Let me paint a picture for you: You are tired, you didn't sleep well last night and your toddler is tugging on your sleeves asking you to play barbies with her. You look at her and your first reaction is a thought "I don't want to do this, this is inconveniencing me, I just want to be left alone." What you say is "Not right now, honey." Although your words are gentle, the feeling behind them is worded like "I don't want to, you are an inconvenience to me right now." You don't say this, of course, but you can't help feeling that way, it is just how you feel. All of the sudden, you are blindsided by your daughter's outburst "if you don't play with me, I am not going to love you."
Now, I want us to pause right here.
It would be easy to believe that your toddler is simply reacting to the limit of "not right now, honey". I encourage you to dig deeper. Was she reacting to your limit and words or also to your internal feeling that she is an inconvenience and you want to be left alone? How would she know how you feel internally, you ask? Let's think about how we perceive and interact with other humans. In a world where approximately 90% of our language is non-verbal, we convey a lot of messages about our internal state through our tone of voice, body posture, facial expression, eye contact, and gestures. Our internal state is not a secret and we constantly react to other people's internal states as well. So it is very possible that your child is frequently reacting not so much to what you say but to how you say it and how you feel inside at that moment. Sometimes we are not even aware of how we feel inside and our children can mirror our internal states back to us.
Many of us try to hide our internal beliefs and feelings from our children and would like them to simply hear our words only. This is not how reality works. Our childrenare constantly in relationship with our internal states and they are impacted by them. That is why the best way to show a child how to navigate an emotionally messy and complicated world is through modeling our own ways of navigating and normalizing the process all along the way. It is ok to sometimes want space from your child. They will perceive this whether you want them to know or not. If you are feeling like you need some space to yourself, communicate it out loud and make sure to emphasize how normal it is for people to want to make space for themselves and how it does not mean you dislike or don't love your child, in fact taking space will give you the energy and replenishment needed to be a FUN parent.
As we walk around unaware of our internal states, our child is there to remind us. Outbursts that seemingly come out of nowhere might be pointing to unacknowledged internal states and conflicts we are wrestling with. When we are staring at our phone, reading something disturbing, and distractedly unaware that our child is seeking connection with us, we might be surprised when they wack us hard with a pillow in the face. Our child's behavior is saying "hey, I am scared right now! You are looking upset and ignoring me and I am worried that you don't think I am important and something bad is happening and I don't know what to do." We may not realize our child is saying this and believe that they are demanding and needy and scold them for hitting us. This would keep the cycle going because now our child would feel even more misunderstood and will react again in search of a more attuned response from us. This cycle is how we perpetually turn away from the mirror our child is holding up to us and how we become baffled as to why our child behaves as they do.
Our children are our mirrors and they reflect back to us what we are sending out, both verbally and non-verbally, internally and externally. We are not alone in our internal world, our children feel the spray from the choppy waters that we navigate internally and without ongoing connection and explanation, they can become frightened and worried as they try to make sense of it. Shifting the pattern requires some mindful attention. Notice your internal state. What are you wrestling with today? Do you feel like being alone or with others? Do you feel ashamed, scared, restless, hurt, vulnerable, etc? If you have interacted with your child lately, what was your interaction like? How did your child react to you?
With these questions, we are building awareness around the connection between our internal states and our child's reactions to us. When we are feeling frustrated, even if we use wonderful verbal communication skills, how is our child reacting to us? Are there signs that they are reacting to our internal state, even if we have been trying to cover it up? Our children mirroring us is a reminder that our interactions with our children are complex and deep, we cannot hide our feelings and unmet needs from our children. The more mindful awareness we can bring to how our internal state affects our children, the more we can use honesty, connection, and communication to help our child navigate their own reactions and internal states.
Social norms can cause us to believe that we must be perfect parents that never feel angry or sad or ashamed and if we do feel these feelings, we must never let our child find out. How lonely and confusing it must be for children to be kept away from this rich learning about humanness. If we keep our emotions and internal states inadequately hidden, we are simply leaving our child to feel and notice these states without having guidance and explanation. What would happen if we acknowledged our internal states with grace and compassion and provided some narration and explanation to our children.
Let's return to the story I presented at the beginning of this blog post and see how it could look different:
You are tired, you didn't sleep well last night and your toddler is tugging on your sleeves asking you to play barbies with her. You look at her and your first reaction is a thought "I don't want to do this, this is inconveniencing me, I just want to be left alone." What you say is "I am feeling really sleepy and irritated right now. Let me take care of myself first and then we can talk about playing when I feel better. Do you want to help me prepare a bath? I think a bath will help me feel better."
This second version of the story deviated after the initial reaction. We all have unfiltered reactions that are unpleasant and that is ok. The point here is not to change your feelings so that your child is more comfortable. The point is to be honest and open about your internal state in front of your child and model how you are taking care of yourself so that they can learn how to do that for themselves.
Our children are our mirrors, our greatest teachers. It is not easy to have a mirror held up to us, especially in difficult moments but we are being given an opportunity to learn and grow alongside our children. I implore you to take this opportunity to grow every chance you get.