It was a morning like any other. My kids were buzzing around, and I was making breakfast.
However, I had a lot on my mind that day and I was functioning on about three hours of interrupted sleep. It was hard for me to concentrate, my voice was tired and my head was hurting — my nerves were at their obvious end, even before the day began.
I was just about to ask my kids to please quiet down, before I decided to, first, close my eyes and take a deep breath.
It was in that moment that I realized my little ones weren’t actually yelling. They weren’t screaming or shouting, they were… being — being kids.
It was my perception that was skewed.
As I started to take an inner inventory of all the lists, thoughts and questions weighing heavy on my mind, then added in the factor of sleep-deprivation, I found my hand gravitating towards my chest.
I empathetically mouthed the words, “It makes total sense that this feels like too much noise for you right now.”
Instead of interrupting my children’s flow to ask them to lower their volume — a task that ranges between impossible and difficult for two toddlers — it dawned upon me that I was able to reduce the amount of sound that penetrated into my ears without giving my children the feeling of being too much or disrupting their play.
I secretly stuffed some tissue into my ears.
And it wasn’t to tune my little ones out. On the contrary, I did so, so that I could be capable of tuning into their needs.
By taking matters into my own hands, I was able to block out some sound and, when asking which kind of fruit they wanted in their yogurt, engage with my children from a place of calm, instead of in response to my triggers.⠀
Often times, when our children do something that upsets us, we view it as their problem.
When kids get on our nerves, we think they need to change.
When their behavior causes us any form of discomfort, we say they are the ones who need some sort of adjustment – the ones who should understand how they’re affecting us or be ashamed if they don’t.
The ones who should know better, do better… be better.
Yet, making our children responsible for how we are doing, and (often unconsciously) teaching them to be ever-aware of our moods and anticipate our every response, is putting a weight of responsibility on them that no child should be required to bear. It puts them on guard when they should be carefree.
It trains them to downplay what’s going on in their inner worlds, so that they don’t seem too challenging or difficult for us.
It sends them the message that they must attune to the needs and desires of others in order for their own needs to be met.
Giving our children no choice but to quiet down, conform and comply — or to break free from our approval, our warmth and positive regard is the perfect recipe for future people-pleasing, and ultimately, growing numb to their deepest, truest, most authentic sense of self. It’s giving them the choice between authenticity and a state of alarm… or a sense of safety that comes at the price of sacrificing their own emotional well-being for the sake of maintaining someone else’s.
And since humans are wired for connection, and children are wired to depend on their caregivers — they usually will. For a time, at least.
What is then often perceived as learning social skills could be more accurately defined as learning survival skills.
Is a young child “learning to share?” Or is he learning to “give things away when Dad says to, so he doesn’t get mad?” Is a child starting to understand the pain it inflicts upon her parents’ ears when she gets excited or plays wholeheartedly, or “not to be loud so mom doesn’t snap” and that she isn’t worthy of taking up that kind of space?
Here, you may argue that many children pick up on their caregiver’s state of being and seem to shift in empathy, automatically. I don’t disagree.
The important thing, here, is to reflect upon the motivation behind the child’s change in behavior. Does it stem from a sense of fear? Does the child feel responsible for the caregiver’s feelings of heaviness? Is the child attempting to avoid feelings of emotional discomfort? Or is the child offering their empathy in hopes of maintaining a sense of safety.
True empathy is a skill that is learned in time, largely by observing and experiencing it from the other side.
So back to my morning in the kitchen. Only a minute or two after stuffing the tissue into my ears, my shoulders had relaxed and a few of the lines on my forehead had vanished. I even found myself smiling affectionately as my kids creatively put together a drum kit made out of pots and pans.
Tending to our triggers not only contributes to our own wellbeing, it saves us from mountains of unpleasant moments and mess-ups with our children – not to say that those moments don’t happen. They do. And that leads us to the important opportunity to practice repairing the ruptures we cause in our relationships.
But a large amount of those explosions can be avoided by taking responsibility for our own well-being, and allowing ourselves to tune into what lies behind our own inner storms.
It is a journey, but it is one more than worth embarking upon.