Challenges

In the Wake of The Tragedy in Toronto

torontoToday my city, my home, is reeling from the senseless act of violence that took the lives of 10 people and injured 15 more yesterday afternoon, minutes away from where I grew up.

A man deliberately plowed his van through sidewalks of people, taking their lives, people he didn’t know, people who were simply taking a walk on a sunny day.

I feel so many things right now. Grief, of course. Rage, definitely. Most of all I feel a debilitating sense of powerlessness. No matter how much I talk to my daughter about strangers and mean girls, I can’t protect her from something like what happened yesterday. It’s hard not to wonder why we would ever bring children into a world where things like this occur.

But I did. And she is everything. And today life continues somehow. It must. And all I can do is love my daughter as much as I can, be as present with her as possible,  and not take anything for granted. There are many things about this world that I find impossible to accept. Most, like yesterday’s tragic events, are not in my power to change. All I can do, with the precious moments we have, is to give my child the most safe and loving home I possibly can. Because that is in my power to do. And that’s a lot.

Be Safe Toronto. I love you. #TorontoStrong

 

 

Challenges · Communication · Safety and Empowerment

On the International Day of Pink, Let’s Teach Children that Real Friendship is Based on Respect and Kindness

Today is the International Day of Pink. It’s a day to work towards ending homophobia, transphobia and all forms of bullying and harassment in our schools and everywhere.

4.-Day-of-Pink_2018As I got my four year old daughter dressed in head to toe pink today we talked about what this day means. We discussed the importance of kindness, of asking others to join in, about helping those who may be left alone or excluded. We reflected on how people should be supported to love who they want to love, without being afraid. We talked about being brave and standing up to mean people.

And we also talked about remembering to choose friends who are kind, caring and who treat you well. We talked about what friendship is and what it isn’t and how friends ought to treat one another.

Years ago, when I was a classroom teacher I had a colleague with a son in daycare. She was complaining about her daycare’s request that he wear pink on the International Day of Pink. “This is so silly,” she said. “There’s no bullying in daycare.”

A nice thought, but untrue. The truth is, relational aggression starts young, emerging at the preschool stage.

When my daughter was in daycare, she developed a relationship with a girl who regularly manipulated her and took pleasure in her distress. One moment they were friends, the next my daughter was being frozen out.

On one occasion this girl convinced my daughter that her father didn’t love her. “He told me that!” she claimed. When my husband arrived to pick up my daughter, the girl continued her taunting in front of him, laughing as my daughter wept in confusion. “He said he doesn’t love you. I heard him.” Eventually, at home,  we were able to console our daughter and explain that some people choose to lie sometimes and choose to be mean. We don’t know why, but they do.

At that point I stepped in and spoke to her teachers. They supported me and created distance between the two girls. But my daughter continued to be pulled to this girl like a moth to a flame. At night she would cry in my arms and say “I have to show her how to be kind.”

No, I said. You don’t. That is not your job. If someone is mean or unkind to you over and over, you need to stop being friends with that person. They need to understand that friendship is a very special thing. You have to treat it with care.

Although the impulse to sympathize with bullies comes from a compassionate place, it sends the wrong message to those being victimized. When we teach children that they have to forgive continuously, that saying sorry is enough, that everyone is good deep down, that the bully is suffering too (all things that may or may not be true) then we imprint a pattern that can keep them from learning how to set boundaries and expect respect.

I want my daughter to grow up knowing her worth and knowing it not her job to save abusive people from themselves. The bully in her life this time was a young child, who with the right guidance from parents and educators will hopefully outgrow her mean girl behaviours.

But if I teach her now that she needs to tolerate that treatment, she will continue that pattern in future friendships and romantic relationships. She needs to learn now that it’s ok, critical in fact, to walk away from mean people. Anyone who fails to treat you with respect does not deserve to be in your life.

Can bullies change? Sure, maybe. I hope so. But it’s not the victimized child’s job to help them do it. Instead of downplaying harmful behaviours and making excuses for people who treat others badly, adults should step in to try to correct the behaviour, while making sure to validate those affected by affirming that no one is allowed to treat them this way.

With this approach, maybe we can wrest some of the power away from bullies, and work towards a safer, kinder world for our children and ourselves.

Please share your own thoughts on the International Day of Pink in the comments below. 

