Category Archives: Change

04Feb/13

Do You React like a Child?

I have realised that a lot of the discord in our house is made worse by my own reactions to it.

I can give up my food, lose my sleep, give my children my gloves and socks on a cold winter’s walk, let them choose games, films, where to sit, what to eat………all in a mature adult way. That’s what mums do.  We put our children first, trying to ease their discomfort, not minding if we don’t get to choose the cake first, or sit in the front of the car. Sometimes I do mind, but I can sacrifice these kind of things with equanimity.

What I can’t cope with are their expressions of negative emotion: the arguing, complaining, the anger and frustration. It makes me feel so uncomfortable and out of control that I react to them as a child would. Immediately.  Without pausing and thinking. Without empathising with them. Only thinking of myself, my emotions, and how I can get control of  the situation, and smooth things over again.

John Gottman, in his wonderful book, ‘Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child’ explains that how we react to our children’s emotions reflects how we respond to our own.  Sadly, I have had to admit that this is true in my case.  In some areas I am not emotionally intelligent in the slightest.  I hate being angry or upset and have spent my entire life resisting it, trying to eradicate it, believing myself and my life to be seriously flawed in those instances.  I realise now, that as a perfectionist, I needed to control it. Anger and sadness have no place in a perfect life, so they were obviously Very Bad Indeed.

Now, while I am trying to raise a happy family rather than a perfect one, I understand the value of negative emotions and the choices we have in responding to them.  I know of many better ways of acting and talking to myself and my children in these situations to validate the feelings, accept the situation, set limits on behaviour and come up with solutions if need be.  Unfortunately my emotional side is not with the programme yet.  It seems to be many years behind, and I worry whether it will ever catch up.  Knowing something intellectually and rationally is one thing.  Knowing it emotionally in the heat of the moment is another thing altogether.

What further confounds the problem is that I wear my heart on my sleeve. It is easy to tell what I’m feeling, without me having to spell it out.  I’ve always thought of it as a sign of being honest and just a part of being me.  Now it seems a lot like a lack of self control – call it stiff upper lip if you like.  When the emotional going gets tough I just can’t keep it together.  It all comes out – like a five year old – directed at the people closest to me.   It’s like I am stamping my feet and shouting ‘its’ not fair!’  Knowing intellectually what I need to change doesn’t help me react in the moment, and even makes it feel worse because I am aware that I could be behaving differently, but can’t. It can be very frustrating, especially when I behave in a way that I’m telling my children not to.

But another important thing I’ve learnt in the past 2 years is that in order to change this and improve my emotional reactions, I need first to accept that it’s ok not to be perfect at the moment. This means being mindful and kind to myself when it happens.   I also know that to change a habit I need to focus on the new habit and have a plan of action.

So, I have compiled a list of  ‘alternative parenting responses’ for myself and my husband to use in the heat of the moment when we  start to get frustrated about the kids being upset or misbehaving.  We have practiced noticing what triggers our annoyance, and then started using the new responses. It will take some hard work before it feels natural or becomes a habit, but we’ve seen some small green shoots of success already which spurs us on.

It seems I may be able to grow up after all.

11Jan/13

My 2013 Family Project

This year I am running a Family Project.*  I will be researching and creating ways to teach, model and coach my children about core values (kindness, respect, gratitude etc.) and life skills (setting meaningful goals, dealing with their emotions, taking responsibility etc.).  I am hoping that this will contribute to a more harmonious family life as well as setting my children up with the habits that will help them have a happy and successful life.

I know some of you may be thinking ‘Isn’t that what parents do anyway?’ And you’d be right. Most of us do.  Everyday we model and teach the values that are most important to us.  But I’ve found that in our busy lifestyle, I am not teaching my children about the most obvious things because I expect them to ‘know’ it already. Or sadly – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this – we say one thing and do another and our children get mixed messages.  How many times have you shouted at your children “Stop shouting! Show some respect!”  Another example: I was talking to my youngest son before Christmas about friendships and forgiveness. And I realised that this was the first time I’d ever mentioned it to him. He thought that when a friend was mean to him, that was the end of their friendship. He didn’t realise forgiveness was an option, and he took any friendship disputes very personally. Obviously we model forgiveness at home, and I say sorry a lot to my children (after one of my tantrums, or grumpy moods) but we’d never discussed the concept openly.

