Tag Archives: attachment

Attention Isn’t a Reward

Connection

I don’t even know if I have the capacity for normal emotions or not because I haven’t cried for a long time. You just stifle them for so long that maybe you lose them, partially at least.”

That is a punch to the gut for anyone who feels like they have to hide their emotions or “true self.” Science continues to affirm that concealing your emotions is destructive. Dismissing our feelings makes us less able to maintain our sense of well-being. Our inner, ignored swamps create a distance between us and those we love.

Time does not heal all wounds; connection does. When someone you care for struggles with their feelings, you reach out a helping hand. Sometimes pain comes in the form of destructive behavior—as a society, we recognize this. We acknowledge that addiction indicates alienation and that the most aggressive among us are hurting.
So why do we admonish people for giving their children attention when they are having a hard time?

What are Rewards?

You shouldn’t reward behavior like that.”

If you pay attention to him, he will just keep doing it.”

Paying attention to someone isn’t a reward. Loving someone isn’t a reward. Love is an automatic reaction. We should not pretend to turn it on and off as a means to manipulate.

Are you a good person or bad person for feeling sad?

Are you an upright citizen or dreg for feeling anxious?

Does your regret make you admirable or awful?

These are of course ridiculous questions.

Rewards are something that you get for doing something good. Punishments are for doing something bad. Emotions are not on a moral spectrum.
Labeling feelings as negative or positive is destructive. Learning to accept a wide range of emotions contributes to our ability to self-regulate, an important life skill which you are teaching your child how to do (or not to do) now. When your child makes bids for your attention, that is an opportunity for you to coach them through their feelings.

Attention

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It is easy for us to forget in today’s society what attention actually is. It is even easier to forget as adults because we feel and believe that we “take care of ourselves.”

Attention is our lifeline. Without the attention of others—in our evolutionary past and today—we either die or simply survive. In harsh environments, ostracism is used as an extreme punishment because we are social mammals; being ignored by your community is a threat of death and not an idle one.

Our attention and love are not rewards for our children. Once we recognize belonging as a fundamental human need, we can let go of the fear that we are rationing it incorrectly. You wouldn’t take away air, water, or food from your child as a punishment for their bad behavior. You shouldn’t take away your love.

Wanting attention is a legitimate need. If you find yourself thinking that the desire for attention is something that needs to be fixed in yourself, reflect on this belief, where you got it, and how to fix it. As trendy as pathologizing basic human desires and behaviors is, your family will benefit if you resist the urge.

Overwhelm

In the name of authenticity, we should admit that we want to show our love for our children when they break down. Breaking down can be palatable—the shuddering of shoulders, the “blue zone” that Dr. Siegel talks about where our children clam up and avoid eye contact. Or it can be the dreaded “red zone—the tantrum, yelling, crying, screaming that everyone seems to think they will be able to avoid because they will parent right.

Both of these are normal human reactions to being overwhelmed. Children feel overcome with emotion more often and more easily and have outbursts to match.

What should you do when your child is having a tantrum? You don’t need to tell them that their behavior is great. You certainly don’t need to actually reward the behavior with ice cream and toys. You don’t need to help them quickly get over the emotion. Stop harmful and destructive behavior (physically, if you need to), and just be with them. You don’t want to be alone in your tough emotions. Neither do they.

All behavior is communication. Sometimes that behavior is communicating, “I need your help to stop. I feel out of control.”

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The Quote

The quote at the top was made by a really famous guy. Jeffrey Dahmer.
I’m not saying that your child is going to cannibalize people if you ignore their emotions. They could grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. They may learn how to regulate their emotions.
You are your child’s emotional coach. What are you teaching them?

Please share this post if you enjoyed it! Comment below: How do you handle your children’s tough emotions?

babies are people

Babies Are People

Because they don’t talk. Because we support them. Because they need so much. Because we are all they have.

It is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to remember that our babies are people too. They have their own needs, wants, and struggles.

Difficult Times

My partner experienced this recently when he kindly offered to take our four-month-old son for a while so could relax.

Our four-month-old sleep-regression-and-developmental-leap-having son.

He was not the easiest he has ever been.

My boyfriend remarked in his wisdom that he could see how people sometimes forget that babies are people.

My boyfriend, obviously, is not alone in this. We had spoken about it. I have had that feeling. We all have that feeling.

Little Baby “Thoughts”

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While we’ll never know exactly what babies think—although that’s not quite the right word—I try to put myself in their shoes. I try to think of having a pain and not knowing how to resolve it. I try to think of being alone and not knowing if I’ll ever see anyone again. I try to think of needing help, and the people I care for most withholding.

Of course, my son’s thoughts are nowhere close to this coherent. Babies are people, too, but he has just come out of creature mode. He is just waking up to the world. His emotional system is just coming online, and he can begin to respond with reactions other than fight, flight, freeze or faint.