 

 

Challenges

Talking to Children About Death and Dying

Grief has been all around me recently.  Two people close to me lost family members this past month. I didn’t share this with my daughter, since she did not know the people who passed away. Yet for some reason, maybe because she is such a sensitive being, she has been asking about death and dying.father and daughter

I’ve wanted to write about it, but have not known what to say. Whenever my daughter asks me about dying, I am confronted with my own resistance and fear.

She looks to me for comfort and reassurance but I don’t know how to talk to her about death in a way that doesn’t make her feel scared. It doesn’t help that as a society we have issues with the end of life. Most people around me are in complete denial of its inevitability. 

My daughter is four years old and seems acutely aware that death is not reversible. The other day we were telling her about my husband’s godfather, who passed away before she was born. He holds a special place in our family and we speak of him often. Mid-conversation our sweet child began to weep, overcome with sadness that she will never get to meet him.

In that moment I did the best I could. I talked about how when people die, their bodies are no longer with us, but that they live in our hearts. I explained that we keep them with us by remembering them. I admitted that no one really knows exactly what happens after we die. Maybe we become a part of nature, flying through the stars, maybe we live nestled in one another’s memories, maybe there is a land of the remembered like the magical places we saw portrayed in the children’s movies Coco and The Book of Life.

She was soothed. So I left it at that. With this age group less is more. They simply need their curiosities honoured and not dismissed, in simple terms that they can understand.

A few months ago my daughter asked me how she was made. I replied: “Daddy and I made you from love.” And that was enough. She now tells anyone who will listen that she was made from love. Later, she will need more information. She will be ready for more, and she will ask the questions and I will answer openly. For now she got an answer she can make sense of.

It’s the same with death. I tell her the truth in a way she can grasp. Death is not “sleep,” or “rest,” or “going away.” It means we won’t get to see that person again. Our bodies are a part of nature and everything in nature has a cycle of living and dying. And yet the love we have for one another lives on. I teach my daughter that my love and all the love around her will always live in her heart.

For now, it’s enough. It comforts her. And it comforts me too.

How do you talk about death and dying with young children? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Emotions

Helping Sensitive Children Navigate Big Feelings

Yesterday I was watching the animated film “Boss Baby” with my four year old daughter. In one emotional scene, the baby is caught at the top of a tower about to fall. The older brother pleads with the baby to jump, but the little one is too scared. In a touching moment, the brother begins to sing “Blackbird” by the Beatles, which soothes the baby and gives him the courage to leap into his brother’s waiting arms.

As the scene unfolded, my daughter became very emotional and began to cry uncontrollably, pleading with the baby to jump. Even when the baby was finally safe, she continued to sob, clinging to me tightly.sad child

I wrapped her in my arms and rocked her gently, letting her know that the baby in the story was safe and sound, that all was well. I held her like that for a long time.

And I had two thoughts.

  1. (oh no) She’s just like me. She feels all the things. All the time.

    and

  2. How do I protect her sensitive soul in this world we live in?

The “oh no” was there but the truth is I love my daughter’s sensitivity in a way I have never been able to love it in myself. I just about burst with pride last week when her childcare providers reported that she had stood up to a bully and protected a smaller child. Her capacity for empathy and compassion at such a young age fills my heart and is beautiful to witness.

And.

I know first hand that sensitivity can hurt. It’s hard to feel everything.

Approximately 20% of children are considered highly sensitive. These children are emotionally attuned to everything that happens around them. Their nervous systems may struggle to filter out unnecessary input causing them to become easily overwhelmed.

I’m not certain that my daughter is a Highly Sensitive Child, though all signs point to it. In any case, I know enough to know she needs focused support to regulate her emotions.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t make the world a kinder, gentler place for my daughter.

What I can do is:

Hold Her

“I’ve got you.” I say this to my sweet girl a million times a day. When she has a bad dream or a heartbreak, when it’s all just too much, I can wrap my arms around her and contain her in my love. I can comfort her and remind her she is never alone.

Validate Her

I never tell her she’s fine when she says she’s not. I never diminish the intensity of what she’s feeling. What might seem small to me is big to her and I honour that.

Ground Her

Grounding exercises have always helped me calm my very active nervous system. When overwhelm hits for my little girl, we face it together. We breathe, we point out sounds we hear around us, we feel our feet rooted on the ground. Little by little I teach her to come back to now.

Know Her

My close relationship with my daughter is one I have worked very hard to nurture. It means I can often anticipate the situations that might cause her anxiety or overwhelm and I can prepare accordingly.

