NAEYC Presentation “Helping Families with Stress”

Shelley Macy, Coordinator for Early Childhood Education at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, WA, and I recently gave a presentation at the Annual Conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. We talked about Helping Families with Stress, a timely topic during these difficult months. Christmas puts an added layer of worry, heartache and strain on parents. When parents are preoccupied with work or worry, children show the strain, too.

Most parents whose families are doing OK know parents for whom this winter is a strain. And most parents who are feeling the strain have no idea that they could reach out to another parent and find some understanding and help.

We parents are in the best possible position to reach out to one another with caring and a listening ear. We know how it feels to want good things for our children with a fierce, hot love. We also know how it feels to have a bad day with them, or a string of bad days, and to have no idea what will break that cycle of tension breeding more tension. Because we understand, we can sometimes (not always, but sometimes!) listen while remembering that this is a good parent who will come through for his or her child given any small shred of hope and assistance.

We can be a powerful force for good in one another’s lives. Here are some thoughts that Shelley and I shared at the conference, and an inspiring story of how one pair of good friends, living 2500 miles from one another, partnered to get one of them through a deeply trying few days.

Be a Listener

Your best chance at relieving a parent’s stress is to listen. You can do this casually, in the course of a play date or a conversation on the playground, or by inviting the parent you care about to meet with you over tea, without the children in tow.

Listen. Offer warmth. Don’t tell your own story; just offer your kind attention. If a parent can talk frankly, laugh or cry with you, that parent will feel better afterwards. His or her patience will increase, and better decisions will follow.

Lack of privacy often inhibits parents, so find a protected place to listen if you can. I recommend some place indoors, that isn’t in view of passers by or others in the family poking their heads in to get a smidgen of the parent’s attention. (Coffee shops aren’t the best place: coffee and tea rev us up, and make it harder to allow the tender or frowned-upon feelings we need to shed to creep from their hiding place into full view. Caffeine also makes it hard to relax with the safety and acceptance that a listener provides.)

When a listener is warm and accepting, a parent under stress becomes flooded with feelings as they talk. A wonderful inborn healing process goes to work. Feelings bubble to the surface because the mind needs freedom from this burden, and because the listener is sending the message that he or she will hold steady for the time being. But as feelings begin to show, the parent valiantly tries to continue to think of an immediate solution to the problem. This is not very efficient, as emotions are best released when the mind can concentrate fully on how it feels, or how it felt at some hard time in the past. Heartache, anger, frustration and other strong feelings deserve a parent’s full attention when there’s a listener at hand. The solutions to the problem at home will arise later. They will spring from a mind that’s freer of emotional charge. You can count on this. So as a listener, you can let a parent know, “You don’t have to figure this all out right this minute. Just tell me how you’ve been feeling.” The following questions, or questions like them, also help a parent focus more fully on the knot of emotional tension that has built up over time.

When did this difficulty begin? What was happening for you then?
Was there ever a time when it wasn’t hard like this? What do you remember?
If no one’s feelings had to be protected, what would you feel like saying? Doing?
Was there anyone you’ve been close to that you wish could help you right now?
Do you feel like anyone has helped? What did they do? (Listen carefully: often the answer is no, but the details and disappointment will be cried about, to good effect.)

If the problem is with a particular child, then

How was your pregnancy (your partner’s pregnancy) with Sally? How was her birth?
What were your first weeks and months with her like?
What was happening in your childhood when you were your child’s age? What do you remember?

It’s amazing to me how often I find, when I ask, that a parent who is struggling with a particular child had something very difficult happen during pregnancy, during birth, or shortly thereafter with that child. No one was there to listen. The knot of tension that started early and transferred from parent to child has gotten bigger and more unmanageable over time. It translates into trouble eating, trouble sleeping, trouble with siblings, and a parent’s trouble feeling that the child is OK. We also find that the parent may hit a hard patch with their child at a certain age, when the relationship suddenly seemed to go sour. When you ask, you will often find that that age was the beginning of real difficulties in the parent’s own childhood. Feelings and memories from deep in the past intrude now in the guise of anger, disappointment, worry, a feeling of distance, or other troubles. When the parent can talk, cry or storm with someone about the things that happened in his or her childhood, the relationship begins to mend.

Listening Partnerships for Parents

Parents can pair up to listen to one another. It’s a process that allows us to set up the time we need and the kindness we need to consider our own experience in this important work of nurturing our children. It also lets us see that we are not alone in our struggles. Here are the simple guidelines for listening:

Listen with warmth and respect. This parent is trying as hard as she/he can!
Just listen. Let the parent think, talk, feel. You don’t have to fix anything.
Keep what the parent says to you confidential. Don’t repeat it to anyone, and don’t bring it up again with that parent. Know it, but keep it to yourself.
Don’t give advice. This parent will figure things out. This is time for thinking and sorting and feeling, and the parent is smart. Your attention and warmth has helped.

