Upset Child? Maybe You Just Need to “Hold Space”
One of the best things and sometimes one of the hardest things you can do for your child is just to hold the space for them to feel whatever they’re feeling. What do I mean by holding space? I mean allowing whatever thoughts and feelings they have to just “be”. We listen, but we don’t try to “fix” anything. We don’t want to talk them out of feeling bad just so we can feel good. Now, it’s important to make a distinction between what your child is feeling and what they are doing, between emotion and behavior. For example, it is 100% valid and okay to feel angry and it’s important to hold space for that emotion. However, it is not okay to hit someone. If your son is angry, holding space for his anger does not mean continuing to let him whack his younger sister.
Next, I say “one of the hardest things” because I know first hand just how difficult this can be! When Travis, my most challenging child, was younger, I was definitely guilty of not giving him the space he needed to express his feelings. When we were in public and he would start acting up, I was often too concerned about what everyone else thought to give him the space to feel what he was feeling! At other times, I wouldn’t give him that freedom because it didn’t fit into my schedule of what I needed to get done. When he was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of homework he needed to get done, I didn’t give him the space to process through that stress because I needed him to finish his homework so that we could get onto something else. Even though, in hindsight, if I had given him time to process through his stress we might have actually gotten the homework done much faster and with less hurt feelings.
I can remember there were times when my son came to me with problems and I was tempted to help him feel better, so I could feel better. For example, one day he came home complaining about being bullied. Naturally, I love my son and I didn’t like the idea of him being bullied. I wanted to “fix it”. I wanted to just make his pain go away as quickly as possible. I wanted him to feel that he was not alone. So rather than listening to and validating the reality of the pain he was feeling, I began talking about my experiences with being bullied as a kid and how I was able to move past them. While this was well-intentioned, all he really wanted was to be heard and understood, and to know that it was okay to feel what he was feeling. He didn’t want stories or clever solutions.
By jumping in with my own story and not giving him that space to feel and to freely express his emotions, this only led to further problems. My son’s emotions only got worse, not better. He acted out even more and this led him to becoming more stuck in the very things I wanted to help him change!
It wasn’t till one of his therapists pointed this pattern out to me, that I really became aware of just how critical this is! I learned that I needed to make it okay for him to feel how he’s feeling and to allow him to show up how he wants to show up, even if that meant letting him feel sad or angry for a while. If the situation truly required advice or other forms of “fixing” then there would be plenty of time for those later. I needed to listen and hold space first.
When he felt overwhelmed, I needed to acknowledge that feeling and allow space for that overwhelm to just be. I needed to help him learn to process through and sit with his own emotions in a healthy and productive way, even if that process took a while. Most of all, instead of teaching him to run away from unpleasant emotions or react to them, I needed to help him realize that it’s okay for him to feel this way. Emotions, in and of themselves, aren’t good or bad. They just are. When he felt safe in that space, I could then help him work through the overwhelm, so that he could learn and practice the tools to get himself unstuck whenever he felt that way.
In our Power In Parenting Program, we work extensively with parents to help them learn how to provide that space for their child, and then teach them specific tools to work with their child through these emotions and empower their child to recognize these emotions and get unstuck, so they can move forward and lead productive lives.
Thoughts Affect Your Child…
Even the Secret Ones!
Chances are you have heard the biblical phrase “The sins of the fathers that are passed down, even to the third and fourth generation.” I’ve often wondered, how does a sin get passed down? If I went out and robbed a bank, it certainly doesn’t make my child a bank robber too. Nor should my child be held personally accountable for anything else that I do, right? So if that is true, how did this phrase come to be? Does it hold any truth at all?
For those familiar with the Bible, it actually appears in one form or another 12 times – 12 times! So how does a teaching like that, that seems so illogical on the surface, get put into the Bible, that many revere as truth, not once but 12 times? Could it be that there is actually some truth there that lies a little deeper than the surface?
In my years working with parents and being a parent of 5 kids myself, including two boys diagnosed with ADHD, ODD, and high-functioning autism (also known as Asperger’s Syndrome), I have come to realize that there is a real truth here, but maybe that truth is better phrased as “the thoughts of the [parents] are passed down, even to the third and fourth generation.” So what do I mean by that?
