The other night my daughter called me from her dad's house. The first thing she asked was if she had any appointments this week. I said, "Yes, you have a doctor's appointment after school on Monday." She immediately got mad and told me how much homework she was going to have that day and how she didn't have time for any appointments. "Why do you always sign me up for things after school on Monday?!?"
My first inner response was to defend the necessity for her appointment. My second inner reaction was to take her overwhelm and frustration personally. I am the one who sets up her appointments, maybe I am the bad guy. It felt like she was blaming me for making her life complicated. A feeling it does not take much to make me believe.
Pause, don't explode
I've been working on responding only to what is said and not going off on my own tangent or story. And this applies and is effective with everyone, not just our children.
I also know to listen with empathy and try to connect first, and not correct. Both of these practices are not my first inclinations. It takes a heap of self-governance to not derail and spew negativity or defensiveness in return.
I took a deep breath and verbalized empathy regarding her overloaded feeling. "I know it's one more thing to fit in after school along with homework. I know you'd like to have free time."
Then the miracle... She told me about two other situations that came up that day that made her upset. Both of these situations involved important relationships in her life. She also mentioned she had a headache and got sick earlier.
Whoa! So mostly her strong reaction to her appointment was due to these other issues. I had nothing to do with them.
The building blocks of connection
According to Dr. Laura Markham (Aha!Parenting.com) and Dr. John Gottman (marital therapist and researcher), the building blocks of connection are the small overtures or bids for attention we make to each other every day, and the way our loved ones respond.
And, of course, our children often test us by saying something negative to see if we'll empathize. If we respond to their 'bid' with understanding, even though they're expressing negativity, they'll trust that we can handle their authentic feelings, and they'll open up more. If we ignore, deny their feelings, correct them or judge, they'll shut down. — Dr. Laura Markham, 5 Secrets to Nurture Intimacy with Your Child
Complaints and negativity are requests for connection
I cannot tell you how many times my kids have come home and immediately started griping. "We don't have any good snacks!," "Why isn't dinner ready?," "I hate school!"
My usual response was to start defending myself or minimizing their problems. I did not see these gripes as bids for attention. I saw them as attacks on me or the school or the house or whatever.
I did not respond with understanding and my kids eventually did not trust me with their feelings or thoughts. They reached out to me less or they just kept sharing complaints.
I did not show I could handle their big emotions and they stopped trying to connect.
Slowly, by learning to respond to all bids and not get lost in the negativity, a warmth is returning to our relationships. I get to hear more of what is going on inside of them.
The outcome of the call from my daughter gives me faith in the power of tuning in and responding with care and understanding instead of defensiveness or irritation. It really isn't about me all the time.
All relationships benefit from seeing beyond the negativity
This practice of responsiveness works with all relationships, not just with our children. My fiancé is the most responsive partner I've ever had and that encourages me to do the same for him. The more responsive we are with each other, the more trust builds.
Both adults and children test to see if others can handle their strong emotions. The key is not to take it personally. Partners and children subconsciously ask “How much ME can you handle?” If we respond with empathy and care, they feel reassured and the connection strengthens.
Brenda Knowles is the creator of brendaknowles.com, where sensitive people go to build emotional and relationship resilience. Check out The Quiet Rise of Introverts: 8 Practices for Living and Loving in a Noisy World.