A few years ago my family unexpectedly faced a difficult transition.
My son had just started kindergarten, my daughter had just started pre-school, and I had just taken a new position as an adjunct instructor at a State University, a position I had been chasing for years.
We were a busy bunch. Lots of new beginnings were underway and we were all feeling a little stretched.
And that’s when my husband was offered a job in a different state. He’d been unhappy in his current job for a few years and I had known in the back of my mind that we were facing this possibility but didn’t want to believe it. I was happy with our home and our town and with my place in it. My children had access to a great school system and the cost of living was low without sacrificing opportunity or safety.
On the surface there were many things to be happy about in regard to the new adventure. It was, after all, an adventure! New city, new places to see, new friends, new opportunities!
But, as anyone who has ever moved before can tell you, moving brings a whole set of challenges as well.
In our case the challenges were many. We were only four years into a mortgage on a home that I’d planned to raise my children in, a home that was just around the block from a very involved mom – mine! Not to mention the fact that I’d just secured my dream job and both kids were beginning new educational chapters, both of which had the potential to color their experiences going forward if they were successful (or not).
It was a difficult decision for our family. My husband really wanted to go; the job offered more money, with better benefits and was more closely aligned with his field of interest. And, it was closer to his family – exactly in the middle of both sides, as a matter of fact.
In the end, we made the (very rapid) decision to go. The company was offering an immediate start date and my husband didn’t want to lose the opportunity.
Our temporary arrangement was that he would leave immediately and the kids and I would stay behind to finish a few home improvement projects before putting the house on the market in the spring. We were upbeat when we explained to our small children that daddy would be leaving to move to another state, but that he would visit every two weeks (our new home was eight hours away and we thought this would be reasonable) and that we would join him in the summer. Of course we assumed our house would sell immediately and easily and with minimal fuss.
The best laid plans and all that.
To make a long story short, nothing went quite as planned.
After my husband left, the stress of single-parenting while working a new job and dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of two young children starting school, and managing a new puppy (did I forget to mention that part?), and hiring contractors and realtors and taking on the role of the one who also mowed the lawn, shoveled the snow, made all the food and did all the bedtimes did me in pretty quickly. Especially when you add in the fact that deep down I really was devastated with the decision.
Overwhelm was the word of the hour. And the minute. And every gosh darn waking second.
The home improvement projects went over budget, the housing market tanked, and our six month separation turned into an 18-month separation. On top of that, the trips back and forth for my husband became too onerous for many reasons (cost, weather, responsibilities) and visits that we hoped would happen twice a month rolled over into only happening once a month on average.
Take this toxic stew of familial separation, emotional deluge, financial strain, developmental milestones, responsibility overload and grief and you get a mom who isn’t very good at mom-ing.
I’m not proud of this time in my life. I did not tend to my own needs and instead put my head down and plowed on, determined that everything would be FINE.
My daughter, the youngest in our family, and only three at the time that her father packed up and moved away definitely suffered the most. I believe it was a combination of her age, her strong connection to daddy, and her mental/emotional developmental level that all combined to make this experience awful for her. Take that together with the fact that her mother was having a bit of an emotional breakdown from stress and you can get an idea of how terrifying and challenging and absolutely OVERWHELMING this must have been for her young brain.
It wasn’t long before I started seeing the evidence in her behavior and her emotional stability.
The first sign was night terrors. She would ‘wake up’ in the night screaming at the top of her lungs. Most of the time she was shouting “I want mommy!”
At the time, in the diminished emotional state I was in myself, I could only shout back “I’m here!”
I told myself that I needed to shout in order to be heard over her, but the reality is that I had no resources left for conscious parenting and I was shouting because I felt as overwhelmed and lost as she did.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized that she was asking for me to ‘show up’ – not just physically – to hold her and rock her and make sure her physical safety needs were met – but to show up emotionally too. I had sunk so low in my ability to handle the changes around me that I was just going through the motions of motherhood – and my little canary in the coal mine knew it and wasn’t going to let me get away with it.
We also were dealing with outbursts in the waking hours. A lot of defiance and hitting, and many, many loud and terrifying tantrums.
