In my early twenties I became interested in practicing tai chi, meditation and yoga. Later I realized that I was looking for a sense of well-being, a way of dealing with my emotions, and difficulties I had that stemmed from my childhood. I wrote stories and journals to try and process my emotions. I begun to see that I could release my emotions, through doing something physical to access them, such as yoga or massage. I realized for the first time in my life, that our emotions are not just thoughts in our head, but physical manifestations too. For a few years I went through quite a dark period, but after lots of writing, thinking and self discovery I felt much happier, and with a stronger sense of myself. I also decided that I was ready to become a parent.
My tai chi teacher, had told me a story that made me start to think about the kind of parent I wanted to be. He was adopted and had a troubled childhood, and was quite naughty and hard to control. Somehow, and I forget why exactly, a Tibetan Monk started taking care of him. Whenever my tai chi teacher started to do crazy, out of control things, the monk would never react, or get angry. He was simply calm, loving and always positive. Soon my tai chi teacher stopped behaving badly, and the monk even managed to teach him to read. This story taught me that if we are positive and loving to our children, then they will always respond well towards us.
I thought that the path to becoming a good parent was to meditate, and become very good at meditation so that I could always stay calm and relaxed. But as every parent knows you don’t have a lot of time to sit around doing meditation!
Before my daughter was born I read an book called ‘The Aware Baby,’ By Aletha Solter. The book explains how babies and young children cry for two different reasons. One is to get their needs met, for instance they may be hungry or too hot. The second reason is to heal from stress or trauma in their lives. When we experience something stressful, the stress hormones cortisol, and adrenalin are released into our bodies, preparing us for ‘fight or flight.’ When the danger is over, humans can recover from the stressful or traumatic experience by shaking, trembling, laughing, and crying, to release the build up of stress hormones and return the body to it’s normal equilibrium.
This made sense to me, because I had gone through my own process of emotional healing as an adult. During that time of writing, and healing, I had often cried and then felt better. As I held my crying baby, I felt that I journeyed to a deep place, somewhere almost spiritual, and I felt such a deep connection with her.
As the months went by I got in the habit, that almost all of us parents do, of trying to stop the crying. I would try and feed my daughter to sleep, and then when that didn’t work, I would pace the room. But then I began to notice that these activities seemed to create more tension between us. I was edgy and impatient for her to sleep, she would complain every time I stopped moving. I reread the Aware Baby, and began researching everything I could about crying. I became convinced that crying is the bodies natural healing process, and that as parents, our job is not to always stop the crying, but to distinguish when a child is crying to get their needs met, and when they are crying to heal. I remembered that deep sense of connection I had with my daughter when she cried, and I missed it.
Through my research into crying I discovered Hand in Hand parenting. Hand in Hand teaches an approach they call ‘Parenting by Connection.’ The founder Patty Wipfler explains that when children feel closely connected to their parents, their behaviour is loving and co-operative. However their sense of connection is fragile and easily broken. Children seem to want all of our attention, but we do not always have the time and energy to give it to them. When children’s behaviour go off track, it’s usually a sign that they are feeling disconnected. Hand in Hand teaches ‘listening tools,’ that help us to maintain our connection with our children.
I already practiced one of the tools, Staylistening. When our children cry we offer our closeness and love, even if we can’t fix the problem. If all their needs are met, then we don’t try and stop the crying, but just listen.
I soon begun implementing the others.
Special time, is time spent following our child’s lead, listening to what they want to do, rather than directing play, making lots of eye contact, and generally being loving and affectionate.
Setting Limits, is done with warmth, and love. We can set limits playfully, for instance hugging our child when they try to bite us, or in a more serious but still loving tone. If a child cries about the limit, then we staylisten with them.
Playlistening, is when we try to engage our child in play where they take on a more powerful role, makes them laugh (anything other than tickling). So for instance, my daughter giggles a lot when I try to chase her but can’t catch her. These sort of games help build a child’s confidence as they feel powerful and strong.
As I practiced the Hand in Hand tools, staying close to my daughter, making lots of eye contact, and helping her regulate her emotions, I realized that this was the close sense of connection that I’d been seeking, the one I’d had with her when she cried as a newborn.
Through parenting by connection I could really learn what being close to my daughter was, it’s about being in the moment with our children, when parenting is like meditation, slowing down, and simply enjoying our children’s company. This was something I had to learn how to do, to forget about my need for ‘me’ time, and just be with her.
Parenting is never easy, and giving our children high levels of attention can be exhausting. That’s why Hand in Hand offers Listening Partnerships. These are free exchanges of listening time with another parent, so we get to release our emotions too. For me this was the final but most vital piece in the Parenting by Connection tool kit. As I started talking about my day, and going back to reflect on my own childhood, I would sometimes laugh and cry. I always felt better after listening time, and it restored my energy, and sense of being able to enjoy my daughter’s company.
The support of having a weekly listening partnership has enabled me to think differently about feelings. I no longer feel overwhelmed by anger, exhaustion, frustration or impatience. When these strong feelings crop up, I think, ‘’oh that’s something I need to release in my listening time.’’ Now I have finally reached the place I always wanted to be, watching my feelings, but not being overwhelmed by them, I have a way to let them go.
And now, when my daughter screams, bites, or acts grumpy and clingy, I don’t feel helpless anymore. I know that I can help her to change this behaviour, that it’s a sign she’s feeling isolated, and needs to feel my love and attention. Though the job of parenting seems overwhelmingly difficult at times, the solution consists of one simple word; connection.