When Patty Wipfler was a young mother, she met a younger acquaintance who asked her what being a parent was like. Patty burst into tears. She explained that although she had always loved children, parenting was much harder than she thought it would be. She confessed that she was starting to lose her temper and acting aggressive towards her children in a similar way to how she had been treated as a child. As Patty talked and cried, the woman just listened.
Afterwards, Patty felt completely different. She had much more energy and renewed patience with her children. When they next met, the woman explained to Patty the simple method of listening she had used and how it can help people to release their feelings.
Patty began taking listening classes. She explored how talking about her feelings, laughing, crying, and reflecting on her own childhood helped her find the patience and calm she needed. She now shares what she has learned through her organization, Hand in Hand Parenting.
Telling your own life story is a fundamental element to bringing up happy, emotionally resilient children. Research has shown that if we can tell a coherent story of our own childhood, our children will be better attached to us. Researchers found that it’s not what happened in our childhood that determines how we parent, but how we make sense of our story.
A coherent story is defined as one that goes beyond simple labels like “happy” or “terrible.” Coherent stories combine events and emotions and discuss how they relate to one another. These stories describe the events along with the person’s emotional responses. The research also found that the parts of our stories that we struggle to talk about coherently relate to the parts of our adult life where we have difficulties.
When our child does something that pushes our buttons, like drop food on the floor on purpose or hit a sibling, it can trigger unconscious memories of our own childhood and how we were treated in similar situations. These memories activate our own strong emotions, so it’s hard to think clearly in the moment. We may simply repeat what our parents did to us as a child.
In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dan Siegel explains what happens in the brain when we become stressed. The emotion center of the brain (the limbic system) gets flooded, while the rational, thinking part of the brain that governs impulse control (the prefrontal cortex) becomes deactivated. Which is why we might respond in an automatic way, rather than think through our response.
Telling our stories helps us to diffuse the past. We can process and release our emotions about our experiences, so we are no longer reliving them in the present. Then, when we find ourselves in a stressful situation with our children, we can bring ourselves back to emotional equilibrium and think clearly about how to respond.
Crying is an essential part of this process of storytelling. Scientific research has found that when we have emotional support, crying makes us feel happier. People in therapy were found to recover better and make more positive changes in their lives when they cried during their sessions. Through crying (and laughter, too) we can release the emotional charge from our experiences, so that we can make sense of what happened and tell our stories more coherently.
When we have a supportive listener, we might be moved to tears. It might not happen instantly, as we all, to some extent, have developed patterns of trying to hold in our feelings. But over time, we can recover our natural healing ability. We may cry about memories long buried in the past, events we didn’t even know we were upset about. Our true feelings emerge about things we may have put on a brave face about, or felt numb about.
To begin to discover the benefits of telling your story, find a friend or begin a listening partnership through the Hand in Hand Parenting community, either online or in your local area.
Ask each other this simple question, “How’s parenting going?” You can spend five minutes talking and then five minutes listening to your friend or partner. Follow some basic guidelines such as do not interrupt, give advice, or tell your own stories while the other person is talking. Make an agreement to keep everything you say confidential and to not refer to it outside the session. You might not burst into tears like Patty did, but you will start to create the space and safety to listen to your own feelings.
Another way of using a listening partnership is to think about your current struggles. It could be something to do with parenting or other aspects of your life that you’d like to change. Or it could be the things your child does that trigger strong feelings in you.
Make a note of them as potential topics to talk about. You can ask yourself (or a listening partner can ask you) if this situation reminds you of anything in the past, and how you were treated as a child. If we trace our present issues back to the past, and release the emotion we’ve been carrying, we can think more clearly about how to deal with the present.
When my daughter turned two, I began noticing that she was shy around new people. This is common in toddlers, but it worried me. When I was a child, I’d been badly bullied and went through a time when I struggled to make good friends.
As I talked to my listening partner, simply describing whatever memories came to mind, the emotion of what happened welled up in me. My listening partner provided the safety so that I could release feelings I’d been carrying around.
I noticed that after a listening partnership, little pieces of my confidence came back. I became less shy and more comfortable with myself. I also worried less about my daughter’s shyness. Without my own feelings in the way, I could think more clearly about how to help her.
Shortly afterward, we were at the house of a new friend. Her two-year-old son was running in and out of the room. My daughter sat on my lap sucking her fingers, a sure sign she was feeling nervous. I played a game where I pretended to be scared of the boy, too. Every time he ran past, I’d jump back with my daughter, saying ‘‘Oooo!’’ Soon she was laughing. This is called playlistening, and is one of the Hand in Hand Parenting tools for children that helps us to help them process their emotions.
Playlistening means picking up on something that makes our child laugh, while we are in the less powerful role. We repeat it over and over to get the giggles going. When I pretended to be scared, my daughter got to feel powerful, and the laughter helped her to release some of her nervous tension. After a few more minutes playing this game, my daughter was happy to go and play trains with her new friend, and they got on really well for the rest of the afternoon.
That day, I felt relaxed and confident. I was able to leave my own past behind, and focus on what my daughter needed to grow in confidence.
Our children are our greatest teachers. They will help us find the places where we need to figure out more about ourselves and our past. Parenting is a chance to grow and sparkle—to be our best selves. Through the challenges we deal with, the laughter and tears along the way, we become the parents our children need us to be. Having a rich understanding of our own emotional lives lays the foundation for having the empathy and patience to cope with our children’s strong emotions.
QUESTION: Are you comfortable examining your own emotions? How can you provide a safe listening ear to let others express their emotions in order to help them process and heal?
CHALLENGE: This week, notice what parenting situations elicit emotional responses in you. Take some time to reflect on your past and see if you can find a relationship between your experiences and your reaction.
If you would like to hear more about Hand in Hand Parenting, check out podcast Episode 213: Laughter, Tears, and the Power of Telling Our Stories.
Edited by Nollie Haws and Kimberly Price.
Image from Pixabay; graphics by Anna Jenkins.