I worry sometimes about my daughter’s sensitivity in a world that can be so unkind. At the same time I am grateful to have a child who feels so deeply, who will perhaps bring more compassion and love into a world that so desperately needs it. And I will be there helping her do that, every step of the way.

Do you have sensitive children or teenagers? What are the tools you use to help them cope with big feelings? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Challenges · Communication

Making Space for Your Child’s Anger

As a child I could throw a tantrum like no other. Like most children (and many adults), I didn’t know how to process anger. And when I acted out, the adults in my life responded with more anger.

It makes total sense. Anger is aggressive, combative and scary. Orbiting rage prompts our nervous system to react with pexels-photo-236215fight, flight, or freeze.

When a child is angry, adults usually engage with a fight response. Maybe it’s because a child’s rage can feel like a challenge to our authority. We instinctively feel we have to make our anger bigger than theirs so that they remember who is boss.

This response is deeply flawed. It is based on the assumption that the child is raging at you, and that this is about their respect for you, when it’s actually more about the fact that developmentally they don’t know how to calm down. When you respond with more anger, this only fuels the fire, making the situation worse than it needs to be.

And as far as authority goes, nothing diminishes your credibility as the alpha dog more than flying off the handle. The true pack leader is calm and assertive, putting everyone at ease because it’s clear they have everything under control.

I have worked hard to create an environment in my home where both safety and anger are honoured. Here’s what works for me when my four year old daughter gets mad.

Normalize Anger

Anger is not bad. It’s just a feeling like any other. Sometimes people process anger in unhealthy ways, but anger is not a bad thing. It just needs ventilation and a chance to move through the body. In our home we read a lot of books about feelings, some of our favourites are In My Heart and Today I Feel Silly. We talk about all the feelings, including anger, as just a part of being human.

Set Limits

Not every angry impulse is a productive one. Limits create safety for children and those around them. My daughter knows I will not allow her to use her hands to hurt someone. She can’t throw breakable things or engage in hazardous behaviour. She can’t direct her anger at people since it might scare them. Her feelings are always okay, but some actions are not.

Provide Tools

I teach my daughter strategies she can use when anger erupts.  We encourage her to get some space, punch pillows, throw soft toys and yell. When she gets mad she makes a beeline for her room and we can hear her wailing on her pillows, throwing teddy bears and shrieking in frustration. But not for long. After a brief spell, she emerges calm and contrite, like yesterday when she smiled and said proudly: “I got the anger out of my body mama.”

Don’t Mirror the Behaviour

When your child escalates, focus on calm. Feel your feet on the ground, keep your expression neutral and your voice even. Breathe. This simple (but not easy!) resistance to being a mirror is sometimes enough to throw a wrench in the spokes of a tantrum.

Don’t Take it Personally

As I learned from Dr. Deborah MacNamara in her book Rest, Play, Grow:

When we make sense of a child, when we start to understand the developmental reasons for their actions, their aggression can feel less personal, their opposition less provocative, and our focus can turn to creating the conditions that foster growth.

My daughter’s anger isn’t about me. It’s simply a natural reaction to being thwarted. It’s my role to help her make sense of her emotions and express them safely and appropriately.

Instead of fearing and silencing a child’s anger, we can teach them to process it effectively so they don’t grow up to become adults who can’t.

Do you have some great ways to help young people process anger in a constructive way? Please share them in the comments below.

Challenges

Don’t Beat Yourself Up, but Don’t Let Yourself off the Hook Either

I yelled at my daughter this morning.

Even though I apologized immediately and we hugged it out, I still feel terrible. I am wearing the guilt like an itchy sweater.

parentingThis reminded me of a conversation I had several years ago, before I was a mother myself. I was talking with a close friend about a tough day she’d had with her little ones. In a moment of overwhelm, she lost her temper and yelled at them. Since this was not aligned with who she wanted to be, she felt bad about it.

Instead of just listening, which I now understand is what she really wanted and needed, I jumped in to remind her that she was a great Mom (which she is, exceptional actually). Not letting her get a word in (I do that sometimes), I rationalized that everyone yells sometimes and basically just tried to make it all okay, ultimately failing to acknowledge and honour what she was feeling.

After I was done my monologue on how great she was, she quietly responded:

“I appreciate that you are trying to make me feel better. I know it’s not helpful to beat myself up. But it’s also not helpful to let myself off the hook.”

