In our Summer 2020 issue, our resident parenting expert Anna Cole wrote about the value of doing a parenting ‘re-set’ during tense times. We previously published a sneak peek of her article, and today, we wanted to share the whole thing. Enjoy!
Know Your Limits
The value of a parenting ‘re-set’
by Anna Cole
They asked her; ‘What is the key to saving the world?’
She answered: ’You, you are the key…’
– Diego Perez
Times of rapid change bring out the best and the worst in each of us. As I write this, the world is on ‘pause’. The majority of us are confined to our home, attempting to work, parent and support ourselves and others, while those in health and other key worker roles continue to leave their homes and undertake highly demanding physical and emotional work. Many of those key workers are also parents, who return to begin the work of parenting after long days or nights outside the home. By the time this article goes to press for the Summer edition, we may be out of lockdown and picking up the pieces of our hearts and world. My attention is there as I write this, and the reflections are relevant beyond this time.
During the quarantine times, if you are a parent working from home, you may find yourself able to spend more time with that spiky teenager than you have in months – perhaps even years – and find out how much you enjoy their tender and emerging self. You may drag out that dusty box of Lego from the attic and start hanging out with your preteen who packed it all away last summer, or find with younger children that those pillow fights at bedtime aren’t so bad, now you’ve got nothing better to do this evening. These simple actions help build connection with our children and teens. Connection builds co-operation. Co-operation feeds back into feeling connected and engaged. It’s a loving spiral that makes family life run smoother.
What might make it hard to start this spiral is that beneath the external restrictions on our lives lie our own inner restrictions and limitations. Many of the rigidities in each of us were laid down during our own childhoods. Some of us get irritable, some get openly angry, and some veer towards feeling hopeless and lost. We may have a ‘needy’, sulking child inside us, who never got the loving attention we hope to give our own children. So what can we do to help ourselves as parents when we need an internal ‘re-set’?
Here’s an example of a recent ‘re-set’ of mine. During the quarantine period, I was suddenly, overnight, required to support my children in home education. My youngest has dyslexia and, as we sat down at the table side by side to begin his first day of home schooling, a raft of old feelings came up within me. I saw close-up how hard it can be for him to get some basics on the page: spelling, punctuation, grammar. They seem like a foreign language to him, one that must be re-learnt and remembered each time he begins a new piece of writing. At school, I’d worked to get him support around his dyslexia. He had found his way amidst a busy curriculum. Now, at home together, quietly getting on with a new routine, I ‘flipped my lid’.
This colloquial term is used by Dan Siegel – clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine – to describe what happens to all of us when we are flooded with feelings from the past and our prefrontal cortex goes ‘off-line’. I’ve had a lot of practice at noticing when this happens in me, and while I don’t always catch it in time, I have gotten better at knowing when I need some warm adult attention to help reconnect my prefrontal cortex with my emotional ‘limbic’ brain.
In this instance, I could feel that my annoyance had gone from ‘0 to 100’ in a heartbeat. I wanted to find a way to regulate myself before I got harsh or judgemental with my son. So I said to him, as neutrally and calmly as I could, ‘I’ll be back in around three minutes, just need to check something’. I ran upstairs, closed the door so he wouldn’t hear me, and phoned a trusted and long-standing ‘Listening Partner’.
Listening Partnerships are a term from Hand in Hand Parenting. It’s one of the five simple ‘Listening Tools’ we teach. In a Listening Partnership, you agree an equal amount of time with another parent, to swap listening, non-judgementally, confidentially, without advice or ‘fixing’. Right now I needed some Listening, with a capital ‘L’. I took three minutes, and I went for it, saying all the things that I didn’t want to spew out onto my son. I had an older sibling as a child who struggled a lot with school work – so much so that my Mum and Dad played down and ‘muted’ my achievements, so as not to upset my older sibling. I had a stack of old feelings ready to be heard, bubbling up to the surface. My Listening Partner kindly listened as I got it all out. I got to say nasty, venomous things: things I’d not felt safe enough to say as a child, and the exact things I did not want to say to my sweet son struggling downstairs with a sudden change to his routine, his friendships, his normality, and now his schoolwork. After a few explosive minutes getting it out, I was able to thank my Listening Partner, hang up the phone, and go back downstairs.
Like the sun coming out after a storm, the patient, warm, encouraging parent that I hoped to be on the first day of home schooling appeared. I could warmly and gently remind my son about the basics of spelling and punctuation and in his own sweet time, he began to find his way. Since then, the home schooling has gone pretty well. My son has found his own rhythm and takes ownership of his learning process, happily getting on with it each day. Phew!
Sometimes it’s not that quick a ‘re-set’, and we may need much longer ‘Listening Partnerships’ to off-load feelings about a topic that is making us hot under the collar. Having a regular place to be heard provides regular ‘top-ups’ so that we can reimagine the present and future and not get stuck in stories from the past. In this way, each of us can do regular parenting ‘re-set’s’ and find a new and happier story for the future of our children.
With thanks to Jane Thrift for sharing the Diego Perez quote with me, and for Listening.
For more information about how to find a Listening Partner, or about the free resources offered by Hand in Hand Parenting go to handinhandparenting.org. Check out Hand in Hand Parenting’s ‘Parents Connect’ Facebook page for daily updates and free support calls.