Daddy Will You Hold Me: Containing Feelings

One of the most important aspects of holding a child involves emotions.  A child will feel held when their parent is able to contain the powerful emotions of the moment.  A child will feel dropped when the parent is either overwhelmed by or unresponsive to the child’s emotions.

I readily admit that I tend to drop my children when they are feeling powerful emotions.  At times I feel too busy, too tired, or just plain sick of dealing with the chaos.  The truth is unfortunately that in these moments I am more concerned about my own feelings than I am about my child’s.  I have become overwhelmed with what is going on in me, and do not have the capacity to deal with what is happening in my child.

I just read a nice article titled Attunement Parenting The New Attachment Parenting and was reminded that my ability to contain my child’s emotions is directly correlated to how well I am taking care of myself.  In other words my ability to handle my son’s anger is impacted by my ability to handle my own anger.  Arriving home from work frustrated from the day significantly impacts my interactions with my children.  I must do a good job of taking care of my self in order to take care of my children.

I struggle with this, I tend to give, give give, and then give out.  I wear myself to the bone, attempting to be the best parent I can be, constantly striving to meet everyone of my child’s needs, never allowing my self to be distracted from the task of engaging in their lives.  THIS IS EXHAUSTING!! It is not possible to be the perfect parent, it is not possible to meet every need, and it is not possible to engage at every moment.

I have learned that I need time to refuel.  I am a very reflective person, and when I have neglected the time I need to slow down, and think I become short tempered, impatient, and depressed.  I am thankful for the reminder that it is OK to do something that I enjoy.  I am allowed to put the headphones on and listen to my favorite album.  But where does one draw the line? How much parenting is enough? And is it possible to measure up?

How do you RE-FUEL as a parent?  Where do you draw the Line?

HOLDING: The Day My Son Thought He Had Died

Psalm 18:16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.  He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.

I have recently begun to view HOLDING my children as so much more than just physically carrying them.  Holding has become something that is physical, emotional, and psychological.

Two summers ago for about 2 hours my son thought that he was dead!  It was a beautiful day.  My wife and I took our family to a community swimming area, we were able to relax and watch our kids swim with their older cousins.  Near the end of our time at the lake two of our sons approached us in the water.  The older one appeared completely calm and said, “Dad I was freaking out!” The other was literally freaking out; he was yelling, screaming, and crying.  Apparently one of his siblings had taken a water toy from him and he was very upset.  My wife and I both gravitated to the screaming child.  We acknowledged the older one but picked up, consoled, and helped to manage the screaming one.  Both children moved on and we left the lake a short time later.  As we arrived home my wife and I remarked to each other how enjoyable the day had been and what a fun time we had had.

The older cousins joined us at our house and we settled the children downstairs to watch a movie.  As my wife and I discussed the enjoyable afternoon, our older son came upstairs noticeably upset.  He was in tears and could hardly speak through his emotions.  He climbed into my lap and I attempted to understand what was going on.  He explained in short tearful phrases that he was afraid he had died.  Slowly the story of his “freaking out” emerged.  He explained that he was playing on the floatilla of fun in the deep end of the lake.  He saw an older kid with no life-jacket on swim underneath an inflatable “bridge” that was about 3 feet wide.  We had told him previously to never swim under this bridge.  As he saw the older kid do it with such ease however, he decided to give it a try.  In his attempt to swim under the bridge he plunged his head under the water and swam with all his might expecting to resurface on the other side.  His life jacket forced him to the surface earlier than anticipated and became caught on a seam of the rubber floatilla.  In realizing he was not going to make it he freaked out and attempted to return from where he had come.  He said that he had to swim as hard as he could to release himself from the bridge before he popped up above the surface gasping for air.

I was shocked by his story and confused by his concern about being dead.  It seemed that although he had escaped drowning he was afraid that what he was now experiencing was death.  I was freaking out and feeling overwhelmed at the outcome that could have devastated this beautiful day.  I had failed at this moment to physically protect him and it was now time to emotionally and psychologically HOLD him.

