Tag Archives: adulthood

More On Making Feelings OK

Last week we wrote about the important role that adults play in helping children to be OK with feelings. We have a few more things to say about this, befitting the huge impact emotions have on our lives. 7655456286_073299fa81_z It feels like a fools errand to talk about a subject so complex as emotions in a short blog post. The impact of emotions on our experience of life is huge. The great majority of psychological disorders that can be diagnosed today have at their root problems with emotional regulation. But everyone has emotions and you don’t have to have a disorder to be affected. And what are we talking about anyways? Emotions and their effect might be connected to the experience of a family escaping a war zone (who feel anxiety, vulnerability, dread, fear …), or celebrating a wedding (… joy, happiness, delight, hope) or saying goodbye to a beloved grandparent (… sorrow, grief, loneliness).

We can’t make simple assumptions about what emotions run hot in your home, but we can say, simply, that big emotions have big effects: those who study stress tell us that we are equally stressed by weddings and divorces. And as we said last week, children can be pretty taxed by even simple emotions, though we can expect that situations that make us emotional can have a greater effect on them. Hopefully the balance of situations a child faces will be positive! Even then, don’t think positive emotions only add up to peace and serenity.

We remember the day that our daughter first laughed. She was so young that she was barely able to role over on the bed. We tickled her with a blue and white plaid stuffed bear from France (that we called Trés Bear). She began to giggle uncontrollably, and we laughed along with her. It was perfectly cute … until she started crying. It had become too stressful on her little body, and she didn’t know if this new feeling would ever end! She got tired and, we guess, afraid. So we stopped, of course, and tried to meet her in this new emotion, offering some comfort. We said last week that adults play a great role in helping children come to accept and understand that their emotions are a part of their life.

But what to do if an adult can’t regulate their own emotions? What if we had no one to meet us and to help us with our emotions when we were young? If we never learned to be comfortable in our own emotional skins, then the raw and unbridled emotions of our little ones are likely to be a bit of a threat to us. But anybody reading this would agree that we want better for our kids than we got, and that we don’t want to pass on the wrong kinds of lessons. What’s an adult with emotional troubles to do?

Emotional regulation is a great problem for adults who did not feel safe being emotional when young. It is hard to replicate the great classroom of a loving family, but if we grew into adulthood without that advantage, we are not doomed to constant troubled feelings. The truth is that we need the same help that our young ones need, only we might be our own first line of defense. Can we acknowledge that we feel, sometimes quite strongly? Can we tell ourselves that emotions are OK? One of the things that we offer a child is to name the emotion they feel, and we also name the cause of it; “you were scared by that big dog!” But we adults are a bit more complicated: our emotions are somewhat more loaded because we have longer histories of emotional trauma, memories that get stirred up when we face stressful situations today. This means that we may find it hard to understand why we feel huge emotions in a situation … are the emotions linked exclusively to the present moment? If so, we can reassure ourselves that our feelings match the situation. If our fear is greater than the current situation warrants, we may not understand why.

For the adult with big emotions, who struggles to understand their feelings, or who is not comfortable in their own emotional skin, it can be a great help to seek out someone to do for us what our parents might not have been able to. To help us name the things we feel, to help us understand the complex origins of our big emotions, to help us be OK with our feelings. By the time we reach adulthood, we don’t like to be treated like children. But, really, most of us could use a little loving care now and then. We may have a friend who can help us talk through our responses to the stressors in our lives. We may seek the help of professionals. The point we are trying to make is that it isn’t only children who need to understand that feelings are OK.

Image by Flickr user marvelousRoland

[Post first appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

Lifetime Learning

Everybody’s heard one adult or another say something like, “education never stops!” It might’ve been a teacher, encouraging students to see education as a part of life, rather than something in the way of their summertime. It might have been a commencement speaker, challenging graduates to see their recent success as ‘just the beginning’ of a lifetime of learning. Wherever you heard it first, we bet you’ve thought about it since. If you’re a parent, you want your child to learn good study habits in order to become a lifetime learner. If you’re a teacher, you want people to embrace every day as another opportunity to grow in wisdom and skill. If you’re a human being, you want to work and live with people who never stop learning.

