Compassionate Connections Therapeutic & Consulting Services
Information, strategies and resources for the busy parent
Asking For Help
Recently, I was scrolling through social media and a friend had posted a little meme asking what was the hardest thing to say— it gave five options including ‘I love you;’ ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry;’ and ‘I need help.’ The fifth option was 'Worcestershire.' As I checked periodically over this post the most common response (outside of the typical funny responses the post was designed to achieve) was ‘I need help.’ This resonated with me, as I too have struggled with reaching out in my own personal life and asking for help, or felt like this request could only be made to particular people in my life. Here is a recent example:
My partner and I live here in Nova Scotia away from our entire family. We have four lovely, but very busy and absolutely crazy children—one girl and three boys. Over the past 12 years we have gotten very good at relying on one another and ‘tapping out’ when we need a break or find that our buckets are overflowing. However, one thing that often bails out our buckets is when we (outside of our own good judgment) put all 4 children and two dogs into the van and drive halfway across the country to Ontario where we can spend time with family. This is not only a great time for our kids, but we often then take advantage of having the grandparents around by dropping off our children and literally running back to the van (picture scattering mice) to take a few needed days to ourselves; recharging and emptying our buckets as adults and partners. This at most happens once a year, but it becomes something we look forward to. This year however we were not able to make the trip to Ontario, and unfortunately plans for family to visit us fell through. This meant that hopes of having our weekend retreat—our one year opportunity to get away from our kids and empty out our parenting bucket—was not going to happen as planned.
After a particularly difficult week with our kids and finding ourselves feeling overwhelmed with our buckets spilling all over the place, I came across this meme and questioned why it was so difficult for us to ask for help? What is it that gets in our way? If we know that we all struggle at times, why are we still so reluctant to reach out and tell people we need help?
Asking for help requires us to personally admit that we are not able to handle all of the pieces in our lives at a particular moment. We may worry that people will see us as incompetent, weak, or needy. Perhaps we feel like we are imposing on others, or may be an inconvenience/burden, or adding to another’s already busy plate—because let’s face it we all have busy lives, commitments or routines. Putting yourself out there requires vulnerability and this is where we get stuck.
Let’s break this down a little:
One of my favourite authors, and experts on vulnerability Brene Brown, discusses how as humans we are wired for connection (attachment)—it is built into us as social beings and gives meaning and purpose to our lives. One of the things that often gets in our way is the idea that we are not worthy of connection, or that if we do/say/ask something, our connection with that person or others will be strained or severed. These feelings of unworthiness are known as shame. She describes shame as the fear of disconnection; the fear that there is something inherent within us that if people know it, or see it, they will judge us not worthy of connection, and underpinning these experiences of shame is vulnerability.
Brene Brown discusses that in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Shame is an overwhelming feeling that often makes us feel like there is something inherently wrong within us—that we are not worthy or that we are flawed in a fundamental way. However, through her research Brene Brown discovered that the only thing that separated people who had a strong sense of worthiness, love, and belonging and those who felt they were not lovable or worthy of such connection was a single variable—the belief that they were deserving of love and belonging. Consequently, the main thing that keeps us from connecting with others is the belief that we are not worthy of connection.
Brene Brown breaks this down in her research. She explains that people who believe they are worthy of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect and the compassion to be kind to themselves despite outside pressures and judgment; In addition, these people connect with others as a result of their authenticity. They are willing to let go of who they think they should be in order to be who they actually are, which has to be done in order to have connection with others.
So going back to my original question-why is it so hard to ask for help? It requires vulnerability and that means that we are allowing ourselves to be seen—deeply seen. To put our whole self on the line when there is no guarantee of what we might get in return—ie. judgment or understanding. We worry about people pulling away from us, thus severing our connection. Being vulnerable requires putting yourself out there despite the outcome and believing that you are enough and are deserving.
If that was not difficult enough, another factor when asking for help is whether there are people in your life who will respond to these overtures with support and love. Sometimes previous history, and interactions with people in our lives, can influence how easy or difficult it is to reach out to others. In these circumstances it may mean finding individuals outside our normal circle to reach out to, which can be even more difficult and require extreme vulnerability.
