By Patty Wipfler and Tosha Schore, Hand in Hand Parenting
Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges. Copyright © Hand in Hand Parenting, 2016
Even today many of us think that building resilience and grit in our children requires the use of harshness. It’s not that we want to scare them or hurt them or worry them. We just don’t know how else to get from the screaming, tantruming child to the strong, confident one. The truth is that a crying or upset child is not weak or broken. He is brilliant - using his body’s natural ability to heal from upset to regain access to his thinking brain that will guide him well. It’s just that we adults are so uncomfortable with big loud feelings that we get in the way of success!
Children who seem to lack confidence or resilience know how to gain those qualities, but they need our support to make it happen. Setting Limits by offering them expectations, and then stopping to really listen to any feelings that come up around that limit is a great way to escort a scared child towards confidence. We call this willingness to hear how a child is feeling when they are upset “Staylistening.”
Because separation is such a common struggle for children of all ages, it is often the perfect place to help a scared child gain confidence.
TACKLING SEPARATION FEARS USING LISTENING TOOLS
The first step in moving towards confident separations is to plan for emotional ones. You’re ready to be an agent of change when you’ve anticipated the upset that is surely coming.
Second, understand that your child’s upsets reflect underlying fear, not a deliberate desire to ruin your plans. Think about where your child’s fears might come from. If your son clings tightly to you at bedtime, consider what earlier separations he might be recalling. Has the daughter who won’t participate in that gymnastics class she wanted so badly had difficulties in groups of children before? You may be able to identify a few of the hard times that could be contributing to your child’s separation fears. But don’t worry if you can’t think of anything. He can shed his fears without either of you knowing their origin.
The third step in helping your child through separation struggles is to address your own fears and worries. As your child shows how threatened he feels, your own feelings can be triggered so that you become unsure of his safety, too! Your worries will be transmitted to him without a word.
Things will go better when you get the support you need to release those feelings. Remember how you felt leaving your crying child to get to work on time? Or how it felt moving your child from a crib to a “big kid” bed? Do you remember longing for your own mom? Your dad? Listening Partnerships work well for identifying and venting feelings from memories like these.
In the throes of a difficult separation, Setting Limits and Staylistening are your go-to tools. You’ll want to let your child know ahead of time that a separation is coming up. He needs to know where you are going, when you’re coming back, and who will stay with him. If he begins crying at this news, Staylisten. He’s using the healing process already.
Here’s a story from our new book Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Challenges that shows you what it can look like. This mom took a broad perspective on her son’s separation issues, chose to set a limit and Staylisten, and watched big new doors open for him.
When my son was in sixth grade, he was still too frightened to go on sleepovers. I didn’t want to push him to do something he wasn’t ready for, but all his friends were sleeping at each other’s houses, and I sensed that my son really wanted to as well. I felt that his fears were holding him back. After sharing my feelings about this issue several times with a Listening Partner, I decided that I was ready to help my son.
I had gone to overnight camp myself when I was young, and I wanted my son to begin going to the same camp. I knew he’d love it, and I’d heard that one of his close friends was also going. I knew that if I set a limit here, I’d need to Staylisten, and this would move him into a more rational and relaxed space.
One day, the two of us were home alone and I said to my son, “I’ve decided I’d like you to go to sleepaway camp this summer. The session that fits with our schedule is full, but I put you on the waitlist.” I knew that he would be upset by this proposition, but I didn’t realize just how scared he was! He began trembling. He begged me not to send him. He told me that he couldn’t be away from me for that long—that he would die! At first I was taken aback by the rush of emotion and the intensity of my son’s words. But I quickly realized that this limit was important.
His upset and trembling continued for a good hour. I listened. Then he calmed down and asked, “Do you think I’ll like it?” He was still hesitant, but he had shed enough fear that he could see the possibility that my decision to send him to camp was a good one. We talked for a while, and then moved on to other things.
The next day I heard my son say to his brother, “I’m going to sleepaway camp this summer! Well, if there’s space. I’m on the waitlist.” He was proud. And then he turned to me and asked if he could spend the night at a friend’s house that same night. While I remained calm, inside I was bursting with excitement at my son’s newfound freedom. “Absolutely! Why don’t you give him a call and see if tonight works.” Since that day, my son has been sleeping at friends’ houses regularly. And that summer he had the time of his life at camp. His first words off the bus when he got home? “Can I go to Session Three next summer? It’s longer!”
Want to help your child build confidence? Hold out reasonable expectations. Listen to his fears. Get the support you need to address your own worries. You’ll be amazed at how quickly things can change!
You can learn more about the authors and their new book, Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Challenges, on the Hand in Hand Parenting website.