What do I do if I want to comfort my child and they won't let me close? What do I do if I'm staylistening and he or she says go away?
Here, Hand in Hand certified instructor Marilupe de la Calle answers.
“This is a question that we get a lot! You’re there ready to staylisten, ready to be compassionate listeners, ready to hold space for your child’s emotions, ready to provide safety and calmness in a very agitated moment and your child says, “Go away.”
Do they really mean it?
Many, many times they don’t. With that go away, if they could explain it in words – which they can't because the thinking portion of their brain is temporarily shut down – they would say something like this:
“Hey mom, hey dad, your presence, your warmth, your nonverbal language is making all these feelings I don't like bubble up to the surface. I'm feeling them, and I have no other option but to feel them, and it feels like you're bringing them to the surface. So, can you please leave so and then I can put these feelings back into hiding, where I don't have to feel them and where I'm going to be in control of them.”
This act of turning feelings off, we know, is not very effective long-term. It stuffs those feelings down and leaves them to fester, but when they say “Go away,” what they're saying is that they don't want to feel those feelings.
Why Does My Child Recover Faster When I Leave?
You'll see that if you do go away the storm might calm down. It’s understandable that you might think, “Oh, maybe that's what they needed.”
But then you'll see that your child is still carrying yucky feelings around, and they’re still going off track. The feelings will, most likely, bubble up five minutes later about another issue. They’ll just find another pretext about another little thing and you’ll see them return to being offtrack.
So, how can you respond without overpowering them? You may notice lots of questions come up in your mind in that moment. You may hear lots of worry too. Things like:
- I don't want to overpower my child’s or disrespect his feelings.
- What if this feeling is genuine?
- Am I listening to my child’s boundaries?
- Am I ignoring what my child is saying?
- Does my child actually need privacy right now?
Think Less About What You Don’t Know, and More What You Do Know
At this moment, right in the middle of the storm, you do know that your child’s reasoning centre is offline and so they are not thinking very well. There's a distinction there between the moments that they are really calm and on-track and when they are thinking well and they request privacy. There’s really no reason why you wouldn’t honour that request.
During an upset, it's more like your child doesn't want to feel whatever it is bubbling inside, Since your presence appears to makes them feel that, they’ll ask you to go away.
My girls have told me once the storm clouds of emotions have passed that they really didn't mean what they said.
One actually told me, “I needed you there in the moment so don't listen to what I'm saying.”
When “Go Away” Feels like an Attack
Try not to take these words personally. We've seen over and over that when a child really, really needs you there, they might say go away.
So what do you do?
Do you stay? Do you go?
Prefer to watch? Watch Marilupe answer in this video
These are excellent questions. If you don't know exactly how to proceed, if you don't know if you should move forward or take a step back, that's exactly where you need to be because you’re going to be present and attune to that particular moment.
And there is no one “right way,” no “correct” answer. You are being mindful in the moment, watchful of your child’s emotions.
You can think of this as a dance where sometimes you're gonna step forward and sometimes you're gonna step back. The idea is for your child to know that you are available and that you're there, that you care and that you don't want to leave them alone.
Leave the Agenda Behind
How does this dance work? It’s true that You don't want to overpower your child. You don’t want to be there with any agenda. Be there just to offer your presence. You can propose coming closer and see what the response is and really pay attention to that response. You want the flame of the feelings to be alive. So sometimes, I might get too close and that is overwhelming for the child. Or I might go too far, and the child’s feelings will go back into hiding.
What you want is to be really present to the moment and notice what might be needed in that moment.
You can try proposing, “Hey sweetie, I'm not going to leave you, I’m just going to sit here.”
You can take a little step back and say, “I'm going to sit here in case you need me.”
Sometimes, the dance is going to mean listening from across the room, sometimes it’s going to mean listening from behind a door. Sometimes it might mean, “Okay, I'll leave you alone and I'll come back in a minute and see how you're doing.”
Other times it's going be like, “No sweetie, I'm not going to go. I think it's important to stay. I really want to stay.”
Very very gently move in, say, “I really want to be here.”
Sometimes that will make the feelings rise up – you may hear “go away” again. You can sense if it’s going well. You're not harming your child, you’re not ignoring their requests, you're just saying, “I know this is hard I just don't want to leave you when things are so hard.”
(Do avoid saying, “I'll stay while you're crying,” because then they might feel like they should stop crying so that you can leave.)
If what you’re doing is beneficial to the child, you’ll know because your child will be really deep into the process of offloading feelings.
It’s OK To Make Mistakes
Often Staylistening feels like an experiment and just like any experiment, there will be mistakes. It’s okay if you make a mistake. I've made mistakes in both directions. I have stayed when I needed to have left and I've left when I have needed to stay. Sometimes, you'll leave and then you’ll see that your child is still carrying yucky feelings, and sometimes you'll stay and you'll see that they really use your attention well. Then you’ll know that it's a good thing that you stayed because your child has shown their feelings with your presence.
It’s a dance, and a gentle dance which you take very slowly. Try to experiment both ways. Ask what would happen if you stayed a little closer and what would happen if you took a step back. Notice where their feelings are. You want the feelings to be flowing but you don't want to force tears, or feel like there is an agenda, or “a result” to produce tears.
The key is to keep watching. Keep responding. Know that your child will let you know what is really needed by his or her response.
Check In With Your Own Feelings Too
You need to be really present and really attuned to listen like this, and you also have to listen to yourself as well.
If you are not in a good place, please don't stay, don’t force yourself to stay, because that's not going to end up well for either of you. It’s very important, and very valid to be able to say that you really can't listen right now.
Your child will present you with other opportunities when you are able to listen well!
Listen to your feelings. Feel when you get triggered and think about why. If you have a listening partner, let off some steam about this subject with them. Often being able to offload ourselves – about anything that’s bothering us – gives us more space, more calm and more ability to listen to our children.
For more on Staylistening read How to Stay Through Staylistening
Staylistening is not all about crying! This podcast explains the different ways Staylistening can sound. Listen to Staylistening Surprises: When Things Don't Go As Planned.