Today I want to share a few recent stories from my home where I have been able to see the effects of many years of practicing Consciously Parenting. I have been doing this for 13 years. 13 years of investing in learning about how to parent differently, practicing the way I want to respond to my children’s emotions and behaviors, and developing the language that I want to use with them, and for them to use with me and others.
I was lucky enough to meet Rebecca before I was even pregnant, and I attended groups she led about parenting and breastfeeding before my first baby was born. I helped launch The Consciously Parenting Project and have been working with her in some capacity ever since, most recently coming out from behind the scenes and working as a Consciously Parenting Consultant.
Having all of this knowledge and many years of practice and support to parent this way is a huge blessing. However, it doesn’t mean that I do this perfectly all the time. It doesn’t mean that I never mess up, lose patience, yell, or have regrets.
Becoming proficient at parenting consciously isn’t something that happens overnight for most people. Maybe the ideas really clicked for you when you learned about them, and maybe you were even doing some of this instinctively already. But unless we grew up being parented this way, I don’t think any of us can say that we are able to do it 100% of the time without slipping back into the patterns we learned growing up, or the patterns we started before we learned there was another way.
You see, when stress is high, or we’ve just had so much asked of ourselves that we have no more space to contain one more emotional outburst, we revert back to the old ways. As Pam Leo says in her book, Connection Parenting, we play the old tapes we recorded when we were growing up. These may be times we hear our mothers’ words coming out of our mouths, even though we swore we’d never say those things once we became parents.
The Flow Chart of Consciously Parenting
I love this graphic of the Flow Chart of Consciously Parenting to illustrate this journey. We all started on the left side, not even knowing what we didn’t know. As soon as you learned there was a new way of doing this, you moved to step 2: Conscious Incompetence. You still can’t really do it, but now you know, and you’re aware that you aren’t doing it. When you are in survival mode, and just don’t have space to respond the way you want to, you may notice yourself replaying the old tapes, and it can be really frustrating because you know better, yet you just can’t quite do it. That’s conscious incompetence.
Step 3, Conscious Competence, is when you are able to do it, at least some of the time, but it takes conscious effort and thought. Celebrate those victories! If you make it through a tantrum with your child without shaming or getting exasperated, remembering to take your own deep breaths, turn off your own amygdala, not take personally whatever she is saying, etc. Celebrate that! You’re doing it! It’s often a lot of work, though. We have to think about it and remind ourselves, trying really hard not to play the old tapes and practicing the new language. But we are capable!
Finally, after enough practice and time, often working through our own stuff, we move in to Unconscious Competence. This is where it’s not so much work anymore. The language has become normal for us. The responses to emotion, the pause before acting, the deep breaths – this is how we do things now, for the most part. Still, in times of greater stress, we may have instances where we don’t do it perfectly, but for the most part it’s just the way things are and we don’t have to think so hard about it.
It didn’t take me 13 years to get to the point of Unconscious Competence, and honestly I’m not sure exactly when I could tell you I felt like I was there. It wasn’t a switch that flipped from step 3 to step 4, but more of noticing, “Hey, this is happening more naturally now and I’m not having to work so hard at it anymore.”
There still may be times where we will be pulled back to the beginning (unconscious incompetence) and those instances are clues about our own feelings and experiences – things we need to work through. For example, when my daughter was born, my son was three-and-a-half and had a very difficult time with the transition of not being the baby anymore. It was a huge struggle for me to handle his big feelings, and Rebecca helped me to realize that my reactions to him were not usual for me, so I needed to spend some time thinking about what was happening for me in those moments.
I realized that I had my own experience of becoming a big-sibling and that my son’s behavior at that time was triggering me to feel my own emotions. Just having that realization enabled me to remember that I wasn’t the child having a hard time, and as the parent I could handle it. I also noticed my own feelings coming up when my son was 12, and started to approach adolescence. That was a difficult time for me and I quickly realized that I wanted to make sure we kept our relationship strong during that time so that I didn’t go back into unconscious incompetence. I work on that often and I wrote about it here.
If things were rough for you at a certain age in your life, there can be extra bumps in the road when your child hits that age. And sometimes our kids show us different things than we experienced, and we need to work consciously on how to handle that! Working on your parenting skills so that you get to step 4 is a process, and it’s not a once-and-done type of thing. The great thing is that it isn’t as hard to do as it was the first time. You still have your skills and your areas where you are competent, so you can focus on whatever comes up in the moment, and move through it easier.
The investment is worth it
I want to share with you that the investment you make now – the time and energy you put in to parenting this way – will pay off in the future. 100% success without mistakes is not the goal. The goal is to shift your perspective, to see your children’s behaviors as communicating their needs. Having well-behaved children who never throw a temper tantrum is not the goal; rather being able to respond instead of react, to listen and be present instead of just making it stop. These are the things that have ripple effects far into the future.
When I think about the times that my old tapes have played, or I yelled or reacted in a way I would rather not, I remember that each time I make a different choice, my children are recording the new way on their tapes. The way I speak to them now, and the way I respond to their emotions are a model for them to use when they are parents one day. We learned how to parent by the way we were parented, so we are teaching our children how to parent as we are parenting them.
Again, none of us does this 100% perfectly all the time, because we are imperfect people. But each of those “mistakes” is just another opportunity to model how to apologize, ask for forgiveness, and make it right.
In my experience, in fact, those times where I mess up and have to apologize are often some of the most connected moments between myself and my children. I get a chance to tell them I’m sorry, that they didn’t deserve to be yelled at and that I shouldn’t have done it, and what I wish I would have done instead. I get to ask for their forgiveness, and they give it so willingly. They crave the reconnection as much as I do and we come out of those moments even closer than before. Truly, don’t underestimate the power of those reconnection opportunities. Don’t beat yourself up when you mess up – turn it around into a reconnection moment and maybe even be grateful for that little gift in your relationship with your child.