It says, "Don't stop now!"

It says, “Don’t stop now!”

Sure it can seem a bit of a cliché, or trite. But it’s also true: the world never stops teaching us. We never reach the end of the great lesson that life is. We never do graduate into any kind of real expertise. We just get better … but we never really feel smart enough. We’re thinking about these things, because of Dave’s summer job. He’s working at a clinic in Menlo Park for students in need of a boost with their spelling, reading, and comprehension skills. Usually he works with school-age children, but occasionally someone older will come through the doors, a late high schooler or a college-age kid. This week he’s begun to work with a 32-year-old PhD candidate. This gentleman already has a masters under his belt, but testing reveals some weaknesses in certain comprehension areas, and he wants to up his game before he starts his doctoral program.

And though he’s chosen to submit to the process offered in the clinic, it’s been a struggle for him to begin with basic instruction, a necessity in this clinic’s process, as we build a new way for students to perceive and express information. Dave was particularly excited to work with him, primarily because they are studying in the same field. But in addition to shared interests, Dave was also able to offer this: even though he didn’t come to the clinic in need of remedial help, the training and subsequent work has been extraordinarily helpful in his own learning process. So here we have another aspect of that old trope: there’s always something new to learn. You can be working on a second Masters degree, doing fine in school, getting all the information you need in your field, and still have plenty to learn about how to learn. That’s been Dave’s experience.

Maybe there’s no way to convince a child that endless education is a good thing, but we can always model it for them.
 

[This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

In Defense of The Blankey

Most of us can remember that special object that traveled with us through the years (usually between ages 1 and 6 or older), spent as much time near our skin as a piece of clothing, was privy to secrets and confidences like a good friend, and had an unparalleled power to derail a day’s plans if it went missing. Yes, we are talking about the humble blankey. Our security blanket, stuffed animal, or whatever it was that gave us that feeling of comfort when we held it to our faces, was at its post, steadfast, right there next to our thumbs, whenever we needed it. We may or may not remember how much it meant to us when we were children … but it is always a bit jarring to see how powerful this connection can be in a child, when we look at it from an adult perspective.

To see a child panic and freeze just when you need to get out the door for a day of errands–or worse, just after the car is packed for vacation–is to to witness a force of nature: “OH NO! Where’s Blankey?!”. We might be tempted at times like this to gently argue the relative unimportance of a piece of cloth when compared with the exciting wonders of the world that await just outside the door, or, when that utterly fails, to weakly suggest that we’ll look for a stuffed animal at the gift shop. Woe to the parent who leaks out the very adult perspective: “It’s only a piece of fabric (and one that seriously needs a wash)!”

It is never ‘only a piece of fabric’.

Donald Winnicott, the English pediatrician famous for his psychoanalytic insights into relationships, wrote about these Transitional objects–blankets, teddy bears or whatnot–and how important they are. Transitional objects, he taught, serve as bridges between that time when a child could magically summon a parent with a cry (he used the word, omnipotence to describe the child’s role in this amazing stage) and the later times, marked by a more a more realistic understanding about our separateness as individuals.

At some point every child recognizes that things are changing: parents respond with less promptness, and perhaps a little less unbridled joy when baby cries out. Whether this transition is gradual (as it should be) or sudden and traumatic (as it can be for a number of reasons), it will be hard for a young mind to adjust. And while it is a normal kind of stress for an infant to face, many children need extra comfort to ease this transition.

For a child, the blanket is there to make the transition from omnipotence a little easier. The chosen object is infused with the qualities that are needed: comfort, availability, protection, love. Objects are always satiny soft, furry, or fleecy to match the comforting touch of mother or her clothes. And they become a surrogate for parents who can’t be on soothing-duty 24/7. The presence of a blanket or other transitional object is a sign that a child is learning to soothe themselves.

Parents shouldn’t question their meaning or value, at least not in the presence of the child for whom they have significance. Though we may think, “It’s just a blanket, silly”, let’s remember that life can be a challenge at any age, and we often reach outside of ourselves for comfort. In fact, consider some of the things adults reach for when stressed. Could reaching for a blanket really be that wrong?

