“It’s fine! You’re learning! You’re not supposed to know all the answers!” I said in exasperation as I watched my son come unglued about an assignment he’d just finished and, in his opinion, completely failed at. I didn’t know I was about to dive into what would become a defining moment for me in learning to be connected with my kids.
The schoolwork was something new, something fun (I thought) and because it was new, I figured, of course he wouldn’t have it all down pat. I was fine with that.
But he wasn’t. And I felt myself getting angrier and angrier that he was upset. His sister was napping; I was looking forward to being DONE dealing with schoolwork and having some time to myself.
My anger was getting bigger as I worried more –he’ll wake up his sister, I won’t get a break. And underneath those concerns, anger was being fueled by deeper, less-formed thoughts that whispered from a dark well of fear: I’m raising a kid who can’t handle disappointment. He’ll fail at life if he can’t shake things off. He won’t learn new things because he hates being a beginner. I’ve caused this. I’ve failed him…”
Watching his big emotions was becoming all about me, and the overwhelming task of dealing with the fallout. I didn’t know how to handle the emotions, so how could I sit here letting them spill out all over my day!? He was over reacting!
He was that sad and upset? I didn’t believe him.
His reaction was at 10. I assumed the situation called for, at most, a 3.
I found a powerful passage about the distrust of emotions in a recent article by Damon Young. He wrote about men not trusting women’s emotions – if you read this and think about it in relation to children, you may feel an uncomfortable recognition of what we often do with our kids:
My typical third reaction? After she expresses what’s wrong? “Ok. I hear what you’re saying, and I’ll help. But whatever you’re upset about probably really isn’t that serious.”
“…Until she convinces me otherwise, I assume that her emotional reaction to a situation is disproportionate to my opinion of what level of emotional reaction the situation calls for. Basically, if she’s on eight, I assume the situation is really a six.”
This happens to us so often as parents when we’re confronted with our kids’ anger, grief or frustration about things that we don’t think warrant such huge reactions. It’s not that bad, we think – they just don’t understand. And that’s where we take a detour.
Instead of turning to our child at that moment and being there with them, we try to lead them away from what they’re feeling. We launch into placating and trying to make the messy, raw emotions more tame, or we dismiss them as not real. Our kids launch into trying to convince us it really is this serious.
What would happen if we didn’t worry so much about knowing the answer, fixing, or making things right and simply showed up, stayed…believed?
A friend told this beautiful story yesterday:
I catch myself doing it to my kids sometimes. [dismissing their emotions] In the moment I try to just stop, acknowledge to myself and to them what’s happening, apologize and then be truly present. Last night there was a thing here in the house. Once I realized what was happening, I just motioned my daughter over, hugged her and said I was sorry and this is what I wished I’d done right away instead of trying to talk her down. She broke into deep sobs, and all these fears and worries started pouring out. She had a good cry, a good hug, and then was downright cheery and able to problem solve. It was remarkable. ~Ronessa S.
Remarkable things happen when we trust the emotions in front of us and practice staying present without judging or trying to fix.
What happened when I stayed
On this day, with the school work, thankfully I didn’t dismiss the tears, or stalk away in disgust. I stepped out of the room and collected myself. I paused and heard my inner voice reminding me that the way I’m practicing showing love with my son right now is to let him know through my actions and words that I want to really know him.
So on this day I decided to experiment, to take a leap of faith and choose trust. Instead of brushing away the big emotions, I took a breath, and came back into the room committed to being present and hearing him. In a neutral tone I said something to the effect of, “You seem really upset.” and then I just sat next to him.
I breathed. He cried. He took ragged breaths.
A moment later he said, “I just feel like I disappointed you.”
And there we were, working with a much fuller picture.
He seemed relieved that I was listening and I was relieved to know what was underneath the upset. At that point we were able to have good conversation about learning, about how our family values taking risks and making mistakes – the kind of meaningful conversation I would have missed if I’d left in a huff because of those “overblown” emotions.
This stuff is crazy hard. But, I feel so connected to my girls after stuff like that. It’s so life affirming. Just a little sign post on the road that says ‘Yes, this is it. Keep going.’ ~Ronessa S.
This is the kind of connection we all crave – when you feel like you really know what’s going on with your child, and they trust you enough to let you in.
Sometimes it’s easy and fun to be connected – as simple as swinging in a hammock together, watching the birds. And sometimes it’s scary and unpredictable to be connected. But still simple. As simple as being the one who says, “I’m here. I believe you.”
I’d love to chat more about this. It IS crazy hard for me sometimes to be there with my kids through big emotions. I definitely have to think of it as a practice, as I screw it up too many times to feel I have it mastered, but each time we make it through one of these moments I’m encouraged to keep practicing. Those are the moments when I feel like I’m really doing something good here with my family.
What about you? When is it hardest to stay present? What experiences have you had with trusting or not trusting emotions?
Related Reading on Staying Present:
- You Can be Kind. They Can be Angry. – on setting boundaries or limits and getting comfortable with the emotions it causes.
- Journal Prompts on Presence and Mindfulness – Fill Your Cup Journal Series
- The Difference of 17 Second – on learning to listen
Alissa Zorn is an author, and founder of the website Overthought This. She's a coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa is certified through the International Coach Federation and got her Trauma-Informed Coaching certification from Moving the Human Spirit. She wrote Bounceback Parenting: A Field Guide for Creating Connection, Not Perfection, and is always following curiosity to find her next creative endeavor.