“Exude the state of being that you want your child to end up with and they will find their way to that.” Bentinho Massaro.
Being genuinely helpful to my children when they have problems is something that brings joy into my life. I want to give help that is calm, supportive and that increases my child’s confidence in their own ability to help themselves. This did not come naturally for me, at least not to the extent that I would have liked. It was a skill that required a lot of practice as well as a lot of unlearning of old, unhelpful habits. For example, I often fell into the trap of trying to fix a problem when my help was not requested. My child would react to my intrusion and I would become part of the problem.
When my help was requested I often assumed that I knew best and waded in with advice or instructions. My advice was occasionally helpful in the short-term but it also got in the way of my child’s emerging ability to help themselves. There were also many times when my child’s expression of feelings triggered painful feelings in me. I would unwittingly join them in their suffering rather than remain peaceful and fully available to help. It was challenge for me to find a way to relate to my children in a respectful and non-reactive way.
Being genuinely helpful required a shift in my perception of my children’s behaviour and their expression of emotion. I came to realize that what I had been judging as tantrums, rude or aggressive words and unacceptable behaviour were actually cries for help. Young children often have difficulty in expressing their problems in a way that parents can easily understand. They may not have the skills to clearly express what they want or what is causing them distress. Their calls for help are sometimes communicated through intense emotional expression such as crying or screaming, in aggressive behaviour or even in hate-fuelled outbursts. Parents often find these expressions of distress challenging or unacceptable. I certainly found myself challenged in this way.
Out of these challenges emerged the skill of Listening in Presence. This is the skill of listening calmly and respectfully to my child without reacting to or getting hooked into their problem. I have the intention to give my child my attention and at the same time I have an awareness of what the situation is triggering within me. This isn’t as difficult as it may sound, but it does take some practice. The intention and awareness that come with this skill can transform something as ordinary as the application of a Band-Aid into a special moment.
I have come to understand that the most important ingredient in providing genuine help to my children is my own emotional well-being. If I am not peaceful and happy I cannot extend this to my children. I cannot give what I don’t have. My emotional well-being is grounded in presence. The listening is empty without it.
Presence is an awareness of inner consciousness – my deeper self – that is behind or underneath my thoughts. This consciousness can witness and observe stressful thoughts and painful emotions and can sense directly that they are not who I am. When I am in presence I am no longer fully identified with my thoughts. I know that those thoughts are not really “me”. They are creations ego, of mind and not my true nature. They begin to lose their power over me. This is a radical, wonderful, life-changing shift in perspective.
There are many other names for this inner consciousness. Some people call it Spirit, Being, Oneness or the Higher Self. I experience connection with presence as a state of calm, relaxed alertness. It is a space of peace and stillness. Thoughts may appear in this space but they do not dominate. I am not caught up in a constant stream of worries, judgements and thoughts about other people and about what I should or should not be doing. I am not compulsively planning or fearing the future and I am not regretting or dwelling on the past. There is space between thoughts in which I experience quietness and joy. Helpful, creative thoughts have space to appear. I can choose to act on these thoughts or to remain still. In presence l experience the vibrant aliveness in my body. I feel connected to myself and grounded. I am content. I am in a natural state of being.
Discovering the power of presence was a turning-point in my parenting journey. Everything got easier. Not immediately, but gently and surely. Paradoxically, I discovered that I could readily access this inner calm in moments of great emotional intensity. It was at these times of my greatest need that the window into presence first opened for me. Listening to my child’s emotional outbursts gradually changed from a highly stressful experience into one that was peaceful and transformative for me. I found that I could listen in presence to my child without reacting, even when their suffering was intense. I did not feel compelled to buy into the drama. Presence brought a quality to my listening that I had never known before. The temporary freedom from the compulsive stream of stressful thoughts in my head was such a gift. There was space where there hadn’t been before. I discovered a deep well of peace and inspiration for wise, skillful action. I could respond in a way that diffused the energy of my children’s suffering rather than fueled it. This was an amazing change for me. As my experience changed, so did my child’s. The drama of those years is now a distant memory.
I have discovered that the best way to dissolve my old habits of reacting to my child is to deepen my experience of presence. As I have done so I have become more aware of my old habits of communicating and the old beliefs that lie beneath them. If my child comes to me in distress and I am triggered with negative emotion (frustration, anger, sadness, disappointment) I notice. This noticing is the first step in dissolving the pattern of reaction. If I have spoken out of reaction I know this is not helpful. I consciously collect myself and bring myself back into presence. Then I apologize to my child and start again. This has been a liberating experience for me. I have apologized many, many times. I have found my children to be very forgiving and it has always brought us closer together.
Presence is a creative space. If I immerse myself in the experience of listening in presence I intuitively know what to do, or not do. I come upon my own natural and spontaneous way of listening. I know when to stay silent. If it seems appropriate to speak, I know what to say. I am able to support my child rather than react to them. At times I have supported them by quietly listening to them cry or tell me what their problem is, waiting for them to calm down and find their own solution. At other times I have drawn my child into a deeper exploration of their problem using simple questions. Sometimes I offer suggestions (not advice) about possible solutions. I let my intuition guide me to the most appropriate response. Many times a practical solution to my child’s problem resolves the upset; they agree to a suggestion of mine, their sibling gives them back the toy they took or their Dad steps in with an idea or a hug. Each child and each situation is unique and the solutions will reflect this.
The beauty of helping my child in this way is that it is clean and respectful. I am not passing any emotional baggage on to my child. I have no agenda. I am simply extending peace.
This post is an edited extract from my book “Joyful Parenting: The five skills to take your family from conflict to connection.” You can read the first 50 pages of my book for free if you go to the “book” page in the menu.
Much love to all you wonderful parents out there,