Using Special Time and StayListening to Help My Daughter Get Ready for Company

It was a Sunday afternoon, shortly after my we had moved to our new house. My four-year old daughter Leah had just come home from an overnight at her father’s house and we had two hours until our House Warming Party. We had been happily anticipating this party since our move. Leah was especially excited to share her new tree house with our friends. Leah had returned from her dad’s house chock full of feelings—she seemed sullen and sad and had lost all enthusiasm about the party.

I decided to help my daughter get in better emotional shape so that she would be able to enjoy our party. I asked her if she wanted some Special Time in order to help her really know that she had me. We did 10 minutes of Special Time, in which she wanted to hang out on my big bed and snuggle and wrestle. I offered lots of warmth and body contact. We did “flying airplane” and “trot-trot to Boston” and other physical games, with snuggles in between.

When the timer went off, I told Leah that Special Time was over and that it was time to start getting ready for our guests to arrive (I was already ready for the party, but wanted her to begin anticipating the arrival of our friends).

She said that she only wanted to be with me and that she changed her min about the party. I said, “You have a little bit longer to be alone with me, and the our friends will come over.” She insisted that she didn’t want to see anyone else. I repeated again (in a light, warm tone, while giving lots of eye contact) that soon lots of our favorite people would be coming to our house. She became more adamant. “No! I only want to be with you! I don’t want anyone else!” She began to cry. I kept my words simple, saying that I was sorry it didn’t feel like what she wanted, but that our friends would be arriving soon. Soon she was crying mightily, telling me that she never gets enough time with me and that she misses me when she’s with her dad.”

I stayed in close and told her, “You’ve really got me. And you get to be close to other people, too.” Her cries were deep and hearty, with big tears streaming down her face, which was getting red. She cried like this for about twenty minutes, continuing to repeat that she didn’t want to see anyone else, that I was the only person she wanted. I reassured her again and again that she really has me, and that she has other people who love her, too.

After about twenty minutes her crying slowed down. I continued giving her eye contact, and staying in close. Suddenly her eyes brightened and she said, “Do you think Hazel will be coming to the party?” I said, “Yes!” She perked up and said, “Yay! Because I haven’t seen her all weekend!!”

Soon our friends did start to arrive, and Leah enthusiastically welcomed each person—squealing and hopping up and down as each new friend arrived. She played hard all afternoon—bringing her friends into her tree house, showing them her new bedroom, and the back yard. She thoroughly enjoyed herself, playing and laughing with friends for over three hours. That night she went to bed happily and easily, and slept deeply.

Join Certified Instructor Angela Jernigan in one of her classes:

1) “Tears and Tantrums” class, beginning March 16. More information available here.

2) Building Emotional Understanding class, beginning March 27. More information available here.

3) Professionals Intensive course, beginning March 29.  More information available here.

Would You Stop That Crying?

A parent asked me the other day, “If our goal is to create teenagers and adults that can manage their own feelings, shouldn’t we be teaching them to ‘self-soothe’ as little ones? Shouldn’t they learn to stop their own crying?” The implication here is that we grown-ups ‘manage’ our feelings all by ourselves. That just isn’t true.

Human beings are social animals through and through. From before we are born, we are built to live in contingent communication with others who care about us. We are finely tuned to the emotional states of all those we are close to. Our brains take in and balance our emotional states in accord with those around us as part of a system. Just like they told us in A General Theory of Love, there really is no such thing as an individual human mind. Think about it: in prison, what’s the worst punishment they can dish out? Solitary confinement. Why? Because being isolated from the society of other human beings is the worst thing that can happen to a person. Look at Tom Hanks in the movie, “Cast Away.” Marooned on an island, he made a volleyball into a companion to talk to, and, in the end, chose to risk his life rather than continue living without other human beings.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that none of our kids will end up needing the skills necessary to live behind bars or on deserted islands. And yet, adults don’t deal with emotions in isolation. We share our feelings in obvious and also very subtle ways. In stressful moments, we communicate through rude gestures to that inconsiderate driver on the highway. On better days, we call a good friend when we’re feeling down. When facing major stressors, we turn to loved ones and social workers and therapists and religious leaders. We band together in communities of support in every format from sewing circles, to Dallas Cowboy fans, to AA meetings. Strong social connections have been shown to improve everything from overall life satisfaction to heart attack survival rates.

One of the most essential components of healthy adult relationships is good communication. That’s a skill that children are learning from us as we take the time to Staylisten when they have strong feelings to share. Every time you gather the warmth to keep on loving your child through their storms of anger, sadness, frustration or despair, you are communicating a deep acceptance of them. You are increasing their ability to understand and work with emotion in themselves and others.

For example, if your son is able to fully experience whatever desperation may come over him when he faces a night alone in the darkness (in the safety of his own room), and your warm and encouraging presence allows him to scream and feel terrified until he gets to the other side, that’s a wonderful self-esteem-building experience. Rather than clinging for dear life to a well-worn stuffed animal, trying to keep his fears at bay night after night, he learns that intense feelings come and go, and he is still here, still lovable, still cared for, and still whole. He need not fear emotions in himself or others. He need not hide his feelings away in his room in shame.

