Breaking “Bad” News

firstgrade-bearWhen my 6-year-old son began the first grade in a new school district, school went from being easy to being a big challenge for him both socially and academically. Being the youngest in his class with a late November birthday, it seemed to his teacher and me that repeating the grade the following year might be a good direction for him. When we reached the second half of the school year and it came time to make the decision a reality, regardless of how prepared I thought I had been, the emotional side of it hit me like a train.

I had all the good reasons in the world, but it was just a minefield of triggers about not being a good enough mom, feeling so embarrassed, having failed him in some way, convinced that he would hate me later for destroying his first grade social life, thinking back to the fact that his father was treated like an outcast in grade school and not wanting him to meet the same fate, and feeling a well of guilt around having to break the news to him.

Clearly these feelings were all about me, and I could see all the red flags go up when I thought of telling my son about the retention when I was in such an upset state about it. So I lined up all the listening sessions I could get. I set up with my listening partner, my Skill Building Class, and regular group phone sessions to get listening time. I got a chance to cry, to feel guilty, and offload all the horrible ideas I had of how telling him was going to go. I must have had seven or so listening sessions in the course of a week and a half, until I started to feel less charged about the matter, and far more relaxed.

Then finally, on an afternoon when I was feeling particularly calm and connected with my son, I told him simply that his teacher and I thought it would be a good idea for him to do the first grade again next year. I anticipated a Staylistening session about it, and I finally felt ready for it.

He simply asked, “Why?” I gave him the reasons and my voice was calm and confident about the choice, to which he responded positively. I watched him put all the pieces together in his head and he responded simply, “OK, Mommy, can I have my teacher again for next year then?”

As simple as that. No freak-outs. No blaming tantrums about how I was ruining his life. And whenever re-doing the first grade is brought up, he is clear and confident about it. “I get to be 7 when everyone else in my class will be 7,” he likes to say. It turns out all the emotional upset about it was mine and mine alone, and with it out of the way I was able to give it the positive light it deserved.

Natalie Thiel, Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor

Join Natalie in her upcoming Building Emotional Understanding online class starting April 30.  Register now!

Listen to the podcast of her teleseminar How Do I Connect With My Baby?.

You can learn more about Parenting by Connection in the Listening to Children booklet set.

Helping my Child Move Through Upset After Hurting Another Child

When my daughter Leah was just under two years old, we were playing one day with a friend and her one-year old son, Malcolm.

While gently nuzzling the leg of the younger boy, my daughter suddenly took his thigh in her mouth and bit down, HARD. He immediately started screaming and crying. My daughter lurched away, looking startled, but was frozen and not able to cry. It wasn’t clear if she had been trying to hurt him, or just trying something out (she looked more curious than aggressive). I went to my daughter and held her, reminding her that we have to be gentle with babies. None of what I said seemed to go in; she was frozen and not listening. Shortly, both children seemed over the upset and were back to playing.

Some month or six weeks later, while attending a mommy/toddler class together, a slightly older toddler bit my daughter on the arm. My daughter cried briefly, but stopped when the teacher arrived offering a band aid. I realized that this classroom wasn’t going to be the environment to allow her to offload her feelings, and I hoped the feelings would come up later to be worked out.

Later that day, I was crouching down to get something out of the refrigerator and my daughter came up behind the door and pushed it closed (bumping it gently into me). I lost balance and stood up to avoid falling. Leah looked startled and immediately started crying really hard. I realized that she thought I had been hurt, and I assured her I was okay. I sat on the kitchen floor for a good twenty minutes while she stood and cried, a loud “whah!” kind of cry with lots of sweat.  I stayed close and spoke tenderly to her (I forget exactly what I said).

Throughout the twenty minutes of her cry I thought she was releasing stress over the upset earlier in the day from having been bitten by the other child. But after crying for about twenty minutes, and through big sobs, she managed to say, “I don’t want to ever bite baby Malcolm again!” Then she cried and cried some more while I said things to her like, “You are so good, you are so good, even when you make a mistake, you are so good. It’s really okay. You are good and Malcolm is just fine. You get to make mistakes sometimes.”

After twenty-five or thirty minutes she finished her cry and cheerfully reached for my hand, ready to move on and into the afternoon.

I was moved by what I saw as the connection between getting bitten earlier in the day and her memory of having been the child who bit another. At the time when she bit Malcolm, she wasn’t able to release any feelings about it, but she had clearly carried that memory—and the emotional pain of having hurt another child—and it was ready to be released when the right circumstances brought it up again.

