Dawn Friedman MSEd LPC
therapist • writer
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“I’m not making you put your socks away because I like bossing you around; I can’t wash them if they aren’t there to wash,” you might say. “Listen, the cookies just aren’t in our budget; I don’t like saying no.”
We explain and we explain and we explain because we want them to not only understand but to believe us. We want them to see our point and quit whining about laundry and lunches. We want them to both do the thing we want them to do (put away socks, quit whining about cookies) AND be happy about doing it.
That’s not really fair, is it?
We need to keep our eyes on the prize. The goal isn’t cheerful understanding, it’s understanding period. Weirdly, kids — like the rest of us — are more likely to come to understanding when no one is desperately trying to make them understand.
Remember this: nobody — and I mean nobody — likes to be lectured.
So explain it once, that’s it. Don’t get trapped thinking that if you can only explain it exactly right your child will light up and say, “You know, now that you’ve explained it so well I really understand the value of picking up my Lincoln Logs.” Because that’s extremely unlikely to happen. In fact, I can say with certainty that it has never ever happened in the history of parent-child relationships. (On the bright side, older kids have been known to say to their parents, “NOW I see the point!” but that’s years in the making.)
Fortunately most children will figure out the value of clean underwear and clear floors on their own eventually. It may take a very very long time. Until then we need to appreciate that what makes sense to us doesn’t make sense to them even when we spend a lot of time and effort trying to talk them into coming over to our way of seeing things.
And we need to give up on the idea that if we are very reasonable and very clear in our explanations that our children won’t be disappointed about the lack of cookies in the house or be thrilled about doing laundry.
Sometimes people get afraid of feelings so we deny them or try to ignore them or explicitly tell our kids to shut those feelings away. But how children feel and how they behave are too different things.
There’s being angry and then there’s yelling or hitting. It’s ok to be angry with your little sister but it’s not ok to hit her. It’s ok to feel frustrated with the Legos that won’t work right but it’s not ok to kick them across the floor.
When we correct or redirect our children to express their negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, guilt) appropriately, we need to make clear that we accept their feelings even when their behavior is unacceptable.
For kids, feelings may be so overwhelming and painful that they have to act them out in their bodies. We can give them appropriate ways to show their anger in their bodies. They can punch pillows instead of punching brothers. They can go outside and yell instead of screaming inside. They can stomp their feet instead of knocking down blocks.
Help give kids words to describe their feelings.
“You are so angry!”
“This puzzle is so frustrating!”
Sometimes sad or worried or scared look like angry so if you see that, say it.
“I think you are sad that we have to leave the bouncy castle and that’s why you don’t have the patience to tie those shoes. Leaving can be so hard!”
“I wonder if you’re feeling worried about the big swimming pool and that’s why you’re snapping at me.”
However we feel, it’s fine because feelings are morally neutral. How we manage our feelings — how we treat others, how we treat ourselves — is what matters. The more we find acceptance for all or our feelings, even the yucky uncomfortable ones, the easier it is to manage them.
One of the things we talk about in therapy is how our growth and change affects the other people in our lives. Or more specifically, we talk about how to grow and change without placing undo responsibility on the other people in our lives. We can’t expect people to change with us or to understand our journeys. Sometimes relationships improve as we get healthier and sometimes they get worse. It can be hard to keep our feet on the path we must walk when we feel ourselves pulled back by the people we care about and who won’t come with us.
To change is to upset the balance of our relationships; everyone tilts whether they want to or not.
Let’s say that that a woman (who we’ll call Joan) decides to practice health at every size and she chooses to give up dieting. Joan and her best friend have always gone on diets together. They take turns looking up new menus in women’s magazines or go to weight watchers meetings together. Now when the friend calls to give Joan a run down of her daily eating diary Joan doesn’t listen like she used to. Now maybe Joan tries to convince her to try HAES, too. Maybe they argue about it. Maybe Joan confronts her friend about behavior she interprets as enabling or her friend confronts Joan for behavior she interprets as condescending. (Remember the post I wrote about Truth vs. truth? How you behave and how someone else interprets your behavior is out of your control and vice versa.)
Even though Joan is the only one who’s decided to change, her decision is forcing change on her friend, too. Change knocks the relationship off balance and the system — the relationships — want balance so either Joan will learn how to accommodate her friend or her friend will learn how to accommodate Joan or the relationship will end.
Accommodation can look like a lot of different things. It doesn’t mean that Joan has to go back to dieting or that her friend has to stop; it means that the nature and the content of their friendship will need to change. To do this, they will both need to respect the other person’s right to do things differently and not everyone can do this.
We don’t live in a vacuum. Our choices impact the people we love and the people we live with just as their choices impact us.
Change can be lonely.
