Connecting to your child requires constant work. Not all of that work is visible to other people. But it’s the invisible stuff, the deep down acceptance and tolerance of your maniac child that truly matters.
This is usually how the judgment from others goes. You’re out, in public, doing wondrous public things with your beloved cherubs. You have an exchange with your partner, chatting merrily. You may even get to finish a sentence. But then there’s a cry and you see your child in a puddle on the ground. You go over and you parent your child the best way you know how. You kneel down beside her, this grubby tear-stained cherub whose chest is doing those big gulping breaths and you hold her as she processes the trauma of sharing the slide. And then some complete wanker goes ‘Her kid won’t share the slide and she’s not even doing anything about it!’
Keyhole Judging – (you know if it has a name then it’s clearly a thing). You see a snapshot of someone’s life and draw wild conclusions, generally negative. For example, my child won’t share the slide so I may as well buy her first switchblade now. She can get menacing boots for Christmas.
Keyhole judging very much upsets me.
Hey bystanders! It is not that I’m doing nothing, it’s that you are seeing nothing!
If you want to correctly label the exchange it goes like this ‘So, she responded to her child with respect, and listened to her emotions and point of view and considered the context and any triggers that were around and she knew that she couldn’t listen at that point in time so she stayed close to her and connected in a meaningful way that didn’t send her into flight or fight. That Bitch!!’
I am so tired of having ‘peaceful parenting’ referred to as ‘doing nothing’ There is an insane amount of energy and effort expended in taking the road less travelled with your kid. The one that requires you to constantly label emotions and negotiate, and say shit like ‘It’s ok to be sad’ and ‘I can hear how upset you are’ as you are loving your child through their insistence that a broken cookie is the end of physics, geometry and the world as we know it.
My son is Autistic. This is not news. Sometimes it creates news because he’s also bloody hilarious, but I digress. We have been shopping with him (an excursion which I am one hundred percent positive has led to child puddled on floor scenario’s for every parent ever). We bought him an ice-cream. It was the wrong one. He wanted the orange one. He dropped to the ground like a goddamn stone, wrong ice-cream discarded and face crumpled like an accordion. He crawled into a corner of the shopping centre and curled up like a kitten. A sad, sweaty, wronged kitten. I sat down beside him.
People in shopping centres have opinions. They really do. A stranger saw the sad Boy and the melting ice-cream and inquired as to what was going on. ‘Wrong ice cream!’ I replied with a shrug. ‘And you’re letting him get away with it? You’re doing nothing?’
Fuck off I’m doing nothing, I’m managing my own emotions and modelling fucking emotional development. I’m filtering the looks from other people and constructing a social story in my head. I’m judging if it’s the right time to put a hand on my son’s back because it’s sometimes comforting and sometimes not, I’m making sure I’m beside him instead of in front of him because that can be confronting. I’m giving rage face to anyone that looks like they might intervene and fuck it all up and I’m getting the occasional you bloody well rock glance from other people who know exactly how much work goes into doing nothing. I’m providing a safe space, physically and emotionally for a sad boy and I’m doing it while sitting on the cold ground someone has probably walked on with poo shoes. I’m modulating my tone and I’m choosing my words carefully, I’m offering him a way in instead of shutting him out. I’m matching my breathing to his to help him slow shuddering breaths into deep peaceful ones. I’m looking for exits and figuring out the best way to present moving to a scared child who was doing excellently well in dealing with the lights, noise, movement and confusion of a busy shopping centre and who unfortunately was given the wrong ice cream.
There is no amount of tough love that can convince a child whose body and brain is telling him he’s in danger, that he is not in danger (Nason, 2016). What is this obsession with doing something? Sometimes nothing is magic. Sometimes it’s required. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can actually do. I have broken previously and bowed down to pressure to pick up an overwhelmed child and move them, or yelled at them when what I really wanted to do was crouch down beside him and say ‘let me know when you’re ready.’ The result is inevitably worse. Plus it was really only done to demonstrate to onlookers that I’m controlling my child, the worst parenting choice I can make. Doing nothing will never be a bad choice, even if you just use that time to sit quietly with your child and calm your own mind while you figure out what to do next. I have sat on shopping centre floors. I have held whispered conversations underneath cinema seats. I have described the action in a circus to a child hunched over in my lap who desperately wanted to see it, but couldn’t bear to watch it. I have climbed trees and stayed in parked cars. I have sat on steps outside classrooms and hidden in beanbags at family gatherings.
I DO NOT regret a single second of this.
I am trying to raise people who will not be like those bystanders, or other mothers who whisper when I whisk my child away to quietly talk about ‘appropriate behaviour’ instead of the public flagellation they consider their due. I am no longer interested in pandering to the feelings of bystanders when my children, my (occasionally) angelic children are crying their hearts out. This is the long haul, when we accept all emotions and actually process them then the work eventually gets less. Labelling and accepting provides an extra link between feeling and doing, that link is thinking (Lieberman et al., 2007). It stops knee jerk reactions and helps us consider context and consequences when making decisions (Lieberman, Inagaki, Tabibnia & Crockett, 2011). It helps us know why we do things, and prevents scenarios like looking around at the broken dishes and thinking ‘crap, I actually liked that set.’
With each practiced time, doing nothing during a meltdown gets easier. The fear is less, the trust is more. The doing nothing leaves space for so many other things to happen. More important things than demonstrating control over a child. So if you see a parent doing nothing with their child, just know how much effort that nothing is taking up. I guarantee it’s more valuable and worthwhile in the long term than doing something.
References (oh hush I know you love them).
Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S., Pfeifer, J. H., Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-428.
Lieberman, M. D., Inagaki, T. K., Tabibnia, G., & Crockett, M. J. (2011). Subjective responses to emotional stimuli during labeling, reappraisal, and distraction. Emotion, 3, 468-480.
Nason, B. (2016). Autism Discussion Page: Don’t Punish Meltdowns! Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/autismdiscussionpage/?fref=ts
Linking up with The Annoyed Thyroid for Down the Rabbit Hole here