Sometimes our children are holding on to BIG feelings that can’t be released in a smaller amount of listening time. Using the listening tools in tandem helps children regain their sense of safety, happiness and cooperative nature.
It’s trying when your child has upsets again and again over the same darned issue! Perhaps it’s being afraid to go into an upstairs room alone, refusing to share during play dates, hating homework, whining first thing every single morning, waking in the night, dawdling endlessly through every transition, or attacking a sibling again and again.
You’ve got an emotional project on the table when your child does one nutty, difficult or out-of-touch thing again and again, and you’re coming to your wits’ end. Both of you are involved. Your child seems to have the problem, according to our time-honored tradition of pinning responsibility on children when they have difficulties. But when you look carefully, you realize that you, too, are emotionally spent. You have no patience, no new ideas, and at some point, you don’t want to understand your child. You just want him or her to stop. The one thing your child can’t do. He’s emotionally exhausted in this area, too.
In an emotional project, both you and your child are caught in a downward spiral. Both you and your child need help. Couples have emotional projects; friends sometimes have emotional projects. No one is at fault—the difficulties are there to be solved, and it’s a waste to assign blame. However, it almost always feels like the other person is at fault, and should take the initiative to change things. That mindset is trouble.
If the other person knew how to change things, they would. Your child would love to feel close and relaxed with you! He would love to feel safe in every room of your house. He would love to share his things with other children. He would love to jump in and do his homework, preserving more time for play in his afternoon and evening. He would love to sleep through the night, move easily with you through the day’s routine, and to enjoy and appreciate his sibling. But he’s proven that, right now, he can’t.
So it’s your move, Mom. Your move, Dad. At this ragged point, almost any move you make may be full of irritation. You’re going to expect the worst, rather than the best. Your teeth will be set on edge just by looking at your child, just by hearing his voice. So the first move you need to make is for help from another adult. Help! That thing all parents try so hard to do entirely without.
It’s good to ask for help. It’s good to acknowledge that you’ve had it. It’s good to say, “I’m so mad I could spit nails!” or “I’m so worried about my son!” or “All he has to do is look at me wrong, and I fly off the handle.”
This is what Listening Partnerships are for. This is the very smart first step in tackling an emotional project. Notice what goes on inside you. Don’t assume it’s your cross to bear. Find a listener, talk about it, and see if you can find the tears, find the fears, find the laughter as you let your Listening Partner know exactly what talk runs around in your mind, and what emotional heat runs through you. Release the feelings. Tell someone, and show them what enters your mind during these moments. It won’t be pretty, but it will be a relief not to deal with it all by yourself.
Do this more than once. Weekly listening time is a good goal to shoot for. If it’s a big emotional project, that’s been festering for a long time, more frequent listening time might be in order. You’ll figure it out.
In any case, don’t assume that there’s something wrong with you because you have asked for and arranged for help. We’re not supposed to do everything in our lives all by ourselves! In particular, parenting is a job that is almost never done better alone. When you need help, seek it out proudly. Seek it out persistently. Seek it out when you’re merely tired, long before you’ve uttered your very last patient sentence.
Children who have emotional projects rarely finish them quickly. Emotional projects stem from fearful times, from illnesses, from times a parent was not able to help. And sometimes, they come from heaven knows where! But children don’t cook them up to be hard on us. They don’t want to be difficult. They don’t intend to drive us nuts. They have some kind of emotional thorn lodged deep within them that hurts them every single day. That’s what they’re telling us with their rigid, disruptive or unworkable behavior.
Here are a few other pointers for building your Emotional Project strategy, so you and your child can face the issue that won’t go away. Give yourself the time it takes to figure out the underlying hurt on your side, and the underlying hurt on her side, release that hurt day by day and week by week, and grow back into an enjoyment of life, and of one another.
1) Ask for the help you need. When someone says no, cry or rage with a listener or by yourself, if you need to, and ask again. Sometimes it takes persistence to find the help we need!
2) Arrange regular listening time for yourself. Ask a friend. Ask a minister, pastor or rabbi. Ask a school counselor, pay for a therapist who’s good with parents, or sign up for a consultation with one of our Hand in Hand parent consultants. We’ve all “been there,” at the end of our ropes. That’s how almost all of us came to Hand in Hand. We will help. Get a copy of Listening Partnerships for Parents to learn how to build a Listening Partnership—it can change your life.
