Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Aria was in her room getting ready. It was her first day back to school after a two week winter break. I was in the bathroom thinking of the plethora of the things we needed to get a handle on in the days and weeks ahead. Her statue of liberty project was on my mind. Shoot, we need to get a posterboard. Should I get the fancy foam kind or is that going overboard for 1st grade?
"Aria! You scared me!" I jumped a bit as I looked down at her standing in the doorway. She was crying. She was crying in that really sad way where I could feel her hurt. "What's wrong honey?" I asked. "Mommy, I'm scared. I don't want to get my ears checked. The lady said she was going to check my ears again after winter break."
How was I supposed to handle this effectively in such a short amount of time? Do I encourage her to brush it off and tell her she is fine so we can hurry up and get out the door? How much do I comfort and coddle her, attempting to ease her concern? With a thirty minute drive to school ahead of us and Aria only partially ready, I took a deep breath and tried to bring myself into the present reality. I hugged her. She didn't melt into the hug, but I could tell it comforted her a little. I knelt down to Aria's level, looked her in the eyes and said, "I can see you are scared and sad. Why does getting your ears checked scare you?" The question seemed to frustrate her a little. She couldn't explain herself in that exact moment. We didn't have all the time in the world, so I had to reroute my plan of support. I said, "Ok, honey. Let's talk about this on the car ride. How about we get some food in that belly so we can get to school on time." She agreed reluctantly and walked with me into the kitchen. I prepared her food and left her to eat breakfast so that I could finish getting dressed and ready to go.
From the other room I hear Aria say, "MOM!!! Why do I have to get my ears checked again?" I could tell that her mind was starting to fixate on her worry. I walked quickly into the kitchen with a book and said, "When I was little I would look at a book while I ate breakfast so I wasn't bored. Here's a book; you may want to try that. We'll talk ears in the car." I tried to distract her brain from fixating on her concern so we could stay on schedule.
I opened the conversation back up on our drive. "Do you want to talk about how you feel or not anymore?" She said she was interested in talking, which basically meant that she wanted to listen to me until she was satisfied. I already thought about what I wanted to say while I was getting ready. I began by guessing the feeling under Aria's fear. I asked, “Aria, do you feel embarrassed to be getting your hearing rechecked?” She said yes; she also identified that she felt singled out and different from the other kids by having to get rechecked.
The back story is that she had fluid in her ears from an illness that lingered causing moderate hearing loss, more than the average kiddo who experiences fluid in their ears. I told her the importance of getting her hearing re-checked. I proceeded to share stories from my childhood when I felt alienated and how I handled them. I told her that everyone feels different and alone at times, even adults. I said it is completely ok and normal for her to feel what she is feeling and that she will get stronger inside every-time she feels like this and gets through it it. I shared the importance of learning that everyone is different and although fitting in feels good, it's important to embrace being different too. It's a compliment to me when someone says I'm weird. Then I know I'm not following the herd all the time.
This situation may sound insignificant in the big scheme of parenting. However, as parents we are here to help support and guide our children. These teachable moments are disguised as hearing re-check fears, special reading groups, repeatedly falling while learning to ice-skate, the feeling of an itchy tag that causes a tantrum, or a child that doesn't want to play with ours. What if we started to see these hard times as golden opportunities.
If we take advantage of these golden opportunities we get the chance to use our maturity and wisdom to guide our children to better understanding their inner world and the world around them. In just a blink of an eye our children grow older, and as we all know, teenagers are much less open to parental influence, especially if we they did not feel their childhood problems were significant. Would you rather teach a child about how to manage fear about a hearing re-check or wait until they experience dangerous peer pressure in high-school? Seize the moments today. We have the wisdom, but lack the patience. The thing is, what we perceive as our reality is our reality. These problems feel very significant to our children, which means they are significant.
These problems feel very significant to our children, which means they are significant.
I was raised in a "deal with it, you'll be fine" household. With all due respect to my parents, they used the tough love "let's be efficient" approach. I learned to 'deal with it and do it anyway' and trust me, there is value in learning resilience this way. I learned how to jump in the fire and take risks when feelings of self doubt arise. However, I wonder what longterm coping skills I learned in addition to moving through fears? What if we could teach children both: how to 'do it anyway' and simultaneously teach them to manage their feelings and internal experience? I am in favor of integrating both into parenting, but by no means is it a cakewalk considering my initial reaction to Aria's crying was a surge of impatience. Thankfully, mindfulness helped. I noticed I was triggered and was able to center myself before reacting from my old pain bodies.
Below is the basic process I use to teach Aria how to "deal with it" while also providing emotional support along the way. The following steps keep me in my adult brain during a teachable moment. Try them and see how they work for you.
1. Empathize. Put yourself in your child's shoes. Imagine yourself public speaking or being singled out in an unfamiliar environment. Now compare your discomfort to the feeling the child is experiencing. It may seem insignificant to you until you truly empathize with them.
2. Reflect. Reflect back to your child what they are experiencing. Are they feeling sad? frustrated? annoyed? excited? Connect in your unique way and let them know that you see that they seem sad. If they are not sad they most likely will correct you. By doing this, they feel seen and validated. This is a very important component in building trust.
3. Breathe and affirm. Take a deep breath and just sit in the discomfort with them. My protective mommy instincts want to shield my daughter from having to experience disappointments and uncomfortable feelings that life brings. Try not to fix it or give advice right away. Rather, breathe and let them know it's ok to feel what they are feeling.
4. Bridge. Create a bridge of connection by sharing a story about a childhood moment you felt like they did. Try using other significant people in their lives in the stories too. It helps build connection.
5. Teach. Ready, set, action! This is your time to shine as a parent. Your teachable moment! Explain why it is important to face the fear or deal with the situation. If you established connection through the previous steps, your child will be more open and available to listen. If they refuse your teaching, let it be. You may practice steps 1-4 until that one magical day that they open their heart to you even more and receive your lessons.
Aria and I ice-skating. We had many golden opportunities this day!
Teaching children to "deal with it" cultivates resilience and establishes a deeper sense of confidence. Supporting a child through the process teaches the the child to manage the overwhelming feelings they are having. These feelings come out in ways that may trigger you such as a tantrum, crying, crabbiness, anger, or withdrawn behaviors. Pay attention to the behavior; it is always a cue to something deeper.
It is hard to apply new strategies and change old patterns that are not instinctive from your own childhood. Learning behavior modification skills are not much different than learning and applying a new sport, exercise, or game. They all take repetition and practice.
If this speaks to you, try the steps. You don't have to do them all at once- like you're completing a to-do list. Read the situation with your gut and respond with the steps where appropriate. See if it makes a difference.
Good luck to you on this journey of life that connects us all. We're all in this together.
PS- I’m no editor, so please forgive my grammar errors. Tips are welcomed. :)