His body was wracked with tears as I opened the school’s front door. Immediately I assumed he was in pain, as he had called me from the nurse’s office to tell me he had an earache and wanted to go to the doctor. I felt guilty I hadn’t taken him earlier, but this was the easiest time for an appointment. As I opened the door he fell against my body, hugging me and sobbing, “I don’t want to go to the doctor’s office. You made me miss extra recess.”
Extra recess. He had talked about this for days. As a reward for being exemplary students the teachers gave the second grade an extra hour of recess. His 8 year old self had been so proud, so excited. I had ruined it. He was crying hard. He hadn’t let himself cry in public for months, so I knew he was really upset.
When we get angry profound changes happen in our body and brain. Emotions start in the amygdala. That’s our “lizard brain,” the part that operates without thought. Our brains are so efficient that the amygdala reacts to a perceived threat before the cortex (the part of the brain responsible for judgment and planning) can respond. In essence our brains are wired so that we can respond first and asses second. Which, may be great if you are being chased by a predator; but is not so great if you are dealing with more mundane threats, like missing extra recess.
I tried to reason with him, which infuriated him more. He started yelling at me while his arms were wrapped around my body. I was flooded with emotions. Primarily I was feeling anger at being yelled at, and embarrassment; after all the school administrators were watching this unfold. I wanted to yell back at him. I wanted to pull away. Instead I took a deep breath and hugged him. He sobbed and yelled and hugged me back squeezing a bit too hard. I wanted to pull him off of me. I wanted to disappear. But I knew that wouldn’t actually help the situation, and honestly, I didn’t want the school staff to see me unhinged. So instead I took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry. I know how much you were looking forward to this, and you must be so disappointed.” He continued yelling at me, “You did this! You ruin everything! You’re the worst mommy in the world!”
As we become angry, our brains release neurotransmitters which do a host of things including lock our attention on the thing which is a threat. We are ready to fight, potentially for a sustained period of time. In an adult, this is when (we hope) the prefrontal cortex (planning and judgement) comes online. But the prefrontal cortex doesn’t really fully develop until sometime in the early 20s. So in my 8 year old son we were contending with someone who had very big feelings and very limited coping skills. In this moment our best hope was that my prefrontal cortex was going to step it up.
I took another deep breath and said, “I’m sorry that this happened this way. I wish it was different. I understand you are angry at me. But you have a doctor’s appointment, so let’s see if we can make the best of this.” Now, although he was still yelling and crying, he followed me into the car. As we drove I kept my attention on taking deep breaths and attempted to met his anger with softness. Eventually the sobs were quieter. After a few minutes he said, through his tears, “I’m sorry that I’m yelling at you.” I took another deep breath, quelled my wish to lecture him, thought for a minute and said to him, “I don't like being yelled at, but I really do understand that you are super upset and I wish that this had happened differently. I know that you were really looking forward to extra recess.” His breath was coming in big hiccups now as he was calming down. After a few minutes longer he said, “Can we get ice cream afterwards?” I exhaled, felt my body relax a bit, and agreed that sounded like a good compromise.
In essence, managing your anger means learning ways to strengthen your prefrontal cortex so it can regulate how you react to the feeling generated by the amygdala. The most basic of ways is using relaxation techniques, such as taking mindful breaths; or using cognitive awareness, like my knowledge that things don’t go well if I react with anger, to bring judgement into play.
I am proud of my son, for being able to put words to his hugely intense emotions. That’s a big task for any of us human beings, and kids biology makes managing emotions even harder. And I’m proud of myself for taking those breaths so I could meet his anger with softness. Much of my pride comes from the knowledge that there have been loads of times I’ve met his anger with anger of my own. Without fail, that unravels into a bigger mess. I'm sure that I'll fail again. This time I managed to squeak out a win for us both. So I gave myself a mental high-five for a job well done.
As a couple's therapist I get questions often about "what should we *do*?" This article from the New York Times gives some great ideas. For some reason I can't quite embed the link properly, so until I figure that out please just copy and paste to get to the original article.
This is the fourth in a series of posts about Attachment and Parenting
Discipline is an action that requires us to be involved in an on-going way. Contrary to how we behave ourselves, discipline isn’t one and done. This means if you don’t like the way something went down, you can always address it later.
There are many, many moments when I have all sorts of feeling that I am not proud of or don’t like. There are many times that I respond my kids and I wish that I had a do-over. For example, recently, after asking the kids for the bazillionth time to get ready for bed I realized that I was using a tone that I didn’t like. I wouldn’t like being spoken to that way, and I know that they don’t respond well to that tone. So I stopped and took a breath and said, Hey, ya know I’m sorry I’m speaking to you so sternly. I don’t know why I spoke to you that way just now. I shouldn’t have. My son said, “Its okay. You usually talk to us like that when you are tired and just want us to go to bed.”
