Tag Archives: distress

The place between: responding to your child’s distress gives everyone space to learn

photo 1 A couple of days ago I was struck by a revelation. Like the situation for many key learning lessons, it initially didn’t appear as a very auspicious day. In fact it was anything but. I was to be honest feeling hideous and worse than that, feeling hideous at work with blocked sinuses and vertigo, a super foggy brain that would not properly activate to the tasks required of me, a still malfunctioning computer and a strong desire to be in bed.

I had also mistakenly written down a meeting time an hour later than it was in my diary and when I received a polite Tweeted prompt from the meeting head (luckily just a journal article discussion club but one on an article I had provided and was meant to be discussing) I took off running across campus via the car park to get to the target building. Slightly distracted as I passed some IT staff (thinking about my problem computer), jumping over some borders at the same time, and not noticing the purely ornamental, annoyingly always undoing shoelace on my shoe had done just that and got stuck under my other shoe, I suddenly went flying through the air and smacked into rough tarmac at significant force on hands, knees and the front of my feet.

Hearing an “Are you all right Victoria?” from the IT staff I popped back up to crouch position, and realised that while I might be injured I was actually all right and I had a meeting to get to so I yelled back “I’m fine”. At this point though I kind of took stock and realised that 1) my right hand was missing a significant amount of skin on the palm; 2) I had really hurt my right knee and it was full of holes, and my left knee was similar; 3) I had grazes all over my feet and 4) causing the most distress was that my near new capri pants were literally shredded from the fall. I was relieved my new phone and well beaten up sunglasses had survived- priorities! Despite all that I was relatively calm. I managed to Tweet back en route that they needed to have the first aid kit ready.

I pretty much walked in the door of the meeting looking like a crazed lunatic, bleeding and probably looked a bit shocked. After all grown ups don’t typically fall over and come to grief. First aid was kindly administered and I carried on. Straight after my meeting I went to visit MissBB at childcare and asked her for all I wanted- a cuddle, which instantly made me feel better. Of course everyone I saw for the rest of the day asked me what had happened and I got a lot of “Oh how embarrassing” or “You must feel really silly” comments.

Not one to be deterred by injuries I went to yoga after work, where I discovered that approximately 88.8% of the moves were manageable, although not necessarily painless. It was here that my revelation happened. Lying down for the mindful meditative finale of the class, where I was meant to be clearing my mind suddenly I realised that despite feeling unwell I had actually demonstrated great resilience today. More than that my mind alerted myself to the fact that I could have been really embarrassed at what had happened but I wasn’t. I could have felt ashamed, berated myself for being so stupid, felt really sorry for myself, I could have cried (that would have been perfectly understandable), but I didn’t. I just accepted what had happened and moved on. I was struck by how powerful that felt, not to allow myself to wallow in negative thoughts in a way that society (clearly some of my colleagues) maybe expected me to act. It was a reminder that from challenge comes personal growth and that the mind when given the right conditions can flourish and grow with positive thoughts.

And there in my mindfulness practice I felt an incredible sense of peace and happiness. Even more so because I was struck by if I could get to this place at age 40, how amazing it could be to teach my daughter at age 4. Then I realised that she probably has this sorted already- children are at least 10x* more onto it than we frequently give them credit.

photo 3

Most of the time our children when they hurt themselves, or are indeed upset about something (whether we think their tears are rational or reasonable to us or not), just need our support and acknowledgement to get through their pain and/or distress. In other words, they need our emotional responsiveness towards them in that moment. We adults, when distressed may be able to administer our own response to suffice, as I did to myself, due to our much better ability to regulate our emotional state. A hug from someone else we care about though can be all it takes to feel all right again.

How we respond to our children in this moment (and there’s another blog post on this coming very soon regarding social media) can be a valuable learning tool and has longer term implications. My experience reminded me of an excellent recent post on Evolutionary Parenting I had recently read on Distraction, Redirection and Responsiveness.

