Parenting superpower series – stay listening
The healing power of tears
Seeing our children cry or any child for that matter is uncomfortable, even painful for us as adults. We take it very personally to make sure our children are free of pain and suffering and are filled with joy. And that is important.
However, because of that responsibility we often focus on getting our children to stop crying and make their upset go away as quickly as possible. We have all tensely swayed a baby in our arms, saying: “Sch sch sch sch sch” to calm them down. If we can’t hear it anymore it must be better. But is it really? Allowing children to cry and be upset while offering love and a sense of safety can be very healing when done right.
Meet the need first
When a child is in distress it is a sign that there is a real need to be met. Is the child hungry, thirsty, tired, soiled or in pain? Of course it is our foremost responsibility to meet our children’s needs. An unmet need can also be a hug or attention, offering closeness and affection in a playful way can be a good way to meet this need.
Allowing children to cry and be upset while offering love and a sense of safety can be very healing when done right.
After we ensure we meet our child’s immediate needs we can listen to their hard feelings. By listening to our child, cry and tantrum while staying calm and present allows the process of co-regulation to happen. The child is able to express and therefore process the difficult emotions in the presence of an adult that offers a safe space. When the hard emotions are expressed sufficiently the child’s brain will orient itself on the adult present and be able to realise that this is actually a safe situation and their brain can regulate to a calm emotional state. Over time this process of co-regulation becomes internalised and as they grow they will be able to allow their hard feelings to emerge and be processed in a safe space while also knowing that the emotions will pass and are not a real threat. We have then successfully taught a person to self-regulate their difficult emotions.
If we on the other hand try to get our children to stop crying in the hope that this means the pain is gone, we often send the message that we don’t want them to show these feelings and children then tend to suppress their hard emotions. They are still around, but the child tries to deal with them internally on their own because the message from the adult is that they do not want to hear about these feelings. Most of us grew up with this notion and it is not easy to break this generational pattern.
- Allow your child to pour out their difficult feelings
- Offer love and safety
- Gently keep everybody safe
- Stay with your child
- Offer closeness as tolerated by the child
- Monitor your own emotions
Fear and Aggression
The two main responses to fear are well established: Fight or Flight. Children who endure frightening medical interventions learn to respond to their fear with a flight response. Holding still and being cooperative during overwhelming, painful and scary situations of medical interventions can be the safest response to avoid further physical power being used by the treating adults. Children who learn to move into flight mode to endure necessary medical treatments might try to recover in a safe space by showing aggression. They will likely move into a fight response when their fear is being re-stimulated in a safe space. If adults can see this aggression as a healthy way of processing the fear children carry and allowing them to express this fight response safely the child can process this fear in our presence.
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Creating a balance of experiences
If we notice a child has a LOT of hard feelings that come up and need to be processed, we need to initiate more experiences of love and connection outside of these hard moments. Emphasise more time together, use Special Time and Play Listening to help the child create a more balanced emotional world and feel our presence as much in the happy moments as in the hard moments.
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