I am not proud to say this, but the sad truth is, I didn’t handle these incidences with the grace and calm and fortitude of a conscious parent… at first.
Thankfully though, my instincts for the protection of my children eventually did kick in and I came to the realization that until I took care of my own internal struggle with our situation, I would never be able to provide the support that my daughter desperately needed.
I learned a lot through this experience and ultimately it made my family stronger and more resilient and helped me to refine my goals as a mother. And one of those goals is to help other mothers. Not just to provide tips and strategies to make the job easier, but also to model understanding and support and forgiveness for the times when we don’t get it right on the first try.
Here are five strategies that I used to reconnect with my daughter, to re-establish her trust in me as well as my trust in myself, and to reclaim our relationship as a safe harbor for her when times get tough.
In a triage situation medical professionals are trained to quickly assess the situation and to determine who needs the most immediate care – who is in the most danger. In our situation that person turned out to be me. Whether you use the oxygen mask or the empty pitcher analogy, you cannot give what you do not have. People trying to bounce back from extreme or prolonged overwhelm need support and love and understanding and hope. I could not give those things to my children because I hadn’t found them yet for myself.
In my case, the treatment I needed to increase my self-care was to turn outward and ask for help. I began seeing a therapist and I opened up about how difficult my situation felt with good friends. It can be tempting to isolate and draw inward, to worry about how we will be judged when things aren’t going right, but reaching out for help is the quickest and most sure-fire way to find your way back to baseline and get access to resources you might not otherwise know exist.
Structure is absolutely vital to a feeling of safety. Too much uncertainty leaves everyone –especially children – feeling unanchored and unsteady. Hardly the ideal conditions for growth and healing or finding your way back to a place of calm and clarity.
One resource that was invaluable to me as I was working on healing myself and my relationship with my daughter was the work of Dr. Becky Bailey. She is the creator of a program called Conscious Discipline (CD). CD is a brain-based social-emotional curriculum that is designed to help adults help children manage tough emotions. What I liked about the program’s information and resources was that many were aimed at me as the parent and they provided a much-needed structure to my emotional healing.
Her website has a free webinar titled “The 7 Powers for Conscious Adults”. In this webinar I learned valuable techniques for managing my own upset, including; goal setting, emotional management, defining my own protective boundaries and so much more. One tool in particular from the program that really stuck with me was her suggestion to spend time defining and implementing the 3 R’s – Routines, Rituals & Rules for our family. The three R’s, according to Dr. Bailey, provide a framework in which kids can feel safe and can anticipate what will happen next. Having this feeling of safety, they then can begin to work on their own emotional regulation.
Routines provide structure, rituals provide comfort and rules provide boundaries. They seem like such little things, but I soon found out that together – when clearly communicated and consistently practiced – they have great calming and transformative power.
It can be difficult to apologize to our children.
Perhaps we worry that we are somehow giving them power over us.
Maybe we are scared that if we aren’t able to fix the behavior we are apologizing for on the first try that our kids will stop believing in us and so it feels easier to not say anything.
Or perhaps we never learned how to effectively apologize at all without feeling shame and judgement. And that, perhaps, is the best reason of all why you should apologize to your children when you’ve behaved in a way that has hurt them – even if you didn’t mean to.
Children learn from watching us and what a different world we would live in if everyone learned how to apologize well when the circumstances called for it.
We all know intellectually that everyone makes mistakes, and we are much more capable of forgiving others than we are of forgiving ourselves. When we do forgive ourselves for not being perfect we open up the opportunity to keep growing and learning without being stunted by guilt.
And children are, by nature, extremely forgiving. If you find yourself in a situation where you have not been the support your children have needed, try being honest.
There are different approaches depending on which developmental age you are dealing with – but any child of any age understands ‘I’m sorry’.
This one was the most challenging for me.
In the course of re-establishing a sense of trust with my daughter I had to allow her rage. I had to witness her overwhelm in action – without taking offense or trying to stifle it for my own comfort. A great therapist told me once that ‘feelings just want to be felt’.
That piece of advice was a game changer for me when I realized that it wasn’t my job to ‘fix’ anyone else’s feelings – all I had to do was witness them and have compassion.
My daughter was angry, justifiably so, because I hadn’t provided for her basic needs to feel emotionally safe.