Wow. He got it. He understood what I’ve been trying to show him. He was climbing the scaffold that I've been building. He got that feelings are complicated. He got that love and frustration and closeness and exhaustion and amusement and boredom can all exist together in one person in one minute. He got that it’s okay for me to make a mistake and it’s important to take responsibility for your actions.
As an aside , don't mistake that interaction to mean that the kids magically became better behaved and started listening to me. Nope we still struggled that night but it somehow felt different.
This parenting thing is not easy, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m constantly shifting and learning and trying to keep up with the changes. But those moments keep me engaged, the ones that sneak up and show me that my kids are becoming their own people right before my eyes and they are helping me grow up too.
This is the third post in a series about Attachment and Parenting.
My fastidious and strict German grandmother used to say: a child needs to eat a certain amount of dirt to grow up right. I always loved this. As a child it allowed me to get messy and have an excuse. As a mother, it helps me to know that a child does not need a perfect parent. A child needs a parent who is present and available.
Children need to learn about disappointment and how to overcome greed and selfishness. They need parents to teach them about limits and appropriate behaviors. They need to learn about everything from rules of conversation, table manners, what feelings are and how to mange them.
Whenever I get to this point, people ask about discipline. Each parent had their own question about the topic which I can summarize here as: How do I discipline my child the right way? I wish that there was a straightforward answer to this, but I don’t think there is. Instead I try to keep a couple of ideas in mind to help me.
First is to understand the difference between guilt and shame; guilt about something that you have done and shame is about who you are as a person. A guilty person feels badly about taking a cookie from the cookie jar. A shameful person feels they are bad for taking the same cookie.
Little kids have a hard time understanding that their feelings are transient, confusing and not the totality of themselves. They feel things intensely and assume that everyone must feel the same way that they do. If you are angry at them, they cannot fathom that you still love them. Likewise, if they are angry at you, they assume that you must also feel angry towards them.
The way that I tried to explain this idea to my kids was to tell them over and over again: I love you even when I am angry at you, and even when YOU are angry at ME, I still love you. I would tell them in the midst of the angry feeling, and at other times when we were feeling closer. I wasn’t sure if it was registering until once when I was very angry my son patted my shoulder and said: Mommy, just remember I still love you even when you are angry at me.
Turns out that was a great reminder to us both.By saying that, he reminded me that he pays attention to what I say as well as what i do. He reminded me that our connection was the primary thing, and the anger was the fleeting feeling. He reminded me that I have a choice about how I manage my feelings, which is what I'm always busy telling him he can do too.
This is a continuation of last week's post about Attachment and Parenting.
Donald Winnicott was a British Psychoanalyst who coined the phrase “the good enough mother.” For our purposes I’ll use parent in place of mother, but the idea remains the same. This ground breaking idea was that rather than being omnipotent and perfect, the Good Enough Parent keeps trying despite ongoing trials. As one person said, less goddess, more gardner.
I remember the days of having an infant. I had read that mothers are supposed to know the difference between their babies cries. Supposedly one cry meant hunger, and one meant tired, and one meant something else….this left me feeling hopeless and inferior. I could never differentiate between the cries. As hard as I tried I never was able to differentiate between a cry of hunger and a cry of exhaustion or frustration or loneliness. Nope, I felt like dismal failure at that. When I could get past that feeling of failure, I was able to notice other cues that I learned which helped me to understand what my babies needed, so that we were able to create a wordless communication.
Later I discovered that recent infant-parent studies found in the BEST CASE SCENARIO mothers were able to understand their infants needs only 30% of the time on the first go. Let me repeat that 30% of the time the BEST parents were getting it right. That. Blew. My. Mind. 30% is the best you can shoot for? Seriously? I can do that!
This is so important to remember because it means that the bond is not created by instinctively knowing what your child needs. Nope. Importantly, the bond is created in the space between the mistake and the repair. Mistakes and missteps are inevitable. And actually, the attachment bond is strengthened each time the parent realizes that they haven’t fixed what ails and tries again....and again...and again. The bond is created in the behavior that says: I’m here. I hear your pain. I’m not going away. I will try to help you.
As a parent we don't have to know what we are doing all the time. We just have to be able to communicate that we are willing to try to help them figure out a solution.