But even without the cognition, the important thing is there. The feelings are there.

And to me, they sound very difficult and very frustrating.

No Theory of Mind

I try not to go in the other direction, either. There are people who prescribe far more cognitive abilities to children than they have. I probably tend on this side, though I can usually catch myself.

Infants don’t have a theory of mind—they don’t know that you’re making choices and thinking thoughts different and independent from theirs. They don’t understand your motivations.

When my son is uncomfortable or in pain, I sometimes wonder if he is thinking, “Why won’t you just solve this? You’re so big, so strong. You can do so much. Please make this pain stop.”

But he doesn’t think that. He just feels: “I don’t want this!”

As he ages, he may start assigning blame. It will have to do with his temperament, and the sort of culture we set up in our household. Whether he blames me, himself, the world, or realizes that there is no need to sign blame, our ideas and attitudes towards are discomfort are going to have some effect on him.

Being Present

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But for now, my goal is just to remember that he is a person. He is not an inanimate objects that I can force my desires on, and he is not a full grown adult prescribing malintent. He’s neither a manipulative psychopath trying to pull from me every resource that I have nor plant requiring just a bit of water and a touch of sun.

All that I can do is respond consistently to his cues. This doesn’t mean perfectly, and this doesn’t mean immediately. It means recognizing that he is trying to communicate his needs and wants to me and responding to them sensitively.

Sometimes, he will cry while he is in my arms, but if he is with me, he will be fine. And if I can see him and stay with him there without demanding he feel some other way, then I will, too.

 

Consistency is NOT Key

children-817365_960_720.jpgConsistency is not key.

It is a common refrain among parenting coaches and educators that one of the most important things that you can do for your children is being consistent.

Which forces us to ask what the benefits of consistency are.

Consistently responding sensitively to your child’s needs creates a secure attachment.

For children and adults, there is a real upside to having routines and schedules. It allows us to be centered and mindful.

But consistency for the sake of consistency is garbage. Things for the sake of themselves often are.

What if you told your kid no ice cream, then thought about it, and you realized it really wasn’t an issue with you? What if you were angry in a moment, and disciplined your child—and then realized that it was disproportionate or useless?

There are many times when not being consistent is extremely important. Saying, “I’m sorry” means that you’ve changed your mind, or your behavior, or your attitude towards something. You in the present and you in the past do not agree on how to handle something.

Change isn’t always a good thing; but we have to be willing to change our minds. With new information comes new possibilities. With new energy comes new alleyways to discover. With new surroundings comes new structures.

What we create constantly gets knocked down, and that includes ourselves. The principle of non-self (anatta) tells us not to hold onto an idea of a solid, unchanging self because it is a lie. If anatta truly does reflect reality—and I very strongly believe it does—then to be totally consistent overtime is impossible.

One reason people think consistency is so important is because they think children are less intelligent and flexible then they are.

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When I was a kindergarten teacher, I would let my students jump up and down on my stomach. It was very fun for the all of us, and I like to make kids feel big and powerful. The owner of the kindergarten asked me not to do it because she was afraid that they would think it is okay to do with other teachers.

I talked to her about all of the different ways that the different teachers run their classrooms. About how I teach letters this way, but Teacher Ryan taught his this way. About how I played these games and Teacher Claire played those games. About how I let my kids scream, and Teacher Sean always liked his classrooms quiet.

We shared students, and of course, the children had no problem switching from one situation to another. They didn’t get confused with the different English speaking accents.

I asked the students: Who it was okay to jump on? They screamed, “Teacher Amelia.”

As excited as I could, I said, “Can we jump on Teacher Ryan?” and the kids laughed and laughed and said “No!”

“Can we teach on Teacher Claire?”

“Hahaha, no!”

These were 3 and 4 year olds, and we were talking in their second language. They were not confused at all that different people want different things, and that even different times required different behaviors.

If I came in feeling unwell one day, the kids did not feel uneasy when I said, “We have to be quiet today because Teacher is feeling sick. We won’t play many games.” Did they require a reminder or two?

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Sure, of course.

But it didn’t make them fundamentally distrust me, or feel confused about our relationship, or feel that the rug had been pulled out under their feet.

There are ways in which consistency benefits children. Again: responding sensitively to their cues, and having some semblance of a schedule so that they aren’t all over the place. Having an attachment figure, of course.

But children are very smart and adaptable. They start gaining the ability to empathize very young, and they live in an ever changing world. They are humans. Human are excellent generalists. We are amazing at building tools and finding ways to adapt to a variety of situations. We know how to reorient ourselves to new people, new rules, and new cultures.

