Saturday, January 28, 2012

Uncovering Sources of Angry Reactions: Using Reflection and Unconditional Parenting for Lasting Change

English: A metaphorical visualization of the w...
English: A metaphorical visualization of the word Anger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In this series of posts, I explore my personal challenges with each of the principles of unconditional parenting. These personal accounts run in parallel with a series of information-based posts where I explain each of the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting.

As I mentioned in my previous post on being reflective, part of the challenge in unconditional parenting is to examine the roots of our own parenting practices. This can be an especially daunting and scary endeavor for those of us who were raised in dysfunctional homes.  Even for people raised in healthy, supportive environments, taking a hard look in the mirror isn't always easy. As Alfie Kohn puts it, "raising kids is not for wimps."

Despite the difficulty of parenting unconditionally, I'm committed to this gentle, compassionate approach. I'm driven to provide more emotional support for my son than I ever received.  To do so, I have embraced reflection as a way of life. Without reflection, I risk falling victim to my own bad habits, habits I learned from a family with different values than my own.  For the most part, I'm pleased with my parenting choices. But there are plenty of situations in which I still need to build my emotional intelligence, where I want to be more responsive than reactive.

Like those loooong, seemingly unending stretches of intense neediness that my toddler goes through.  You know... during illness, second molars doing plate tectonics under the gums, a shift in the routine, or some other random infraction upon the fragile toddler world. And with it, the whining, the crying, the clinging, and the asking for something 17 times, even if I've already replied with a yes. Hoo boy, do those days test me!

Most of the time, I handle these situations without getting too rattled. When I'm rested, well-fed, exercised, have had ample personal time, and life hasn't thrown me any recent hiccups, I cope fine with Munchkin's needy fits. But life isn't always that smooth so neither am I. On hard days, I carry my own emotional baggage that adds fuel to any present day fire. On those days, that whining and crying really just make me want to SCREAM. I'm ashamed to admit it, but on occasion I have. If I'm not paying attention, my whole body gets tense and the only emotion I can connect with is anger.

Anger? Yes, anger, the master cover-up of all emotions. It protects us from feeling despair, loss, hopelessness, anguish, weakness and fear. And that must be what I'm feeling underneath the extreme irritation. Because the real me - the person I am today, the mother I am when I'm my best - feels only compassion and concern when I hear my child cry. No matter what's going on in my life.

Typically, when I get overwhelmed by Munchkin's needs my strategy is to take a break. I go to my chair and breathe. I remind myself that it's not his fault he's upset, he's not trying to annoy me, and that I'm just having an emotional reaction of my own. I watch myself feel angry, I hear my racing heart, and I listen intently to my breath until it slows down. I re-center. Then I get up, return to my son, and thank him for giving me a moment. I apologize if I have been harsh before taking my break. We hug and he seems to forgive me and understand. Then I tend to his needs.

But what about MY needs?!!! The fact that I have to keep repeating this process indicates that I have some unmet needs of my own. The feelings I'm having aren't just from dealing with a needy toddler. Yes, toddlers can be incredibly aggravating, but the anger-covering-other-feelings comes from me, not a two year-old. It's deeper.

If I'm brave enough to consider why I feel angry during my son's needy fits, I have a chance of stopping the cycle. I have a chance to heal my hurt feelings, forgive transgressions, and let go of the anger. Then,  I can tend to my son the way I normally do, the way I do when I'm not burdened with feelings outside of here and now.  Because what I want is to provide consistent support for him, not just when I'm my best self. I want to let go of that tension that takes over so I can take over the situation with compassion and grace.  Even on hard days.

So I've started to reflect on the source of this parenting practice, or rather, parenting reaction. Where are these crazy feelings coming from? Why do I sometimes have this intense emotional reaction to something that is really just plain irritating?

Certainly part of it is that I can take better care of myself. Get more rest. Eat before my blood sugar starts running low. Stick to my regular exercise routine. Nurture my interests and passions outside of motherhood. Make time for myself. Focus on being mindful. OK, sure, fine, I'll work on doing all that more consistently. Yet it still feels like that's just the surface layer, the maintenance layer. I still need to peel back the outer coating and get down to the pit. I need to reflect upon myself as a child in order to access the source of this angry feeling.