This process prepares children to be aware of who has warm attention for them and to share their feelings naturally as part of their daily experience, instead of bottling things up behind walls of isolation. Feelings that are tended to every day, at a natural pace, are dealt with before they can interfere with learning, health, or positive social relationships. Children raised this way can learn readily, take appropriate risks, make good choices for themselves, and be compassionate with others.

So, instead of ‘self-soothing’, maybe the real goal is raising children who are good at sharing their feelings and maintaining their connections.

via Julianne Idleman at The Parent Scientist

Parent-Child Connectedness Takes Us Beyond Emotional Intelligence

I couldn’t have stopped crying even if I had wanted to. I don’t remember now why I was crying, but I remember the look on my father’s face as he begged me to stop. “What am I going to do with you? All the neighbors are going to think you’ve gone crazy!” It was summer and the windows were open. And I was experiencing heartbreak like only a four-year-old can.

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Forty years later, what has stayed with me is the deeply jarring alienation brought on by my father’s inability to cope with, let alone understand, my emotional experience. He just wanted it to stop. How could my father, who I adored beyond words, plead with me not to express an experience that clearly needed his comforting and attention? Shame and confusion were layered over whatever the original hurt may have been. If my father complained that I no longer told him anything when I was a teen, he was reaping seeds he planted when I was very small and needed him to listen.

Connecting with children when they express their emotional experience supports the essential elements of the parent-child relationship. A parent like my father, who begs their child to stop feeling their feelings, at the very least misses a wonderful opportunity for connection, attunement and emotional closeness that could have been used to strengthen the parent child bond for life. Not that it’s always easy to connect with children in these moments. Setting aside your agenda and stopping to warmly devote your attention to a child screaming their way through the grocery store is farther than most parents would want to take this model. But building acceptance into a connected relationship wherever possible has clear, measureable benefits.

The Education Training Research Associates, (ETR) with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, conducted a literature review on the effects of parents developing a secure connection with their children early in life. Their paper, Parent-Child Connectedness: Implications for Research, Interventions, and Positive Impacts on Adolescent Health, 2004 provides an excellent guide for understanding the true impact a strong parent child connection can have on children.

ETR uses the term Parent Child Connectedness, or PCC, to expand the idea of attachment. They define PCC as, “seeing the interaction between parents and children not just as individuals but as part of an on-going, dynamic relationship” (ETR, 2004; p. 5). The parent-child connection endures beyond the early infant years, and is sustained in different ways throughout the life of the child.

ETR’s review of over 600 research studies concludes that Parent Child Connectedness is the “super-protective factor” against negative outcomes in adolescence. Having a close, connected relationship with a caring adult, an adult who listens to the child’s feelings, is the single strongest indicator that an adolescent will reach adulthood without experiencing teen pregnancy or violence, without becoming addicted to drugs or tobacco, and without dropping out of high school. Fostering this kind of relationship with our own children takes us beyond emotional intelligence, into a space where the emotion we each experience is accepted, experienced and processed.

While Emotional Intelligence is a wonderful place to start, the key for me has been remembering that experiencing intense emotion takes neurobiological precedence over thinking about that emotion. In other words, it’s hard to think and feel at the same time.

Dan Siegel’s work, The Developing Mind, explains the details of this process, but as a non-neurobiologist I imagine the available energy or attention moving through the three main parts of the brain. The brainstem makes sure you’re breathing, your heart is beating and the salts in your blood are balanced – it keeps your body alive first. Then the limbic system, the seat of emotional response, gets the energy next. If feelings have been triggered, they can highjack us until we are able to process them. This expression of emotion is a normal, universal human response to emotional stress. It’s as natural as the impulse to swear when you hit your thumb with the hammer. The higher cognitive functions are the last to receive the mind’s attention. Just the same way that you can’t balance your checkbook if you can’t breathe, you also can’t balance your checkbook when you are overwhelmed by strong emotions.

Children can’t talk to you about their emotions and feel their emotions fully at the same time. And they can’t fully process their emotions in isolation. The human mind is built to work in connection with other human minds. What I needed at four is the same thing kids of all ages need, a caring adult with whom they can share the full range of their experience without fear of rejection, shaming or condemnation.

Here’s Patty Wipfler’s explanation of the process from her booklet on Crying:

We are so accustomed to seeing the world only from our own vantage point. If we don’t feel sad, no one else should, either. But children’s feelings are like their own personal weather system, which is affected by forces often unseen by you.

To tell your child he should feel happy when he is sad is roughly as effective as telling a rainstorm to go away. Phrases like “I’m sorry you feel so sad” or “I’ll stay right here with you while it’s hard” give your child permission to address and work through bad feelings. Phrases like “It’s only a torn paper. Quit acting like such a baby!” only shame a child. They work against your goal of helping your child rebuild his sense of well-being.

As you listen, you are not necessarily condoning your child’s feelings, nor are you spoiling him. You are helping him recover. Children cry only when they are too upset to think. Feelings of upset can overpower a child and drive him to do things that don’t make sense. As you listen, you drain the power these feelings have over your child. His own good judgment will return once you’ve listened thoroughly.

What have you learned about the best ways to be present with your children’s strong emotions? Please share what works for you to build parent-child connectedness in the Comments.

-Julianne Idleman via The Parent Scientist
You can join join Juli for an online class on the Science of Parenting in January.