I’ve been ‘single-parenting’ it for almost two months now as my amazing husband has been gone day and night, working his day job and then heading nearly an hour away to help his family renovate an old home. It’s for a single mom who needs a place to move with her son because she’s losing her home to foreclosure, so there’s a time pressure involved. My husband is a skilled builder, so the renovation has fallen mainly to him, and with the narrow time frame he has to work with, the pressure has been pretty intense.
Nearly every day after work he heads straight to the reno house and works late into the night, often just staying there and sleeping so he can get up and go straight to work again. Between all of his extra driving and the times the children and I have driven over just so we can see him for a few minutes and get a tour of the work he’s doing, our gas budget has nearly doubled. That’s just not sustainable for a one-income family, so we’ve had to stop going to see him.
What that’s meant for me is a hubby who’s absent most of the time (read: no breaks for mama!) and who, when he does come home, is stressed and tired and tapped-out. Now, by ‘breaks for mama’ I don’t mean time away from my children. I don’t want or need to leave my little ones. But normally along with all of the sacrifices, compromises, and hard work that goes into keeping a long-term marriage healthy, there is companionship, caring, support, and a sharing of responsibilities.
In our family, mama having a break means daddy is the one who listens, at least for a little while, to the endless stories about snails that our little mud-magnet is into sharing at the moment. It means daddy takes a turn at the helm in helping our SPD girl cope when she gets overwhelmed. It means daddy takes our currently teething, clingy, diaper-rashed, sad little milk monkey out in the evenings to sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to the moon (she’s a bit confused, but it’s adorable) so mama can take a shower alone. And, of course, all of that’s in addition to him running to the store, helping out around the house, fixing what’s broken, grilling dinner occasionally, etc.
But for the last two months all of the myriad details that go into running our home…homeschooling, juggling teenagers’ schedules, shepherding a high-spirited kindergartener, keeping up with a toddler, handling the bills, doing the banking and shopping and cleaning, coping with a broken dryer, and on and on and on…have all fallen entirely to me. Add to that some pretty hefty life-stressors we’re dealing with at the moment outside of our marriage and home…
And I’m tired.
And my hubby is tired.
And we’ve unconsciously fallen into the ‘my needs vs. your needs’ vicious cycle. You know the one:
First volley: “This is what I did all day.” (Translation: I need you to acknowledge me.)
“Well, this is what I did all day.” (Translation: I need you to acknowledge me.)
Second volley: “These are the reasons I did what I did all day.”
(Translation: I need you to understand me.)
“Well, these are the reasons I did what I did all day.”
(Translation: I need you to understand me.)
Third volley: “This is why what I did was harder than what you did.”
(Translation: I really need you to hear me.)
“Well, this is why what I did was harder than what you did.”
(Translation: I really need you to hear me.)
Fourth volley: “You didn’t do this.” (Translation: I’ll make you hear me.)
“Well, you didn’t do this.” (Translation: I’ll make you hear me.)
Unmet needs result in an ever-escalating cycle of attempts to get those needs met. And, as long as those two little letters ‘vs’ stand between ‘my needs’ being met and ‘your needs’ being met, the cycle will continue. Someone has to break the cycle, and the solution is always the same: Sacrifice.
Someone has to step up and stand down. Someone has to let go of their own needs and focus on meeting the other’s needs, not in an attempt to manipulate that person to meet their own needs, but with an honest generosity of spirit, a choosing to lay down self, a living expression of love.
And ‘someone’ will. Our marriage wouldn’t have lasted for twenty-five years and counting, otherwise! But I wanted to share some of the dynamics of breaking the ‘need standoff’ in a relationship while they’re fresh in my mind.
There are endless contributing factors to who stands down and when, from the differences in love languages, to past hurts and experiences, to upbringing, to the circumstances of the conflict itself. And standing down can take many different forms. It may mean moving on without receiving the apology you believe you deserve. It may mean letting go of the need to explain your position. It may take the form of an apology from you or a verbal indication that you are choosing to let go of the conflict. Or it may take the form of a favorite meal, flowers, a back rub, a gift, or some other loving act.
Sometimes the one who chooses (note: an active choice, not a reactive/self-protective response as in an abusive/controlling relationship) to stand down in a relationship is the same person most, if not all, of the time. This is often the result of a peacemaking personality. If you feel you are ‘always’ the one to stand down, consider these two things:
1.) Are you really the one to always stand down or is that just a perception you need to work through?
