I started this post about self compassion a while ago and, for some reason, never got round to finishing it. Now feels like a good time. Here we all are trying to hold space for our children whilst also attempting to stay on solid ground ourselves…
There can’t be a more important life skill for our children to have than the ability to manage their emotions. No matter what they do in the future, at some point they’ll go through challenging times. And, in those moments, how much they know and what job they do will count a lot less than their emotional resilience and their ability to not be overwhelmed by life. Most of us are living with some anxiety at present, maybe around finances or health, or just around the extreme uncertainty of the future. Although it’s hard, the intensity of the situation also presents us with an opportunity to understand what we need in order to help our children and ourselves build this emotional resilience.
We naturally provide a safe space for babies. When they cry, we hold them, feed them, and lull them. Even when we’re exhausted, we know that this is what needs to be done. Our job is to provide a loving space within which the baby can express whatever they’re feeling, and our soothing response lets them know that everything is okay in their world.
As our children grow older, we try to keep holding this space, where they can express their feelings without fear of shame or rejection. Each time we’re able to be present with their feelings, we’re sending them a strong message. This message is that their emotions are not too much for us and will not overwhelm us or harm us. We don’t need to push them away, ignore them, or suppress them. And neither do they.
Sometimes, we are inevitably overwhelmed. Our children won’t always know why they are feeling how they’re feeling, and it might come out as an angry outburst or a mood that we don’t understand. It can be hard to stay present when we don’t understand what’s going on or are caught by surprise. Their feelings may well trigger unhealthy thought patterns of our own. The loving mother or father in us can easily get kidnapped by our own self doubts and insecurities. And, at that point, it becomes a struggle to stay present to our child and contain their emotions. Even in normal times, there may be many moments each day that require you taking a deep breath and digging a little deeper.
So, how can we hold our children’s emotional needs right now without collapsing under the weight of it all? From personal experience, I know that my ability to be present with my children’s emotions has little to do with how challenging the situation is. It’s all about how I’m feeling. If I’m distracted, tired, or just running on empty, it’s harder for me to have the capacity and space to hold everything. At those times, it takes all I have to just stand firm and keep my arms wrapped around the space, when there’s a little part of me that just wants to shout or scuttle away and have a little cry.
Having the strength to hold someone else’s space always starts with self-compassion. Most of us are surprisingly low on this and treat ourselves more harshly than we’d dream of treating anyone else. Imagine how you would talk to a good friend right now. You’d probably encourage them, point out all the great things they’re doing and remind them that these days are tough for everyone. If you’re loading yourself with guilt and shame, feeling like you aren’t doing things well enough, and generally being your own worst enemy, then it’s time to start shifting the inner dialogue. The best way I’ve found to do this is to keep an eye out for the things that trigger me, and to be curious about them, whilst being gentle on myself. For example, I used to find it really challenging when more than one person needed my attention at the same time. Not wanting anyone to feel bad, I would try to attend to two or three people at once, whilst feeling a wave of anxiety rising. Another trigger was someone getting impatient or annoyed with me, and me not understanding why. There wasn’t necessarily a specific reason, though my persistent questioning would always manage to create a reason (and a really cross child) in the end. In both of these cases, my own frustration at getting it wrong or feeling like I wasn’t enough made it really hard to hold my children’s emotions. I was too busy telling myself how badly I was doing everything. For me, lots of curiosity, self-compassion and mindfulness have lessened these triggers, though they can still pop up if I’m tired or not making time for myself. It isn’t easy to delve into our triggers. Oftentimes, these are things that have been with us since we were children, and the feelings they stir can be painful. But it’s a worthwhile journey to make (and worthy of a future post all of its own).
When the inner critic is too loud, and self compassion is feeling out of reach, then prioritising self-care is another way forward. To make time for ourselves during the day in whatever way is nourishing to us is self-compassion in action. Many parents find it hard to do this, but taking care of ourselves is essential, and it’s healthy for our children to see that we are kind to ourselves. It encourages them to explore the things they need for their own wellbeing. For me, self-care means starting the day – at least an hour and a half before everyone else – with some calm and space. I have a routine that I’ve followed for several years now. The order sometimes switches, but it always involves a healthy breakfast, meditation and exercise (usually a long walk). Eating nourishing food, long baths and reading are other ways that help keep me centred. Before the lockdown I would have also included in my self-care list, pilates and yoga classes, long quiet coffees in the local coffee shop, and dates with friends. I’m still missing those things, but I’ve found enough ways to fill the gaps.
It’s also been interesting to me over the years how sometimes, indulging in activities that are meaningful or calming in some way to myself, have a ripple effect into the family. So, perhaps if someone is bored, the answer is not necessarily to feel like you have to help them not be bored. Perhaps the answer is to be empathetic with that person, whilst engaging in something that you love. Maybe this is a craft or hobby, gardening, baking, a house project, or even just tidying out some cupboards. I’ll often put on a classical music radio station in the background whilst I go about whatever makes me feel happy. And what I find is that the atmosphere and my own sense of contentment will lead to other people naturally finding their own rhythm again, or perhaps joining me in whatever I’m doing. I don’t consciously set out to do this, but it often just happens.
Feeling like we are free to express ourselves honestly is essential. Self-care can only happen when you give yourself permission for it, and this may mean shifting some priorities. To unschool is really to live in partnership with your children. Within this context, it’s important to work together so that everyone’s needs – children’s and adults’ – can be met as far as possible. It’s okay to let your family know when you’re overwhelmed or just in need of some quiet time to recharge. Expressing our feelings without attaching blame or guilt to them is a healthy thing to do and to model. It took me years to really understand that. As I’ve learned to trust, I’ve seen a lovely thing happen here, which is that my children trust me to be honest about my emotions. If I try to hide something, they will invariably spot it and one will often say to me, ‘You’re not okay’, and expect me to explain what’s wrong. My children aren’t upset by my feelings or needs, if expressed honestly and gently. In fact, I might even get a cup of tea or a big hug.
We’re all holding so much more than usual right now. So, if you’re straining with the weight of it all, it may well be that bringing more self compassion and self care into your days is the best place to start. Not only does it increase our capacity to be with whatever arises, it is also a beautiful example to our children that real strength doesn’t come from ignoring our feelings or from giving ourselves a hard time. It comes from being so kind to ourselves that we are able to turn inwards to our feelings however difficult they may seem, without being overwhelmed. And that’s a real life lesson in resilience.