One clue comes from a memory I have when I was about four years-old. I was in the bath and I was very upset. Something terrible had just happened to me because I was in physical and emotional pain. My mother was washing me off, hissing viciously at me to shut up and stop crying. She was angry at me, seemingly because I was crying, in pain, and in distress.

This memory sits vaguely in the back of my mind when I hear Munchkin's persistent shrieks. Usually, I can push it away, back down to the caverns where I was taught to keep it. Yet on days when my emotional threshold is low, the memory seeps up through the cracks. It leaks into my muscles and invades my body. The pained fury holds me tightly in its merciless hand.

But the anger is not mine. I just internalized it when I was four because... well, that's how four year-olds cope. I took that anger as my own even though I didn't create it and didn't deserve it. It's not my anger and it certainly isn't for me to share with my son. I'm quite sure it wasn't even my mother's to begin with.

So it's time. Time to let go of that anger. Time to give it back. Time to forgive. Time to listen to my own pitiful wails, openly, without criticism or judgment. Time to comfort that sorrow with unconditional love. Time to heal. Time to come back to the present.

Now, I have a different vision when I arise from my breathing chair. I take one last deep breath. I open my eyes and see Munchkin watching me with concern. I go through the regular spiel (I'm sorry, I'm not upset at you, I feel better now, etc. etc.). I take him in my arms and imagine pulling the crying little girl out of the bathtub. I wrap her in a huge, warm, oversized, fair-trade, organic bamboo towel (I love the endless possibilities with imagery). I draw her up close and nestle her securely between me and Munchkin.  I listen to her screams subside to wimpers  as we hold her close. She is cradled safely there, protected from harm, soothed, comforted, loved. When I release Munchkin from my embrace, we smile at each other.

The little girl smiles, too.

For ideas on staying mindful, check out: When Stress Interferes with Mindful Parenting

Do you have parenting reactions you'd like to change? Does any of this resonate with you? Feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you!

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Be Reflective (Unconditional Parenting Principle #1)

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...
Photo credit: Wikipedia
In this series of posts, I summarize the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. I include insights and interpretations gleaned from other resources. The information-based posts run in parallel with a series of personal accounts of how I attempt to apply these principles in my own mothering. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting.

"The unexamined life is not worth living" - Socrates, The Apology

Being reflective is a great starting point for unconditional parenting, or any life endeavor for that matter. Out of mindfulness and introspection comes insight, righteousness, and occasionally, wisdom.

What it means to be reflective
Being reflective, simply put, means thinking consciously about what you are doing -- or have done. When it comes to parenting, this can be a big challenge. We often have knee-jerk reactions or do things because that's how we were raised or how mainstream society tells us to parent. When practicing unconditional parenting, the trick is to be conscious and reflective about what you are doing and why.

Be mindful and self aware. Be present when you are with your child. Watch your own thoughts, words, and actions. Speak and act consciously. Notice your tone of voice, your words, your body movements. Avoid judging yourself. Kindly allow yourself to gradually learn mindfulness. It takes practice!

Critique your own parenting without lingering on harsh criticism or guilt. Consider your strengths and weaknesses. What would you like to do more of? What's working? What do you feel really good about that you do as a parent? On the flip side, what doesn't feel right? Which practices are difficult or not working? When are you less patient, understanding or mindful? When are you more controlling or harsh? Take a good look and decide what you can or are willing to change. But don't berate yourself. The guilt will tell you what you really want to change, but change will happen more easily when you let go of it. Focus on solutions and acceptance.

Search for the roots of your own parenting practices. Are your parenting  behaviors, expectations, and rules in line with who you truly are and what you believe? Or did you pick them up from your own parents or cultural messages, even though they don't necessarily fit into your value system?  Do you react to your child(ren) or respond?

As Dr. Markham from Aha!Parenting puts it, the buttons that your kids push were installed in your own childhood. Something that sets you off may have no effect on the next mama. Often, your reactions have less to do with your child's 'annoying' behavior and more to do with how you may have been treated as child. Get -- and keep -- in touch with that inner child, help her heal, and give her the parenting she and your child deserve. Then, you can decide which practices you'd like to keep and which you can do without.

