Listening to Our Children’s Pretexts

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Having an intellectual understanding of the healing power of tears, didn’t help me that much when it came to listening to a real live baby! Well it did, but it took me a long time to untangle my natural instincts as a parent, from my drive to stop my daughter from crying, even when she had no particular need.

As a new mum it was such a steep learning curve to figure out what my daughter wanted, that for most of the time, I seemed to forget what I had read about how some times babies cry for what seems like no apparent reason, simply to heal.

I think this is such an important distinction to make. Our strong urge to stop our children from crying when they don’t have a need, isn’t actually our natural instinct, even though it sometimes feels that way. It’s the history of our own childhood talking, when our parents couldn’t always tolerate our tears. We might have been told, ‘there’s no use crying over spilt milk’ or ‘don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about,’ and so this compulsion to stop our children from crying happens automatically, unless we have paid some attention to it, and become aware of what we were doing.

I’m not sure I could have managed that big job of untangling my childhood history, and discovered the inner awareness I needed to really listen to my daughter, if it wasn’t for Hand in Hand parenting. The articles I read, and the support I got from my Building Emotional Understanding Course, helped me dissolve the confusion in my head, about what she was trying to say without words. I finally had the confidence to trust my intuition. And I also got some really useful information, that helped me see things in a completely different light.

One sentence from an article by Patty Wipfler jumped out on me, ‘Children pick lots of pretexts to help them release pent-up feelings. They will cry about a shirt being pulled over their heads, about having a shampoo, about you moving six steps away to do the dishes….”

My daughter always hated me putting a top over her head. I would rush through the process to get it over as quickly as possible, and then get in a panic when it got stuck and the ordeal would last longer. I always felt guilty that it was as if I was doing something without her permission, something I had to do, but that she hated. I started to dread the moment when I’d have to get her dressed, and these moments became full of feeling for both of us.

The sentence about pretexts drew my attention to something I’d never considered before. That this was a small moment that had a lot of feelings for her, and if I could help her release her feelings, she wouldn’t be so bothered about it anymore. So next time, I decided to listen. I didn’t rush to put the top on, I showed her the top and told her what we were going to do. She cried for a while, much longer than that split second cry, before I yanked the top over her head and interrupted her feelings. This time, when she stopped crying, I would gently show her the top again, and tell her I needed to put it on. She’d start crying again.  Now I was fully giving her the chance to express whatever fear or upset was being triggered by the top, and when she’d completely finished crying, I put the top over her head, slowly and she was completely relaxed and at ease.

After that she never felt upset when I dressed her, and most importantly getting dressed was no longer something I forced her to do, but something we could do together. It was amazing to see, that suddenly beneath all these feelings, she was completely happy to co-operate with me when upset wasn’t clouding her view.

t never found out what was it that bothered her about having something pulled over her head, though I suspected it had something to do with trauma from her birth. When she’d first been born her head was incredibly sensitive after being born by vacuum extraction.  She hated wearing hats, or having her head touched. I’d felt guilty that I hadn’t had a natural birth, but I learnt an important lesson in acceptance, that there may be many aspects of our children’s lives that we can’t control but we can always help them to heal.

After this incident, I realised that there were all sorts of little pretexts, moments when my daughter got upset, that I could help her heal from. I didn’t have to force her to clean her teeth, or change her nappy. That these moments didn’t have to be unpleasant experiences. That if I listened long enough, she could tell me about whatever big feelings got stuck onto these small everyday events. She could get comfortable in her own skin, experience the sensations of being in the world, and we could take our time together. Investing this time is absolutely priceless, because then feelings don’t come every single time, over lots of little pretexts. There are less little edgy moments in the day for both you and your child. There isn’t so much to be fearful of in the world when feelings have been released. Are there areas of your child’s life where they have big feelings about a small pretext? They can be good places to start listening.

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