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.

Listening Helps Calm My Grandson’s Fears

When our grandson was one, and just walking, we convinced his parents to let us babysit so they could have a night out.  They were quite nervous because they did not like to hear their son crying.  We told them we could handle it, and promised we would call if things got out of hand. We invited them to keep their phone set on “vibrate” in the movie theatre and restaurant.

About 20 seconds after they left, he began to ask for them. We told him they would be back in a bit.  He began to cry hard, getting his shoes and handing them to his grandpa to put on.  His grandpa said, “You want to go out and get momma and poppa?”  He shook his head yes vigorously and went to get his coat from the hook by the door.  We told him we were going to wait at home for them.  We sat with him by the door with him, he cried and cried.  He rolled himself up in a ball on the floor.  We put our hands on his back and told him we were going to stay right with him until they came back and we were sure they would.  He cried for about an hour.

We kept getting nervous.  Grandpa wanted to give him a bottle (he had less experience at this than I do), and I suggested maybe we just wait a little more, that I did not think he was hungry, and told him I know it is hard to listen to, especially at first.  The baby finally stopped.  I am always amazed that they do stop, because the message in my head says things like, “What if he doesn’t stop and his parents come home and they never let us babysit again! “  We played with his toys and after about 20 minutes he went to the door again and got his coat and shoes, crying for momma and poppa.  This time it lasted about 5 minutes.  It happened several more times.

Fortunately, when his parents came home, he had fallen asleep on top of grandpa on the couch.   Now he is three and has a baby brother.  Once a month we babysit them overnight at their house.  They usually cry for a few minutes, and ask many times during the evening when momma and poppa are coming home, and where they are and what they are doing.  If they get hurt or fight over a toy, they usually want momma and poppa, and cry for them for awhile. We just Staylisten, and assure them that their parents miss them too, and that they will be so happy to see them when they come home.

– Join Certified Instructor Emmy Rainwalker in her Building Emotional Emmy RainwalkerUnderstanding Online class, starting March 18. Register now.

Listening Helps When Things Get Gummy

My son and I had an outing  where we went to the store together to get the week’s groceries.   We have done this from the time he was born, and as he got older, he participated more frequently in the choices of what to buy. He was quite protected from the world of sugar at home and did not watch TV, so we seldom had a disagreement about what to buy.

When he was almost 4, his baby brother was born and we decided to take him along.  Everything went well until we got to the checkout line and he asked for gum.  I said no and he began to have a full blown tantrum,  I was completely overwhelmed with the baby, the groceries and him.  So I bought the gum.  All the way home, I kept saying to myself, “You are being controlled by a child!  This can only get worse.”

I consulted with a friend and we agreed that she would come with me the following week on our grocery trip and I would try to Set the Limit and Staylisten.

All went well until the checkout.  He demanded gum and when I said no, he pushed his little fingers into the spaces on the wire display rack where the gum was– right at his eye level.  My friend took the baby and handled the groceries and after peeling his fingers out carefully one by one with him screaming the whole time, I took him aside and got on the floor with him.  I had to hold him so he would not hurt me as he flailed.  I wrapped myself around him and had my face near his ear.  I told him we were not going to get gum and that I could see he was pretty mad.  I struggled to figure out what to say (and not say), and resisted the temptation to “explain” why.  I said things like, “You really like gum, and are very disappointed.”  He kicked and screamed for about 20 minutes.  Meanwhile, my friend was engaged in very lively conversations with people in the store, explaining what we were doing.  I could hear them off in the distance, some people laughing, some angry.  Finally I said something about things being different now with a baby brother and he cried hard, saying that I loved the baby more than I loved him.  I calmly said that I loved him as much as ever and was so proud of him.

He finally fell asleep in my arms, and I carried him to the car.  He woke up happy. I took as much time that week as I could to reassure him that he was not being replaced. My friend encouraged me to say all the things I did  not say to him in the store, the explanations and my own internal exasperation, in our Listening Partnership time, and I said some ugly and mean things. We laughed at how terrible it would have been if I had said them and how much more complicated everything would have gotten, especially his feelings about his brother.

The next week we went again, with the baby.  He asked for gum at the checkout.  I said no.  He said, “Phooey!” and that was that.  I was prepared to Staylisten again, but was glad I did not have to.

-Certified Instructor, Emmy Rainwalker

– Join Certified Instructor Emmy Rainwalker in one of her classes / teleseminars:

Emmy Rainwalker

1) Teleseminar “Staying Close to Our Sons” on Tuesday, March 5.  Register now.

