I’ve been in the middle of a very large storm.
My oldest son, my 19-year-old, has been really sick. We’ve spent the past couple of weeks going to different doctors, trying different diets, and trying to figure out why his digestive system is completely inflamed.
This is the kind of stress that makes it hard to do anything else. It’s easy to be consumed with worry and even easier to slip into “fix-it” mode. It’s also easy to end up feeling disconnected when things get rough and tensions are high, so when my son went out of his way last night to tell me how much my support of him through this difficult time has meant to him, I knew it was important to share part of my story with you.
Before I begin, I want to let you know that I didn’t follow a magic formula and I didn’t handle everything perfectly. There were times over the past couple of weeks when I lost it. There were times when I fell completely apart in the face of the stress. That’s part of it. That’s the human part of it.
And I didn’t do it all myself.
I went out of my way to bring in extra support for myself – through my friends who have offered to listen or sent me distance Reiki, to the practitioners who I called in to support us both. Please don’t get the idea that I have it all together and that I just magically know what to do. I’ve learned how to support people by having others support me. I’ve created opportunities for myself to be listened to so that I have space to listen to my son. And you can, too.
It’s so easy as a parent to get caught up in trying to fix what’s happening with our kids. What do we need to DO? There’s definitely a time and a place for doing, don’t get me wrong. When your kid needs to go to the ER, it’s time to do. But in the other times where there isn’t something dangerous or needing our immediate attention, we still resort to fixing. What our kids need most and what we have the most trouble doing is supporting the feelings and listening. We’ve all had less practice with that and less experience of it happening for us, too.
We want our kids to listen to us. But how will they learn to truly listen to us if we don’t listen to them? How did we learn how to listen or talk over someone else to get our point heard?
We learn these things growing up.
One of the things we weren’t taught growing up is that how we deal with and manage feelings is about attachment, or how we connect to others. Listening and being with each other’s feelings is actually one of the most important elements in attachment. We know that attachment is correlated to a lot of other measures of health and wellness throughout the life span. Where there is space for the healthy expression of our feelings, attachment is secure and we can weather the storms of life. When feelings are dismissed or avoided, attachment can’t be secure and everything that happens next adds to the storms already going on. This means when we’re upset, we don’t have a safe place to go. There’s no shelter in the storms of life and we’re alone.
Take a moment and think about what it was like for you growing up. Did you have a safe place to go when you were feeling sad, scared, or angry? What was it like for you?
Our experiences growing up, both good and bad, and how feelings were supported (or not) is the foundation of how we’re going to deal with our children’s emotional expressions unless we
1.) have different experiences with our feelings
2.) decide to consciously do it differently, and
3.) have enough support to do it.
I’ve spent a couple of decades now learning and creating this in my own life and supporting others to get there, too. I offer Healing Story Circles as a part of my Learning Center membership to give parents the experience and the support to make changes in their families. We need information and we need guidance to help us on our way. We cannot do this parenting thing well in isolation. In a perfect world, we’d have these people and experiences as we gather around a fire every evening, but this is as close as we get (gathering around a virtual community through our computers wherever we are in the world).
Back to my experience with my son.
Did I do everything perfectly? No. Hardly. I’ve been sleep-deprived and worried, myself. I’ve taken my own feelings and experiences of what’s been happening to my support system. These are the people who can really hear and validate me and my experiences, so there’s room for me to hear what my son is experiencing. If my own story and fears are in the way, I can’t hear what’s happening for him and help guide him. I need to know when I need to step in and make a decision to help him when he can’t do it for himself, and when I need to help facilitate his next steps or support in another way. The best way that I can do that for him is if he is talking to me and sharing with me, and I’m listening to him.
What I’m sharing with you is an extreme example of a life storm with lots of feelings on all sides, but the same ideas apply in everyday life and make it easier to move through the challenges we all face. We all have our feelings, experiences, and stories about what’s happening for us and for our kids. When we don’t have the time, space or support to have our own story come to light, we can’t see theirs. We’re seeing our children through the lens of our own story.
Have you ever had someone listen to you and you can tell that they have their own story about what’s happening with you? Or they’re bringing up stories of things that happened a long time ago? Or they’re telling their own story and not seeming to hear yours at all? We all do this at one time or another. It’s hard to hear what that person is saying because they don’t seem to be getting us. The same is true of our kids.
When they feel like we’re really listening and hearing them and their story, they can hear what we have to say about it.
In my son’s case, it would have been easy to see what was happening through my own story of worry and panic, seeing him suffer and be so sick. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for me to become controlling. Since I couldn’t control the symptoms or how bad he was feeling, I might try to control him and what he was doing. I might try to control other people in my life. But it would have most likely come out in my relationships with my son and other people I love in a negative way. It would have been understandable, but not helpful.
It would have been easy for me to start telling him what he needs to do to get better. In my son’s case, he is 19 and an adult. However, even if he was much younger, he would still need space for his own feelings, needs and experience without me adding mine on top of it. He needs to know how much I care before he’s going to hear my suggestions.
As I listened to his experience, it became clear to me what was working for him and what wasn’t working. I created the space where it was safe for him to share with me. And when he was done sharing, I let him know that I could see him and that I was here with him.
Then (and only then) did I make suggestions starting something like this: “Would you be willing to try…” and I gave him the choice. When he made a choice to try something, he was all in. He took responsibility for it. I would simply ask what I could do to support him, or I would tell him what I was willing or able to do. “I’m willing to drive you and be with you for your appointment.” “I’m willing to make sure you have the foods you need for the diet you’d like to try and I’m willing to help you prepare foods.”
And then I expressed what I needed from him. It isn’t a one-way street. “I need you to look at recipes and figure out what ingredients you need me to buy. I don’t have the time to figure that part out for you right now.” It isn’t me taking everything on because, as a working mom whose income is primarily supporting my family, I don’t have the option of spending all of my time supporting him. So that means I need to be clear about my boundaries.
What does this mean now? He’s getting better. He feels empowered to be steering his own healing process. He feels supported by me and knows I’m there to help him if he needs it, even if it is just to listen to him.
Last night, he shared with me how grateful he is for all my support through everything that’s happened. Storms can really be challenging for us as parents. Learning how to navigate them so we come out of them more connected than we were before is a gift for everyone.
I’m opening registration now for my next 6-month course, Listening to Feelings (Yours and Theirs) starting Friday, August 10. Consider joining us if you want to learn how to stay connected in the storms – big and small. Click here for more information about the course.