Avoid rationalizing a behavior or practice that feels wrong. If you've done something (or want to do something) that doesn't feel right, notice that unsettling sensation, however unwelcome it is.  There may be an urge to rationalize your own behavior in order to justify it or to avoid guilt and deep-seated emotions. Don't. It's OK to make mistakes (really it IS!), but the path to change will evade you if you convince yourself they aren't mistakes. Instead of rationalizing, accept yourself. Let go of the guilt. Love yourself unconditionally.

"Be honest with yourself and your motives" (Unconditional Parenting, p.121) Being reflective is also a way of being candid. The more you are willing to face yourself and be sincere about your own parenting choices, the easier it will be to honestly express unconditional love to your child.

For some great ideas and inspiration on becoming more reflective, check out:

What does being reflective mean to you? Are there particular aspects of self-reflection that resonate for you? Go ahead....leave a comment and share your thoughts. I'd love to hear from you! 
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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An Introduction to Unconditional Parenting

Cover of "Unconditional Parenting: Moving...
Cover via Amazon
In this series of posts, I summarize the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. I include insights and interpretations gleaned from other resources. The information-based posts run in parallel with a series of personal accounts of how I attempt to apply these principles in my own mothering.Scroll to the bottom for links to all posts in the series.

I often refer to my style of parenting using a term coined by Alfie Kohn: "Unconditional Parenting." But what exactly is unconditional parenting? What makes it different from any other form of parenting? Most importantly, how do we actually do unconditional parenting in real life? To address these questions,  I'd like to begin a series of posts where I investigate the underlying principles of unconditional parenting. Let's get started with a general description.

Kohn uses the term "unconditional parenting" to make it distinct from the dominant parenting paradigm that tells us to treat our children conditionally: reward the child for behaviors we like, and punish or ignore behaviors we don't like. In contrast, unconditional parenting avoids behavior modification tactics. Instead, the focus is on understanding the child's underlying needs, emotions, and motives.  We can circumvent the need to use rewards or punishment at all by addressing a child's state of mind and by validating their feelings. Limits and boundaries are maintained through mutual trust, respect, open communication, and guidance towards self-regulation. The upshot is that children actually feel our unconditional love because they receive our compassion no matter how they act - even though we don't condone certain behaviors.

However, unconditional parenting is much more than the avoidance of praise and rewards. For me, the practice of unconditional parenting is a quest or process. I view it as a philosophy, a set of guiding principles, and a frame of mind. I don't get this parenting thing right all the time, but I keep coming back to a foundation rooted in unconditional parenting principles. It's an approach that works for me because it feels like I am truly mothering from my heart.

Kohn argues that it's hard to offer a set of do's and don'ts of unconditional parenting (see p. 117 in Unconditional Parenting). Still, a good starting point for understanding and trying to practice unconditional parenting comes directly from Kohn's book. In it, he describes thirteen "Principles of Unconditional Parenting" (chapter 7) that can be adopted by anyone wanting to practice a gentle, compassionate, and highly effective style of parenting.

In an upcoming series of posts, I will cover each of these Principles of Unconditional Parenting.  I'll summarize them and provide additional resources where appropriate.  Since most of the principles are easier said than done (by a long shot!), I'll also include a parallel series where I explore my personal challenges with each.  Once I cover the basic principles of unconditional parenting, I'll tackle the more controversial issues of rewards and punishment.

Please feel free to chime in with comments, questions and insights because this is still very much a learning process for me and many other parents.  We all gain strength and knowledge from each other. I truly believe we can heal the world by becoming better at caring for our children, by loving them unconditionally.

I hope you'll join me on this journey to discover more about unconditional parenting!
Read Unconditional Parenting Principle #1: Be Reflective
Read about Using Reflection to Change Angry Reactions
Read Unconditional Parenting Principle #2: Reconsider Your Requests
Read about making requests: Say What You Mean and Ask for What You Want
Read Unconditional Parenting Principle #3: An Eye on Long-term Parenting Goals
Read about using long-term goals to find short-term solutions: Leaving the Playground
Read about Unconditional Parenting Principle #4Putting the Parent-Child Relationship First
Read about Relationship Repair 
Read about Unconditional Parenting Principle #5: Change How You See, Not Just How You Act
Read about changing perspective to resolve acting out: Seeing Through the Spit in My Eye

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