Children tend to cry quite a lot more than adults, and sometimes it is hard for us as parents to first, understand what is going on, and second, know which is the most helpful way to respond. Today I’d love to delve into the concept of supported healing cries, sharing with you ideas I have got from Aware Parenting and from other places, which I have then mixed and turned it into my own Inspired Parenting combo.
Remember you can find all concepts in capitals and italics in the Glossary section at the end.
P.S. In the previous newsletter I talked about my “Inner Loving Parents” and I want to acknowledge my mentor, Marion Rose, for the inspiration of these relationships. I had an inkling of them before, but since I have been doing her Inner Loving Presence Process course, they have clarified and deepened in an extraordinary manner.
I used to believe that I was responsible for my children’s happiness. When they cried, I believed there was something “wrong”, that the wrong had to be fixed, and that it was my job as a mother to fix it. Thank goodness Aware Parenting (AwP) took that task out of my list of jobs to do. Of course we do need to provide for our children’s needs. And it’s clear that sometimes, crying indicates an unmet need, like when they have a sugar low and they get whingey, and the only thing they need is some food. But often crying is the need, and I didn’t get that fully until I cam across that concept in AwP.
With Aware Parenting I learned that crying is a healing mechanism in itself. And that it is really, really good for children (and adults! and babies!!) to have regular supported cries. By supported I mean, with a loving other who is just listening compassionately without trying to fix the “problem” or distract us from it. From my point of view, there are two sides to this healing supported cries, the physical side and the emotional side.
To understand the physical side, I will describe how our sympathetic nervous system gets triggered whenever we experience stress or pain (for more on that, read my newsletter, “Reflections #14, The healing process”). If you have read a bit about stress you will know that a whole host of hormones, adrenaline and cortisol among them, flood our body in preparation for fight or flight on those occasions. The idea is that we then run or do some strenuous physical exercise to “save our lives”. When that threat disappears, the brain stops producing those hormones and everything goes back to normal. This normal state, or rest and digest mode, is were we our bodies are designed to spend most of their time in order to function optimally. And to do so, we need to make sure the left over hormones are flushed from our nervous system so that everything associated with the parasympathetic nervous system goes back to working properly.
To understand the emotional side I will mention that, for emotional healing to happen, we need what Thomas Sheff calls the distancing of emotion, the feeling of simultaneous distress and safety, always necessary requirement before any therapeutic emotional release. If the person is too overwhelmed by fear (“underdistanced”), they will not be able to laugh or cry. Likewise, if the feared element is not present at all (“overdistanced”), they will not feel at all frightened, and also will not laugh or cry (Sheff, T.J. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual and Drama). Aletha Solter calls that The Balance of Attention (see definition below, in the glossary section).
What provides children (and adults) with safety is a loving adult by their side. So it’s not enough to cry. For it to be healing rather than causing further damage, we need someone lovingly holding the space for us. As adults, that someone can be just a part of ourselves, for example a wiser part holding our inner upset child. Children have not developed enough for that, and they always need someone external to provide that support.
That space holding can be quite tricky, though. If the person listening is upset or overwhelmed with our emotions, they will try to fix the problem for us or distract us from it, and that will cause us to overdistance from the issue. Can you feel the different quality between those two approaches?
Number 1: a pat on the back, a “you’ll be all right” comment and a change of subject.
Number 2: a total acceptance and acknowledgement with words like: “I hear you, I know what you mean”.
Imagine yourself in an upsetting situation, getting one reaction and then the other. Which one makes you feel more relaxed and understood?
Some people worry that if we accept negative emotions unconditionally we are reinforcing them. But emotions don’t work like that, they actually function the opposite way: their natural tendency is to move (hence their name, which comes from the Latin words e- (variant of ex- ), meaning ‘out’ + movere, meaning ‘move’). When provided with space, they eventually shift and turn into something else; invariably. It is only when we stop that movement, like with fixing or distraction, that they get stuck inside our system and stay that way until they have the opportunity to continue their natural course and dissipate (for more on that, read “Reflections #14, The healing process”). That is why, when a toddler drops her ice cream and she cries wholeheartedly for a few minutes while someone patiently listens, she will soon be over it and move on happily to the next thing in her life, seldom remembering the incident again.
This is also why, when emotions haven’t been fully heard and healed, but stay bottled up inside, they keep on coming up again and again, following their natural tendency and trying to carry on their way. This is what is happening when children (and adults) react to certain situations with a higher level of emotion than the situation warrants. In AwP this is called The Broken Cookie Phenomenon, and it can be an excellent opportunity to release past hurts stuck in the system, provided with the appropriate conditions, i.e., supportive listening. The same can be said every time a child gets physically hurt. They will often make use of the trigger of the present pain to let out old pent up emotions experienced in previous situations when they didn’t feel safe enough to express them.
So from this perspective, the best approach when a child is having a healing cry is to come physically close and patiently listen. To hurry them into feeling better will only cut the process short and leave them with residual hormones and emotions stuck in their system. Giving children the time they need, and giving their emotions all the space they require to process fully, is the best gift we can offer them. May these ideas bring peace of mind and heart to you, the listener, in time of tears.
or if you have any questions or comments,
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Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child rearing that has the potential to change the world. Developed by developmental psychologist Aletha Solter and based on current research in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can significantly improve relationships within a family. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are cooperative, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.
The dictionary defines inspired as ‘aroused, animated, or imbued with the spirit to do something by or as if by supernatural or divine influence’. “Inspired parenting” is, for me, the type of parenting we do when we connect to something bigger than ourselves, when we become clear channels through which pours unconditional love. I have learned (and continue learning!) to parent that way mostly with the help of the Aware Parenting philosophy, as developed by Dr. A. Solter, so the ideas underpinning my Parenting Coaching are based on it.
The Balance of Attention:
Aletha Solter uses this term to indicate the relationship, at a particular moment in time, between a sense of safety on one hand and the feeling of a difficult emotion on the other (Solter, A. Helping young children flourish). This balance is perfect when there is enough safety for the difficult emotions to be released and healed through the vehicle of laugher, tears, shaking, sweating or yawning.
The broken cookie phenomenon:
The use of a present trigger of distress as an opportunity to release old pent up emotions. The expression refers to the common situation in which a child will want a cookie and the only one left is broken. The child then has a big cry about wanting a cookie which is not broken, expressing more emotion than the situation warrants.
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