When Patty Wipfler was a young mother, she met a younger acquaintance who asked her what being a parent was like. Patty burst into tears. She explained that although she had always loved children, parenting was so much more exhausting and stressful than she thought it would be. She confessed that she was starting to lose her temper, being aggressive towards her children in a similar way to how she had been treated as a child. As Patty talked and cried, the woman just listened.
Afterwards Patty went home and found that she felt completely different. She had much more energy, and renewed patience to be with her children again. When she next met the young woman she asked her what she had done. The woman explained to Patty the simple method of listening she had used, and how it can help us to release our feelings.
Patty began taking classes in listening, and exchanging listening time with another parent. She explored how simply talking about her feelings, laughing, crying, and reflecting on her own childhood helped her to get rid of the emotional obstacles that were standing in the way of her being the parent she wanted to be. She now shares everything she has learnt through her organisation Hand in Hand Parenting.
Telling your own life story is fundamental to bringing up happy, emotionally resilient children. What Patty discovered intuitively is now supported by the latest research. A study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley showed that it’s not what happens in our childhood that determines how we parent, but how coherent our story of our childhood is, and how we make sense of it.
The researchers defined a coherent story as one that went beyond simple labels like ‘happy’ or ‘terrible’ and went into more detail. Coherent stories combined events and emotions in a way that made sense, rather than being simply a description of events without the person’s emotional reactions or responses, and without clearly explaining what caused those emotions. The study concluded that telling a coherent story is the single most important factor that determines how well our children are attached to us. The researchers also found that there is a relationship between the parts of our stories that we struggle to talk about coherently and the parts of our adult life where we have difficulties.
When it comes to parenting, history often repeats itself, even when we don’t intend it to. We can have the best of intentions to be peaceful parents, but we can find ourselves losing control and reacting in ways that we are not proud of, particularly when our children do things that push our buttons. This almost always happens when we are feeling stressed and exhausted ourselves.
In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dan Siegel explains what happens in the brain when we become stressed. The limbic system – the emotion centre of the brain– gets flooded with emotion, while the prefrontal cortex – the rational, thinking part of the brain that governs impulse control – becomes deactivated. When our child does something that pushes our buttons, such as dropping food on the floor on purpose, or hitting a sibling, it can trigger unconscious memories of our own childhood and how we were treated in a similar situation. These memories activate our own strong emotions, so it’s hard to think clearly in the moment. We may respond in an automatic way rather than thinking through our response. We may simply repeat what our parents did to us when we were children.
Telling our stories helps us to diffuse some of the potency of the past. We can fully process and release our emotions about our own experiences, so that we are no longer reliving them in the present. Then when we find ourselves in a stressful situation with our children, we can bring ourselves back to emotional equilibrium and think clearly about how to respond.
Crying is an essential part of this process of storytelling. We all know the feeling of having a good cry, especially with someone we love and feel safe with. Shakespeare wrote, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief,” and now science supports what writers and thinkers have thought for years: crying makes us feel happier and healthier and is part of our natural, inbuilt recovery mechanism from stress and upsets.
Another research study showed that people in therapy were found to recover better and make more positive changes in their lives when they cried during their sessions. Through crying (and laughter too) we can release the emotional charge from our experiences, so that we can make sense of what happened and tell our stories more coherently.
When we have a supportive listener and the safety and space to tell our stories, we will be led to our tears. It might not happen instantly, as we have all to some extent developed patterns of trying to hold in our feelings. But over time we can recover our natural healing ability. We may cry about memories long buried in the past, events we didn’t even know we were upset about. Our true feelings emerge about things we may have put on a brave face about, or felt numb about. The writer Louise DeSalvo describes the recovery of feelings like these as “the things we would have felt at the time if we weren’t so afraid”.