2.) Do you have a peacemaking personality? In other words, do you tend to be the calming factor in most of your relationships?
If you do, in fact, have a peacemaking personality, be aware that it is a rare gift that comes with great responsibility. Someone once asked me why they always had to be the one to “put out the fires” in their relationship. Knowing this person to be a peacemaker in all of their relationships, I said, “Because God gave you the hose.”
While it can certainly be frustrating to be in that position, instead of letting it cause resentment to take hold, imagine how difficult life can be for those who don’t have that inner calm, and try to focus on the strengths they do have rather than fixating on the gifts they don’t have. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and focusing on people’s strengths (as well as being aware of our own weaknesses!) helps us to give them grace for their weaknesses.
*Take note, when it comes to parent/child relationships, the parent must always take the role of peacemaker, regardless of personality or gifts. Children not only don’t have an adult’s capacity for self-control, but they also don’t bear the responsibility for maintaining the relationship.
And so, in our home, with both parents tapped-out, tired, and out-of-sorts, we’ve found ourselves in that place of competing to get our needs met. Our children have, of course, joined in the ‘needs games,’ little reflectors that they are. It’s made for a less-than-joyful interval in what we typically refer to as the joyful chaos of our lives.
Then, last night as my miserably teething little milk monkey woke me up for the zillionth time with her crying and whimpering and tossing and turning and climbing from one side of me to the other and nursing and nursing and nursing and nursing until I thought I might explode, she suddenly stopped mid-climb, mid-cry, and pressed her ear against my heart. And then, with her tiny body draped across my belly and her head cradled between my breasts, she sighed and relaxed, a little Mona Lisa smile curving her sweet mouth as she finally succumbed to a peaceful sleep.
And in that moment, that tiny, mysterious, contented smile called me to surrender. To surrender to heart-meltingly sweet moments. To embrace again the extraordinary loveliness of ordinary life. To marvel at the littleness of the issues that set us apart and the bigness of the love that holds us together.
Love is a choice, not a feeling. Feelings shift, flowing now hot, now cold. They lead nowhere, and instead are misleading with their mercurial, capricious nature.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13
I choose love.
Remember the days when your little ones were just babbling their first ma-ma-ma’s and da-da-da’s and Cookie Monster was the only adult conversation you heard all day? Remember feeling a bit at sea as you tried to figure out what each grunt and cry meant and how relieved you were when your tiny tot began using actual words to communicate, even if you had to really work to translate “Mender tmowow I wost my dowie?” into “Remember yesterday when I lost my dolly?”
Well, don’t drop anchor in port just yet, parents of middles and teens, your days of feeling at sea aren’t quite finished! Yes, their vocabulary may be nearly as large as yours and they may talk enough to drive you batty, but their ability to process, analyze, and articulate their emotions, especially the negative ones, is still far from mature.
Expecting them to be able to use words as easily and with as much insight as adults is like someone handing us a box of computer components and expecting us to be able to assemble, program, and operate the computer like an expert, but without the expert’s knowledge and experience!
Our middles and teens still need help communicating their inner world to us, and that takes patience and understanding on our part while we give them time to process without adding the pressure of unrealistic expectations. Stress just increases their cortisol levels (cortisol is the stress-hormone associated with the ‘fight-freeze-or-flight response’ which essentially drains their brains of the ability to think just when they need to think the most!) which results in less communication, not more.
Case in point…a couple of days ago My Renaissance Girl injured her ankle while playing on the back porch with our new kittens. (Yes, you read that right, first of my six to end up in the ER from playing with kittens!) She’s newly thirteen, and the hospital staff all directed their questions to her instead of to me. I stood back quietly and let her navigate this new ground as long as she was comfortable, but when she started shooting me panicked glances, I stepped in and helped her out. One of the doctors rather rudely said that she should be able to answer all of their questions herself, and I literally watched her shut down. The next question was her birthday, and she couldn’t remember it. She was already in pain and embarrassed (mainly because self-consciousness and the resulting embarrassment is just a fact of life at thirteen, poor thing) and the doctor putting pressure on her like that just sent her stress level soaring. If he’d have been standing next to me, I might have Gibbs-slapped him. (Not really, but it did irritate me and my fellow NCIS fans will appreciate the reference, lol).