The concept of consistency is important in a few domains. But in most, it is not. Not only do our moods change over time, but so do our values. What our children are capable of is constantly changing, and if you’re sensitive to their development, you will open up new doors for them at every opportunity. Today’s “No, it is too dangerous,” often can and should be Tomorrow’s “Yes, please give it a try.”

Bids for Attention

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We took our evening walk at the park next to my house. There had just been a storm, so there were worms all over the ground. They were laying on the walkways, almost all of them dead from being stepped on. There was one survivor.

The boy was about 9 years old. He saw the one worm wiggling there, and it stirred some kind of emotion in him. He did not want to touch the worm, but he absolutely had to save it. He used his hands like two scoops and tried to quickly flick it back into the grass, hoping that the briefer the contact, the more limited was your exposure to worm germs.

It was a sweet. I’m not sure that it was helpful, but it came from a good enough place. After completing his mission, the boy ran up to his family to tell him the story of his heroic effort and success.

First, he tried his older sister. “Sarah,” he said, “I just saved a worm! He was on the street and I got him in the grass.”

She doesn’t even look at him.

He jogs up a bit further to tell his parents. He has added texture to the story in that short time. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I just tried to tell Sarah that there was a worm in the street. He was going to die, and I saved him.”

They don’t even look at him.

I hear him try for a third time. They nod in his direction.

Our paths diverged at this point, but I could see a flash of the future. All four of them get in the minivan. David—I’ve now named him—is trying to get people to acknowledge his story. To listen to a cool thing he accomplished today. Something he maybe was only interested in doing because he wanted his parents to be proud of him.

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He says (again!), ”When we were at the park, I saved a worm! I took my hands and…”

“Enough, David! We’ve heard enough about the worm, okay? Just be quiet!” his Mom snaps.

This is a common story. Parents refuse to acknowledge that their kids are speaking, and then they get annoyed that their children say the same things over and over again.

This is the exact opposite of mindfulness. You are not paying attention to where you are and being with who you’re with. Unsurprisingly, your child is disappointed that his bed for connection is ignored.

With a younger child, this won’t be just repeating the story. It will be ever-escalating attempts to get your attention. A good example of this is babies and breastfeeding. One of the ways you can have a baby that cries less is by acknowledging the early signs of hunger. This includes rooting and sucking on their hands. If you are mindful of these more subtle cues, then your baby will, not cry out of hunger, because you will feed him before he gets too hungry.

If you do not pay attention to the clues baby is sending though, you should not be surprised that after he has asked several times, he feels the need to scream and cry to get what he wants.

What would you do if you asked your partner several times to pass the mustard and he just looked at you, and then looked away? Never passing you the mustard.

Maybe you wouldn’t scream and cry. But what if it was a problem you couldn’t solve yourself? What if you kept asking your partner to help you by putting laundry in the basket instead of on the floor when they get undressed, and they never do it? This might turn into screaming.

When our early attempts at getting understanding and acknowledgment fail, we escalate until we are heard. Not just babies, not just children—all of us!

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Bids for connection are extremely important in maintaining a healthy relationship. It is useful to reflect on this as an important tool not just in romantic relationships, but all of them. This may be a joke, a touch, a story, or any other gesture designed to communicate the desire for connection.

Poor David just wanted someone to look at him and tell him it was a nice thing he did. If they disagreed with him touching the worm, they could have said they appreciate his effort to be a caring person but that there are other considerations. They just have to acknowledge it.

I’m not saying your kid won’t tell you the same story three times. I just mean it won’t be five times. In a row.

If you get down and face them, listen, and acknowledge what they’re saying, you’re less likely to have a situation that is escalated to the point of a tantrum. But you have to truly listen, not just say the words as if you’re listening.

You’ll maybe hear the same story later that night instead of two minutes later. You will be building a stronger relationship with your child because they trust you to respond sensitively to them. You’ll be practicing your mindfulness.

As a parent, it is difficult to acknowledge but important to remember that your kids will grow up and decide whether or not they want to visit you and talk to you regularly. Build a strong, good relationship so that when that time comes, you’re a person whose bids for attention they turn towards.

Why You Should Say No

If you ask your husband to go to dinner at your favorite restaurant, and he says he doesn’t want to go there, how does that feel?

If you ask your best friend if she can come over because you are feeling sad, but she is unable to, how does that feel?

Do either of these situations stir up in you a feeling that these people in your life are rejecting who you fundamentally are as a person?

Of course not.

Or, I certainly hope not.

You are able to understand that your desires don’t take priority at all times. You know it doesn’t mean your family and friends don’t love you.

What if your partner told you no, you can’t go to that restaurant? What if he locked you in your room because you asked too many times?

You would quickly, I hope, leave this relationship.

How would you feel if you asked your partner to go to the restaurant and he said yes? And then he sat looking miserable the whole time, maybe even snapping at you? How would you feel if when you got home, he quickly rushed around from task to task, exasperated with all the things he had to do because he spent time with you? He wakes up the next day exhausted, unable to give of himself. And in the back of your head, you know he is thinking: This is your fault!

