By Catherine Liggett
My almost 3-year-old daughter is going through a phase where she pretends to be a baby. She does it a lot. And I lose my mind almost every time.
Sure, it’s cute, to begin with. But after the first couple of times that she insists she can’t walk when we need to get somewhere, says she can’t put on her shoes or pretends to cry while I’m trying to hear myself think, I feel my mama rage start to simmer in my chest. Soon, it’s no longer a simmer. It’s a full-on boil.
And the worst part? The crippling guilt I feel for having this anger in my body. “She’s just expressing her need for connection,” I tell myself. “Get a grip on yourself, Catherine. She needs you to show up for her right now.”
Today’s installment of pretend-baby-theater was at lunchtime. As usual, I’d gone out of my way to prepare a nutritious lunch for her. But today? She’s sitting in front of her plate, pretending to cry because it’s not baby food.
The pressure in my chest dials up to 11. It’s been days of this, and I just can’t take it anymore.
In this difficult moment, I had a choice. Keep in mind that sometimes, I don’t have this choice. Sometimes, I just react. But today, I could find the still point between the rage I was feeling in my body and my reaction. And in this still point, I am able to create the future. In it, I am empowered to make a different choice than my parents did.
For example, my parents generally made a choice to repress their emotions. Difficult feelings were pushed down and away, and boundaries were never set. For my father, this resulted in depression and intermittent explosions of previously suppressed rage. For my mother, dissociation, and anxiety.
But me? I am a cycle breaker. I’m passionate about teaching my daughter a different way to be human. A different way to relate to our feelings.
We don’t become cycle breakers overnight, however. It’s taken my daughter’s entire life for me to practice the trial and error of parenting differently. It's a journey, to be sure.
Becoming a cycle breaker starts on the inside and grows outward into different words, different behaviors, and different ways to relate to our own and our children’s feelings.
It’s intense work. But the good news is that I’ve found a way to break down the inner process of becoming a cycle breaker into four steps that I use almost every day.
I call this process FACE: Feel, Amplify, Connect, and Embrace.
Unlike many of our parents who repressed, denied, ignored, or shamed their own feelings, resulting in abusive explosions and emotional neglect, becoming a cycle breaker means that we commit to FACE-ing our emotions with clarity and deep compassion. When we FACE our feelings, we diffuse our triggers and come to discover more frequent moments of stillness between our children’s behavior and our response.
I’ll briefly break down each of the four steps and illustrate each using an example from the story about my daughter pretending to be a baby.
Step 1: Feel
In this step, I notice the body sensations that are moving through me and name the feeling. Heat. Pressure. Anger. I take a deep breath and allow this feeling to be in my body without pushing it away or reacting out of it.
Step 2: Amplify
Breathing and allowing this feeling to be in my body, I now take deepening breaths as I imagine opening space around it and inviting it to take up as much space as it needs in the room around me. This helps me unclench my body so that the feeling moves through me instead of getting stuck. I know this seems counterintuitive to amplify a feeling you don’t want to have, but trust me, this is the key. Most people are surprised to find that allowing space for feelings to breathe actually helps them feel lighter and easier to hold in the body.
Step 3: Connect
This step is a simple question that unveils the roots of the strong emotional reaction you’re having to your child. While breathing and holding your feelings and sensations in this space of openness, ask your inner knowing: “When did I feel this as a child?” Rest and allow the answer to come without thinking about what the right thing could be. Within a few seconds, your mind will show you an image of yourself at a certain age. You don’t need this to be a memory, just a vague sense of how old you were when you felt this similar combination of feeling and sensation in your body.
As I asked myself this question while the anger coursed through my body, I immediately saw an image of myself as about four years old. This was the age my brother was born, my mother became sick, and I could no longer get most of my needs met. I held this image in my mind as I moved on to step four.
Step 4: Embrace
Imagine now that you are looking at the child version of yourself through the eyes of the strongest and most loving version of your adult self. Looking at them through the lens of care and curiosity, ask them this question: “What do you really need?” Wait for them to respond in the way that is most authentic to them. Allow your inner knowing to reveal the answer- it usually comes very quickly. Then, imagine your adult self meeting the need. Perhaps it’s a hug or words of affirmation, or maybe even to run away or hit something. Whatever it is, validate it unconditionally.
Asking my child self this question, I heard, “I need you to listen to me.” So, I saw and felt the most loving version of my adult self sitting close to my child self with full attention. I said to her, “I’m here for you. I’m listening.” Waves of relief and some tears came to the surface.
Moving through the four steps of FACE in less than a minute, the pressure in my chest has subsided, and the urgency of the rage has quieted to a slow simmer that no longer threatens to take me over.
FACE isn’t a silver bullet that will take us from enraged to bliss (sign me up for that), but it does have the power to return our baseline to a state of presence with our kids where we have the freedom to make a different choice.
The four steps of FACE have become the crown jewel of my healing journey as a cycle-breaking parent. I simply don’t know how I would navigate the intensity of it all without it as a way to return to myself and be the parent I want to be.