The Aware parenting perspective is that crying is a natural mechanism for relieving stress, for healing from trauma, and for recovery and relaxation. Our tears contain the stress hormone Cortisol so crying is literally the process of removing stress from our bodies. In order for this natural system to be effective, feelings must be heard with compassion, warmth and love. Responding to our children’s feelings with empathy and our caring presence allows this healing process to be activated and to work it’s magic. And it strengthens and deepens our relationships with our children as they feel that we are their rock to hold onto as they weather the inevitable storms of life.
It is also helpful to remember that sometimes our children will have big responses to seemingly small things and this is known as the Broken Cookie Phenomenon or Pretext Crying. But, whatever our children are expressing, we don’t need to know whether it’s about something happening now, or something from the past or whether they are using this as an opportunity to release pent-up feelings, our response to them is the same – our loving listening and our loving presence.
What our children need when they are expressing painful feelings:
All children will experience painful big feelings, no matter how much we try to protect them from stress. Birth, life as a newborn baby experiencing the world for the first time, illness, stress in the family, all result in babies feeling confusion, overwhelm, powerlessness and frustration. So what our children need is to be able to express these feelings to a loving listener. They need to feel heard, understood, acknowledged and unconditionally loved. In order for them to feel this, we need to be reflecting back to them what they are telling us, being present and shining our love onto them as they cry, offering them our tender loving presence. They need to deeply feel that all their feelings are welcome, that it’s ok to explode, meltdown, have a tantrum, rage and cry whilst they express all their often intense feelings. And we can do this by making eye-contact, getting down to their level or holding them in our arms, focusing our loving presence on what they are telling us, showing them with our non-verbal communication that we care (our loving tone of voice, our attention to them, our kind gestures, our facial expression).
What does not help our children when they are expressing big feelings:
What gets in the way of this natural healing process is when we respond to our children with words that result in them feeling judged by us, when we interrupt their expression to give them our advice, when we offer them suggestions or distractions, when we compare what they are sharing to our experiences or when we try to shut down their expression. It is also helpful for us to learn not to take anything they say personally! We always have the opportunity after our children have finished expressing what is in their heart to offer our thoughts and advice when they are actually able to hear it. But this is often not easy to do.
How to show compassion and staying calm in the moment:
It can be easy to get confused in the moment when faced with big expression of feelings and get caught up in what is the best thing to say. Generally I find that less is more. These are the things that are most helpful to say when we are listening: “I hear you”, “I am right here and listening”, “I know this feels really hard”, “Tell me more”, “I love you”, “I know sweetheart – I am here”. We reflect back to them what we have heard them say and we remind them that we are there and listening.
Why is it hard to listen to feelings?
Listening to our children’s feelings can provoke intense feelings for us as parents. Often we are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed ourselves because we have chronic unmet needs when our children are young as we are mostly raising our children without the support of the tribe that we have evolved for 200, 000 years to be living with. Listening to feelings is also very challenging because it reconnects us to our childhood and our own unmet needs for emotional release and support – most of us parents were not lovingly listened to as children and many of us are carrying around a lifetime of unheard tears. Most of us learnt that we had to repress our feelings, to dissociate when we had feelings, to ignore our feelings and to judge our feelings as bad. This means, that in the moment, we are often unable to distinguish our feelings in the present moment with our feelings from the past. So getting lots of support for ourselves is crucial if we are going to support our children. This might be through Listening partnerships, journalling or having sessions with an Aware Parenting instructor or a therapist.
What is the result of listening to our children in these ways?
When we understand how this magic natural system for healing works and we get support ourselves so that we are able to listen and support our children, we no longer have to try to protect our children from the inevitable pain that life sometimes throws at us – we can’t prevent them from experiencing challenge and hurt. But, by responding to our children’s feelings in this way, we are showing them what empathy looks like and teaching them how to be emotionally intelligent humans. They learn that we are there for them and love them deeply and that they can rely on us to be their ally and support them when life feels hard. They learn that all feelings are ok, that they can process and heal from stress and don’t need to distract themselves or numb their feelings or have to live with lots of accumulated feelings that can cause them to be aggressive or violent. And what a powerful change for the world it brings when more and more children are raised this way.