Finding people who support our changes — friends who have been through something similar, therapists who can validate our growth — is an important part of getting through the challenges of disequilibrium in our relationships. They can remind us that we’re not crazy for wanting something different or that the stories we’ve been telling ourselves can make way for new, better stories.
Growth and healing comes with learning how to be the person we need to be even when other people want us to stay the same. It’s figuring out how to navigate our changing relationship when we don’t really understand how they are changing. It means standing strong in our own truth when other people don’t see things the same way.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could neatly close out chapters in our lives before moving onto the next one? You know, resolve all relationship issues and put lingering conflicts with family to rest and take a nice predictable staircase up to enlightenment?
Unfortunately life doesn’t work like that especially because our ideas about closure usually involve a very specific response from someone else. We want answers. We want to make amends or apologies and be forgiven. Or we want someone to ask us for forgiveness. But hanging our personal growth on someone’s very specific response is never going to work and focusing on our need for that response can keep us stuck in one place focusing on one thing.
Really what we need is not closure but understanding. We need to make sense of the events in our lives, which doesn’t mean figuring out why this person or that person treated us badly. The truth is, understanding why someone treated us badly — hearing them explain it — will be an empty exercise if we haven’t worked towards our own resolution.
In theory, it sounds great. Someone comes to us and says, “I was a jerk and here is why. I’m sorry. I should have been kinder.” But very few people outside of 12-step programs are going to do that. Besides if we aren’t ready to forgive someone then his or her apology won’t mean anything to us.
We need to grieve our losses and process our pain. We need to make sense of what that bad treatment means to us regardless of what it means to the person who treated us badly. We need to learn how to live with hurts that can’t be undone.
We also need to understand that making sense of our lives is an ongoing exercise. You may have resolved childhood hurts in your twenties only to have them come back up when you have children in your thirties. You may resolve them when your children arrive only to have them come back up once again two decades later when your children move out. It’s like when you read The Great Gatsby in tenth grade and you don’t get it then you dust it off years later and it’s whole different book. That’s how life is.
Once you accept that there are rarely — if ever — tidy resolutions then you can quit banging your head against the wall demanding them and start making sense of the events of your life.
This month I have the Talking Adoption workshop and then starting in April I’m going to be offering free 2-hour parenting workshops each month. These will be very small discussion groups on a specific topic with lots of great information and hand-outs (because I love hand-outs). They’ll be on the third Tuesday of each month at 7pm (with the adoption class being the exception) and I’ll hold them at my office. (If we outgrow the space I’ll look at holding them someplace with more seating room.)
You can see what’s coming up by clicking here to get a whole workshop list. You can also stay informed about upcoming events (because I’m always adding cool stuff) by subscribing to my email list. I send my list out once or twice a month (depending on what’s happening) so you don’t have to worry about me cluttering up your inbox. And of course I never ever ever share my email list with anyone else.
You can register for the following classes now and there’s more coming:
Talking to Kids About Adoption
February 26 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Tailored to the needs of both pre-adoptive parents and those who are already parenting, this 2-hour workshop on talking to kids about adoption will help parents create and nurture healthy conversations. We will discuss: How to begin the conversation; the ways your child’s development shapes their need to know; telling the truth: when, why and how; engaging the reluctant child; how to be prepared for unexpected questions. There are only a few seats left and you can register by clicking here.
Beyond Because I Said So: Better Communication for More Effective Parenting
April 24 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Tired of arguing with your kids? Sick of the power struggles? Discover ways to get your point across quicker, easier and with better results. This free 2-hour workshop will be fun, informative and will give you lots of tools to take home and start using right away. Space is limited so reserve your seat today by clicking here.
When Your Child Says “I Hate Myself”
June 24 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
This free 2-hour workshop will focus on understanding how self esteem changes as children grow and the ways that parents can help their children develop a positive self concept. We’ll talk about both typical child development and atypical challenges. Class size is limited so reserve your space today by clicking here.
Building Emotional Literacy in Your Child
July 22 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Emotional literacy — the ability to recognize and appropriately express our feelings — is at the center of healthy child development. Kids who are able to identify and express their feelings have fewer behavior problems and are easier to parent. This free 2-hour workshop will help you strengthen your own skills to help your child become fluent in the language of feelings. Class size is limited so reserve your spot today by clicking here.
I was thinking about this quote because a few weeks ago I spent an afternoon talking about open adoption with a group of people looking for more education on the topic. One attendee was expressing her concern that adoptive parents might feel hurt if their children “choose” their birth parents and it’s true that some adoptive parents can feel insecure or afraid in open adoptions and in reunions, too. But love truly is infinite and when we give our children that experience of infinite love, we can know that they will reflect this back to us.
Happy Valentine’s Day!