All these years later, now a mother to my own four year old daughter, this remains one of the most valuable pieces of parenting advice I have ever received.

Gentleness and Precision

As parents and caregivers we likely have lofty ideals about the person we want to be for our children. This includes behaving in alignment with our values. And my core values include not yelling, especially not at people I love, especially not at my child.

The thing about being human is that we miss the mark sometimes.

When that happens, it doesn’t serve us to become defensive, make excuses or rationalize the behaviour. It doesn’t help to seek out people who will co-sign our actions. It also doesn’t help to dissolve into a shame spiral.

These reactive tendencies don’t help us grow, and don’t help us improve. They take us even further away from who we want to be.

Pema Chödrön, one of my favourite authors, writes about approaching each moment with “gentleness and precision.” She encourages us all to develop an unconditional friendship with ourselves, while at the same time cultivating precision as we strive to live according to our ideals. In The Wisdom of No Escape, she writes:

If we see our so-called limitations with clarity, precision, gentleness, goodheartedness, and kindness and, having seen them fully, then let go, open further, we begin to find that our world is more vast and more refreshing and fascinating than we had realized before. In other words, the key to feeling more whole and less shut off and shut down is to be able to see clearly who we are and what we’re doing.

In this transformative way of being, we are kind to ourselves, and also honest. We don’t let defensiveness, excuses, or shame cloud an opportunity to expand and evolve. We all make mistakes. What matters is what we do next.

If we are willing to look at our actions and acknowledge that they are out of alignment with our values, then we make room to do things differently next time.

Release Perfectionism

Nobody does it perfect all the time. Nobody.

If we can truly accept that, while having the aspiration and willingness to be the best version of ourselves moment to moment, we will be modeling something truly wonderful for our kids.

Because they won’t ever be perfect either. And they need to know that it’s okay to fall short. They also need to know that we don’t have to hide from our limitations. We can first acknowledge them, then leverage them for insight on how to be more loving, more present, more compassionate, and more aligned with our true selves.

When You Miss the Mark

Next time you fall short of your ideals, resist the impulse to either berate yourself or rationalize your actions. Occupy a mindset in between these two extremes.

Be as kind to yourself as you would a friend, and be willing to see yourself and your actions clearly.

Connect with who you really are, and who you want to be for your children, whatever is true for you. 

Then be willing to fumble imperfectly and sincerely towards that ideal.

For those brave enough, please share some of your imperfect moments in the comments below. How can you leverage these for insight and growth?

Communication

When You Say Yes, Make it Count

Recently I attended a parenting workshop led by Patti and Colleen Drobot, from Drobot Counselling and The Neufeld Institute. Although I gained many insights from the session, I was most impacted by one thing the presenters said.

Holding the No

The group was discussing the importance of “holding the no,” meaning our calm, assertive no must be a final answer. The presenter added the following reminder:

When you can find a yes, make sure you give it enthusiastically.

This really struck me. As parents (and educators) we repeatedly get the message that when we say no, we should stick to it. This enables children to rest in the knowledge that we can take care of them. It tells them they can trust us to follow through.

But in all these discussions of no, we never get to yes.

What About Yes?

What about the times when we can find a yes for our children? How do we offer it? When your child asks hopefully if you want to play, what is the tone of your response? Do you jump up to join him as if you can’t possibly wait? Or do you reluctantly agree, sighing heavily, taking her hand but looking wistfully toward a task you’d rather be doing?

When we are communicating with our children, what we say is far less important than the tone and body language we use. No one, especially not a child, wants to feel as though we have something we’d rather do more than be with them.

A reluctant yes is no kind of yes at all.

pexels-photo-532389

 

Sometimes we absolutely need to say no. But when you can find a yes, really find it.

Say YES!

Make it Count

We need to be like golden retrievers for our children, greeting them at the door with pure excitement, giving them our time and  love with unabashed enthusiasm and joy.

The next time your child asks you for something, especially if involves
your time and attention, and you can find a yes, make it your goal to double the enthusiasm they used when asking you. Better yet, ask them first!

Say yes with everything you’ve got. It’s the only kind of yes that counts.

I’d love to hear your stories of saying yes enthusiastically. Please share them in the comments below

Safety and Empowerment

It’s Never too Soon to Teach Consent

hand holdingOne of the greatest gifts I have been able to give my four year old daughter is the knowledge that she is the boss of her own body. She decides whether or not to give and receive physical affection, depending on how she feels in the moment.