Story #1: We Create Language to Communicate About Feelings
Alexa has come up with a visual description for herself and how easily her feelings get hurt by imagining a stick that gets stepped on and snaps. Some people talk about having a short fuse, but she imagines hers as a stick. She has realized that her stick is thin and brittle, while her brother’s is thicker and sturdy. He can withstand more before he gets offended, but since she is more easily offended or hurt, hers is thinner. I’ve been talking to her about her stick, and how there isn’t anything wrong with having a thin stick, because being sensitive also helps her to be sensitive to others. Allen’s stick is thicker and he is often less aware, thus less considerate of others’ feelings.
I’ve also told her that she can thicken her stick sometimes if she wants to, in an effort to give her some power over her reactions. I’ve suggested that when something happens, she doesn’t always have to react. She can choose to get more information, ask for clarity, or see if perhaps there was a misunderstanding rather than something truly hurtful or offensive. I think there have been a few times that she used that technique to put off the spill-over of feelings, but that is more like putting her Sad in her pocket, like she must have done in the next story.
Story #2: We Create Space to Reconnect
This incident happened in the car, and I didn’t even know about it until we were home and getting ready for bed. Apparently Alexa had been singing along to a song on her MP3 player for the bazillionth time, and Allen was tired of it and asked her to stop. She wanted to finish out the song, so she kept singing. He felt ignored, like she just refused to stop when he asked, so he yelled at her. She was upset but didn’t have a big overflow of emotion like she normally does when her feelings get hurt, so I didn’t even know something had happened.
While getting ready to read before bed, Allen brought it up, because he felt the need to apologize to Alexa for snapping at her. His apology brought up all of the emotions she had held in during the event, and she totally lost it and stormed out of the room. Allen and I just looked at each other, and I told him that I appreciated what he was trying to do, making things right before going to sleep. It was a rough situation because he was really just trying to apologize to her.
A few minutes later Alexa came back in with a note for Allen. It said, “Allen, Thank you for apologizing and I accept the apology. Sorry I just had to leave the room because I was still a little bit mad. I’m ok now and I’m sorry that after you said stop I didn’t stop right after. I love you, Alexa”
Story #3: We Create Space for the Expression of Feelings
It was late – way past bedtime – but some unique circumstances led to my kids starting a movie around 10pm. I told them they could watch the movie if they got all ready for bed quickly. Alexa went straight to the bathroom to brush her teeth, but Allen needed a “last call for food” and was taking his sweet time making himself a couplef of PB&Js.
When Alexa let him know she was ready and waiting on him, he still didn’t show any sense of urgency. She couldn’t go start the movie back up without him, so she was just stuck waiting. Seeing her brother continue in his task without seeming to have any need to hurry really touched a nerve in Alexa, and she got upset. She ran to my bedroom and cried on my bed for a bit before calling out to me.
As soon as I arrived, she hugged me tightly, and when I asked what was going on, she said things like, “I feel like Allen isn’t respecting my time,” and “I feel so angry, I want to kick him. I want to make him pay.”
So many words – words of deep hurt and anger – but still just words, not actions. She didn’t hurt him, and she didn’t hurt me, she just needed to say all the things she was feeling and have someone listen and be with her and validate those feelings.
The words she was using are words I have said to her before. That time when she was trying to run toward him to hit him, I gave her the words, “You just want to hit him! You want to hurt him, because you are feeling so hurt.” I didn’t let her go hurt him in those moments, and I did what I needed to do to keep myself safe, but I gave her words for the feelings she was having.
There is a boundary around hurting people, even when you’re really upset. Swinging arms is ok, stomping feet is ok, drawing really mad pictures and even punching a pillow are all good ways of moving the energy through the body. Verbalizing what she was feeling, and validating that without judgment come next.
I find these moments so beautiful, and they happen almost every day because she gets her feelings hurt very easily (that thin stick I described before). I want to share with other parents that getting to this place is actually possible, but it takes time and consistency and practice. And she doesn’t always have the ability to do it, but sometimes she does. She is learning the skills she’ll need to navigate in the real world, knowing where the safe spaces are for her feelings, that turning to others is important, and that she can get through this. She’s learning so much about herself and this is the time to do that!
I noticed that Alexa was in unconscious competence in her ability to use her words on this day. We are always telling kids to “use their words,” instead of their hands, but so often they just can’t – they can’t even get to that part of the brain that knows the words. This time I saw her able to reach the words even though she was deep in the emotion, on yellow. I think it’s because they are words she has heard over and over, and feelings she has felt and experienced me feeling them with her. It’s beautiful. She’s making connections in her brain between the feelings and the words, and that’s exactly what we want them to be able to do. She also has the primary love language (and hurt language) of “Words of Affirmation” which I think help it come more naturally to her. She was feeling hurt and wanting to hurt back, so she was using words.
This is a process
I hope these stories from my life are encouraging to you. Please know that every interaction we have isn’t perfect, and I am certainly far from always parenting perfectly. But recognizing that every interaction is truly an opportunity to connect makes a huge difference. Maybe you connect with your child immediately, or maybe you have to reconnect after a disconnection. Or maybe you connect with yourself, noticing something that pushes a button for you or that you are reacting to, possibly related to what was going on in your life when you were your child’s age.
Conscious Competence isn’t a place you get to overnight, and once you’re there you don’t just remain there in all situations. It’s a journey and it takes a lot of effort and practice, but it is so worth the effort!
Do you have your own stories of parenting consciously that you’d like to share with us? What have you done that has felt really good for you regarding feelings and boundaries? We’d love to hear your stories! Feel free to share in the comments below or in our Facebook Community.