What did you hope for when you first learned you were going to become a parent?
Did you think you would be a patient parent? Were you hoping to be close to your kids, perhaps give them as much as you were given as a young person? Or were you determined to raise your children differently from how we were raised?
You may have gone so far as to discuss your family values – ideas about respect, discipline, sharing, and cooperation. Either way, you most likely resolved to be a patient parent who was kind and loving and reasonable with them.
So why instead, and so often, do we find ourselves at our wit's end – impatient, angry, mean, reactive, or overwhelmed, even getting physical with our children?
In moments like that, we feel our children are impossible, and that nothing we try works.
Why is it so hard to be a patient parent in the face of our children's behaviour?
It’s not your fault
First up, and most importantly, it's not your fault that it gets hard. The world is not set up to support parents well. There’s no training to become a patient parent, there isn’t nearly enough practical assistance. The routines imposed on us and the expectations of us often don’t fit the pace that our children, or we, can easily handle. There’s a lot of advice and judgement, but not a lot of help. There’s no Parent Rescue Squad to turn up at our door at the press of a button when we are in a parenting pickle!
“Do it right”? You can’t!
There’s also some ridiculous, mythical notion out there that it is possible to “do it right.” Like, if you could just remember to take a deep breath and be mindful, or if you could just follow through with that sticker chart, then you wouldn’t have the problems you have. Personally, I can tell you that despite the best resolve, once I am triggered, I couldn’t care less about taking a deep breath. By that point, I’m convinced whatever happened is my daughter’s fault, and once I’ve taken it out on her, I regret it and take it out on myself. Sound familiar? Not exactly the patient parent.
We get confused
The really nasty bit, the bit that confuses us most, is that it ends up looking like our personal, individual responsibility as a parent to “do it right.” It feels like it’s our job to be that loving, patient parent and make our children behave well in public, not fight with each other. It feels like it’s our job to make them do as they’re told, to get them to school on time even though they need more sleep, and to help them when they are stuck with homework assignments that we struggle to understand ourselves. We often feel like it is our personal fault, or our children's, if we can't make it work.
This is one of the raw deals of parenting.
The expectations about what we should do are often based on wrong assumptions, so of course, our best efforts don’t work, and then we bash ourselves up. And let’s not forget that we are, first and foremost, learning on the job, so naturally, there's stuff we have yet to figure out how to handle, mistakes we need to fix up, and moments when we’re out of our depth.
When your love and patience go out the window: Look To the Saber-Toothed Tiger
The love and patience we hope will infuse our parenting live in the part of our brain which deals with “executive functions” such as problem-solving, maintaining attention and inhibiting emotional impulses. The trouble is, this part of our brain does not work so well when we get stressed.
According to John Medina, author of the book Brain Rules, “Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists. It damages memory and executive function. It can hurt your motor skills.”
It’s fairly simple – we get stressed, we stop thinking, and often, we stop functioning well. The patient parent goes out the window.
According to Medina, history has shaped our response to stress, where danger happened hard and fast. “The saber-toothed tiger ate you or you ran away but it was all over in less than a minute,” he says. “Our brain is built to deal with stress that lasts about 30 seconds. The brain is not designed for long-term stress when you feel like you have no control.”
When stress is prolonged, Median says, the brain can actually shrink.
In coping with a bad boss, or a bad marriage, you effectively live with the saber-toothed tiger at your door for years. The constant stress of parenting – the way it reminds us of our own past, the lack of support and practical assistance, the isolation, the all-day, every day constancy of it, also constitutes a huge stress.
That’s the saber-toothed tiger taking up an almost permanent residence in your life.
It’s an emergency!
We parents care so much. We love our kids so deeply. And when things go wrong, especially when the saber-toothed tiger has been at our door for a while, we feel it deeply. Everything begins to feel like an emergency:
There’s nothing like the way our nerve ends sizzle when our kids press our buttons. Maybe they are being argumentative or difficult, and maybe we are tired and could use more help, but it turns out that there is more going on than that…
We may not remember, but our brain records it all…
One of the problems rests with the way our memory functions. Our brains make sense of what is in front of us by comparing it with what we already know. It’s a “compare and contrast” process. If our brain is working well and we aren’t stressed when we meet a new challenge, we craft a fresh, appropriate response to the exact situation in front of us, based on what we have learned from the past. Mostly, we aren’t aware of this process, but it is going on all the time.
When we are under stress, however, the information we have stored away as a useful reference can’t be accessed. When we go to pull up the information we need from the past, we pull up powerful, unresolved emotions instead, including feelings of being stressed and overwhelmed.