I stumbled about attempting to elicit his entire story while simultaneously working to maintain my composure.  Praise the Lord he was safe! But what is a parent to do?

After two years of on and off again reflection regarding this very scary experience I have deciphered what has become my way of HOLDING to protect from harm.

Physically Holding:

            My son climbed up into my lap to tell his story, he desired physical closeness as well as strength to contain the convulsions and shakes of his emotionally charged body.  Physical proximity during times of fear and pain can be very comforting to children.  The natural rhythms of a parents breathing, heartbeat and voice serves to calm and regulate.  I have learned to become more open to physical contact.  Whether it’s holding hands, scratching a back, or applying sunscreen holding touch is a crucial ingredient in protecting a child from present and future harm.

Emotionally Holding:

            My son was overwhelmed with emotion.  He could not contain his feelings of fear, and uncertainty.  He needed a parent to be a container for these overflowing emotions.  As emotion pours out of a child and into the parent he needs to feel that the parent can handle it.  The parent can manage his own emotions in the face of the child’s very powerful emotions.  My son was also confused about what had happened.  Emotional holding helps a child to make sense of confusing emotions and circumstances.  Emotional holding seeks to fully understand the experience of the child without judgment.  For the child telling the story enables him to make sense of the experience.

Psychologically Holding:

            In the weeks following this incident I began to wonder if it might impact him long term.  He loved to swim, but would he refuse to get back in the water?  Would he have nightmares, irrational fears, or ongoing questions about death?  I continued to talk about the situation hoping to communicate that it was ‘ok’ to talk about and that recurring thoughts were normal.  At one point he stated that he thought about it often, so I wondered about his thoughts and even consulted a therapist.  Psychological holding is being your child’s therapist.  It is knowing when to talk and when to listen.  It is knowing when to seek outside help for your child and possibly for yourself.  Psychological holding is a parent’s ability to know a child in their mind, and heart.  It is the ability to mentalize the child’s inner experience and respond appropriately.

My son is OK, we talk about this day every once in a while but mostly it is just part of his story.  As his parent I am reminded that I cannot protect him from every danger, but that HOLDING him can help him to get through the scary things he encounters in life.  I can be his secure base to which to return when times get rough and life is difficult.

What scary/painful things have your kids experienced and how did you help them through it?  What was the hardest part about helping them through this difficult time?

Daddy Will You Hold Me?

I used to be a cruel and sadistic parent.  I was selfish, tired, resentful, and overwhelmed.

       My first son learned to walk when he was around nine months old.  At about 18 months I figured he had had enough practice and I expected him to walk everywhere he went.  When we went to the store he would slowly climb his way out of the car seat, I set him on the ground and expected him to walk to the store.  He would start to whine about halfway there, when his little legs struggled to keep up with my full strides.  As he plopped himself on the ground crying, “daddy hold me” my frustration would start to boil, I attempted to provide a logical choice, “You can walk, or you can ride in the cart.”  However, logic was thrown out the window when I expected an 18 month old to walk the length of a parking lot.

            8 years and 3 kids later I was reminded of my cruel and sadistic past.  My five year old is high energy and high emotion.  By the end of the day he has run his tank dry and seems to have little energy left for any self-care.  As we finish reading books he plops himself on the floor and asks, “daddy will you hold me?”

            When I scoop him up and carry him to bed I realize that “holding” a child is so much more than bringing that child from point A to point B.

Holding a child is:

  •             Protecting from harm
  •             Containing feelings
  •             Softening your heart
  •             Anticipating needs
  •             Accepting uniqueness
  •             Caring for hurts
  •             Enforcing limits
  •             Sacrificing self
  •             Creating safety
  •             Seeking to understand
  •             Being present
  •             Offering grace

Over the next several months my posts will be discussing questions about  “holding” your children.  Is it possible to drop a child emotionally while holding him physically?  Is it possible to hold a child while not physically touching him?  How do fathers hold differently than mothers?  What are the consequences of never being held and how can one learn to hold if they never experienced it themselves?