2) Building Emotional Understanding Online starting March 18. Register now.

Creating Safety Around Injuries

I collected my 6-year-old-daughter from school and was sad to see she was holding an ice-pack on her knee. She was not crying and had clearly done it some time before. In fact she seemed happy enough.  The teacher explained that she had strained her “ankle” and that the pain had gradually moved up her leg towards her knee. That’s when I thought: “There’s more to this than meets the eye!”

My daughter has been “entertaining” many injuries in the last few months, until I have realised that this must be an emotional project she is working on. On the one hand she seems fascinated in a healthy way with the workings of her body, her muscles, joints, blood, etc. And on the other hand she goes over the top in wanting attention for minor cuts and scrapes, and we often sit there doing a full-blown emergency dressing from the first-aid kit her dad bought her as a present. She often asks me to take her to the emergency services for these cuts, and I have spent many conversations with her setting limits about her insistence that she needs a wheelchair. She can do a very convincing job of being a person in need of crutches, not only physically but in her whole expression of the role.

On the day when she had an “ankle/knee” injury from school, I took her home and gave her lots of gentle, focused attention and listened to all her descriptions of how it happened. All went well until we did some Playlistening before the evening meal. I find it helps to offload irritations that have built up during the school day and feeds into a smoother bedtime routine.

One of her favourites is to fly on my feet as I lie on my back, her hands and feet moving wildly as if she is swimming through the air.  On this occasion she was pushing against her physical limits And really trying to fly over my head, and she said clearly: “I want an injury,” with a twinkle in her eye! Next thing she flew over my head and as I tried to hold on to her, I twisted her right wrist.

She was screaming in agony and I bundled her up and onto the couch to assess the situation. I ripped her tights off thinking it was her leg And then she told me through her sobs it was her her arm. I rushed to get one of those floppy ice-packs And put it around her wrist. Then I started Staylistening.

As she cried she was stammering: “I need the emergency services. I have to have them! You don’t know how much this hurts!” I was sitting on the floor so our faces were on the same level and I tried to listen to her deeply. I put aside my guilt and let go of any concern because I could see it was going to be fine. I said occasionally, “You’ll be fine. Let’s just wait a moment. It’s OK. Oh, my darling.”

The whole crying episode lasted about 10 minutes. She started to come out of it and I offered to have a good look at her wrist and compared it with the other one and concluded that it was indeed swollen. I stayed close with her for supper and listened to her talking about doctors and her pain without agreeing to do anything or fix it for her. I was extra gentle and connecting with her through her bath and on in to the bedroom, and I allowed a lot more room for her expressions than I would normally.

We did more Playlistening after the story as she asked me for some “rough play.” She jumped on her bed with me holding her hands (including the one that had been injured), counting herself up to 100! I manoeuvred her to lie down and gave her a gentle massage to calm her down. I lay down with her and I left before she was asleep. As I left the bed, she pulled on me and said, “Stay with me,” and I gently said that I was going. To my surprise she said “OK, then please, can you cover me.” I left the room And that was the sleep routine done. Considering she has had ongoing issues about letting me leave her while she is still awake, it was a very impressive conclusion to the day’s events.

I had gone through a range of emotions from collecting her in the afternoon, to the guilt of hurting my own child in play, and the concern for her well-being. But at the end of the day, after all the Staylistening around the injury scene, and all the connecting time that has gone on in the past, instead of feeling shattered, I actually felt empowered. And my daughter has been able to offload some more emotions around her emotional project.

Join Laura Newman in her Parent Study Group and fill your emotional cup before the holiday madness sets in.

An Olympic Sports Day Staylistening

It was sports day at my children’s new school. My daughter, 8, was in the first of her races and was keen to “get a place,” as she put it – meaning she wanted to come in first, second or third. She ran the race and came in a joint third place, in her mind at least, but was not awarded an official “place.” She came to me deeply upset and angry. “The man cheated – he was probably the dad of the child he gave the third place to,” she told me angrily.  She said she wasn’t going to run in any of the other races, that they had cheated her. That she had come a joint third place and they hadn’t awarded her the place. I struggled momentarily with what to do. Should I go and talk to the father who had awarded the places? Would I seem like a pushy parent?

