I used to think feelings were a waste of time. With all the pressures of adulthood (at the ripe old age of sixteen), who has times for feelings anyway? They can be messy, and there simply wasn’t any time for that. Besides, it didn’t seem that important in the grand scheme of things. You know, like living day-to-day and being sure to make sure all the important needs were met. Food, clothing, water, and sometimes even a bit of sleep.
Turns out, feelings are important. They are pretty much the foundation of a functioning or non-functional relationship. Either way you flip this coin, feelings are at the center of it. I didn’t learn this until having children of my own. There was simply no way to ignore it. As this toddler stares back at you screaming over a broken toy (that you know you can totally fix in minutes), and you are faced with something you haven’t dealt with or couldn’t deal with. FEELINGS. As irrational as they may seem, they are valid, and now you are left with the charge of trying to figure out how to acknowledge them. Lest you decide to be one of those parents who just blames all of the behavior on the kid and how they are inconvenient until they learn to “walk the line.”
I didn’t want that for my family. I wanted to dive deeper and really create a base that I knew they would always return to. Not through guilt, bribery, or cultural obligation, but because they wanted to…deeply. Because it called to them no matter where they were in the world, they knew that right here (home) they could be exactly who they were, loved for such, and even celebrated for it… no matter their quirks. Of course, that is, until they found and re-created that love with a family of their own. A hybrid based off of the love they learned with us at home.
Well, apparently I was wrong (go figure). Not only are feelings necessary, and take time, but they also require a ton of space. Yes, space to breathe, move in, then out, and finally to go away… leaving only the memory of how they were processed in its place. THIS is the important stuff. Not necessarily the irrational fears or behavior that come with childhood (although each of these is tied to a real emotion that needs to be acknowledged, for the little things are big things to little people), but how they are handled in that particular moment. These are the building blocks of a solid or shaky foundation, you choose. So, in order to honor these feelings and come out on the other side unscathed (without feeling like you’ve become a slave to irrational requests or behavior), you have to make space for them. Space can mean a simple response like, “hmmm” or “oh, I see,” or it can mean no response at all. Silence it turns out, is my most effective parenting tool.
When we fill the space with lots of complicated jargon or reasoning that kids are not yet able to conceptualize, we complicate the situation and wind up making them feel inadequate or incapable of handling such a big emotion. This does nothing in turn, for their security or autonomy. Simplifying an issue with how minute we think it is does nothing for their confidence and only makes them (or anyone, really) feel inept and incapable of completing a minor task. Silence and support as a child walks through a complicated emotion can mean more than solving their problem ever could. In simpler terms, making their “big problem” feel small doesn’t help the problem at all, it only makes it feel bigger and scarier.
On the other hand, escalating the issue doesn’t help one bit. Losing our cool when the kids have lost their cool also lends to making a situation seem worse than it is. Sensationalizing a problem can only do one of two things; it can have the same effect of minimizing a problem wherein a child begins to feel like they can’t handle something that you have now lost your $#!T over, OR, it shows them that not even you can handle this big emotion they have no idea what to do with. Meaning, “you’re on your own kid, this big scary emotional world just got colder…”
My mother, bless her heart, was part of another club. She was able to simultaneously talk me down from my issues showing me how I “should” be feeling so well that I began to think it was my own rationalization, whilst driving home the notion that I really shouldn’t be feeling all these feelings about something so minuscule (she’s got talent, that’s for sure). This did nothing for my confidence, in fact, it only made figuring out problems on my own as an adult more complicated, because I had no idea what I was doing, or how I had gotten that conclusion. Her in-depth and often psychological explanations as to why I was doing something often left me feeling as though I had no “voice” of my own. It may have kept me from avoiding poor decisions in my teen years, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out who I was outside of that until I became a mother to my own children. I often credit my oldest son with creating the need for me to figure out what kind of parent I wanted to be. His constant demands and willful nature forced me to silence my own crowded thinking, pay attention, and find alternative solutions. Ones that I had come to discover on my own. Without realizing it, he was creating space for me to find my own voice as a parent and a woman, and I am eternally grateful. The least I can do is return the favor.
Finding the space to sit in silence and NOT fix a child’s problem is an art, one that I am determined to master (someday). It allows someone to really feel whole in your presence, by showing us the most vulnerable parts of them while we just allow space for it to unfold. No need to rush to a speedy resolution, just space to bloom as they are; enjoying the journey. This is one of my favorite quotes about love:
“We think our job as humans is to avoid pain, our job as parents is to protect our children from pain, and our job as friends is to fix each other’s pain. Maybe that’s why we all feel like failures so often–because we all have the wrong description of love. People who are hurting don’t need Avoiders, Protectors, or Fixers. What we need are patient, loving witnesses. People to sit quietly and hold space for us.” -Glennon Melton
I’ve learned that this type of love is essential to a blossoming relationship of any sort. Parent/child, spousal relationships, friends, and siblings. This unconditional love that doesn’t require someone to simply rush through their feelings so that the other party can feel more comfortable is only a testament to how many folks haven’t met their own “scary feelings.” If you feel uneasy by the sight of someone else emoting their feelings, chances are you weren’t given the space to process your own feelings as a child and find yourself feeling uncomfortable because you haven’t discovered a way through your own emotions.
A great mentor of mine, Susan Caruso, founder of Sunflower Creative Arts, has a wonderful approach to this. “When in doubt, say hmmm.” It totally works! Whenever I drop one of these in a situation, the truth about whatever over-reaction is being thrown my way is usually brought to light by the child itself. They start pouring out information about why they are feeling anxious, and my only job at that point is to listen and love them through it. This can mean I just need to nod and acknowledge their feelings as they unfold, or I can help them channel that energy into more effective forms of expression like drawing, writing, or even punching a pillow.
My job isn’t to fix every issue hoping they learn to do it themselves. My job as a parent is to help them find their own way (with as little interruption as possible) so they are ready for the world and a lifetime full of feelings they are well-equipped to handle. While I am certainly no master at this just yet, I am glad I know that the pause before responding is simply me making space for all emotions in the room.
Here’s to making space!