When he left, I just quietly waited to give her time to process. After a few moments, she said, “All those eyes looking at me…I couldn’t think!” We chatted for a moment about it, and I told her about my absolute refusal to walk up to the counter at McDonald’s and ask for a ketchup package one day when I was her age. I remember not being able to explain why it made me so uncomfortable, but looking back it was probably a combination of worrying about people ignoring me while I stood there (as happens all the time to middles and teens, unfortunately), suddenly realizing I hadn’t shaved my legs that morning, feeling like my shirt was unflattering, and a dozen other thoughts that raced through my head, but I couldn’t articulate at the time with anything more than a shrug.
So when you ask how your middle or teen’s day went at school and get that classic shrug or when you notice they’re a bit down and ask what’s wrong and get an “I dunno,” remember, they aren’t really giving you the brush off, they just aren’t ready or able to put their day or feelings into words. Pressing them to talk before they’re ready only increases their stress, which in turn causes that mind-numbing cortisol to flood their brains and slows down their processing abilities even more.
I’ve found that it’s far better to let them know you’re available to talk when they are and then let it go until later. When the house is quiet for the night and everyone else is asleep, my middles and teens tend to open up like night-blooming flowers. If I know they need to talk, I’ll tap on their door and wait ‘til I’m invited in, then sit on their bed and start chatting lightly about the day. After a bit, we’ll lapse into a comfortable silence, and then, sure enough, the words start coming. Sometimes they come out all in a tumble, sometimes slowly, awkwardly, but they get it out there so we can take a look at things and process them together.
Sometimes, though, I’m the one who hears a little tap on my door and a head poking through to see if I’m awake. We do some fancy hand signals while they let me know they need to talk and I let them know if the baby’s still nursing and they need to wait a few minutes or if I can slip away and join them immediately.
In an odd way, this time of their lives feels like a return to the nighttime neediness of infancy. One of the payoffs to the gentleness and consistency in meeting their nighttime needs then is their assurance that their needs will be met now. They seem to be more likely to approach me with the need for one of our ‘midnight talks’ based on the confidence that I’m available to them, day or night, rather than being hesitant because they are unsure of their reception.
The heart of the matter, though, isn’t what time these chats take place. It’s that they take place when our middles and teens are ready to share, when they’ve had time to process their experiences enough to get them out in the open where we can work through the rest of whatever processing, analyzing or interpreting they need.
Through these interactions with our children we are not only helping them to get things out instead of bottling them up, but we are also letting them know in a very tangible and practical way that they are not alone in coping with life, a valuable lesson indeed when you consider that one of the mantras of depressed, bullied, and/or suicidal youth is “I feel so alone.”
In addition, rather being an indication of immaturity or undesirable dependency, a child being willing to talk through challenges, as well as just the ordinary stresses of life, is actually showing a healthy openness to sharing and growing. And the beauty of it is that each time we help our children through the ‘processing process,’ it prepares them to do a bit more themselves the next time, and the next, and the next until one day we realize we haven’t heard that little midnight tap on our door in a while…and we sleep a bit better in the knowledge of a job well done.
[Reprinted from Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost now available on Amazon]
Talking to Teens
Communication is always a huge concern for parents in the teen years. The strong, open communication channel created in the early years through Gentle Parenting, coupled with the mutual respect and trust foundation established, provide a powerful platform for a healthy parent/teen relationship. Simply put, children/teens who feel heard and understood and respected don’t need to fight to be heard, understood, and respected. Or, conversely, they don’t slip away into the sullen, angry, withdrawn teen who doesn’t bother to even try to be heard anymore because they never felt heard or understood as a young child.
Again, this is not to say that the gently raised adolescent will be perfect. None of us are! But with a healthy relationship based on open, honest communication, issues can be addressed as they arise and in a respectful and timely manner instead of a teen feeling the need to go ‘underground’ with their behavior or problems.
So, that said, what are some practical tips for talking to teens?
- Honesty is paramount. Teens will tune out faster than you can imagine if they sense you’re being less than transparent with them. (See ‘Dealing with the Hard Stuff’ below). Only in a mutually honest environment will a teen be willing to share their deepest fears, hopes, disappointments, etc.
