Our spring issue is out now. Regular contributor and parenting expert Anna Cole reflects on the freedom that comes from Staylistening when your child is upset, rather than trying to ‘fix’ the situation. Dive on in to learn more…
Freedom From ‘Fixing’
Allowing Yourself and Your Child Just To Be
by Anna Cole
I recently was catching a train to visit my eldest, now in her late teens, who has begun her first term at University. I’m here, like that dove with the olive branch in its mouth, for you parents of much younger children to say it really does go quite fast. No matter how often your kids wake you in the night through those early years, for example, and you feel like it’s never going to end – it does! And then you miss them, deeply.
I still have a child at home, but as I am experiencing a new kind of parenting ‘freedom’ of sorts, with my eldest flying the nest, I’m reflecting today on a pivotal moment in my parenting, when I first learnt about Staylistening, an ‘emergency listening tool’ from the Hand in Hand ‘tool box’. There’s a real freedom in Staylistening for you as a parent – and for your child – and so few of us are lucky enough to come across this when our children are in their early years, or to see it modelled. Let me give you a sneak preview!
Staylistening is a tool for our children’s ‘emotional emergency moments’. Simply: we stay with them and listen rather than try and ‘fix it’ (or punish or blame or shame them) when they get into an emotional place. We bring as much warmth as we can muster, we notice our tone and offer our eye contact. We keep things safe by putting a warm but firm hand on the thing they want to fling across the room, for example. What you find when you stay and listen to a child when they are upset, whether that is for five minutes or an hour and five minutes (if you have that much listening in your tank), is that children come out of big upset much like the sun comes out after the grey clouds.
You may even notice if you look, that after a long Staylistening episode, your child may make a developmental jump – they may suddenly feel more comfortable with separating from you at school drop-off, say, after struggling with it for some time. Or, if you look, you’ll see their resilience increase as they suddenly figure out the challenge that flipped their lid in the first place.
You don’t need to ‘psychologise’ your child while they are in the middle of a big upset. They know what to do – they will have a good cry, or they may even begin to sweat and writhe around with upset – and coming out the other end, they may yawn a lot. We can trust in our child to get through the storm. We must trust that our children will find their way to release their feelings and not have an agenda ourselves as a parent. Our job as the parent is to stay and anchor them through anchoring ourselves. Herein lies the freedom. Freedom not to try and ‘fix’.
And it’s oddly bonding, to stay with your child through this state. The secret is that to do Staylistening, we must be resourced ourselves, and to feel resourced as parents, we need to find adult listeners for ourselves. I can share more about Listening Partnerships, which are a great way to do this, in our next issue. The only words you need to say are ‘I care’ and ‘You’re safe’. In fact, ‘five words or less’ is a good rule of thumb when Staylistening. Often the opportunity to Staylisten comes from a tiny pretext. A sandwich cut the ‘wrong’ way or the wrong colour cup. Our children can use these small pretexts to offload big feelings. One of the beautiful things about Staylistening is you get to do less, say less, as a parent. We don’t try to ‘name the feelings’ for our child. We relax on the inside and let the feelings run their course.
Here’s how it can work:
Tensions were running high as we prepared to move house and travel to Australia to visit my family, and despite all our best intentions, my husband and I argued in the kitchen one morning before school, right in front of our young son. My husband stormed off to work, slamming the door angrily without saying ‘goodbye’. At the end of a long day, he came home, and we apologised and were kind to one another again in front of the kids.
That weekend for no obvious reason, my son got upset and cried hard when his Dad went for his regular jog around the local park, calling out a friendly ‘goodbye’ as he left. I moved in close to my son and got down to his eye level, and Staylistened. He started to talk amidst his tears about how ‘Daddy left without telling us’. ‘I miss Daddy’. ‘Where’s he gone?’ I told him he would be back soon, that he’d gone for a run. My son cried hard for about fifteen minutes, and I stayed close and listened. I kept my eyes available for him to connect with me.
He eventually cried himself out, and we hugged warm and long. It was clear from this delayed upset that he had taken it personally when his Dad had stormed out of the house earlier that week – even though the argument was between the two of us and not with our son. He had felt like his Dad had slammed out of the house and left him. That evening, after getting to have those feelings with my warm attention as I Staylistened, my husband told me how he was blown away when our little son ran up to him in the park later that day, put his hands on his heart, then pointed at his Dad and said: ‘I love you’.
Anna Cole, PhD is a Qualified Instructor and Community and Research Lead for Hand in Hand. Hand in Hand is an international not-for-profit that works to bring attachment-based, trauma-responsive connection tools to parents. Find them at handinhandparenting.org