Personally I’ve never been comfortable with distraction as a parenting strategy- it has always felt a little dishonest on my shoulders. Distraction is where we try to get a child/baby to stop crying or doing something by showing them something else. A child is for example really upset about their mother leaving them at childcare and so they get shown a ball, when all they want is their mum or at least someone to talk about that they want their mum. Redirection is a useful technique for some situations. This is typically used for misbehaving rather than upset children and is where you move a child’s undesirable behaviour to more desirable behaviour but with explanations of why, e.g tipping flour over the floor shifted to baking something together.

However, it is in the fostering of good attachment through responsiveness that I have been focusing my efforts as this has been clearly shown[1] to be associated with positive outcomes. Responsiveness is when you acknowledge and respond to the child’s distress/communication through respect for the child’s feelings. It doesn’t mean you necessarily give into your child and you can still maintain your boundaries (See Boundaries, fencing and reliving childhood). It frequently involves staying with the child and hugging them until they are calm enough to look at other ways to express themselves and discuss other coping strategies etc. Responsiveness when a child is not distressed is equally important too in terms of setting up ‘at ease’ communication patterns as children age.

Like any parent I have my moments where I don’t comply with my own plan. A few months ago I was aware that MissBB was reaching a more challenging stage and I noticed that my parenting efforts were starting to frequently be the result of letting my cultural filters slip back into place, which wasn’t aiding myself or my daughter. Since getting back to my own parenting values (See Boundaries, fencing and reliving childhood), with a central tenet of strong positive attachment including responsiveness, I have noticed a profound and positive difference in her behaviour. It’s a sample size of only one, but a good example that a form of “Are you all right?”  (and come and have a hug until you are) works incredibly well.

Given though, that children are frequently one step ahead, I decided to ask MissBB how she would like to be treated. I presented a scenario of having hurt herself and then outlined in the most unbiased language I could- distraction, redirection and responsiveness options. It’s just a sample size of one again and a single scenario of distress but she immediately said that she would want the responsiveness option. When I asked her why she said “because I just like hugs, lots of hugs”.  She also added that when she’s having trouble calming down she looks around her to feel ok- this is one of the strategies we have worked out together (you can read more about that in Boundaries, fencing and reliving childhood and The rubberband effect: building and maintaining resilience)

That, and our mindfulness breathing approaches we successfully use. Responding to our children this way AND to ourselves is an empowering and positive approach for all parties. It’s a little bit like creating “The Place Between” – “The place where MAGIC sends you“**. In other words, providing a supported, calming and safe place until you or your child is emotionally ready to talk about their distress and work through it.

It takes enormous personal strength to grow as a person, to examine within and to find a better way, especially if that means not giving in to the expectations of those around you. It takes an equivalent amount of strength and the same principles to find the parent within, the one that deep inside you discover you want to be. At every step it may be a battle against the voices of those around you and all the filters that you’ve accumulated over your life that want to keep popping back into place. But when you can stand up and say to yourself “I’m all right”, acknowledging hurt you may have experienced but learning and moving on, then that’s a moment to cherish. I encourage everyone to embark on this journey.

And for our children, who are little but oh so very important people too, there’s no better time for them to start this journey than right now, with a parent or caregiver that can demonstrate their respect to their child’s attempt to communicate. It may feel like the hardest thing in the world sometimes to be responsive and it’s impossible to always respond in the most nurturing way without sometimes snapping in a manner we may all berate ourselves for after. Our children though teach us the remarkable capacity to forgive these transgressions when we find ‘the place between’ to provide us with the space to calm, think and then apologise. We all want our children to have a beautiful life, free from as much distress as possible- responding to them when they are distressed is one of the best ways to help them for now and for their future.

*Pure speculation, no scientific data to back this figure up whatsoever.

** Leon and the Place Between is a magical children’s book by Angela McAllister and Grahame Baker-Smith about the place where magic sends a boy, perfect for children 3 and above.

Scientific reference

[1] Grusec, J.E. 2011. Socialization processes in the family: social and emotional development.  Annual Reviews in Psychology  62: 243-69.

Advertisements