By Catherine Liggett
The milk was all over the kitchen floor. My 2-year-old had knocked it off the table.
After a very long day of mothering, I just didn’t have it in me to be my woke parent self anymore. Erupting from a place far below my best intentions for parenthood, I snapped at my daughter.
The big brown eyes of this sweet being filled with tears, and she collapsed into a fetal position in her chair at the kitchen table.
And me? I felt like the lowest scum on the face of the Earth.
Alongside the heavy remorse was the sick knowing that in that moment, I had become my father. The very energy that wounded me so deeply was being channeled through my own body, even after two decades of intensive therapy and personal growth work.
Now, that same energy threatened to wound my precious daughter. It was time to take matters into my own hands, and break the cycle of emotional wounding once and for all.
The beautiful thing is, as a parent to my young child, I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do it. It won’t be perfect, but with awareness and commitment, I can ensure that my daughter comes out of her childhood far more emotionally healthy than I did.
Here’s a list of three ways that I commit to showing up for my daughter every day to nurture her emotional health. Remember that we are human and perfection is impossible, so these are meant to be guidelines rather than rules:
1. When you’re triggered, practice the pause
We might think that we have those “over the top” emotional reactions because there’s something wrong with what our kids are doing, but here’s the hard truth: our triggers reveal our own wounds. We get triggered when our kids do or say something that we weren’t allowed to do growing up if we wanted the approval of our parents. It’s about us, not them.
This is why building awareness of triggers is essential to seeing, hearing, and being present for our children for who they truly are, instead of unconsciously reacting out of our own wounding.
Here’s what to do to break the cycle:
- When you start to recognize the feelings of being triggered, your first step is to name it: “I’m being triggered right now.”
- Next, notice that you feel an impulse to react urgently, and instead of doing so, practice taking a deep breath instead. (Yes, this takes practice, but it gets so much easier over time.)
- Sit with the feelings that arise in this pause, and see if you can keep breathing until you can say or do something you will not regret. This may include removing yourself from the room for a moment if you are having trouble taking this pause.
Creating this space between the trigger and your reaction gives you the opportunity to show up as the parent you want to be rather than unconsciously continuing the cycle of wounding. Practicing the pause will be your most essential tool on the path of breaking the cycle.
2. Validate your child’s feelings instead of stopping them
Most of us grew up hearing our parents tell us “stop crying,” or even, “I’ll give you something to cry about.” If they were trying to comfort us, we might have heard the well-intentioned reassurances like “don’t be scared” or “you’re okay” (when the child obviously does not believe she’s okay).
The problem with all of these very common refrains is that they dismiss or minimize the child’s authentic emotions. All of these give our children the message that there is something wrong with the flow of energy moving through their bodies. Something that needs to be corrected, rather than listened to, as it is naturally arising within them.
If our goal is to raise beings who trust themselves, we must commit to honoring their feelings instead of trying to fix them. When our kids get the impression that there’s something wrong about their feelings, they will internalize that there is something wrong about them.
Here are a few phrases to say to your child that validate rather than dismiss their feelings:
- “I see that you’re feeling ___.”
- “Let it all out.”
- “I’m here for you.”
- “I can handle your big feelings.”
After saying one of these phases, your job is to stay present, breathe, and allow the wave of your child’s feeling to naturally take its course. If they need you to hold them, then do so.
I am often shocked at how saying less and staying present magically allows my daughter’s feelings to resolve on their own, rather than escalate with my interventions. I just need to give the wave time to come back down.
Staying calm, still, and present during emotional intensity is likely to be one of the hardest things you will ever do. Because it’s so dang hard, we need to know how to sit with ourselves during these times. In order to sit with ourselves in the intensity, and thus break the cycle, we can cultivate a relationship with the young, vulnerable part of ourselves who did not have permission to have big feelings. This part of you is called the inner child.
3. Connect to your inner child with loving presence
Turning back to that spilled milk, I’ll tell you what I could have done to break the cycle of wounding instead of perpetuating it by reacting out of my trigger.
The glass tumbles off the table, and milk cascades to the floor. I notice the pressure in my chest build to nearly overwhelming levels, pushing for release. Being aware of these sensations, I take several deep breaths, and this is what I do:
In the midst of this rage, I continue to breathe, and I silently ask myself: “How old was I when I needed to feel this, but couldn’t?” I let my imagination show me at that age. Now, I use what I know about emotional validation with myself as a child.
With great tenderness, I say this to that small being within me:
“I see that you’re enraged.”
“I’m here for you.”
I continue to breathe, and hold this loving presence with that part of myself that got triggered. The part of myself who is, through my “over the top” emotional response, calling out to be seen and heard.
You might think that it’s unrealistic to go through a process like this in a moment of intensity with your child, and I know it’s not likely to be something you’ve tried before. But the amazing thing is that what I described above takes less than thirty seconds once you’ve practiced it just a few times, and it has a massive impact.
Engaging with these hidden aspects of ourselves is called shadow work, and it’s been the holy grail of my parenting. It allows me to create a new, emotionally healthy pattern that my daughter will have within her for the rest of her life.
Now, in these pivotal moments, I’m doing something truly miraculous. I’m breaking the cycle of emotional wounding for her and her descendants, and I’m also giving myself the gift of healing.