 

[Post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

Teenagers: a Whole New Relationship

I (Dave) had a conversation with a mom recently who had some concerns about her teenage son. These concerns were of the normal kind: he’s becoming more remote, less talkative, seemingly out-of-reach for this home-schooling mom who has been actively involved in his life. And she is very involved, thoughtful, careful, and supportive, which makes the current slowdown in communication especially difficult for her. Our conversation took an interesting turn for me when we left behind the discussion about his needs and began to talk about her needs and desires.

For parents, it’s all about the kids. We are the adults, and we give while they receive; we sacrifice, and they grow; we support and encourage and build the structures that provide a launching pad for their future success. Every parent would agree with this ideal, but this altruistic perspective can overshadow the equally powerful ways that we parents are blessed and encouraged and helped by our children. The parent-child relationship is a relationship, after all: it’s a two-way thing. Sure we have to be careful not to burden our children by looking to them to satisfy our adult needs. But at the same time, it is foolish to think that being a parent is all give and no receive.

And so the conversation turned for me when we acknowledged that her teenage son isn’t the only one going through a massive transition. She also is transitioning from a mother with a young child to a mother with grown man for a son. This isn’t happening quickly of course: he still lives at home, eats what is served him, and lives by some measure according to his parents’ rules. But he is beginning to change: he will take less pleasure in childish interactions and will need less from his parents, even as he faces some very adult problems. As he separates—for this is what’s happening—mom is feeling the change acutely. At this point, it’s natural for parents to wonder why we aren’t able to engage our children as we once did.

All this is complicated by the radically different way that kids and adults think of this transition. Kids passing through adolescence believe they are becoming less like their parents. After all, parents want to continue to enjoy the things of childhood with their kids (toss a ball, read a favorite book, lie in bed and talk, etc.). Because kids no longer want to do these things, they believe that they are outgrowing their parents. It would never occur to them that they are in fact, finally, growing to be more like them. It is difficult for both parents and kids to know how to shift the conversation to more mature matters. When and how, exactly, do we stop talking about favorite childhood storybook characters, and begin to talk about sex, drugs, rock and roll, death, and taxes? That we are in no hurry to make this transition isn’t a mystery.

It’s important to understand the dramatic change that we parents are going through at a point like this. For better or for worse, we are losing a relationship with a child. The time has come to begin to get to know the man or the woman that has taken over our baby’s room. It’s critical that we speak honestly and truthfully about what’s happening.

To be honest is to own our feelings of confusion and grief, as our children change. We are losing something good, something simple, innocent, and sweet, and neither parent or child can really prepare for the confusion that comes with this radical change. Most parents don’t want their children to remain childish, but that doesn’t make the loss of child-like qualities less jarring. We have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge the difficulty of this change. It’s natural, and ultimately good, but painful nonetheless. We also should be able to own the fact that we have been committed to nurturing and guiding our children, and they will need this less as they grow. It’s not easy to let that go.

To be truthful is to name what’s happening in our children, and name it well—they are growing up. They are growing in strength, responsibility, power, and maturity. It’s important that we choose our words carefully here! It is too easy to be frustrated with their silence and isolation and moodiness and abrasiveness, and name these as problems, and point to them as the cause of family tensions. How much more encouraging and empowering to give them words for the positive transition that they are pulling off, even if it isn’t always smooth sailing. Strength, single-mindedness, courage, intelligence, passion, joy, and a keen desire for justice can be found in every teenager. Sure these new attributes are often to blame for clashes with parents, but we should see them for what they are—a part of their differentiation … and the beginnings of their adulthood.

Our children will probably always need us … or at least there will always be ways that parents can help their children. We see their strengths clearly, and we can speak up about them. We also see the weaknesses, but we know the world will do a fine job of pointing these out. We get to bless our kids. And maybe, as we encourage them to charge forward into adulthood, we will continue to get the blessing that only a parent can receive.

 

This post first appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Conflict Resolution for Grown Ups

We teach conflict resolution to our children at an early age. Every preschool has its 5 steps to ‘talking out a problem’ (give or take a step). But in our experience, while we emphasize these skills as essential among our children, we adults (even the teachers) tend to flee conflict, sometimes quite literally.