I also think that in my case, I am so busy looking after 3 children and establishing my own business, that teaching and focussing on the children gets over looked. It doesn’t seem urgent. We’ve got dinner to make, rooms to tidy, homework to do, clubs to go to, arguments to settle, emotions to deal with.  We can talk about forgiveness, or patience, or setting goals tomorrow, or when they are a bit older. But my eldest goes to secondary school in September – I’m running out of time to teach him everything I want to teach him to help him survive the harsh, cruel world of high school. ( I know, it will be great for him, but I’m also a bit scared.)  I’ve wanted to do this kind of parenting ever since I became a mum, but I’ve never made enough time for it. I’ve done bits and pieces here and there (family meetings, workbooks for the kids, my early attempt at a family project*) but I was never consistent enough.  This year, I am being brave and saying no to other things that have seemed more important.  I am saying no to some exciting plans for my business (they can wait til 2014) , I am saying no to taking the easy life (putting the telly on, not exercising, going to bed too late, putting it off til tomorrow), I am saying no to alcohol (in Jan only!) and saying no to my perfectionist need to be in control (as much as I can…). I am also saying no to acting like a child myself. It’s time I grew up and learned to control my own emotions and reactions like I’m expecting my children to.    These are very big no’s for me and I am sure to slip up time and time again. But this year I will keep focussed and keep going for the sake of my family.

The most important thing about parenting for me (after keeping them safe and well-fed) is to equip my children with knowledge, skills, practice and habits that will enable them to accept and deal with their and other people’s emotions in a mature way.  It is a hugely important idea to me.  It’s time I stopped thinking about it and just did it.

*Those of you with good memories will know that I started my family project in the summer of 2011, but it fizzled out so I’m resurrecting it again, and focussing on it for the whole of 2013.

FireworksFamilies

08Jan/13

Just One New Year’s Resolution

I have a history of making long lists of New Year’s Resolutions which have varying degrees of success and duration but which mainly get repeated year after year (because I never keep to them).  This year I am just making one new New Year’s Resolution:  To meditate.

I am not even going to make it completely SMART.  It won’t be specific, or measurable.  It will be action-based, and realistic, but not time-based.* My resolution is to meditate regularly by having an intention to meditate everyday.  If I plan to do it everyday, but accept that this won’t always happen, I will probably end up doing it 3 or 4 times a week.   So far – it’s the 8th Jan – I have meditated for 20 minutes every morning, so let’s hope I can keep it up.

There are many scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness and meditation, but as my teacher, Ed Halliwell, says in this Guardian article , it can also be an incredibly powerful spiritual path that cannot be measured by science alone. For me personally, mindfulness and meditation has changed my life.  Instead of being ruled and battered by the powerful ups and downs of my emotions, I am now learning to interact with these same emotions in a more mature, calm and mindful way.  Not only do I feel happier, but my children are happier and I am much more productive and efficient at home and work.   Ed runs 8 week beginner courses in Sussex for those of you who may be interested.

Another good place to start, if you are interested in mindfulness and/or meditation, is headspace where you can try out their Take10 ten day beginners course for free. I also recommend downloading their app because it has some amazing short simple videos explaining the concept of mindfulness and how it can help you.

I wish you luck with your New Year’s resolutions, and I’d love to hear if any of you are planning on including mindfulness or meditation amongst them.

All the best,

Thea

*If I were SMARTer, I would choose 3 times a week, for 20 minutes at 9am,  because this is realistic. But sadly in reality, choosing which days I meditate allows me to sidestep my commitments and in the end I would probably only do it once or twice a week, and eventually lapse. I have learnt that building daily habits is more effective for me than weekly scheduling. I need to know that everyday I have to meditate, otherwise I talk myself out of it.

17Dec/12

The Best Parenting Tool Ever?

I imagine many of you, like me, are continuously searching for the holy grail of parenting, that one fail-safe technique that will solve the majority of your parenting troubles in one hit.  Even though rationally I realise this is unlikely, even impossible, a not-so-small part of me still hopes to stumble across a priceless gem of insight in a book, article or blog that will create such a massive ‘a-ha’ moment that it instantly changes my life.

Alas, this has never happened.  But I’ve had many near misses.  And the main reason that they are near-misses, rather than hitting the jackpot, is that they all involve me changing my behaviour, rather than focussing on my children changing theirs.  I know, how annoying is that?!  When you’ve got 40 years of habit and experience of thinking the way you think, and 10 years or so hard practice of mainstream (generally inefficient and counter-productive) parenting tools in the bag, you don’t really feel like changing the script, do you?  We’ve all invested so much in doing it the way we do it for so long that we don’t much feel like jumping ship now.  Not to mention the fact that it’s a very hard, long and frustrating journey changing our own ingrained behavioural habits.  And besides people might think we’ve gone soft on our kids. God forbid.

But the trouble is these near misses are the real deal, the treasure that we have been searching for. It is simply because we find it so hard to change our own behaviour that we discover our treasure is locked behind very thick iron bars.  Tantalisingly we can see the prize but can’t get to it. The only way to unlock it is to go on the long and arduous hero’s journey of personal change.

I’m sorry folks, but that’s the way it is.

