I heard the words as she said them to my son. I closed my eyes. I remembered those words.
Stop crying. You’re okay. It’s okay.
I remembered how those words felt as a child. How they landed on my nervous system.
And that is when I did something that went against every fiber of my being. I did something I had been taught not to do. I spoke up.
I knelt down next to my son and hugged him close, whispering in his ear, “It is safe to cry. I see that something feels hard, and I am with you. I will stay with you as your tears visit.”
As I sat on the floor cradling my son, I imagined also holding my child-self. She needed to hear those words, too. She waited 36 years to hear those words.
In all of our loving intent, we sometimes commit what I call parenting DUI’s. We …
Deny or dismiss
… our child’s emotional development and expression.
Why does this happen?
Well, to start, it could be that we were raised with our emotions, experiences, and perspectives surrendering to the preferences and desires of our own parents. So we have learned to deny, undermine, and invalidate ourselves. In the face of our child’s bold and unpleasant emotions, it triggers our protective responses, because, as children, we were taught that these forms of expression weren’t safe. They threatened our attachment, not secured it.
Additionally, we all love our children. Duh! We don’t want them to hurt or feel the pain that the world sometimes delivers. Our own discomfort propels us on a mission to fix it, make it better, and move them along to the next pleasant emotion.
But saying that everything is okay is often an automatic response when we don’t know what to say or do to comfort our child. Our child’s unpleasant emotions can bring up unpleasant emotions in us. And feeling uncomfortable is … well … uncomfortable. So, what do we do? We attempt to make their discomfort go away, which in return, decreases our own.
But, here’s the thing, your child is already upset. They are already not feeling fine. So when we tell them they are fine when they aren’t feeling that way, it jumbles up their internal messages and dampens their intuition.
When we attempt to fix or stop their emotions from flowing, their emotions are unable to fully release (or process) and the emotional tension builds up until emotions (and ultimately undesirable behaviors) stack.
We Are Emotional Beings
Pleasant emotions aren’t the only cool kids on the block. Unpleasant emotions are just as relevant. In fact, all emotions are data that tell us about who we are and what we want. If we ask our children to suppress them, how are they ever able to fully know themselves?
Think back to your own childhood. Were you gaslighted? Told, “Don’t feel that way. It’s silly.” or told you were too dramatic or too loud with your feelings? Were you sent away to deal with them on your own?
Now, ask yourself, how did that influence who you are today? How did it shape how you felt you had to be so you were accepted and loved?
When hard emotions like sadness, anger, jealousy, and frustration are unsafe for children to feel, they learn to either:
- Fight - power struggle, control, yell, hit and hurt
- Flight - run away, experience their unpleasant emotions isolated and alone
- Freeze - suppress emotions
- Fawn - befriend in ways that the caregiver deems agreeable in order to fit the family system
These survival adaptations can follow us into adulthood. Because our bodies wire for relationship patterns in our formative years, our childhood experiences far outlast the original circumstance and can stay with us until we decide to break the cycle.
3 Ways To Break The DUI Cycle
Know your triggers
It makes sense that you are the way you are based upon the way you had to be. The way your nervous system had to adapt as a child directly influences how it operates now - how reactive or responsive you are and what you feel triggered by.
Next time you feel yourself getting hot and bothered by a situation, take time to do a trigger worksheet to unbox what lives there for you. Often when our response is disproportionate to the current situation, it is a signal from our body that we are reliving an old circuit.
Talk to your inner child and reflect on why your reaction makes sense then give yourself full permission to feel the way you. “It makes sense to (feel whatever emotion I’m feeling, respond in whatever way I’m responding) because (think back to childhood emotional wounding).”
For example …
- It makes sense that I hide unpleasant emotions because my caregivers turned away from me when I showed the full spectrum of my emotions as a child.
- It makes sense that I find it challenging to set and stick to boundaries because my boundaries weren’t respected as a child.
- It makes sense that I am hypervigilant at reading others’ moods because I had to respond quickly when my caregivers got mad as a child.
- It makes sense that disapproval feels like disconnection because I grew up with others pulling away when they didn’t like my behavior as a child.
- It makes sense that connection feels like people-pleasing because I was given the most affection when I behaved in ways convenient and approved by my caregivers.
And end with, “I give myself full permission to feel this feeling.”
As you notice and validate your emotional triggers, you can do the same for your child, too.
All behavior is a reflection of the nervous system. When children feel out of control, they act out of control. They act mechanically in an attempt to let off emotional tension, and because they don’t yet have the skills to regulate these sensations, they melt, cry, slam the door, act impulsively and say undesirable things.
When we see the behavior as a signal to something deeper and bigger, like an unmet need or a lagging skill, we are better able to drop our fear and our clouded lens, and respond to our children, using the data we have from the purity of the present moment.
- I see you really wanted that toy your brother had. I know it is so hard to wait.
- I see you stomping your feet and I hear you yelling.
And sometimes children are just feeling sad, jealous, or discomfort.
- You fell down really hard. Ouch!
- It is safe to cry. You can let it all out.
- I see this feels really hard. I am here for you.
And sometimes, it is their intuition that needs validation so that they can tune in and trust what they find.
- I see you don’t want to say hello yet. Your body knows best.
- I hear you say you don’t want to eat more right now. I trust you to listen to your body.
Shift your goals
When we shift our goals from stopping our child’s pain and discomfort to sitting with them in it, we move out of control and into connection.
Control has to do with you - your discomfort, your wounding, your perspective, your ego.
Connection has to do with your relationship.
My responsibility in our family system is to focus on my thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. My job is to guide my son on his journey and to connect with who is (not control who he is).
My son’s responsibility in our family system is his thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. When I attempt to control what is not mine to control, it requires my child to move out of his authentic self. In remembering my role in my relationship with my son, it gives him the freedom to live into his.
Emotions need support, not solutions. It is our children’s birthright (and ours too) to know the wide array of emotional colors that live within. When children feel safe to express themselves, the emotional wounding doesn’t have to trail them into adulthood. When we humans feel safe to live authentically, we change the course of our lineage. We change the collective.
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