To begin to discover the benefits of telling your story, find a friend, or begin a listening partnership through the Hand in Hand Parenting community, either online or in your local area. Ask each other this simple question: “How’s parenting going?” Spend five minutes talking, and then five minutes listening to your friend or partner. Follow some basic guidelines not to interrupt, give advice or tell your own stories while the other person is talking. Make an agreement to keep everything you say confidential and not refer to it outside the session.
You might not burst into tears like Patty did, but you will start to create the space and safety to listen to your own feelings. You can discover how your present actions relate to the past.
You can also write down your thoughts or memories. Ideally it’s best, though, to have a listening partner. That way when you feel emotional you have someone right there to laugh and cry with. Because we have a history of hiding away our emotions, of being sent to our rooms or told not to cry, it is a powerful antidote to have someone there who really accepts us unconditionally, whatever we’re going through.
Another way of using a listening partnership is to think of the areas of your life where you’re currently struggling. It could be to do with parenting, or it could be other aspects of your life that you’d like to change. Or it could be the things that trigger you about your child, that make you lose it or feel stressed and overwhelmed. Make a note of these as potential topics to talk about. You can ask yourself (or a listening partner can ask you) whether this situation reminds you of anything in the past, or of how you were treated as a child. If we trace our present issues back to the past and release the emotion we’ve been carrying, we can think more clearly about how to deal with the present.
When my daughter turned two I began noticing that she was shy around new people. This is a common response for a toddler, but it made me worried. When I was a child I was badly bullied, and I went through a time where I struggled to make good friends. I would talk about this in my listening time, simply describing whatever memories came into my mind. As I talked to my listening partner, the emotion of what happened welled up in me, and I started crying. My listening partner provided safety so that I could release feelings I’d been carrying around with me ever since the bullying.
Every time I talked about what had happened, I shed a few more of those old feelings. I noticed that after a listening partnership little pieces of my confidence came back. I became less and less shy, and more comfortable with myself. I also worry less now about my daughter’s shyness. Without my own upset feelings in the way, I could think more clearly about how to help her.
Shortly after I’d done a lot of sharing in this way about being bullied, my daughter and I were at the house of a new friend I’d recently met. Her 2-year-old son was running in and out of the room. My daughter sat on my lap sucking her fingers, a sure sign she was feeling nervous. I played a game where I pretended to be scared of the boy too. Every time he ran past, I’d jump back with my daughter, saying, “Ooooh!” Soon she was laughing. This is one of the Parenting by Connection listening tools for children that help us to help them process their emotions.
Playlistening means picking up on something that makes our child laugh, while we take on the less powerful role. We repeat it over and over to get the giggles going. When I pretended to be scared, my daughter got to feel powerful, and the laughter helped her to release some of her nervous tension. After a few more minutes of playing this game, my daughter was happy to go and play trains with her new friend, and they got on really well for the rest of the afternoon.
That day I was feeling relaxed and confident. I was able to leave my own past behind and focus on what my daughter needed in the present. If I hadn’t done the work on myself, I’d have just been sitting there feeling as nervous as she was, and I wouldn’t have been able to help her. My daughter would probably have picked up on my feelings and felt even more uncomfortable. Now I had released my feelings I could help her grow in confidence too.
Our children are our greatest teachers. They will find the places where we need to figure out more about ourselves and our past. Parenting is a chance to grow and sparkle, to be our best selves. Through the challenges we deal with, the laughter and tears along the way, we become the parents our children need us to be. Having a rich understanding of our own emotional lives lays the foundation for having the empathy and patience to cope with our children’s strong emotions.
Things to try
- Tell your life story. The best way to do this is with a listener. Divide the time and take turns to talk and listen. Jump from memory to memory, following your stream of consciousness.
- Focus on parenting:
- Write down three things you liked about the way you were parented.
- Write down three things that you would do differently.
- What triggers you as a parent? What behaviour in your children evokes a strong reaction in you? Let your feelings of irritation out with a supportive listener.
Kate Orson is a freelance writer, a Parenting by Connection instructor, and mother to 3-year-old Ruby.
Photo by Cliff Booth