The best parenting tool is changing how we think and act in order to change the way your children think and act.  This is a long term, investment-heavy journey which takes a lot of focus, practice and commitment.  But the prize is there; can’t you see it, glimmering in the twilight, waiting for us?

13Sep/12

At Forty: I am who I am.

So it finally happened: I was 40 last week.

I have spent the last 18 months or so counting down to this moment, treating it as some kind of deadline to get my life in order.

I trusted that when I was 40, I would finally be fit, organised, well dressed, calm, and at peace with myself. Because, let’s face it, 40 is quite old, and with age comes wisdom and maturity, surely.

Obviously, it didn’t quite happen like that. I didn’t change overnight into this perfect version of myself just because I was approaching 40. On my birthday I didn’t suddenly develop amazing self-control and determination to avoid wine, exercise more, or to stop shouting at my kids when I was irritated.

What happened was that I realised that I am me. I know it sounds obvious, but I think I have always believed that the me that exercised 3 times a week, had 8 hours sleep a night, was permanently serene and calm and was in control of her household was the real me, and I just had to find a way to let her out.  In reality, she is just an ideal that I beat myself up with by constantly comparing myself to her.  I’m never going to be her. If I’m honest, for the most part I’m not going to change a huge amount over the next 10 years.  I’ll probably always drink a little bit more than my doctor would be happy with, my tummy is always going to be a little bit bigger than I would like. I am probably always going to have too many ideas and not enough time.  I’ll probably always put my family life-balance before my personal business ambitions and I’ll probably always have a To Do list as long as the road I live on.  But because I’m a very ‘everything in moderation’ kind of person my flaws and bad habits are not too extreme (I hope) so I can live with them.  They make me me.

So being 40 has made me finally realise that it is ok to be me – as I am.  I know myself enough to accept that I’m not always going to feel like this, I will have moments, days, even weeks where I will sink into a hole of wishing I was ‘Perfect Me’, but I also know that I’ll come out of that hole with a renewed sense of acceptance and understanding that life is all about being vulnerable, accepting our flaws and carrying on regardless.

27May/12

Are you Ready to Jump?

While I was weighing up an important decision this week, a friend posted me this card.

It immediately made me feel clearer about what I wanted to do.  It showed me that the doubts I had about taking on this new opportunity were more to do with being scared and nervous about the challenges ahead rather than whether it was the right thing for me or not.

Often we forget that in order to grow and develop personally and professionally we have to take scary leaps of faith. We have to say yes to an exciting adventure rather than choose to sit in the shade and watch others get out there and do it instead.  We need to accept that we will feel uncomfortable and out of our depth at times, but that the rewards are well worth it.  And the more you get into the habit of stretching your comfort zone, the easier it becomes.

What do you need to do to step over the edge of your comfort zone?

29Sep/11

Family Project Update

Well, the chaos of the holidays and the start of school term have taken their toll on me, and I have to admit that I haven’t kept focussed on our Family Project as much as I’d hoped.

However, despite my lack of planning this month’s family activities, the concept of respect has been central in my thoughts, and has caused much relief, hope and despair.

The story goes like this:   For most of my parenting life, I have felt uneasy with the general parenting techniques that our society uses, namely the culture of reward and punishment, blaming and shaming, and the reliance on external motivation to mould children’s behaviour.

However,  I’m also not comfortable with the more permissive, liberal side of parenting either, where we let our children discover their own path, and put their needs first.  I do believe that we should teach our children certain ways of behaving, and for them to learn that there are consequences whenever and however we act. 

Add to that the recent realisation that I am a perfectionist who feels the need to be in control of everything – especially her children – you have a set of contraditions that are not likely to bring about a safe, nurturing, respectful environment for children to grow up in.  Instead you find a mother who is instinctively loving and nurturing but who on a day to day basis uses threats, blaming and shaming with her children (and herself) in the misguided belief that this what you have to do to instill proper values, principles and manners into her children.  But it doesn’t work. And because I’m a perfectionist, I blame myself (when I’m not blaming the children!) which makes the whole situation ten times worse.

So when our Family Project focussed on respect I ordered three new parenting books.  But I didn’t get what I expected.  Instead of learning new techniques to teach my children how to act with more respect, I was told what I already knew deep inside: that it was me who needed to learn to treat my children with respect, not the other way around. 

Cue relief (my instincts were right after all), hope (it will be ok when I’ve practiced this respect thing – it can’t be too hard, especially since it is in tune with my thinking) and then despair (it’s sooooooooooooo hard.  Habits are hard to change, and my children don’t respond in the same way that they do in the books). 

So our Family Project will be concentrating on respect for as long as it takes, and it will involve as much learning, and changing, from me and my husband as it will from our kids.  It’s tough, and will continue to be tough, but it feels right. For once I feel like I am living in line with my values.