I keep a small library of my favorite parenting books. DH once asked why I would spend money on books I have already read, and whose teachings I already subscribe to. The answer: I use them for inspiration. When I feel I’ve gone off track, or lost my way, or if things are difficult and I want to remind myself why I do them the way I do, then I pick up one of my books and read.
And so it was that after our challenging day at the playground last week, I felt I really needed some inspiration. While I felt I’d done a better job of controlling my response to DD than I have in the past, I still felt like I did too much talking, which led to lecturing, which soon took on a scolding tone. So I chose a book that I knew focussed on how to speak to your child during times of conflict. I chose Harville Hendrix’s Giving the Love That Heals: a guide for parents.
This book is based on Imago Relationship Theory. Here is a very simple breakdown of the theory as it applies to couples. Since a foundation of Imago Theory is that wounds in childhood return to the surface in adult relationships, it seems logical to then ask what we can do as parents to minimize those sorts of wounds when raising our own children. One of the ways is to use Intentional Dialogue, which is a system of communicating and discussing issues between parent and child. It’s a modification of Couples Dialogue, and is also very similar to Non-Violent Communication.
So I opened this book expecing to refine my communication style, when I stumbled upon another concept in Imago Parenting that I’d not considered: when we find ourselves having a strong reaction to an otherwise normal, age appropriate behaviour from our children, this is generally indicative that we are dealing with one of our own issues. One that we have carried through with us from our own early, brain-shaping experiences.
At first, as I was reading through the relevant material on this subject, I thought “I never had such issues with other kids. I was always socially accepted, got along well with others, never ruffled any feathers….”. But then it suddenly hit me. What I was reacting to was not really DD’s behaviour, I was reacting to how I perceived the other children to be feeling! When I focussed and replayed the events in my mind, I could feel how my emotions centered around what I felt the effects of DD’s words and actions were on the other kids. I was ashamed and embarrassed for DD that she had hurt these other kids that way. And if you have been reading my blog lately you may recall a post I wrote a while back about my issues with not wanting to hurt others, and avoiding social conflicts in any way possible.
Suddenly it all clicked and things fell into place. It was a classic Imago Parenting moment. First, when I was recalling the details of the playground fiasco to my DH the next day, I was struck by how trivial it all seemed. Even I had to laugh when I described DD telling some child he was a “poopyhead” and then insisting to another group of kids that she “knew everything”. As I spoke, I couldn’t help but wonder why such childish, typical-grumpy-four-year-old stuff would elicit so much emotion in me that I would scold DD and leave the playground in tears. It was a classic over-reaction, indicative that an issue of mine was being provoked by what I was witnessing in my DD.
The second clue was that I was not assessing the whole situation. I was reacting as though DD were committing grievous acts against the other kids, when in reality no real damage was being done. In discussing the events of that day with my friend K (who was there that day), she confirmed that the children DD was behaving this way towards were doing a pretty darned good job of dealing with it! I recalled that a couple of 7 year olds had assured me that day that DD’s language didn’t bother them at all because they had siblings her age who spoke to them like that “all the time”. The other children were telling her quite clearly that they didn’t like being spoken to like that, or they just ignored her; some got angry, but nobody’s response was extreme or cruel. Apparently the other mothers there had also commented that the kids seemed to be handling it appropriately. I’d interfered to a far greater level than was necessary, another clue that I’d gotten emotionally involved in something I wasn’t a part of.
Looking back now I can see clearly that I should have just let the kids deal with it on their own, and allowed DD the freedom to explore and discover how these behaviours affected her social interactions with these children. I should have taken a neutral stance, intervening only to protect another child from physical harm, or respond if the child showed a genuine distress at her treatment. Because, as I read about what stage of development she is going through, I was reminded that this is a stage of Identity; she’s trying on various roles, experimenting with different ways of “being”, and learning how those affect her, socially. Obviously I needed to step in to return a “stolen” object, or when the one child got hit, and to talk with her when her feelings got hurt by an angry response from one boy. But by “talk” I mean doing an Intentional Dialogue. That means Listening and helping the child work through her feelings, and letting HER learn from the experience, not lecturing her and dictating what sort of person she has to be.
I tell ya, reading through those chapters was like a giant lightbulb moment. I was grateful and sorrowful all at once. Sorrowful that my language had sent so many negative messages that day, message that spoke to the very core of who DD is and her sense self worth. But grateful that this incident led to an immense personal growth moment for myself as an individual and as a parent.
So last night, after reading some more, I renewed my commitment to my DD: to love her as a whole person, all parts of her, even the grumpy-four-year-old parts. I need to Back Off (if you’re familiar with the book, I’m a classic Maximizer parent – I tend to explode and get overinvolved). I need to let DD have her experiences and learn from them in her own way, while I provide a safe and supportive environment in which to process those experiences. I am determined today to try and work with Intentional Dialogue and to step back and see DD as a separate person who deserves respect for all parts of herself as she struggles to define who she is and where she fits in this world.