For me, I am fortunate to have a tribe of women/coworkers who rallied to support me when needed and helped me figure out how to empty my parent bucket. Despite my confidence that they would be supportive, it still took a lot to reach out—perhaps it was the risk of being seen as not capable, or as competent as I want people to believe I am. However, I mustered my courage, channelled my inner compassion to recognize I was indeed deserving, and then made an honest and authentic request to people who I thought might be the most receptive. It was hard. Being vulnerable is no easy task and is often uncomfortable. However, the response was compassionate, reassuring and comforting. In the end, when I stepped outside my comfort zone and allowed myself to be vulnerable I was met with loving kindness.
Feeling worthy is a journey. Being compassionate with ourselves and recognizing that we all struggle is an important step in feeling like we are deserving of love and belonging. Being your authentic and vulnerable self means that you are living life and opening yourself to experiences and emotions—and that is a risk, but isn’t that what life is all about—living and experiencing?
Until next time, remember:
“Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations.” — Brene Brown.
Information, strategies and resources for the busy parent
The Power of Validation
Validation. Why is it important?
Without getting too caught up in the technical side of things, validation is the recognition or affirmation that a person’s thoughts, feelings and opinions are important and worthwhile. Biologically, when people feel validated our brains release a hormone called Oxytocin, which makes us feel connected to others. In addition, there is also a decrease in the stress hormone Cortisol in our bodies—creating a calming effect, which in turn re-activates the prefrontal cortex (the front part of our brain right behind our foreheads) subsequently making us more available for problem solving, redirection and limit setting.
How do we validate? Empathy.
When we use empathy it shows that we are interested in another’s thoughts, beliefs, opinions and world views. It requires us to set aside our own thoughts and feelings and ‘step into' those of the other person. When people, especially children, feel our love and acceptance they ‘feel felt,’ even when they know we don’t like or agree with their behavior. To be empathetic does not mean that we have to agree with the other person’s views, but it does communicate that we value them and see them as important and worth understanding.
We tend to be better at using empathy with other adults in our life. Unfortunately, when it comes to our interactions with children we have a tendency to minimize or ignore their emotional and bodily experiences. This minimizing response to a child’s feelings and experiences is deep-seated and even culturally propagated; for example, the age old adage that children should be seen and not heard. Even though we love and care for our children deeply it is not uncommon for us to fall into using statements such as: ‘stop crying, it was no big deal,’ ‘you’re not hungry, you just ate;’ ‘you’re just tired,' 'you're making a big deal over nothing.' etc. etc.
Due to a child’s growing brain, they rely on us as the adults in their lives, to affirm their experiences. When we minimize, deny, or ignore these experiences children begin to doubt their internal emotional and bodily experiences. Often as adults we take an ‘all knowing' stance and assert our assumptions or logic onto our kids—‘You just ate, you can’t still be hungry;’ or 'it was not big deal, you'll be fine.' This can sometimes leave kids feeling like we don’t hear or appreciate their perspective, or feel like there might be something wrong with them for feeling this way when they have been told they clearly shouldn’t.
To be clear, empathy and validation isn’t about agreeing with the children's behaviors or their emotions, it's about truly feeling, sitting with, and trying to understand what it feels like from their perspective. This sounds easy, but it can be quite difficult, especially during times of conflict or intense emotional activation. The good thing is that empathy is a skill that can be learned with practice.
So what can we do? Connect.
Connecting is about showing interest and curiosity in the other person’s emotions even when we are tired, exhausted and just want to be left alone. It’s looking them in the eyes, even getting down on their level physically (ie. sitting on the floor), listening to what they are saying, and reflecting back the emotional experiences that you hear. Through connection we assist children in soothing their internal storm, which in turn helps them to calm down and learn to regulate their bodies. Once calm, we are able to work with them in making better decisions and problem solving.
How can we do this? Move from BUT to BECAUSE.