We are thinking a lot about how hard it can be for we adults to stand up for ourselves in the best way when relationships turn contentious. In particular, when we find ourselves in controversial territory and conflict arises, our responses tend toward the primitive. Fight or flight is the very basic biological response to threat, catalyzed by the proverbial surge in adrenaline. We are not talking about grave physical threats: the same mechanism is in operation when the threats are emotional.

When we sense a threatening opinion or attitude, most of us, even the 97 pound weaklings among us, are able to throw down a good verbal lashing—we fight. For those of us who prefer to avoid conflict, our flight may be into silence, or isolation. In other words, just because we don’t swing clubs at each other or run for our lives into the forest, it doesn’t mean we aren’t responding in a primitive way to threats.

We don’t think conflict is bad. In fact we think that it is inevitable, and even serves to refine our thinking in a micro-evolutionary sense. Disagreements and even conflict makes us better, because when we expose ourselves to a variety of opinions we are forced to make adjustments in order to strengthen and preserve relationships, which are (usually) more important than our opinions.

But if conflict can be good for us, what do we do when it feels downright bad? Just take it? We’d say no. The skill we feel is missing, even in ourselves, is the ability when facing a threat to simply to speak up about our experience, to say when we feel unsafe or threatened. This certainly separates us from the animals: we can name our feelings and describe our experience. We don’t have to fight or flee or hide.

It’s not easy. To face a threat in relationship and admit to feeling unsafe, is to admit vulnerability, and that isn’t an inherently comforting move. We teach children who face bullies to throw up a hand and a loud, “Stop” before walking away. But we think that adults are (we hope) more empowered, and can do more to redeem a conflict by talking about their experience in the moment. It honors the humanity of an ‘opponent’ when we speak up in this way …. Try saying, “I don’t feel safe right now,” and stay put. It can be disarming, and provides an opportunity to restart a conversation. It signals our desire to remain in relationship, with just a slight adjustment to the rules of engagement. And if it doesn’t work to speak up, to make your feelings known, then you can make a run for it. Seriously, sometimes it doesn’t work, but it’s always important to try.

And, finally, we suspect that the adults who learn the essential skill of standing up for themselves, and make the effort to handle conflict well for the sake of relationships, will be best able to instill these great values in children.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Conversations Without Answers

Imagine helping kids to start a conversation without worrying about where it will end up. As adults we often think we know where a conversation should go, think we know the answers. But do we always know best?

In a previous post, we wrote about conversations without questions. We suggested avoiding questions in hard talks with kids, teens, and significant others. In these circumstances, questions often seem pedantic and can put the other person on the spot (“Why would you do that?”, “What were you thinking?”) … not a good strategy for achieving mutual understanding when talking about something of importance. In this post, we want to talk about conversations without answers.

Parents often struggle when there is conflict between kids because they feel they need to find answers, to fix problems. They either avoid the tension by separating the kids, or push an imposed resolution that makes little sense to young ones. What if we grown-ups enter into conversations about conflict without being responsible for finding the answer? Are we really the ones most qualified to find the answers anyhow?

When there is a conflict, one of the great gifts we can give our kids is simply to help them acknowledge feelings and make sure everyone feels heard and understood. From this place of understanding, it is easy (and enlightening) to then invite all involved to consider a solution. Help children be heard and understood, and then stand back to watch their natural problem-solving skills kick in. Sometimes the answers come easily, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes it is enough merely to acknowledge that there has been a conflict and exchange apologies. There doesn’t always have to be an answer; but there can always be reconciliation.

If we are the kinds of people who don’t like uncertainty, then we are likely to push for answers in order to put ourselves at ease. By relaxing our impulse to fix problems, we are able to cultivate more open conversations between kids, in which they are more free to discover solutions for themselves. If we’re honest with ourselves, we also sometimes carry around our own memories of personal conflict. When this is true, it’s even more important to help kids work out problems in their own power, so that we don’t press them inappropriately to a conclusion meant to satisfy us.