Our kids start fighting, for example, and we feel a flash of anger. Sometimes consciously, but often below awareness, memories of endless spats with our brothers and sisters, or our parents getting angry, flood us with feelings. Or our children won’t eat peas, and we become tense, gripped by feelings rooted in tense childhood mealtimes long ago.
In my own experience, big feelings gripped me while I was giving birth to my daughter. I was as well prepared as I could have been. The labour was long, but going well. But at a critical point, suddenly out of the blue, I was convinced I could not do what needed to be done. I felt I had nothing left to push with. The feeling passed, with support from my birthing team, but I was deeply surprised to find myself in that place. I think the culprit was a memory from my own birth (I was born by emergency Caesarean section), hauled up by the experience of giving birth to my daughter.
Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician with a background in family practice and a special interest in childhood development and trauma, calls this our automatic mind, and says that when this part of our brain is in charge it “constantly interprets the present in light of past conditioning…it has great difficulty telling past from present, especially when it is emotionally aroused. A trigger in the present will set off emotions that were programmed perhaps decades ago at a much more vulnerable time in a person's life. What seems like a reaction to some present circumstance is, in fact, a reliving of past emotional experience.”
These are “implicit memories” – memories that are encoded “in circuits of the brain, which are responsible for generating emotions, behavioural responses, perceptions and …bodily sensations,” says child psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel. We are often unaware that the internal experience we are having is generated from something in the past.
Maté continues: “Whenever a person “overreacts” – that is, reacts in a way that seems inappropriately exaggerated to the situation at hand – we can be sure that implicit memory is at work.”
Simple things can trigger us, because they are connected in a chain that leads back to some time when we were stressed, often long ago. And because our minds are built to compare and contrast, we often pull up big old feelings, instead of the information we need. Emotion then overwhelms us (just like it did when we were little). And then we don’t think well.
Things can change. We can change.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to stay this way.
Science has shown us that Staylistening to our children can help them work through strong feelings. Tears relieve grief, laughter relieves light fears and embarrassments, raging, sweating and shaking relieve deeper fears.
And the same is true of us adults.
There’s a reason that you shake when you are in front of a crowd, giving a speech – you are shaking off the feelings of fear. There’s a reason we cry when we watch a sad movie (well, I do, anyway, to the great embarrassment of my daughter!). The sad movie reminds us of our own sadnesses.
Patty Wipfler, in her booklet, Listening Partnerships for Parents, says, “Like children, when adults laugh, cry, tremble and perspire, have a tantrum, or yawn while they talk about their troubles, emotional tension lifts. Their ability to think and act more flexibly is restored. They become more reasonable, more fun-loving, more sure that they are good people, inside and out.”
Retrieving our Memories Can Resolve Our Tension
Kim Felmingham, Chair of Clinical Psychology at the University of Melbourne, says that each time we retrieve memory, we are reconstructing it – memory is not permanently imprinted on our brain. When we get a cue, we retrieve the memory, but it is flexible, plastic, “and can be changed depending on what is in the environment in that time.”
So retrieving the memory in a context where we feel respected and cared for, with a listener we can tell is on our side, can be an important part of resolving the tension and healing the hurt.
This kind of alliance between parents is what we at Hand in Hand call Listening Partnerships. They are an exchange of Listening Time with another adult, with a commitment to maintain strict confidentiality.
We make the assumption that our Listening Partner is good and able to work through their difficulties. We listen, without offering commentary, advice, analysis. We bring our worries, difficulties, and successes to our Listening Time. Over time, safety builds. And we find our minds will return to points of particular tension – places of difficulty or pain in our relationship with our children, and we can track these back to earlier times when we were little ourselves.
With time we begin to unravel the emotional tensions tied up in our present and past experiences.
Keeping Patient and Loving Comes From Deep Work
The thing I cherish most about parents is that the love we have for our kids makes us brave. We would do almost anything to have things go well for our kids. We would move mountains, change the world. In practicing Hand in Hand Parenting, in learning to listen to one another, without advice giving or blame, judgment or commentary, we find a place to retell the stories, to retrieve the memories, and drain them of their emotional charge.
We find a way to do the hard, deep work of going back to find the places where things didn't go well for us, the sad and terrifying places in our own childhoods, and resolve the trauma there. We do this because we don’t want to overreact to our children. We do it to continue to keep loving and patient with our children.
