Often parents state “I’m always with my children.” But I have learned as a parent and therapist there is so much more to “being with” your children. We often miss the signals that children are really looking for from us. Children intrinsically need to know that they are connected to us and we “get” them even in the hardest of times, particularly those times when their emotions are heightened. Nothing brings this to the forefront quite like back to school.
During the fall, back to school chaos shows us the missing pieces in our parenting ways. Suddenly, parents have a forced agenda, kids are shuffled from one place to another on a different schedule and the moments you have with your child can become fleeting and chaotic. WE feel the parent shame of not doing enough, “why don’t you have them in this or that class?” As parents we are faced with the judgement of others and our internal shame of “am I doing enough or the right thing?” Parents, the struggle is REAL! How can you connect with your kids and be with them, in the chaos? How can you meet them where they are at? How can you have a healthy relationship that is growth oriented and healthy, amid the busy-ness? How can we have self compassion and empathy for ourselves?
As play therapists we use a number of tenets in how to “be with” a child in an authentic way. For parents, “being with” is being fully present with the child in front of you--that is, interacting with the child through observing, listening, and making statements of recognition. Children often experience the agenda of adults (get them ready for school, get them to school, get their homework done, put food in their bodies, get them to sleep), which is needed to help children accomplish the tasks of their day. However, children are more than just pieces to the game. Children are people (not miniature adults!) and experience deep emotions. They are worthy of mutual respect and honesty from the grown ups around them.
"Being with" is recognizing that the child may be having difficult feelings around a task that needs to be done (for example, getting ready for school). By recognizing the feeling a child is having in the moment, does not mean the child will not get ready for school, but instead allows the child to feel as though their needs are truly being seen and heard alongside the task. Giving them space to problem solve by engaging their “thinking” brains versus being stuck in their “emotional” brains melting down. For humans, we are driven by our emotional brains yet solve problems with our rational minds, this is a complex task that often as parents we fail to see the value in “getting it wrong.”
Children need to see us parents FAIL, they need to see our ability to recover, repair, and grow.
As parents, we have to realize that our own “child” selves impact every one of our parenting abilities. If we are not attuning and striving to heal our own internal shame systems, we will pass this stress onto our children. Are you able to “be with” yourself? If you can own this quality, then you can pass it onto your children.
Parents are imperfect. Luckily the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel gives us some hope. The idea
of Rupture and Repair states that when we have a break in connection with our children, we are able to repair this when we are mindful of what is going on. Sometimes we fuel the fire, when we should be helping our children calm down.
Sometimes we respond WRONG and we know as soon as it comes out of our mouth.
Showing up and teaching our children that we can make it right after we fail, repairs the disconnect and ends up creating the attachment that we were seeking in the first place. This might mean telling our children, “let’s all take a deep breath and start over” or maybe it’s apologizing for responding harsher than you intended. Show children that you are mindful of your own imperfections, limitations, and how your actions affect other people. Teach them that we are all seeking to improve, because no one gets it right 100% of the time.
An effective way to let children know you are “with” them is to learn reflective responses when communicating. This is a way of following, rather than leading, it is extremely helpful for parents to learn. Reflecting behaviors, thoughts, needs/wishes, intentions and feelings without asking questions shows the child you are “with them” in their experience. Not judging them or shaming them for making mistakes and having emotions. Your job as a parent is to strive to be a “thermostat instead of a thermometer”. To help the child by responding to them via modeling and directing the emotions across the spectrum. A thermometer just goes up with emotional distress, it is reacting, rather than responding, to your situation and emotions. This encourages you to take a moment of connection for you, the parent, to understand the child and help your child feel understood.
The goal is for connection. We are hardwired for connection as humans, it is what heals and repairs our hearts, especially when we feel like we are failing as a parent, mother, father, friend, and human.
A common phrase in play therapy is “if you have enough information to ask a question you have enough information to make a statement.” This can help parents to demonstrate “be with” to your child. Parents often state “didn’t you hear me?” Instead try “listening ears help us understand each other.” Or “why did you do that?” instead try “tell me about the choice you made.” This way of speaking decreases defensiveness and takes parental judgment and shame away from the relationship. Similarly, you’ve got to name it to tame it, by Dr. Siegal would say by identifying the emotion involved identifying their emotional distress beyond the surface. If your child is having a hard time picking out what to wear, maybe they’ve tried on four outfits that morning and still have not made a decision: “You’re feeling worried about what other kids will think of your clothes.” This statement recognizes the feeling, names it, and therefore allows the child to better understand themselves and the feeling behind the behavior. This in turn engages them to problem solve versus meltdown emotionally.
When you focus on the problem you lose sight of the child
A child enters this world growing and learning from every experience, developing their brain to understand the world around them and their role in it, this is called integration.
Play is the child's language, allowing them to master, control, learn, fail, express emotions, and develop social skills.
Play helps children learn to interact with the world and learn how their behavior acts as communication to adults and peers. If you only focus on their behavior and not the internal emotional cause, we lose sight of the little human they are, possibly planting the seed for poor self esteem and self concept. As a parent, if we lose sight of the human child in front of you and only seek to have compliance and dominance over the developing child - you lose connection and breach the relationship. A child’s brain does not function as an adult’s, it is growing and developing. By focusing on the child and the intention of their behavior, you will find connection and strengthen your relationship. A child feels that they are safe, secure, loved and attached when their caring adult is fully present and communicating through the child’s language of play.
Be that parent that gets down on the floor and plays with your child, gets lost in it, forgets the time, and finds joy in seeing the world through the magical eyes of your child.
What Does it Mean to "Be With"?
I am here. I will not be distracted. I will be fully present physically, mentally, and emotionally. I want to be so fully present that there will be no distance between myself and the child. I want to enter into the child's world, to sense what the child senses and to feel what the child feels. Can you be in your child's world and not judge them?
I hear you. I will listen fully with my ears and eyes to everything about the child, what is expressed and what is not expressed. I want to hear the child completely. To accomplish this kind of hearing, I must be secure enough within myself to allow this child to be separate from me.
I understand. I want the child to know I understand what they are communicating, feeling, experiencing, and playing and so I will work hard to communicate with the child. I want to understand the inner depth and meaning of this child's experience and feelings, the loneliness of feeling no one cares, the hardship of failure, the desperation that can accompany sadness. We can express their wishes, deesires, and intentions.
I care. I really do care about this little person and I want them to know that. If I am successful in communicating fully the first three messages, my child will allow me into their world. Your child will know that I truly care about them as a human.
“Be With” Attitudes Convey: NOT:
I am here; I hear you. I always agree
I understand. I must make you happy
I care. I will solve your problems
Parents often ask me, the “expert”, how do you do it? I respond with “I use play to parent.” I use the wisdom of neuroscience, child development, develop their shame resilience, and use the language of play to “be with” attuned to develop a relationship with my children. This has allowed me to develop strongly attached, curious, independent problem solvers that have empathy and compassion for others. I’m in awe of my children that by being in relationship with me they have found their true selves; their wholehearted selves.
Citations: Play Therapy the Art of The Relationship by Garry LandrethChild Parent Relationship Therapy by Bratton/Landreth