Recently I led a discussion group at a neighborhood preschool. I began by asking folks to share their greatest surprise about parenting. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority said they were shocked at the depth of feeling, most often—but not only—anger that arose while caring for the very kids that they loved so very much.
I emphatically agree. I love my kids and I get sooooo angry at my kids. That surprised me too. At first. But when I was able to take a step back and get some space from the feeling I remembered: Not only is anger okay, it is expected. All feelings are normal and important to recognize, and most important is what you do with that feeling.
I received a lot of great feedback from the participants that night, and a lot of questions since, so I’m going to put together a series of blog posts, hoping that they will be helpful to someone in the future.
Let’s start by talking about attachment. Attachment has become sort of a parenting buzzword, so I want to make sure that we all know what it is. Attachment is the bond between two people. The bond could be between siblings or partners but for the purposes of our discussion we will talk about the bond between parent and child. The goal as parents is to create a bond that feels secure and reliable so that the child feels safe to go off on their own in the world. After all most of us aren’t hoping for kids who will be dependent upon us for the entirety of their lives, right?
Attachment means there is a desire for regular contact with the other person, and there is some stress when the other person is not there. This is the concept of missing people when they are not with us. To clarify this point, stress is a necessary fact of life and parents have to help their child learn to tolerate larger/longer separations so they can go off on their own. That process happens as the child learns to keep an image of the parent in their head. Recognizing that the parent still exists when they are not physically with them is a major developmental milestone for kids, and each person has their own unique way of learning and tolerating separation. This is why the games peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek are favorites with the under 10 crowd, they are using play to figure this out on their own.
One parent in the pre-school group said: It’s incredibly stressful to have to constantly be one step ahead of my children. Always trying to anticipate their needs feels impossible and exhausting. How does the attachment process happen then? How does a parent know when and how to respond to a child’s needs? After all kids are continually changing.
It is exhausting because it is impossible. Secure attachment does not require the parent to respond immediately to every cry and desire of the infant or child. Nor does attachment require that the parent be physically present all the time. Nor does the parent need to be one step ahead, anticipating every need. Attachment creates a scaffold for the child so that they can learn to operate in increasingly complicated ways, on their own.
Here are my questions for you, my readers. How do you know that your child is attached to you?How do you know that you are attached to your child? How do you scaffold for your children what you want them to know? What questions do you have about attachment?
Many people have asked me, "What exactly is depression?" and "What can I do for myself or a friend or family member if I or they are depressed." This short cartoon answers many of the FAQ that I get. Take a few minutes to watch it and educate yourself.
I had food poisoning this week. Getting sick was an uncomfortable experience to be sure; not only the acute phase of ridding my body of the poison, but the after affects of feeling low energy and "off." The experience reminded me how thankful I am for my health. Then Kismet! My dear friend and colleague, Dr. Sarah Sarkis, published this article on Elephant Journal. The article talks about the connection between gut-health and mental health. If you've ever suffered from not feeling well physically or emotionally, this article may have something of interest to you.
I was finishing my workout when my trainer asked me how much I was running lately. For a split second I contemplated lying, but then sheepishly admitted…running has fallen off my radar…I keep meaning to, but I’ve got a million reasons that get in the way. I’ve known Cody long enough to know that he does not care about my excuses. Think ex-marine, and you’ll get the idea. He looked at me and said here’s your goal: Twenty minutes twice a week. Ten minutes out and ten minutes back. Done.
When he said that, a light bulb went off. Right! Of course I know this. This is what I tell my clients regularly. If you want to make a change, it has to be: Small, Specific and Manageable.
Take New Year’s Resolutions for example. January 1, we all resolve to be better versions of our selves. We will join (or start going to ) a gym! We will become healthier! Take care of our selves! Eat more vegetables! Do more in each day! And get more sleep! Right? Right? Then why do our best intentions fail so often? What makes change so hard to implement? Basically, because we have to learn how to be successful at making change.
If you set a lofty goal like: I’m going to get healthier. It’s too big. It’s too vague. What does healthier even mean in this context? How do you do that? Maybe you start by giving a go at changing one behavior one day and then try another the next. Perhaps by the fifth day you forget which action you were supposed to do that day and when you slip up, you are critical of yourself and simply scrap the whole plan or think: I’ll start again tomorrow.
This pattern can impact any project such as finding a job, or writing a paper. If you think I’ll spend my whole day working on my project and then you don’t, you feel like you’ve failed. Often the natural response is I’ll do twice as much tomorrow. But tomorrow comes and twice as long feels more overwhelming…and then after three days of that you just want to give up. Instead, if you are looking for a new job, to write your dissertation, build a home yoga or meditation practice, or even to eat healthier, it’s all the same idea. Set goals that are Small, Specific and Manageable.
