Being a parent, unlike any other experience, can fill us with heart-bursting love and full-bodied joy one moment, while moments later exposing our deepest vulnerabilities and most uncomfortable feelings. Quite a huge impact from such a small human being, right?
When I meet with clients, one of the first ideas I offer is that most of parenting has nothing to do with our children. Conscious parenting must begin with us and our awareness of our shifting internal state. We need to identify our emotional triggers and become aware of when our 3-year-old selves have inhabited our now-adult bodies. Sound like a science fiction idea? Let me explain with a personal example.
The morning before my daughter started preschool, I was a complete wreck. I felt shaky, had a short fuse with everyone around me and was truly expecting (and dreading) the most dramatic Oscar-worthy goodbye you have ever seen. This was not your run of the mill “my baby’s starting school” butterflies, and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible was about to happen. (Enter, stage left, my 3-year-old self.)
As it turns out, when it was time for me to leave the classroom, my daughter gave me a hug, cried for less than 10 seconds and then was happy for the rest of the day, proving my fears to be completely unfounded. So why was I such a basket case? It wasn’t until I was talking with my husband later that morning that it hit me. When I was in preschool, I used to cry inconsolably every day as my mother left the classroom, and this scenario was triggering those feelings from deep within me. This was not about my daughter at all, but rather, about me. There lies the emotional trigger.
To find out how your own 3-year-old self comes into play in your parenting, imagine the last time you lost your cool with your kids (and afterwards felt awful about it). Ask yourself: What do I say to myself when I am really struggling with guilt or shame? Is it kind and loving? Many of us will observe that when we stop and listen to the inner soundtrack, we are incredibly judgmental and horribly mean to ourselves! “I’m so dramatic. Why am I freaking out? I hate being so hypersensitive!” or “I’m such a moron. I always mess everything up. If I could only be more like her, I would be so much happier.” Sound familiar?
Next, ask yourself: Whose voice is that? Seriously think about it. Was it one of your primary caregivers? Research tells us that our parents’ voices become our self-talk (i.e. subconscious thoughts). And, in turn, our voice will become our child’s self-talk. That’s a lot of pressure!
Parenting is an awesome responsibility, and we must own that. Yet, we must also own that we are given the most amazing opportunity to influence our child’s emotional state by being truly conscious about our communication choices. How will we respond to our children when they are feeling disappointed, frustrated, scared or ashamed? What kind of inner dialogue do we want them to internalize? We, as parents, have the job of people making, and we decide how we want to shape them.
You might be thinking that it’s one thing to decide to parent differently, and quite another to do so. It is definitely much easier said than done. So here are two steps to help you regulate yourself when you are feeling completely off-kilter. First, often just becoming aware that you are operating from the past will be enough to bring you back into the present. Everything flows from awareness. When I left my daughter’s school that morning, I was able to recognize the magnitude of my feelings, and that my own memories of sobbing at school were flooding my current adult body with fear. Once I became aware of this, I immediately felt a sense of relief, just by naming what was happening within me.
Second, (this is the most important part, so really pay attention now), allow yourself to experience your feelings without trying to make them go away or fix them. Learn how to sit in the uncomfortable feelings with your 3-year-old self for as long as he needs, and offer yourself compassion and empathy for your emotional experience. After I became aware that I was triggered by the ghosts of my own separation anxiety, I took a few moments to sense into the younger part of myself, and to imagine holding her and helping her feel safe. In my mind’s eye, I said “You really miss mama. It’s so hard! You are safe, you can cry as long as you need, and I will be here” until the fear started to subside. When the judgmental chorus of voices tried to chime in (“This is so stupid, you are a grown woman!”), I imagined taking away their power by muting their microphones, shrinking them, and making them black and white, and then went back to my practice of self-empathy.
This is not easy, but it is the absolute best practice for when, for example, your 5-year old child completely loses it because he wants ice cream for breakfast. We are anxious to immediately cut off the emotions so we can problem solve, when, in fact, most of the important learning happens during the experience of empathy. Parenting is teaching, and we can only teach what we know. We must learn how to navigate our own emotions with love and kindness by making this kind of emotional language part of the culture of our families. Re-parent yourself. Be kind to your inner child, and nurture her with the kind of good care and attention that you hope to offer your outer child. You can do it!
Dahlia Greenbaum is a Certified Echo Parenting & Education Parent Educator who works privately with parents, teaches Baby-and-Me classes around Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, and leads workshops for teachers focusing on the social and emotional aspects of classroom management. She is the proud mama of a 3-year-old girl. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.