3) Start Special Time with the child who’s begging for help. Do it regularly. Work with a listener on what you don’t like about your child or the play or activity she chooses. Special Time is not for sissies—it sounds simple, and it is, but the tough places in a parent-child relationship often show up right there, in that simplest of interactions.
4) Use the other Listening Tools: Playlistening, Setting Limits, and Staylistening, in concert with one another. Read our Listening to Children booklets for more on what the tools are and how to use them. They don’t come naturally to us—our parents often didn’t have the emotional slack to try to attune themselves to us in play or during our most passionate emotional episodes. You’ll do well if you take your issues to your Listening Partnership, and release the feelings that arise on your end, whatever they might be. Those feelings are probably rooted in your own childhood, and they’ve been interfering in your joy in parenting for awhile. Out they go!
Some emotional projects take several years; others will resolve in an afternoon, with a refresher episode every now and then. You don’t know before you start how big the project will be. You don’t know what growth lies ahead for you, what new freedoms you’ll earn as you dissolve the hurt on your side of the relationship. You don’t know how flexible, generous and openhearted your child can be until you’ve found ways to let them lead, let them laugh, and set necessary limits when they’re off track, so they can cry and rage. Nothing—not consequences, punishments, rewards or distractions—can clear your child’s intelligence of troubled behavior like your love, your attention, your work on your own feelings, and your use of Listening Tools with them.
Here’s how it can work.
In second grade, my friend’s daughter entered a new school. She enjoyed her first year there, but in third grade, she came home crying many afternoons, saying that her friends were excluding her, and that none of the boys wanted to play with a girl any more. My friend Staylistened to her daughter for several afternoons, but became worried when her daughter moved into big cries almost every day. She would recount the slights of the day, and feel heartbroken.
My friend became worried, discouraged and disappointed. She was a single mom, and had worked so hard to find just the right school for her daughter, who she knew carried some insecure feelings. She thought she’d found just the right place. Now, look what was happening! Social exclusion. “You’re not my friend today. Alissa is my friend!” action, with changing alliances almost every day. And why wouldn’t the boys play with the girls?
My friend took her worries to her Listening Partnership. It was hard to keep up with the feelings her daughter triggered in her, but she worked at it. Every day, there were painful interactions to be told and cried about. Finally, after about a month, my friend, exasperated, checked in with her daughter, at a time when feelings weren’t high. “Do you want to change schools?” “No, Mommy, I want to stay at this one.” That was something to hang on to.
The months went on, and her daughter’s hurt feelings didn’t lessen. About once a month, my friend checked in with her, asking if she wanted to change schools. She didn’t. The unspoken message my friend took away, month after month, was that her daughter was choosing to cry, with her support. She didn’t want out. She wanted through this.
In addition to the listening my friend did daily, she and her daughter began to come up with a few initiatives to try to freshen up the interactions at school. They invited each one of the girls who were pulling the exclusion card to their house for play dates. They planned fun things to do. It helped somewhat, but there were still many tears daily.
Toward spring of that year, this mom decided to go to the teacher, and see if she could get permission to come in and present a play activity for her daughter’s class of 20 children. She proposed physical play, play that put her in the less powerful role, so the children could laugh. There would be a “target” that wasn’t another child. She decided to bring a few wrestling mats, and to be a bucking bronco for each of the children in turn. (She’s quite the adventurous mom!) The teacher agreed. The children loved it!
They laughed and cheered for each other, and my friend “couldn’t buck them off,” they were so strong and clingy. Or when she did, they climbed right back on. She marveled in 20 different ways about how strong these children were, and wondered why, oh why, she couldn’t buck them off. They timed the turns, and she managed to get through all twenty! This brought a strong sense of fun and solidarity to the class—it was an extraordinary event, and it worked just the way my friend and her daughter had hoped.
After that play session, interactions opened up between the boys and the girls. My friend’s daughter was finally able to play hard with the boys, and so were several other girls. The girls stopped targeting each other so often. And my friend’s daughter began to feel happy and at home at school.
By the end of the school year, a fairly constant expression of fear had left my friend’s child’s face. She felt more powerful. She was a happier person. She had dissolved enough feelings of victimization that she carried herself more confidently. She had experienced her mom’s support.
Together, they had turned the social interactions in her class from segregated and exclusionary to cooperative and, for the most part, positive. All with a long, hard, bitter cry every afternoon for months, and with Listening Partnerships to melt away the mom’s discouragement and heartbreak. It was a big accomplishment, done step by step. Each of them had made a permanent gain in confidence.