Would that feel good to you? Would you feel like your partner valued his time with you? Do you want your partner constantly draining themselves in order to feed your every little desire?

Of course not.

Or, I certainly hope not!

We have a deep desire to make our children feel that we are on their team. We want for them to feel validated in being their authentic selves.

The best way to do this is stop viewing children as fundamentally different from adults. They are only developmentally different. They have the same needs as us, largely. To be loved. To feel understood. To be mentored in things that they don’t yet understand.

It sucks when we don’t get what want. Of course we want what we want. That’s why we want it. But we can deal. Our reactions are mild.

Kids cannot control their emotions in the same way that adults can. They’re developmentally different. Very young children do not have impulse control yet. Even once it begins to develop, the decision-making part of your brain isn’t fully developed until early adulthood.

But does that mean that they feel that a “no” answer is a fundamental violation of who they are as a person? No. It doesn’t. All that it means is that they don’t have the tools yet to manage their own disappointment.

Not getting what you want already sucks. It would be much worse if people were yelling at us, lying to us. If they were trying to help, but feeling guilty and stressed. If they were slowly building resentment towards us.

I would rather have no favors done for me than ones with that price tag.

Kids ultimately feel the same way, even if they can’t say it. They can handle a “no”.

What they can’t handle is a parent who can’t handle saying “no.”

This is Enough

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Frustrated, but fine.

That is enlightenment. This is no desire.

When we look to become mindful, to be more at peace with ourselves, it means focusing on our meta-cognition.

Anyone who has had depression or anxiety will be familiar with this. Anyone who has had a fight with a loved one that they wish they hadn’t gotten into. Anyone who has made a small mistake and berated themselves for it.

You are depressed because you are depressed. You are anxious because you are anxious. You can see yourself answering snidely to your partner and can’t stop. You are beating yourself up and making more mistakes because you’re so focused on the mistake that you made.

This is one level above regular thinking. One level below regular thinking is feeling. One level below that is surviving—the part of us that goes into fight, flight, freeze, or faint. That lizard brain that tells you if something is an emergency or not is nestled below all of these other layers, and we can’t reach it.

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Here though, on the metacognitive level, at the top of all those layers we have some control. Although it isn’t complete, it is a skill we can build. There is a feedback system. Training our most conscious level of thought trains our everyday-brain, the decision-brain. Once we feel consciously that we can make decisions, our feeling-brain will calm down and then, maybe, just maybe, our lizard brain will start to frame the world differently. Maybe it stop identifying everything as an intense.

Reaching deep down into those levels requires you to be gentle to yourself, to accept that you might always feel on edge. But that you can deal with it and you aren’t bad for it.. You are going to be sad, mad and glad. You are going to be tired, tried, tortured, and taken for granted. You have to accept that this is the task you were granted as a person, and as a mother.

What’s more, you’ve been tasked to be completely okay with it.

To say: this is enough.

To say: No desire.

One of the most common problems that people have when they discover mindfulness or meditation is they want badly to do it right. Multiplying this problem is that they have no clue what a good meditation would look like. Solidifying it is that they’re coming from a place of wanting, and they know it.

Let me demystify meditation. You can’t do it wrong. There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation. Even if you think during meditation, “Is this a good meditation?” you still have not ruined it. You’ll have a better go of it if you can let go of that idea, but in any case, the answer is: That’s not a thing. You aren’t supposed to feel at peace. Get rid of the idea that it will happen.

Right then, all you’re supposed to be doing is looking, from this top rung of the ladder, at what your brain is doing, and calling your attention back to the breath.

Right then, in that mindful minute, when you feel your face getting red and water behind your eyes, all you’re supposed to do is say: This is what is happening. This is fine. This is enough, I am enough.

You will still cry.

Right then, when your baby is crying, and you’ve done all the things that you can do to soothe him, you’re supposed to feel your heart breaking, feel the alarms going off in your head, and say: This is fine. This is enough. There is not a problem here.

Baby will still cry.

But the point is not to stop your crying, or baby crying; it isn’t even to stop feeling sad about your hurting baby or aching heart. It’s only to say: This is fine.

Not passively, not before you’ve done what you can to resolve the situation. If you’ve remedied all physical possibilities, then your mindfulness is the next step towards a resolution. Once the actions were taken and the pain is there and there’s nothing left to do, just say: This is enough.
Journal Questions:

  1. What emotion do I have the hardest time accepting in myself?
  2. What emotion do I have the hardest time accepting in my child?

Practice:

  1. When baby cries or your toddler begins a tantrum, try to look at him or her and not react for 1 whole minute. Just breathe and say it is okay.