Please join me in the discussion and offer your own reflections or questions about your experience as a parent.

THE ANGRY GROWL


As a younger man I thought anger was a really effective tool for working with kids.  I thought it worked because when I got angry I yelled, when I yelled my voice changed from monotone kindness to something that sounded like a growl from hell.  When my voice changed to this scary growl from hell kids listened.  In my mind this worked.   I would ignore frustrations, hurts, or annoyances until I could ignore no more, then I would explode with a scary tone.  Once I had exploded I felt a lot better, my feelings had been expressed and the people around me seemed to “understand.”

            I have two vivid memories of discovering that my explosive anger was not helping people to understand me but to fear me.

            I was working as a direct care staff at a residential facility for teens.  These were normal kids who had struggled at home; they came to us to heal their family relationships.  I was very young myself but had been charged with the task of “parenting” and leading these teens.  One day toward the end of my yearlong commitment of service, I had asked a young man to complete his chore by taking out the trash.  A few minutes later I peeked out the door to check on him and realized he had been distracted while “sword fighting” with a broom.  I felt the anger well up inside of me, whipped open the door and growled, “Stop screwing around and get to work!”

            Just then a new staff member appeared around the corner. (Literally having arrived the day before) I had this instant feeling of being caught.  I felt embarrassed and ashamed.  I also felt powerful because of how quickly that boy jumped to attention and finished his chore.

            A couple years later while working as a youth pastor, I taught a 7th grade Sunday school class.  This class was challenging for me; there was a difficult mixture of the “popular” kids and those that were “annoying”.  One Sunday was filled with especially snotty remarks and I could take it no longer.  I laid into them with talk of kindness, respect, and love all in my characteristic growl of anger.  The room grew silent and I could see their faces fill with what I thought was remorse.

            Shortly after arriving home from that Sunday school class I received a phone call from a concerned parent.   Her daughter who tended to be pretty sensitive and was not involved in the snotty remarks had returned home in tears.  The parent asked what had occurred and if I could speak with her daughter.

            As I began to mature and gain some much needed self-reflection skills these two incidents stuck in my mind.  What was this experience that simultaneously produced feelings of guilt, shame, and power?  Was this technique that seemed to produce such a swift response in people really working?

            More growth and first time fatherhood brought about increased pressure and self-reflection.  The most profound realization of my need to change came one night as I was attempting to console my newborn baby.  He had been crying for what seemed like hours and we had tried everything we knew to soothe him.  I held him close to me as he screamed and writhed in my arms.  The thought that kept coming to mind was, “STOP BEING SUCH A BABY” I wanted to yell it at the top of my lungs.  I felt the anger welling up and had nothing but a worthless growl voice to rely on.

            That is the moment I realized that anger is a primitive and under developed parenting skill.  My growl was useless in the face of my son’s tears.  Actually, if I had used my go to skill it would have only made the situation worse and created fear rather than love.   My growl of anger had evoked action in the teens I worked with but only out of fear.  All these years when I thought I was effectively motivating, I was really fearfully motivating.  If I was to become the parent my son needed I would be required to find new ways of managing my emotions and responses.

            In the years since that night in the nursery, I am thankful to have gotten a handle on my anger.  I have learned to express frustration and discontent in the moment rather than allowing it to build up.  I have developed a better sense of personal boundaries in relation to work, family, and friends.   I have learned that an out of control parent is very scary for a child.  When children are scared of their parents they miss out on the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes.

            There are still moments when my anger builds inside of me.  I feel warm and become tempted to motivate with fear.  There are also moments when I slip back to using my primitive and underdeveloped skill of anger.  I am hopeful that as I continue to grow and reflect these moments will become less intense and less regular.  May you experience the same joy of self-control.

Read Angry Art

Read Angry parents

How have you learned to control your Anger?

ANGRY ART

Several weeks ago, my son became very angry with me.  It was a slow Saturday morning, and a bit cool outside.  I was attempting to find some indoor activities that would keep the “wheels” on for a little while.  We have a large roll of butcher paper in a closet that was purchased precisely for these types of days.  So, I got the roll out cut a piece about my son’s height and asked if he wanted me to trace him.  He said yes and things were looking up.