- Along with this goes the need to be able to say anything, anything at all, and know they will be heard and accepted without judgement, without repercussion. Consequences for broken rules should never come as a result of a heart-to-heart discussion, or it may well be the last heart-to-heart your teen will have with you. You can and should honestly express your concern and even disappointment if appropriate, but don’t make it all about yourself or the conversation and chance for real connection will end.
- Respect is key. Embarrassment is like Kryptonite to a teen. Ridiculing them, making light of their feelings, minimizing their experiences by ‘one-upping’ them with yours are surefire ways to shut down a conversation with a teen permanently.
- Reassurance is healing. Teens need to know they are normal. They need to hear that everyone has ‘bad’ thoughts sometimes and that doesn’t make them ‘bad.’ Sharing some crazy thoughts that have popped into your head through the years and how “It’s not the thought, it’s what you do with the thought that matters” will help them realize they aren’t abnormal. (You’d be surprised how many teens think they’re abnormal! ‘Normal’ matters to them HUGELY.)
- Burn the midnight oil with your teen. For whatever reason, adolescents seem to be naturally nocturnal creatures. When the house is quiet and nothing is competing for attention, guards begin to drop, emotions mellow, and in the stillness of the night soft-voiced conversations invite deep, meaningful discussions. Don’t let the busyness and business of life rob you of these sweet moments with your teens who will so very soon be off on their own in the adult world.
Too Late for Teens?
So what do you do if you’re the parent of a teenager and have only just discovered Gentle Parenting? Is it too late to implement any of the Gentle Parenting philosophy to establish connectedness and mutual respect and ease the transition into adulthood? And what if your teenager is in full-on rebellion mode? Is there anything Gentle Parenting can do for you?
The answers aren’t easy, by any means, and they aren’t given with a ‘let them eat cake’ attitude as if I am unaware of how challenging making changes at this stage can be, let alone how challenging teens themselves can be! But, that said, there are some basic tenets that you can begin the hard work of weaving into your parenting even at this late stage. So put on your hard hats, because you’re going to need them!
1) Don’t engage! Win or lose, they’ll enjoy the argument, and you won’t.
2) Apologize! Take responsibility for past and present parenting mistakes. As mentioned earlier, teens can sniff out hypocrisy like bloodhounds, and acting like you’re perfect (which is how they’ll interpret that missing apology) smells an awful lot like hypocrisy to them.
3) Be real! Nothing will make a teen more resentful than you demanding behavior from them that you aren’t modeling in your own life.
4) Be available! If you haven’t been available in the past, openly let your teen know that you’ve made mistakes and would like to change, then let them know you are available to them, day or night, whether your favorite tv show is on or not, even if you have work to do, or emails to read, or phone calls to return…no matter what!
5) Communicate! If you feel your early parenting hasn’t established the open communication vital to a healthy parent/teen relationship, it isn’t too late to make some renovations to bridge the gap. Just start talking…about your own life, your own struggles, your own needs, and just start sharing, about your love for them, your hopes for them, your pride in them.
6) Let go! When a child reaches the teen years, it’s time to begin slowly releasing them from parental controls and start letting them make more of their own choices. This is not to say that you stop being their parent, but that you begin to consciously shift your role in your teen’s life further and further away from guardian and caretaker, and closer and closer to a supportive, accepting, mentoring role…in short, a friendship role that will set the stage for your relationship with your adult child. This conscious shifting on your part will help to make your teen’s transition from child to adult a cooperative effort between you rather than a source of conflict.
7) Move! No joke. If your teen is involved with a bad group, is immersed in drugs, gangs, etc…pack up and move. I know it’s easier said than done. I know there are all kinds of job and economic issues involved. I know it’s a huge sacrifice. And I know they’ll fight you on it. But if everything else has failed, removing them from negative influences and situations to give them a chance at a fresh start may be the best, or only, choice. And, letting your teen know that they are the first and most important priority in your life, more important than your job, home, the life you’ve built, or anything else, will in and of itself go a long way toward healing your relationship.
8) Pray! Don’t discount God in your parenting. After all, He’s the parent of a lot more people than any of us will ever be! God is very clear on the fact that He cares, that He listens, and that nothing is impossible when we ‘cast our cares on’ Him. So don’t forget to make daily calls (prayers) to the one Gentle Parenting Expert who’s on-call 24/7.