Her Dad and I also teach her that her choices may be different on different days, and that’s okay.

Last night before bed, she said “No hug tonight Mama, just a kiss on the cheek please.” In the morning she asked for a hug as soon as she woke up.

The key is that she knows she always has a choice.

Just like adults, children don’t always want to be touched, and we need to give them the tools to express this, and support them to have their choices respected.

Modeling consent throughout childhood is a powerful tool we can use to reduce the risk of sexual abuse for the children in our lives. It also gives children the opportunity to get to know themselves.

When young people are empowered to set boundaries around their bodies, they have the chance to connect to their instincts and to practice differentiating between what feels right and what doesn’t. They also learn to respect the body boundaries of those around them.

When we force children to give or receive affection against their will we send the message that pleasing others is more important than their wellbeing.

And it’s not.

Corinne from the Pragmatic Parent sums it up perfectly in an article about her daughter:

As her parent and advocate, I can’t force my daughter to ignore her feelings for the sake of being compliant.

It is our responsibility as caregivers to help children rest securely in the fact that their body belongs to them.  If they want to hug, that’s great, if they don’t, that’s great too. If they want to hug and then they want to stop, that’s also okay.

At every age, consent is about trust, boundaries, safety and body autonomy, and it should be taught as early as possible.

How to Teach Consent to Young Children:

  • Let children lead the way. Enable them to decide whether or not they would like to be physically affectionate.
  • Give them the language they need to be able to set boundaries. “No thank you.” “I don’t want to be touched right now.” “I don’t want a hug.”
  • If a child doesn’t want to give or receive physical affection, don’t punish them by sulking or taking it personally. Smile warmly and praise them for setting good boundaries.
  • Be clear about when and how you want to be touched. This models consent and reminds children to respect others and their bodies.
  • If your child wants to embrace, do so enthusiastically and lovingly. Safe touch is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.
  •  Remember that if relatives and friends think they “deserve” a hug, that’s their issue not yours. It’s much less important to please them than it is to validate your child’s feelings.

How do you teach and model consent? Please share your thoughts in the comments below

Self Care

How to Make Time for Self Care When You Have No Time

We can only nurture wholeness in children if we are willing to become whole ourselves. Self care plays a crucial role in that.

self care

But in a world filled with constant demands on our time, how can we hope to nurture ourselves?

As a sensitive introvert, I am often encouraged to fill my cup by taking time for myself. I’ve been given dozens of suggestions from well meaning folks and inspirational websites encouraging me to meditate, make wholesome meals, practice yoga, and get a massage.

Sigh.

That sounds great.

But.

Since I barely have time to shower, that kind of uninterrupted “me” time is just not possible.

What I’ve learned from being a busy working mama is that I must find less ambitious ways to keep my emotional tank full so that I can nurture my wellbeing and be the emotional container my daughter needs me to be.

So I practice self care in small doses.

And it works. It really does.

Here are my favourite mini-self care rituals:

Take 5
This is a trick I learned from a Mindfulness program I did recently. Throughout the day, I make time whenever I can to “Take 5.” That means I take 5 mindful breaths in a row. It’s incredible how powerful this can be. It’s a great thing to model for our children.

The Silent Tantrum
This one I just made up to describe the moments when I am just done with adulting, but nobody else needs to know that, especially not my daughter! I calmly go into the bathroom, lock the door, and silently freak out. I flail around, contort my face, pretend to yell, punch and kick the air. I get all the frustration out of my body, privately and silently.

Self Soothing
Everyone needs soothing. Sometimes I give myself a big hug, gently stroke my arm, or grab my hand cream and moisturize my hands in a really kind and loving way. These little moments provide instant calm.

Tea
Maybe it’s just me, but tea has got to be the most comforting beverage out there. Scalding hot English breakfast tea, with milk. It’s my signature drink. Whatever comforts you, treat it like your own personal ritual. Honour it. Sometimes all I get is one or two sips before I’m called away, but I treasure those.

I may someday have a life that includes daily yoga and regular massages, with long baths and time to journal.

But that is seriously unlikely.

So I practice self care in the fleeting moments I can grasp in the nooks and crannies of my wonderful, hectic life.

And it’s enough.

It really is.

How do you make space for self care? Share your best strategies in the comments.