I completed tracing his body and right away I knew something was wrong.  I noticed a certain tone in his voice when he said, “daaaaad.”  I checked in to see what the problem was and he said, “you did it wrong!”  I could see the emotion beginning to overwhelm him.  His face was a little red, his eyes were filling with tears and I am pretty sure a crayon flew by my head.  “What did I do wrong?” I asked.  “You traced my hand wrong!” he yelled.

The next few seconds consisted of me trying to understand what had upset him and he yelling through tears, pacing around the room.  The intensity and speed with which he felt this anger surprised me.  What he did next was also quite a surprise.  He sat down next to the outline of his body and began to furiously scribble over the entire thing.  At first it seemed he was doing this to upset me.  He looked at me as he scribbled waiting to see if I would react.  When I did not react however he just kept scribbling and scribbling and scribbling.  As he scribbled he seemed to gradually be getting calmer and calmer.  He changed colors several times until he had filled up the entire sheet of paper with ANGER.

In this moment I was a little angry myself.  I had attempted to create a nice memory and it turned into something quite uncomfortable.  As I have reflected on what happened however, I have become thankful for the experience.  I have learned several valuable lessons about my son that I hope to never forget.

My son experiences his emotions quickly and intensely.  No matter what he feels, he feels it to the full.  When he is happy, excited, sad, angry, or frustrated his cup is one or two drops away from over flowing.  This truth will be a great strength for him, he is passionate, hardworking, physically active, engaging, and fun to be around.  This truth may also be a challenge for him; he can by hyper, impulsive, rough, and reckless.  Most importantly I learned that when he is allowed to express his emotions he will be OK.

As he scribbled I could see the anger pouring out of him, I could feel his upset as he glared in my direction hoping to get a reaction.  But the longer he scribbled the less intensely he felt this anger.  Children need parents that are not afraid of their intense feelings.  They need parents who can “contain” them even when they cannot contain themselves.  When their cups are over flowing with anger, sadness, energy, or excitement they need parents to accept their expressions of these feelings and to help contain the overflow.

I am not perfect at this, my son is not perfect at this, but I think we are learning more and more about it every time he is overwhelmed.  Each experience of these intense emotions is another opportunity to practice the ANGRY ART.

What emotion does your child feel most intensely?

How does your child express this emotion?

Oh, Let’s Try That Again

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”
Psalm 103:13

Do you ever find yourself correcting your children for the same thing over and over again?  Sometimes I think, “I put you in a timeout for that yesterday, and the day before, how many times do we have to do this?”  At times I get frustrated, why are they not learning this lesson?  Do they not understand what is being taught? When will they learn?

Unfortunately the answers to those questions are: no they do not understand right now and it will be a long time before they do.  I have learned that many times we parents misunderstand how discipline works.  We seem to think that our children are like piggy banks.  They come to us empty of knowledge and it is our job to fill them up with the lessons of life so they know how to act.  Each time we discipline is viewed as dropping a coin in the bank.  Once that “coin” has been deposited the lesson is learned.  One deposit equals one lesson right?

It has been helpful for me to think of children as wheat fields, rather than piggy banks. A wheat field is spread out as far as the eyes can see with stalks about waist high.  If you were to walk across the field and then look behind you, it would be possible to see a slightly worn path where you had been.  If you walk that path one time it will eventually go back to its original state.  If you walked over that path hundreds or thousands of times however, it would be well worn and very clearly visible.

Think of these paths as experiences in your child’s life.  Each time they have a similar experience, it is as though they had walked down the same path.  Imagine the “throwing a ball” path.  The more they throw a ball the more worn that path becomes and the better they get at throwing the ball.  Athletic trainers call this muscle memory neuroscientists call it a neuropathway.  The more they experience a certain behavior the more likely they are to repeat it.

Applying this analogy to how children learn from discipline can be helpful in understanding why we find ourselves correcting the same behavior over and over again.  Sometimes those behaviors have become well-worn paths and in order to change the behavior we need to create different paths using different experiences.