It occurred to me that the best thing I could do for my daughter in that moment was to Staylisten. I gave her a warm hug, kept my arms around her and said I was sorry this was so hard for her right now. She got angrier and repeated that she wasn’t going to run in any more races and she had been cheated. I kept my loving attention with her and acknowledged how she was feeling. Her anger broke into tears and she cried and cried with my warm attention. I was so glad I was able to do this, and no one interrupted us.

After crying hard, one of her friends from her team ran up to her, saying, “You’re up! This is your next race!” To my surprise and delight, she didn’t hesitate. She ran excitedly to the start line, and won the race by a long way! She jumped herself to victory in the sack race! She seemed to find a huge reserve of energy and confidence, and went on to have an engaged and happy sports day, competing and getting places in a number of other races.

My heart was full of awe at the rejuvenating power of a cry with loving attention. It felt healing to me, after her time at an overly competitive previous school, where any expression of sad feelings after losing a race was met with disapproval. I felt a lot of peace myself, after being there to hear her initial anger and tears, and then watching her give it her all. I was grateful for the opportunity to Staylisten in a context where, I guessed, lots of old feelings were up for both children and parents around competing, winning and losing.

Anna Cole, Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor (living in the UK)

Anna ColeLearn more about how you can join Anna in a Building Emotional Understanding course >

In Trouble for Singing?

I was driving home with my husband and my  2.5-year old son. We were coming from a sweet evening with some friends of ours who have a son his age. The dinner was lovely, I had felt connected to my husband and the couple, and the boys had played well together. I was filled with a sense of warm connection, and I started to sing a little.

Immediately he said, “No mamma! Don’t do that!” I was confused about what had bothered him so much, so to clarify I said, “You don’t want me to sing?” He said, “No. Don’t sing!” Then my husband said, “Well, I’m going to sing.” But he said said, “No, Daddy! Don’t sing!” So we playfully said, almost simultaneously, “Ok – then you sing!” His response took us by surprise. He said, “No, I can’t sing. I get in trouble.” I immediately chimed in, “Oh, sweetie, you won’t get in trouble for singing! We love it when you sing!” But he insisted. “No. If I sing, I get in trouble.” I continued to try to reassure him that he wouldn’t get in trouble for singing, but he continued to insist. “If I sing too loud, I get in trouble, and I get put in train like Mommy Dumbo with chains.”

Wow – my heart sank hearing that. My son was referring to the part of the story Dumbo when Dumbo’s mom, Mrs. Jumbo, got upset that children were making fun of him, and she retaliated at the children, swinging her trunk at them. The circus leaders locked Mrs. Jumbo up in a train car with chains on her ankle to keep her from hurting anyone. He somehow got it into his mind that he would be chained up like that if he sang too loudly.

Making noise and singing isn’t a trigger for me or my husband. So even if we had to set a limit around loud noise, we would have done it with calm warmth. But he usually wasn’t very loud anyway, so there wasn’t a need to set limits around that. So why was he so concerned about getting into trouble for being loud? Then I thought that maybe something had happened at daycare. He had recently transitioned to a new room, and perhaps the teachers were saying something to our son or the other children when they were being loud that scared him.

I desperately wanted to correct his logic. I was heartbroken. So I said gently, “Oh, sweetheart. If you are loud, the most that will happen is someone will say, ‘No Thank You!’ and they’ll ask you to quiet down. They won’t  lock you up or put chains on you!” But I was unsuccessful. I could tell by watching him that my words were barely scratching the surface of a fear that was much more deep than logic could touch. A more useful intervention was needed. But what?

“How about you sing loudly right now,” I suggested, “so we can all see that you won’t get in trouble!” It was a good idea, but it didn’t work. He just lifted his hands to cover his eyes. He was too afraid of getting in trouble.

Thankfully, my husband said with lots of joy and excitement, “Let’s all sing really loudly together!!!” What a breath of fresh air. “Yeah!!!” I said, matching my husband’s enthusiasm. So, driving home in the car, my husband and I started singing “Happy Birthday” at the top of our lungs. We sang loudly and off key with joy and glee. Our son looked a little stunned at first, but then he started to sing with us just a little bit. I looked over at him with zeal and started laughing. He started laughing too, and we laughed most of the way through the song. After the first round was over, my husband said, “Who should we sing to next?”  “Mommy!!” And so we sang “Happy Birthday to mommy” at the top of our lungs. Then we sang to Daddy, and then to our son, laughing the tension away.

We arrived home with joy on our faces and music in our hearts. We didn’t have to point out that no one got in trouble for singing loudly. It was clear. And it was also clear that laughing helped shake his fear away a lot better than logic!

-A Parenting by Connection mother