Tell the other parent when the allotted time is up, and they switch from listener to talker. Remind them at the end that they are not to carry what they heard anywhere else.

There’s more about Listening Partnerships in Listening Partnerships for Parents, available through Hand in Hand Parenting, www.handinhandparenting.org/literature.htm

Key Information Parents Can’t Hear Often Enough

There are a few important perspectives that a listener can offer a parent who is in the middle of a hard time. These are not pieces of advice. They are truths that get clouded when life is full of upset and difficulty. Now and then, reminding a parent of one of these truths can help move them from talking to a good, cleansing cry with you, or a hearty laugh.

I see how much you love your child. I see how hard you are working.
There’s nothing wrong with you. Parents deserve far better support than you are getting, and it’s wrong that there’s not more help for you and for other parents, too.
Troubles are not a sign that you’ve done anything wrong. They are the sign that it’s time to reach out for help.
Your child is good.
Your child is not a problem. His behavior is speaking to you. He is hoping you will understand.
Your child wants to be close to you. He wants to cooperate.
When your child is off track, he can’t help himself. It’s like having a broken leg. He just can’t think. Listening to his passionate cry or tantrum will help him recover.
You can help him. Move close, stop the off track behavior, listen, and connect.
Don’t give in, don’t give up, just give you. This is Staylistening.

Here’s how it can work.

Here’s a story I heard today that is inspiring! Two mothers we’ll call Emma and Carol were good friends when they lived in the same city. They have been on opposite coasts for several years now, but both are familiar with Parenting by Connection. Emma teaches for Hand in Hand, and has two children. Carol has three. They’ve been good allies to one another.

Carol finds her middle child, Cammy, deeply challenging. During Carol’s last two months of pregnancy and first few months of Cammy’s life, their family was suddenly without a place to live—a shocking turn of events for a mother about to give birth. She was also worried about having a daughter, knowing that it would be an emotional challenge for her. Carol has been working very hard to be on her daughter’s side. But Cammy’s response to stress has been frequent emotional outbursts, which Carol doesn’t find easy to handle at all.

She and her husband left their two-year-old behind, and took Cammy and her older brother to DisneyWorld this summer. They looked forward to having a wonderful time. What could be better? Vacation in a children’s paradise, with no work! There was nothing but play and fun to be had.

Anyone who is familiar with Parenting by Connection, though, knows that children are prone to “Spoiled Outings” whenever parents become more available and attentive. Children will haul up their knots of stored unhappiness as soon as they see that times have eased for bit. Children (unconsciously, of course) expect that their parents will help them with their worst feelings. A child wants to steam, sweat, struggle and cry out those long-held upsets—they want an emotional spa! Why not? Better times have finally arrived!

Cammy’s instinct to heal was plumped up by this vacation opportunity. She had full-on, writhing tantrums here, there and everywhere at DisneyWorld. No disappointment was too small to bring her underlying upsets to the surface. Understandably, Carol felt angry that her family vacation was going sour, and that all the other families she saw seemed happy, and hers wasn’t. She texted Emma several times in the midst of Cammy’s outbursts.

Emma says, “I understood exactly what was going on. I felt like she was asking, “Just tell me what to do so I don’t hit my kid right now!” Emma sent back messages, not with advice or pity, but with, “What do you feel like saying to Cammy? What do you feel like doing?” When Carol responded mildly, Emma texted, “Come on! What do you REALLY wish you could say or do? Fill in this blank! ‘You _____ little ______! I just want to ____________you right now!’” She knew Carol needed to blow up, but not at Cammy.

Carol filled in the blanks with some choice words. She felt Emma’s support. Someone understood her. Someone knew how bad it was. Someone “got” that this was very, very hard for her. Emma gave her a way to show her own wild side, without attacking her child.

Ideally, there would have been time for a good hard cry, or a good tantrum—a righteous Mom’s tantrum, for a change! This didn’t happen, but Carol told me that Emma was a lifeline to sanity during that vacation. They texted several times during her DisneyWorld odyssey. She had an understanding friend, a nonjudgmental friend, a friend who knew that parents need to get big feelings off their chests, too, even if by text message at DisneyWorld!

This is how we can help one another. This is how a parent gets the courage to bounce back from trying times. This is how we parents, during an occasional good week or month, can turn our good momentary fortune into a breather for a parent on the down cycle of this emotional see-saw we know as parenting.

Thanks to Carol and Emma for sharing their story. Aren’t parents good? Aren’t we amazing? We do our best, day after day, unsung but determined. I am proud to be a parent among so many courageous nurturers. Ask for help when you need it. Give listening when you can. Together, we can move forward.

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