I recall speaking with a mom whose son had a habit of taking things that did not belong to him.  She had decided that instead of the normal punishment she would begin to practice picking things up and putting them back down.  Her plan was to create a new neuropathway.  She wanted to create the experience of seeing something that is not his, wanting it, looking at it, and leaving it be.  I was blown away by her wisdom she was not sitting back and waiting for her son to steal so that she could react with a consequence.  She was proactively creating new experiences, and neuropathways.

I believe that viewing our children as wheat fields rather than piggy banks can be extremely helpful for parents and children.  For parents it can help to reduce anger.  When I am trying to fill a piggy bank and it seems that the lessons are never learned eventually anger is the result.  When parents are angry they are less able to parent effectively.  When we view discipline as creating healthier pathways and experiences I am more able to remain calm and view an incident as yet another opportunity to wear a desirable path.

In our house we love redo’s when our oldest hits his brother, we say “Oh, let’s try that again.”  And we repeat the situation in a more appropriate manner.  When our youngest throws a fit, “let’s try that again.” Prescribing the words to use telling us how angry and upset he is about what happened.  As we repeat over and over again these experiences of positive behavior the paths become worn and behaviors more common.

We don’t do this perfectly, but we are working to create new pathways for ourselves, of patience, compassion, and joy.  I am hopeful that you will as well.

Please start a conversation and leave your thoughts and comments below. 

Where Does it Hurt?

“Who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” Psalm 113:6-7

Before I had children I thought I knew a lot about being a parent.  I had been working with teens for years, read many parenting books, and observed (judged) parents for countless hours.  In my arrogance I thought that I was well prepared to raise the “perfect” child.

When my first child was born I was halfway through my graduate program studying marriage and family therapy.   I had so much to learn.  At this point in my life I thought it important to raise a son who did not over-react when he got hurt.  So, I set about under-reacting to my son’s needs.  I thought that if I was calm and collected and acted like nothing was wrong he would learn to respond the same way.  When he falls down he will get up and dust himself off.  When we drop him at the baby sitter he won’t shed a tear.  He will be strong and he will be independent.

What a mess!  I was parenting from my own needs rather than my son’s.  I needed a son who did not bother me, did not whine, and allowed me to stay disconnected from others.  What my son needed was a father who was attuned to his needs.  He needed a father that responded with compassion and grace.  He needed a father that said, “Where does it hurt?”

I am so thankful for the difficult and challenging lessons that followed those first nine months of parenting.  As I gained experience as a counselor and parent, the Lord was busy refining me into the father my son needed.  I learned that my parenting approach was actually starving my child of compassion, nurture, and love.  The more I closed my heart to his hurt the harder he cried out for me.  The more I said, “suck it up, boys don’t cry” the more abandoned he felt.  Paradoxically my plan to make him tough was actually making him emotionally fragile.

 I was privileged to attend a professional training as a counselor that revolutionized my approach as a parent.  I found in this training that compassion and nurture are vital to a child’s normal development.  I discovered that children who are not touched, held, or cuddled would actually die.  I learned that if a parent is attuned to their child’s needs and provides the appropriate level of nurture and compassion, their child would not have to ask for it.  This child is then free to grow, play, explore, and laugh rather than having to worry about being nurtured, loved, and protected.

It was a slow process, but I found that when I asked, “where does it hurt?” my heart began to soften and my son began to relax.  He finally knew, “my dad will protect me, I am safe from being harmed”

I strongly believe that our sons need fathers that will respond with compassion rather than dismissal.  Ignoring a child’s hurts and saying “boys don’t cry” does not make them stronger, it makes them emotionally fragile.  It is when fathers (and mothers) respond with empathy, compassion, and care that boys learn to manage their hurts and control their changing emotions.  I challenge fathers to  “stoop down to look upon your boys and girls, raise your poor son from the dust and lift his bloody knee from the ash heap.” Paraphrase Psalm 113:6-7

How do you show compassion to your child?
What valuable lessons have you learned as a parent?

