I've been living in a delusion that my work, my parent coaching tools and process, is most useful for parents of older children, say three and up - you know, once they are really pushing our buttons! Today I was given a gift when a mama of a thirteen month old baby joined the Q&A call I was hosting. Our conversation reminded me once again, in a new and more poignant way, that it's not about our children. I know, crazy, right? We spend so much of our energy worrying about them, doting on them, scheduling and cleaning and planning and even dreaming for them, and it's not at all about our children.
Perhaps your daughter is thirteen months old and hitting you in the face repeatedly. Perhaps your daughter is thirteen years old and "talking back" at you. These things happen, it's real life parenting here. Babies hit and teenagers assert themselves. Have you been there? I certainly have.
It's not about your child.
I shared this with a coach who mentored me for years, I so respect her, she giggled and said, "point the finger at someone else, and there's four fingers pointing back at you." So true. Before we let our feathers get ruffled, or our hackles raise, as they sometimes do when we start pointing fingers, let's pause. I'm in no way trying to set you on the defensive, or add more undo pressure to myself. We already expect a lot of ourselves and want to show up as our best version, I know that about myself, and I'm guessing the same is true for you. It's best if we keep this lighthearted and come from a place of humor. Humans are funny, and we're even funnier when we're in the throughs of parenting children.
So what the heck do I mean when I say that it's not about our children? In any situation there are myriad different ways that our human brain can make meaning of that thing, that word, that action. As external stimulus comes in from the world around us, perhaps that's in the form of our child hitting or back talking, our brain makes some meaning of that, creates a story about that stimulus that was just received. From that story we feel a certain way, angry, sad, frustrated, and from that feeling we act, we respond. Our response might be shutting down emotionally, it might be an outburst of rage, it might be laying a gigantic guilt trip, or blanket of shame, on the other person...our response is as unique as we are and it's generated by the way that we are making meaning of our external world.
External stimulus -> brain makes meaning -> emotional response is triggered -> react or respond to stimulus.
(I've never shared this picture before because, well, it could be seen or made sense of in so many different ways, and that is the point of this post)
Where we can get hung up is in the place of believing our story. "Our story" is built over a lifetime of layered experiences and the meaning we make from those experiences. It might be that very early on we experienced some social interaction where we felt rejected, and from that place we developed a self-concept of being an outsider. With this new "outsider" self-concept we began to see the world in that way. Every time we came in contact with a situation that proved we were indeed an outsider this self-concept grew stronger and more validated. In time all we see is the evidence that this is truth and we become certain we really are an outsider. What we might be missing is all the evidence to the contrary, because our ego is so busy proving it's story right, not because there isn't evidence that we belong and we are actually well loved, because there is.
Let's go back to hitting or back-talking. Those are bad ways of expressing, right? Or what if they're not? What if it just is, and from there we get to decide what we do with that. What meaning would you really like to give that action?
Our thoughts about our children are super powerful. The concept, or image, that we hold of our children has a tremendous influence on them, their development, and the relationship between us. We can open doors of wild possibility for our children or shut them in a box, just with the concept of them that we choose to hold. I know that you and I are both deeply craving all the possibilities in the world, the very best world, for our children, so play with me here for a moment.
What if hitting was great? What if a thirteen month old baby repeatedly hitting is a sign that she is thriving, exploring, learning, so engaged with her senses and becoming her most brilliant self through hitting? It's possible that's exactly what's going on. She's a sponge right now, taking in the world around her in an entirely different way than you and I do at this phase of our development. Her brain is making stunning amounts of neuropathways as her neurons fire with every experience and they wire together creating superhighways of meaning about the world around her. So hitting could be "bad" and perhaps a link with physical expression, and feeling uncomfortable or disconnected from mom, could be wired in her brain. This could happen if mom made meaning, such as "she's being mean to me and she's going to be a hitter for life" and mom's response from that meaning was dismissing of the activity or a withdrawal of love or anger.
What if hitting was just movement and searching for stimulus? Mom might respond from that meaning of hitting in an entirely different way, maybe she would smile, maybe she would get out pillows and hit them with her baby, maybe she would create a game around hitting and really encourage physical exertion and exploration of cause and effect. Maybe she mirrors this energy, exploration and exertion.
How about that teenager who is talking back? What's the story there? It's really common for us, as adults, to have a story around, "I'm not being heard. No one ever hears me. I have to yell to be heard around here." What if we knew we could, and would, be heard? How might that shift the tension in our bodies? What if it's not defiance or disrespect, but a awesome super-confirmation that your child is growing up to trust her own voice, and she feels safe enough (high five) to share and express herself with you? What if her "back-talking" meant that she would indeed grow up to be a leader and not a follower? What if you knew that she now had the skills to say no, when she really needs to, and you could relax about all those scary situations she could find herself in between thirteen and twenty-three? Phew, what a relief right? So how might you respond differently from this story verses that story about "no one ever hears me, no one cared what I have to say, you're just being disrespectful and not listening"?
It's both easier and harder when we hold the mirror up to ourselves. I find that we often need others that we fully trust to hold that mirror up for us, or ask the provoking questions, that shine a new light in our dark corners so that we can see more clearly. The easier part is that the world around us, and our most precious relationships, can and do change as we change, we have the power to do that, it's inside of us, not them. The harder part is that we get to do that work, we release the desire to point the finger and demand them to do the work, we get to own our experience as ours. It's our creation, your creation, my creation....what shall we make of it?