Whether you have trained in Emotion Coaching, Circle of Security, or Triple P, almost all parenting approaches include the importance of soothing and validating emotions before moving into problem solving – and indeed, children are excellent at solving their own problems if we just give them enough support to do so. But in the thick of high emotion, it can be so hard to trust in that process. We want so much to rescue, and to STOP this PAIN – for them and for us. Yet when we communicate with our kids that their emotions are valid and heard, something far more beautiful, deeper in our connection can emerge. I offer this post as an example of how it played out in our family recently.
It’s school pick-up and my son is heading towards me. His face is a mixture of hurt and fury and with a sickening thud in my guts I think I know what’s about to come next.
He stops before me, eyes full of tears and rage, “You didn’t come,” he says with disbelief, “Why didn’t you come?!”
Oh. My. Love. No.
It’s a day and a half earlier, we’re on our way to school and he says “So are you going to bring Newton tomorrow?” Newton’s our newest family member, our adorable pup that we’re hoping to train well enough to be a Therapy Dog. Taking him to school has been one of our plans for his socialisation and my son’s been super excited about it.
TOMORROW?! Eek, well, we’ve been talking about this, but I’m thinking this is pretty short notice for the teacher, and our little pup is pretty scared. I think perhaps early next term will be better. I tell him this, but check my diary, and confirm that I am free. “Check with your teacher and let me know,” I say, “but it’s probably too fast to pull it off for tomorrow.”
It’s the last conversation we have about it. From my perspective.
It’s an hour and a half earlier and I’ve been up at the school to attend his music lesson in among a busy day of work and trying to tie up as many loose ends as possible before the children start term holidays. I’m saying goodbye at the end of the lesson, and he says “See you in an hour!” I think to myself, well an hour’s near enough to home time. He doesn’t say “with the puppy,” and it doesn’t even enter my mind that’s what he meant.
In MY mind, bringing Newton would’ve had a thousand other conversations attached – exactly when and where will I bring him? How shall we present him to the class? What skills will we ask him to demonstrate? Will you do it, me, or both of us?
And here we are now. I know these signs, my son has entered his threat zone. Feelings of embarrassment, abandonment, humiliation – all of those are sitting with him right now. Oh gosh I want to rescue him from this. I want to make it go away. And having three more decades than him under my belt, I can already see The Most Excellent Solution, and it bangs at the sides and roof of my mouth, begging to come out.
But now is not the time for solutions. Now is the time for sitting in the mire together. He can have all of those horrible feelings, but he doesn’t have to feel them alone.
FIRST SOOTHE: Name and validate the emotion.
I wrap him into my arms and for a moment he lets me. But his arms are held against his chest and his muscles are tight and shaking.
“Oh my love, you must be feeling so let down right now. I didn’t realise you were expecting me to bring him today.”
So far okay.
“You never confirmed that it was okay with the teacher to bring him.”
Too far, too soon.
He pulls away, “I did!” he tells me. “I did tell you and you said you’d bring him!”
He storms across the oval and I watch him go. I know my boy, now is not the time to chase. He reaches the other side and climbs the only tree the school has left with branches low enough to reach.
I duck across to the teacher – how bad is this? She’s as confused as me (a little relief). She said she had no clarity around what was supposed to be happening, so she hadn’t told the class anything (more relief) and was just going to roll with it if I got there. I quickly assure her we’ll set something up properly together next term. Okay – so he will have told some friends, but we’re not looking at Total Class Humiliation. Time to head to the tree.
He’s in the lower branches when I get there. I approach slowly, and as he sees me, he climbs higher and higher. My heart aches. He’s pulling away.
SECOND SOOTHE: Name and validate the emotion.
“You were expecting us to come, and you must’ve been so excited about it all day. And I didn’t realise that’s what you were expecting. You must’ve felt so let down and disappointed and I bet you’d told some friends I was coming too.”
“You DID know. I DID tell you. You. Didn’t. Listen.”
Deep breath. This is not the time to Fight for who’s Right. I use a side-move I learned from Darin, “I know. From your perspective you told me to come; and from my perspective I didn’t know that you had.”
“I would never intentionally hurt you, you’ve got to know that.”
“But. You. Did.”
THIRD SOOTHE: Name and validate the emotion.
“I did. And you feel really upset and angry and let down, and disappointed and hurt. You were expecting me and I didn’t come, and that sucks.” My pace is slow and careful. I imagine that it’s possible for these words to carry all the love in my heart across to him.
Is it enough yet? I invite him down from the tree. “No, you climb up,” he counters. I tell him he can sit in the tree as long as he needs. I find myself a spot nearby where I know he can see me, to patiently wait.
I message my husband for a bit of moral support. Tongue-in-cheek he suggests I walk home – our son knows the way when he’s ready. We both know there’s no way I’m leaving him like this. He is wounded, and I will not ask him to do this alone.
It takes 20 minutes. Slowly I hear him make his way from branch to branch. When he’s near the base, I slowly go back under the tree.
“Do you want to come down?”
“Fine.” All feet on the ground. Eyes definitely cast down and away.
FOURTH SOOTHE: Name and validate the emotion, and freaking apologise.
He starts to stride out and I call his name, reach for his hand. He lets me catch his fingers. I take his face in my hands, and look him directly in the eye. When he finally meets my gaze my whole body absorbs the pain I see inside them. Oh, my boy. My tears fall.
“I am so, so sorry for my part in this miscommunication. I love you SO much. I would never, ever intentionally hurt you, and yet here we are, and I’m a part of that. And I look at you, and I think about how I would’ve felt all those years ago, when I was your age, and if this had happened to me, and I would feel exactly as you do.”
Pause. In this moment there is just me and my son, and we are seeing each other, just as we are. Vulnerable. Hurting. Scared.
“Can you forgive me,” I ask gently, “for the part I’ve played in this?”
Now his eyes are streaming too. But this is different. The tension is gone. He wraps his arms around me and buries his head under my chin. “I love you too,” he says. We stand there together for the longest time, and I breathe in his hair.
He takes my hand. We walk home, and the moment is done. He talks with me excitedly about his day, his plans, his thoughts about the holidays. On the way, I ask him if he’d like my ideas for when we DO bring the pup in next term. “Sure!” he says with enthusiasm.
Here’s the part I noticed next – something happened in that repair; in that moment of being with. Over the course of the next couple of days my son spent more time snuggling up to me on the couch, sharing space, time and stories with me. After our rupture came the most beautiful repair, a tighter knitting between two who love each other so much, and sometimes hurt each other, and can heal in that space together.
…Then he reads this over my shoulder and says “Mum, it’s only been two days, you know!”
And on we go…