Originally published on The Consciously Parenting Blog January 2, 2011
All behavior is a communication.
This is one of the guiding principles of Consciously Parenting. In fact, it is the first principle because it is really important to understand. Our children are constantly telling their stories to us through their behavior. In fact, they’re also telling parts of our stories, too. The question is, are we listening and can we hear them?
I once heard a story about how the first Native Americans weren’t able to see the first explorers’ large sailing vessels off shore. They had no experience with that sort of thing and they weren’t looking for it. In fact, what they noticed first is that there were strange ripples in the water and eventually they were able to see the boat. They had no context for a large boat to be way out in the water and they weren’t looking for it; therefore, they weren’t able to see it. So it is with our children and their behaviors. If we’re not looking for something, we’re probably not going to find it.
We don’t have to know the whole story to tell a story.
For example, with children who are adopted, we may not know what happened to them before they came home to us, but our children are going to tell us their stories through their behaviors. When we are present with them, we are going to be able to start to see the ripples in the water at first. Notice what is hard for them. And tell them what you do know. With adopted children in particular, you might start by telling the story of how they became a part of your life- from the first thoughts of adoption until they were finally home.
When we have a story that we’d like to tell to our child, the first step is to create connection and to slow everyone down. Ray Castellino suggests that everyone in the room make brief frequent eye contact with one another. It helps if the parents or adults in the room take some nice deep breaths and find a space of calm within themselves before ever saying a word.
It also helps to have two layers of support.
For instance, if we are telling a story to a baby or young child, we’d want to have the person telling the story and then a person supporting the storyteller. (i.e. If mom is telling the story to her baby, perhaps dad or grandma would support mom. This person needs to be someone safe, though.)
Touch is also really important for telling a story, respecting everyone’s individual needs and tolerances. If the child is young enough that they think sitting on your lap is a good idea, put them on your lap and look into their eyes. When I tell stories with my 11 year old, we sit side by side, since he is a little too big to be on my lap for long.
Storytelling isn’t something that we’re going to hurry up and say.
It is important that we speak slowly and take lots of pauses. This is important for them and for us. We’re working to integrate the story- or to bring the words and the body memory together-and we can’t do that when we’re going too fast. When difficult things happen (like a birth trauma), they often happen too quickly too process. By telling the story again (and again and again), it allows us to go slowly enough to process what happened and to start to make sense of it. If you find yourself talking faster or feeling overwhelmed by the story, take a pause before you continue. It is what everyone needs.
We don’t have to tell them every detail.
Even if you know what happened, you don’t have to describe the epidural process. Simple language is all that is needed. They need the basics of their story at first. As they grow older, they may be ready for more, but keep it simple with young children. For example, “The doctor needed to help you come out and used something like a vacuum cleaner on the top of your head to pull you out because you were stuck.” When you’re connected to your child, you’ll know what to say. Follow your own inner guidance.
We can end our story time by saying how we wanted it to go instead.
When a birth, for example, didn’t go as we had planned or when we’ve understood that something happened to them that has affected them (even if we didn’t know it mattered at the time), we can’t go back and change that. But we can look into their eyes and let them know how we wished it could have been for them. This is a moment of amazing connection for parents and their kids and everyone begins to heal.
When we start to connect with our children’s stories- both through the telling and by listening in a different way to what they’re sharing about their stories- we open up to a new kind of relationship with our children. Sometimes the storytelling really helps a child to sleep more soundly. Sometimes transitions during the daytime get easier. But, new possibilities for understanding and changing behavior patterns almost always begin to emerge.