When I’m talking to clients I suggest: try to do one task for ten minutes each day. You can always find ten minutes right? (If you answered no, then start with 5 minutes). Once you’ve done that you can go on to whatever other stuff is calling to you. Maybe you’ll just do the 5 minutes, maybe you’ll do some more. Either way, you’ve done something towards your goal, which makes you feel good about yourself and here's the catch, more likely to succeed the next day.
Another example: Instead of I’m going to work out more, try I’m going to go to the gym twice a week for 20 minutes. Then once that feels like it’s a comfortable routine you can think about upping it. Again, keep the increments small...and by small I mean smaller than whatever it was that you thought to do. If you want to incorporate a home yoga or meditation practice, give yourself the goal of doing 1 sun salutation a day for a week or sitting meditation for 3 minutes a day. Or if your goal is to eat more healthfully add a specific goal rather than denying yourself. I’m going to sit for five breaths before I start eating. OR I’m going to add one new vegetable this week. OR I’m going to put my fork down between bites.
We are all constantly evaluating what we do and how we measured up. We are conditioned to think that bigger is better, but every journey starts with one step. When it comes to accomplishing goals, small steps have powerful long term impact. The trick is, set yourself up for success so that you continue on that road. If you have a success, no matter how small, you are more likely to continue on that path.
The first few days of Kindergarten my son came home excited and happy. After a few weeks that started to change. About a month in my normally exuberant kid said, “I hate school! I don't want to go back!” My initial instinct was to respond, “But you have to go!” Instead I somehow managed to stifle that urge and instead asked him why he was feeling so unhappy. After some tears and some hugs he said, “ There are so many things to learn, so many things to remember. I feel so little and I hate making mistakes.”
I was struck in that moment by an onslaught of fears, feelings, worries, and a totally inappropriate urge to laugh. I thought silently; Oh God! You are going to make so many mistakes! Lighten up! Thankfully I managed not to say that and to keep a straight face. Instead I said to him, something along the lines of “Yeah. I get that. But we all make mistakes, that’s part of learning.”
He thought about that for a moment and responded, “But you guys never make mistakes.I wish I was a grown up. Then I would never make a mistake.” I did laugh at that one. “Uh. Yeah. I could see how you might think that, but I make mistakes everyday, and I’ve made mistakes everyday of my life. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s part of life.” His red eyes seemed doubtful, but his mind was on something else already and the conversation changed. Phew! I thought. Crisis averted.
Until a few days later. He came home from school crumpled and dejected. Again he said he hated school, learning was too hard, he made too many mistakes and he didn't want to go back. Suddenly, this was now a thing. An event to be dealt with. My mind started reeling. What happened? How did this happen? Did I do this to him? Is this because he’s the oldest? Is this because we are too hard on him? Do I push him too hard? Is this my fault? Did I do something wrong???
That’s when it hit me. I was doing the same thing. I was falling into the same trap as my son. The trap of thinking that I have control over anything. The trap of thinking I could be a perfect mother. The trap of believing that I can keep my children safe from pain. Oops! Crud! How many times do I have to learn this lesson?
Apparently I am going to have to learn this one again and again. So I did what has worked in the past. I tried to slow down and pay attention to my self. I realized how afraid I am of making mistakes. I recognized the familiar voice telling me: I might look stupid. I might look silly. I might look incompetent. People might not like me. Darn. Right back here again.
I decided to face my fear and make a list of my daily mistakes to bring to his attention. Every time I messed up, I told him. We’d talk about it and routinely, he forgave me much faster that I ever forgave myself. I realized how much more likely I was to voice the faults I found, than talk about what was right in the world. Together we changed our goodbyes. Instead of saying “Have a Good Day!” we said, “Try your best and make lots of mistakes!” Finally, one morning we decided to look up “famous mistakes.” What we found was awesome. We found out that the slinky…was a mistake. Post-it Notes…mistake. Silly Putty….mistake. But the best, happiest mistake of all….Chocolate Chip Cookies!
Now, upon further research I’m not sure if the Toll House story is true or not. But it was true for him. This story helped him to hold in his mind that he can make mistakes and that maybe even something brilliant and yummy will come out of it. We’ve continued to work on this. Him in his way, and me in mine. I try to remind myself that there is no such thing as perfection, that life is good, right here, just as we are, and that by sharing our successes as well as our failures, we can help each other grow.