[From Messages in a Bottle: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood by L.R.Knost available June 2013; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost now available on Amazon.]
Parenting can be difficult, no doubt about it. From inexplicable meltdowns to incessant whining to maddening tattling, the evolution of a child’s communication skills can take a serious toll on a parent’s patience. And just when a child’s language skills become advanced enough for parents to begin to see the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ it hits…The ‘Why’ Zone.
“Why do birds have feathers and people have skin?”
“Why can’t I have a rocket?”
“Why don’t lakes have waves like the ocean does?”
“Why are oranges orange?”
“Why don’t snakes have legs?”
“Why do people have to sleep?”
“Why don’t monkeys wear clothes?”
“Why don’t we live on the moon?”
“Why does ice have to be cold?”
“Why can’t my frog sleep in my bed?”
“Why do we have hair?”
“Why can’t I have cookies for breakfast…and lunch…and dinner?”
“Why don’t clouds come in my window?”
Why? Why? Why do they always ask why? As annoying as it certainly can be, the ‘why’ stage serves several extremely important purposes.
It is during this stage that children have fully made the cognitive shift to understanding that they are an entirely separate person from their parents, and, in healthy parent/child relationships, with that knowledge comes a need to literally ‘investigate’ their parents, find out what makes them tick, how they think, who they are. The ultimate purpose of this ‘probing’ is identifying with their parents by examining and internalizing their values, knowledge, and belief systems.
As children begin identifying with who their parents are, they are learning problem solving skills by listening to their parents’ thought processes. They’re also learning that their parent’s don’t know everything, and they’re learning that that’s okay. And, perhaps most importantly, they’re learning that they can always go to their parents with questions, no matter how random or trivial they may seem at the time, a vital element in establishing and maintaining a strong communication channel for the latter years of childhood and into adulthood.
And, really, would we want to quash the ‘why’s’ even if we could? Asking ‘why’ is the sign of a healthy and natural curiosity. As Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
Asking ‘why’ paves the way for discovery, invention, innovation, and creativity…
Why can’t we fly… inspired Orville and Wilbur Wright to invent and fly the first fixed-wing airplane.
Why can’t we go into space… inspired Sergey Korolyov to design the first manned spacecraft.
Why shouldn’t we be able to communicate when we aren’t together… inspired Alexander Graham Bell to invent the telephone.
Why do we have to write books by hand… inspired Johannes Gutenberg to invent the printing press.
Why don’t we float off the earth… inspired Sir Isaac Newton to develop Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation.
Why doesn’t gravity work exactly the same way on everything… inspired Albert Einstein to develop the Theory of Relativity.
So, while you’re at your wit’s end in the midst of The ‘Why’ Zone, keep reminding yourself of the important work your child is doing. Listen. Respond thoughtfully. Ask questions in return. And don’t be afraid to say you don’t know (an excellent opportunity to head to the library for some interest-led learning!)
Sharing yourself, your thoughts, your culture, and your values with your child; growing a strong, open communication channel; and encouraging a healthy curiosity are all invaluable investments in your child’s future, even if they are at the expense of a bit of peace and quiet in the present!
When a child tattles, what they are actually doing is a rudimentary form of the advanced life skill of ‘Pause. Think. Respond.’ but they need help finding an appropriate and effective response. The child who seeks out an adult for guidance is indicating trust in the adult and respect for the adult’s opinions and abilities. Rethinking Tattling
Here’s a shocker for you: Whining is actually a sign of maturity! Yep, that unnerving, endless, nails-on-a-chalkboard, make-your-head-explode whine is a sign that your little one is growing up and, get this, gaining self-control! I can see your heads shaking, but read on, parents, caregivers, and bleeding ears of the world, read on. Why Whining is a Win!
One effective tool for use in helping little ones cope with big emotions is a Calm-Me-Jar. Toddlers, Tantrums, and Time-Ins, Oh My!
We’ve added a Dr Seuss Quiet Bag to our Parenting in Public: Toddler Time page, and we’re working on a Dr Seuss Quiet Book, too!
The most challenging, independent children tend to be the ones who need the most intentional parental reconnection. Strong will=Strong need! Testing the Boundaries~What’s A Parent To Do?