again. But that’s Phoebe. She can move on from just about any meltdown with a shrug of the shoulders and an “Awwwww, fiiiine.”But Emma can see through my shaky grasp on the material. Any time I have tried the “technique” with her, she looks at me like I am
Emma: “UGH, I totally messed up the mermaid in this painting! This is so FRUSTRATING!”
“You sound really frustrated.”
“Uh, yeah I just said that.”
“Mmmmmm.” (the books says to make affirming noises)
“Why are you making that noise? You are being weird.”
Then comes the part where my “listening skills” send her into a Shit Spiral of Doom.
Emma: “This mermaid looks RIDICULOUS. She looks like a WALRUS.”
“Sounds like you are upset that your picture is not turning out as planned.”
“Of course I’m upset! And what are you saying? That it DOES look like a walrus? I stink at art! I can’t do this! FORGET IT!”
Clearly I need more practice. Or some kind of remedial training.
But then, a few days ago, something kind of interesting happened. I was feeling really upset about a recent phone conversation with someone I love..a conversation in which I didn’t feel “heard”. During Phoebe’s nap I kept replaying the conversation over and over again in my mind, to the point where I actually started crying while doing laundry.
Then I had a thought: maybe the reason I am struggling with the reflective listening skills is because I rarely use them on myself. So I gave it a shot. Don’t judge me. I haven’t had a lot of adult contact lately.
Me: “You are really upset.”
Me: “No shit. I’m crying like an ass. This is stupid. I’m talking to myself.”
Me: “You’re crying because you feel kind of powerless and out of control about a lot of things. You’re crying because you feel pulled in a bunch of different directions yet can’t seem to please anyone. You’re crying because you just moved to a new state, are temporarily living on a marsh, and have small children who have no idea how to adjust to this huge transition and are counting on you to show them. And One Direction playing on a continuous loop would put anyone over the edge.”
Me: “Well, yeah. When you put it that way….”
And with that, I stopped crying. Not because all my “issues” (if you can even call them that) were solved, but because I had roughly pinpointed the emotion in question, and because in 30 minutes I had to wake up Phoebe and get Emma from the bus stop. Which actually made me feel better. More in control….a bit more put together….and a tiny bit empowered. Actually, kind of the opposite feeling of what got me blubbering in the first place.
So maybe beyond the question “how do you feel” lies the question…
How do you WANT to feel?
And how can you feel that, even if only for a split second, RIGHT NOW?
I tacked this question on to my rusty reflective listening repertoire last night when Emma had trouble sleeping. I listened to her explain how restless she felt, how her legs felt jumpy, and her brain was going a mile a minute. “I feel like a volcano ready to blow!”
She had no problem naming the emotion, she just didn’t know what the hell to do with it. The more I affirmed it, the more consuming it became. She wanted to know how to deal with the feelings.
Dealing with Feelings = Deelings
“You feel really wound up. How do you WANT to feel?”
“I don’t know! Well….sleepy, I guess.”
“You want to feel relaxed so you can sleep?”
“Yes! BUT I CAN’T! I TRIED AND I CAN’T RELAX! IT’S IMPOSSIBLE! I HAVE TRIED AND I CAAAAANNNN’T!”
“Well, I don’t believe that you can’t, I think you CAN. I have seen you go to sleep before. I think there a lot of different things going on right now that are making it harder, so you might need to try different strategies to help you sleep. But if you keep telling your body your can’t, that is what your body is going to listen to.”
(sniff) “It is?
“Yes. So counting sheep does NOT help, right?”
“Yes! They FREAK ME OUT! Plus they are not resting, they are LEAPING AND BAAAAA-ING ALL OVER THE PLACE!”
“Ok, well try and think of some new ways to tell your body to be still.”
“Ok…well, I guess I could tell my body that it’s lying on a beach…or in a raft floating in a pool…or flying through fluffy clouds….
Within minutes the kid had composed her own Yoga Nidra. She gave me a hug and said “Goodnight Mom. I will have to incorporate Phoebe’s snoring into my mind-story. Maybe she can be an ocean buoy.”
And she was gone. I sat on the couch, stunned. I looked over to see Phil standing frozen in the kitchen: “What the hell just happened?”
I find that when I repeatedly reflect back an emotion to Emma, I add fuel to the fire by making that emotion seem bigger than her. She can name her feelings. She just has a hard time believing that she is Emma and her feelings are her feelings….and that she has the feelings, the feelings don’t have her.
While all kids need us to listen and affirm their feelings…..