Make room for more creative solutions in conversations between children by not assuming that we know the answers to their problems: a conversation begun without an answer in mind is one that encourages full participation. The wise grown-up will recognize that this strategy is not only suitable for children.

[This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

How Big Of A Spill Do You Want To Clean Up

At one of the schools where Anghelika works, a dad helping with the 2 year olds approached the teacher with a question before snack time. “How much water should I put in the children’s cups?” The expert response? … “How big of a spill do you want to clean up?”

One of the great stresses that parents (and their helpers) face when hanging around small children is the way that those small children insist on a not acting like adults. So we adults have a choice. We can either 1) force them, 2) freak out, or 3) adjust. We’re going with #3. For maximum happiness at the snack table, craft table, or playground, there are a couple of essential adjustments we can all make—first, to our expectations, and then to the environment we share with kids.

Adjusting expectations is as simple as remembering that young kids are messy. Children spill stuff. Plan on it.

Adjusting the environment is not so simple, because we have to straddle two worlds … the kids’ and our own. We find that kids always want to do things that are a little too hard for them—“No sippy cups for me!” And we like to encourage these mini revolutions of childhood so they can finish the day saying, “I did it!”. But we also have to keep a foot in our own world and remember that we will be cleaning up after the revolution. A well-designed environment honors the desire of children to do it themselves, and it also honors the physical limitation of the cleanup crew. If I don’t have a ton of patience for clean up, it’s better for me and for the child if I set up the environment in such a way that it will be close to impossible to make a bigger mess than I am willing to clean up.

We’ve always been impressed with parents who are not (overly) frustrated by their children. We suspect that part of the secret is designing children’s environments to minimize frustration, for child and parent. Children will be less frustrated when they can do what they want. Parents will be less frustrated when “what the child wants” does not create extra trouble for them. Keep in mind that kids have (nearly) unlimited energy, and parents have (increasingly) limited energy. Set up your child’s environment with both in mind.

How big of a spill do you want to clean up today?

 

[Originally posted on Parenting On The Peninsula]

Parents In The Classroom

A teaching moment?

A teaching moment?

We think cooperative classrooms are the ideal. In co-opps, Parents participate in their child’s early education, observe their children in early social settings, and learn from people who’ve been working with children for years. In the cooperative setting, parents take on a unique role, one that might not occur to them at home. They have to follow the rules.

At home parents make the rules, and children follow the rules. Our kids may never get to see us as rule followers.

But when parents participate in their child’s early education, they follow the teacher and the plan and model the behaviors that are expected in the classroom – parents sit on chairs, not tables; sit quietly at circle time and pay attention to the teacher; eat their snacks at the table; and ride trikes with their shoes on!

Parents do these things because they happen to be what we ask our children to do (and we have a measure of grace for children who aren’t ready to be constrained … but parents are still expected to model good rule-following!). There may be different rules in your learning space–the key is consistency: we tell our parents, “If you can sit on a table and text with your friends, we aren’t able to tell children that they can’t sit on tables and have their electronic toy permanently in front of them.

Childhood and Adulthood

Let’s say there are three kinds of grown-ups. It’s not true, but let’s pretend.

On one side of the scale (that doesn’t really exist) is the grown up who has no time for kids; couldn’t wait to grow up, and has no interest in being reminded of what it was like to be small, weak, and dependent.

On the other side of the scale is the grown up who will always choose to hang out with kids over adults. With a purity of motivation, they prefer the ‘innocence’ of children, the lack of irony, and the willingness to have fun. They aren’t sure they trust the big people.

We’re not sure we trust either of these made-up adult-types. We would prefer the one who lives somewhere in between. The one who loves to kneel down to look a child in the eye, ready to offer some wisdom, but also ready to receive some gift that only a child can give. But this grown up doesn’t reject other adults in favor of kids. They know that the best thing a child can do is grow, and that what we grow into is adults. So they enjoy both the aged and the young, and they have no trouble moving between the two.

After all, if you don’t love adults (and adulthood), then you can’t very well shepherd a little one as they grow. And while we grown-ups always need to be reminded what it means to be child-like, we also need celebrate our own maturity and wisdom, and welcome growing children to join us there.