That was a hard thing to acknowledge – and a hard feeling for me to accept.
But, here again, the tool of compassion becomes the key. I had compassion for myself for not being perfect at something, and compassion for my daughter at the feeling of fear that she was left with as a result.
I did set boundaries – no hitting or violence towards people – but within healthy parameters I allowed her to express her anger and focused on doing the hard inner work necessary within myself to remain calm and unattached from feelings of shame and self-reproach. Those feelings would only make it harder for me to move forward in a healthy way – and that I was committed to do.
This piece of advice came from my own mother who had read it somewhere along her own journey of mothering through difficult times.
She advised me that the more opportunities I could make to touch my daughter, not just a hug or a kiss, but constant touches throughout the day woven into our routine might be able to make a difference.
As anyone with a spirited child can tell you, the experience of mothering can be exhausting sometimes – to put it mildly. Sometimes it can feel like you are always giving and are never left with time to withdraw in order to recover your own energy. I had definitely fallen into this pattern.
I would, of course, hug my daughter at the appropriate times such as bedtime and when she first woke up or when she got hurt or felt sad.
But I had begun to draw away at the constant anger I felt directed at me, and I came to realize that I wasn’t reaching out for touch spontaneously in the times when she wasn’t actively expressing anger or need.
I began with brushing my hand against her whenever we passed each other – whenever we were in touching distance. Then I began drawing her into my lap anytime she came to me with a question or an observation.
Of course, I took her cues in this regard. This is a great place to develop some observation skills yourself, and perhaps some humility. You know your child better than anyone and there are many factors that will affect the amount, type and frequency of touch that they require or tolerate.
If your child isn’t big on being touched, there are many other ways to show your love and support. Another great book I read was titled, The 5 Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman. In this book he describes the five ways that people experience love. Some people like a lot of touch, others not so much.
My daughter clearly has the ‘physical touch’ love type, while my son is more of a ‘quality time’ type and I am an ‘acts of service’ type.
I encourage you to read the book as it really gave me a great understanding of the diversity in how people experience loving acts. There is also a free assessment questionnaire on his website that you and your child can take to determine what your love languages are.
I have since realized that I am not the only one who has had to deal with this situation. There are lots of moms out there struggling with feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you are one of them. If so, please know that there is hope.
For your family, perhaps it is a move, or the death of a family member or pet. It could be a serious diagnosis or a drastic change in finances. Or simply the relentless pressures of day-to-day life.
Maybe your situation isn’t dire at all, but changes come so quickly that you are left reeling – without a sense of calm or an ability to find your happy place.
Whatever the circumstances, know that every family undergoes trying times in some form or the other, at some point. And that everyone will react differently.
But no matter how each individual reacts, your best chance of coming through big changes with your family intact is to approach the problems with intention, compassion and forgiveness.
The five strategies listed above provide a framework to your healing, an intentional approach to your purpose. Even if the five above – or any one in particular – doesn’t seem as if it will be useful to your family, taking the time to define your intention and your strategies is a great first step in any situation that requires healing.
I wish you the best.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take the next few minutes to answer the following triage questions regarding your family:
- Who is in the most critical state? Who is showing the most obvious signs of trouble?
- Is there anyone who is withdrawing? Has anyone begun to shut down, perhaps trying to avoid notice?
- What is the immediate support that I, as the parent, need? Brainstorm this onto blank paper. Just write down whatever words come to mind – don’t worry about making complete sentences, just get the feelings out. You’ll come back to them later to review when you have the benefit of space and time.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Make a list of the resources you would like to investigate further. The ones that worked for me are Dr. Becky Bailey’s “7 Powers of Conscious Adults” and the book “The 5 Love Languages of Children” by Gary Chapman. If you are not sure where to start, I personally highly recommend these. An alternative is to speak to others moms you know – this may help you stumble upon other resources as well.
- Maintain your lists and refer back to them as you do your work. Taking a structured approach to your efforts increases your chances of success.
- Reach out. Remember that when you reach outwards for help, it will come. It may take a different form or structure than what you are expecting, but by remaining open to the possibility that help is available you will be better prepared to accept it when it shows up.