I mean that thoughts have power. Far more power than most of us give them credit for. There is a short poem by James Allen posted above my desk that reads:
Mind is the Master power that moulds and makes,
And Man is Mind, and evermore he takes
The tool of Thought, and, shaping what he wills,
Brings forth a thousand joys, a thousand ills:—
He thinks in secret, and it comes to pass:
Environment is but his looking-glass.
Oftentimes we don’t pay close attention to what is going on inside of our head, and yet it is true that our thoughts really drive our actions, which in turn drives our results. A better life can literally come about from having better thoughts!
However, there’s another piece to this puzzle. Believe it or not, your thoughts don’t just influence your actions, they also influence your child’s actions. In psychology there’s a well-documented phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect which is really just a fancy term for a simple concept: Our thoughts, beliefs, and expectations of others, be they good or bad, will have an impact on their behavior.
The guy who discovered it, Dr. Robert Rosenthal, did his first study on the subject in 1969. He went into an elementary school in northern California and gave all of the students intelligence and aptitude tests. After he had rounded up everyone’s results, he was careful not to look at a single student’s scores before he spoke to the faculty. When he met with the teachers he “lied” about the results. He picked a random collection of student’s names and he told the teachers that those students were special, gifted, and exceptional.
Then he waited. Nine months later, at the end of the school year he came back and tested all of the elementary students again. This time he did look at their results, paying particular to those random students who the teachers believed to be exceptional. Lo and behold, those random students had huge increases in their scores compared to their peers. Believing they were special made it so.
The same truth applies to you and your child. Whatever your beliefs and expectations of your child happen to be, those thoughts will inevitably have an effect on how you behave towards him or her. And, oftentimes without realizing it, your behavior will send out a subtle message about whether you really believe your child can thrive and succeed. When your child picks up on this message their behavior will tend to rise or fall to meet your expectations
If we want to improve the behavior of our children, a really good place to start is to take a good hard look at what thoughts and messages we are sending them. Believing your child is exceptional and capable of success just might make it true.
How? Start With You.
When I coach parents one on one, they often come to me with a long list of concerns they have about their child, and these concerns are usually quite valid. However, I tell them that before they can successfully influence positive change in someone else, they must first be coached themselves and come from a clean, solid space, both mentally and emotionally. Clean up your own thinking first, and then you will be able to show up for your child in the way that they need you to.
A quote that I really like is “the state of your life is determined by the state of your mind.” Likewise, I could also say that the state of your child’s life is greatly influenced by the state of your mind. Sadly however, most people’s thoughts are predominantly negative and pessimistic, which tends to show in the results they get.
As you can imagine, there are many, many tools and techniques that can help you to recognize and overcome these negative thoughts, so that you can fill that space with great, empowering thoughts. If you’re looking for the deep dive on this subject, in our Power and Parenting program we go through many of these powerful techniques and we work with you to teach you how to master these tools, so that you can truly empower your mind and become a master influencer.
For today, however, we want to start by giving you one potent technique that you can start implementing right away. Surprisingly enough, it’s not something that will be new to you. In fact, it’s something you’ve already been doing your entire life.
Use Your Imagination
I want to ask a favor of you. At the end of this paragraph please close your eyes and imagine the following: Imagine a person in your life for whom you have great respect and admiration. Someone who inspires generally positive feelings in you.. Have got someone in mind? Great! Now close your eyes and really think about this person. Bring up all the details of their personality. Think about how they talk and behave.
Welcome back from Imaginationland! Now that you’ve really got a clear image of this person in your head, I want you to imagine something else. Imagine that this person is living with you and lately they haven’t been picking up after themselves. Or doing their homework. Or any other task you can think of.
Think about how you would talk to them about changing their behavior? What words would you use? What would your tone of voice be? Furthermore, would you scold them? You probably wouldn’t. After all, you already have incredible respect for this person so there is no doubt in your mind that they are fully capable of changing, since they have already demonstrated how awesome they are in other areas of life. They don’t need to be scolded. They need some support to develop a new habit.
Now that you’ve thought about how you would approach the conversation with your respected friend, I want you to go and behave exactly like that when you speak to your child. When you do, your child will be able to automatically feel the respect in your words and tone of voice. They will feel how much faith you have in them, even if you don’t say it outright. And I’ll bet that they will respond differently as a result.
Once you have mastered this mental and behavioral shift of coming from a good and clean space you may find that you are better able to influence your child.