Here’s how it can work:
“When my son is off-track, his default position is to hover around being mean and angry at everyone in the house. For the longest time, I’ve struggled with how to respond to him. When he’s sad or whiny or chaotic, I can usually help him feel connected. But when he’s being mean – calling us names, threatening us, yelling at us – I tend to freeze or get very angry myself. In general, what I start to feel is that I’m being victimised, violated, even abused, and that I shouldn’t have to tolerate that kind of disrespect, just because he’s not feeling well. I get even more protective when his feelings are targeted at his younger sister.
“Recently, we’ve been seeing a lot of this behaviour. We’ve been working on helping him learn to fall asleep on his own. While he has been able to get to sleep after we have listened through some big upsets at bedtime, he’s been waking up still feeling riled up.
“It’s been hard waking up in the mornings with a child who is angry and ready to let us have it. Often, he starts lashing out at us as soon as we come down to the kitchen for breakfast. One day, I was woken up with him pulling the covers off me, yelling that he couldn’t find his clothes. After a few days of that, and without and Listening Time of my own, I’d had it. His lashing out started to feel downright abusive to me, and the voice in my head was crying, “Why me? I don’t deserve this!” Unfortunately, I overreacted one morning to one of his angry outbursts and sent him to his room. I’d had it and told him that although I’m happy to listen to him when he’s angry, I’m not willing to let him be mean to me. I felt better and then worse, knowing that I’d promised myself I’d never punish either of my children.
“Luckily, I got some Listening Time the next day. During that time, my patient and wonderful Listening Partner invited me to tell her what happened. I immediately told her how angry I was that my son turns anger into meanness so quickly. I griped and screamed about how tired I was of feeling violated and abused in my own house by a child who lashes out at me whenever he feels off-track. I talked about how confused I am about when and how to set limits, particularly when you feel a child is being mean to you but my just be off-loading their hurts and fears. I worked through my feelings about wanting to let him off-load, but feeling conflicted about whether I was teaching him that it was okay to be mean and say hurtful things to your listener.
“I talked for a long while, trying to make sense of the fine line between anger and meanness, until I finally broke into tears and cried for a good twenty minutes. When I think back to what I was feeling when I cried, I think it had to do with feeling victimised by another person’s anger. I could remember feeling that way as a child, especially by my older brother who was often angry at me and vocal about it. I suppose there was a lot of hurt stored in my implicit memory around that.
“Later that day, when I picked my son up from school there was an ease in our connection, and I didn’t feel the slightest tinge of resentment towards him, which I’d been feeling for a few days. Still, I decided to try working on the same issue with my other Listening Partnership that evening. Interestingly, I couldn’t get back to the feeling I’d had the day before. I couldn't even see his behaviour the same way. It’s funny how listening and a good emotional release from the day before had completely changed my perspective. As I tried to revisit the episode that led me to punishing my son, I couldn’t even get angry about his outburst at me and his sister. Instead, I found that I wanted to work on how hard it is to live up to the impossible standard I’ve set for myself as a mother.
“It helped me immensely to spend some time feeling angry about how hard it is to parent the way I have decided I want to, especially when I’m feeling angry at a child for treating me badly. I laughed about how unnatural it feels to Playlisten with someone who’s yelling at you, and I griped about how I longed for an easier way through.
“All of this off-loading led me to focus on how powerless perfectionism can make me feel and how much easier it would be to parent if I weren’t always striving to do everything just right. I had a good laugh at the end when I declared that I was only going to strive to be a solid B parent – no more of this A parenting business!
“Essentially, I worked on my feelings towards my son the first day and my feelings towards myself and parenting the second day. By the third morning, I wasn’t able to see my son through the same lens as the ones I’d seen him through two days prior. I even texted my husband after dropping our son off at school the third morning to tell him how sweet and gentle our son seemed to me.
“All this is to say that getting listening and some emotional release can really help change how we feel about our own children’s behaviours. From where I sit today, I can imagine being able to sit through one of my son’s angry episodes without taking his anger personally.
“I can see that it felt mean when my brother yelled at me as a little girl and that that old hurt is what can make me feel unsafe when my son offloads anger to me.”
For more inspiration read To The Mama Whose Birth Did Not Go to Plan: You Are Not Failure or listen to the podcast What Can You Do When Parenting Feels Lonely?
By Madeleine Winter, Hand in Hand Instructor, with Instructor in Training, Julia Watkins
Madeleine is a Certified Hand in Hand Instructor living in Sydney, Australia, and working with parents worldwide. You can learn more about her here.
Julia Watkins is a Hand in Hand Instructor in-Training, who lives in Chicago, USA.