How have you witnessed the harm of a “boys don’t cry” culture?

Angry Parents

 

Why does a person get angry?  What is it about a child’s behavior that can cause a parent to lose control?  Parents get angry and lose control with their children when they experience stress or anxiety above their levels of tolerance.  Typically, when parents experience this level of stress, one of their four core fears—danger, failure, loss of love, and loss of control— has been triggered by their children’s behavior.  Often, the end result of this fear is the parent’s extreme emotional response to the situation.  Learning to identify and better understand the impact of these fears in our parenting helps us learn to maintain better personal control with our children.

Danger:

The fear of their child being seriously hurt, emotionally or physically.  Parents who experience this core fear feel anxious when their child takes risks or is out of their sight.  The most common way of relieving this anxiety is to protect.  These parents have a hard time maintaining personal control when their efforts to protect are being avoided by the child.

Failure:

The fear of failing as a parent, or their child failing as an adult.  Parents who experience this core fear work hard to make their child a success and have a hard time maintaining personal control when their child’s behavior seems to work against them

Loss of love:

The fear of losing their child’s love.  Parents who experience this core fear may rely on their child for feelings of affirmation and value.  In times of trial they feel abandoned, alone, and betrayed by their child and may struggle to maintain personal control.

Loss of control:

The fear of losing control of their child or the situation.  Parents who experience this core fear see misbehavior as a sign of things to come.  They are afraid that if they don’t get things under control, their child will grow up to be a hardened criminal or worse.

We all lose our cool from time to time.  Being aware of our buttons, and what underlying fears trigger us to lose control can be very helpful.  spend some time reflecting on the last time that you lost your cool.  What was your child doing?  What were you doing?  Which one of the four core parenting fears triggered you?  Spending a few minutes in self reflection can help you to maintain control the next time your core fear is triggered.

Portions of this post are excerpts from my parenting workbook entitled “Parenting Peace”.

Read Angry Art

Read The Angry Growl

 

The Fortress of Solitude

Several years ago I read the book and watched the movie “Into the Wild”.    It is a true story about an upper middle class boy.   After graduating from college he gave away what was left of his college fund and wandered around the United States.  He told no one where he was going and ended up starving to death in the Alaskan wilderness.  My favorite quote from the movie goes like this, “It is not as important that a man be strong, as it is that he feel strong.

Iknew a boy recently who did not feel strong.  If you looked at him you would not think it. He was a football player, confident, and bigger than most.  Despite outward appearances however he believed that he was weak.  The worst part was not that his strength was being stolen, but that he was giving it away.  A recurring theme from our conversations was how he would beat up anyone who said something bad about his mom.  He was constantly talking about how tough he was.  He listed off the number of fights he had been in and the times he had been suspended from school.  I really liked this boy but was becoming frustrated with his need to portray himself as tough and “manly”.

I began to realize that although he was strong, athletic, and likeable-he did not feel strong, athletic, or likable.  It appeared to me that he felt weak, awkward, and hated.  His fragile view of self required that he project strength and aggression.  If he were to project what he really believed, that he was weak, awkward, and hated, people might agree with him, and he could not handle that.  So, he built the most “manly” façade he could come up with.  This façade was designed to convince others and himself that he was strong and not to be messed with.

Unfortunately, it is very common for boys to build a façade of “manliness” designed to keep people from knowing who they are on the inside.  In their book, “Raising Cain”, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson call this the fortress of solitude.  This façade begins, from a very young age, to isolate boys from emotionally connected relationships.  Boys grow up to be men who can hold long conversations about what is happening in the world of sports.  However, they have a very hard time identifying what is going on inside of themselves.

I hope that parents will teach their boys what it means to be a man.  We can teach our boys that being a man may include physical strength.  We can teach our boys that being a man also includes emotional strength.  A man of emotional strength is able to look inside himself to acknowledge the good and the bad.  He is also willing to include those he trusts in this inner life.  It is this vulnerability that is a great marker of “constrained power”(meekness).