A starting strategy and an essential part of validation is moving away from using BUT in our interactions to using BECAUSE. Let’s look at why that’s important. Let’s review a couple of examples.
“I hear that you are upset, BUT you started it;’ or “I get that you are frustrated, BUT I have asked you 3 times already to pick up these toys.’
Or you might say:
“You are upset because your sister took her toy back because she wanted a turn even though you were so excited to play with it. You feel like this is unfair because you barely got to play with it.’
“You are frustrated that I asked you to pick up your toys because you are really enjoying playing with your game right now and because you are worried that you might lose your spot.”
This first response is likely to increase conflict and confrontation as the child may feel attacked, not heard, and that things are generally unfair. In a parent-child relationship this often results in a power struggle as the child works hard to defend themselves and have us hear their side of the story through the only way they know how--tantrums, crying, throwing, stomping or hitting. At this point, our frustrations are through the roof, the child's brain has gone off line, and any opportunity for a rational conversation is out the window. In this dynamic it quickly becomes about winning and losing, and no one likes to lose; In addition, this is often when punishment and consequences enter into the picture.
It is important to note that just because we don't use the word BUT doesn't mean the intention isn't implied, and it will feel the same; for example, "you started the fight, you don’t get to be mad at your sister for taking her toy back."--There is no explicit BUT in that sentence; however, it is definitely implied and felt.
The second example decreases the chances of escalation or conflict because we are expressly telling the child we understand why they might be upset, and it leaves more room for open communication and problem solving; For example, “you are frustrated that I asked you to pick up your toys because you are really enjoying playing with your game right now, and because you are worried that you might lose your spot. What if we paused the game, or put it up so that it didn’t get disturbed while you are picking up your toys, then you can come back to finish the level?”
This may not be a perfect solution and may still cause some emotional activation. The trick is to continue to validate their feelings and be curious about why they are still upset—perhaps engaging them in some problem solving solutions or negotiation around what you both think is reasonable. When children feel more understood and respected, they are then more available for learning and problem solving through difficult emotions and situations. In addition, we are helping to grow their brains and using difficult situations as opportunities for learning, rather than punishment.
At the end of the day, even small adjustments in how we respond to our kids can have long lasting impacts. Remember, no one is expecting perfect parents and there will be lots of times when things do not go as intended. Be kind to yourself, we’re all still learning. The main goal is that we show our kids that we will continue to grow with them and that who they are as people—their thoughts, feelings, opinions and experiences are important to us.
Until next time remember:
it’s not what happens, it’s what happens next!
We Used To Be People Once
Remember that time when you could go out for the night on a last minute whim to go listen to your favourite band playing at your favourite pub? Remember when staying up late meant you could sleep until after lunch if that was what you wanted to do? Or perhaps it meant just staying in bed all day with your partner because it was an exciting and fun thing to do… and then… you had children.
Suddenly, a tiny little human required all of your attention, deprived you of all of your sleep (with no room for fun escapades to justify feeling like a zombie for the next three days), woke up every morning at 5:30 am demanding breakfast or to be read to, or to show you their latest Lego creation. All of this is wonderful, and as parents we throw all of our energy and efforts into these tiny little humans hoping that our efforts will one day pay off and they will become functioning adults.
Depending on the number of children we have, this intense focus on everything child-related—their needs, their extracurriculars, their school performance, arranging social events, helping with homework, driving them places, being a personal ATM etc—can last decades. Once children arrive in our lives we become ‘Johnny’s mom’ or ‘Susie’s dad.’ We loose our identity and simply become - parents.
As parents we rarely complain about this—I mean this is what we signed up for right? We sacrifice our time, sleep, money, and resources to provide as best we can for these tiny little creatures who rarely notice what we give up just for them. But on occasion we have these fleeting memories of dancing until 4 am, taking last minute trips, or making last minute weekend plans. Spontaneity was just a part of your existence. Not any more. To try and schedule in a coffee/play date (because it is rarely just a coffee date) requires weeks of planning and advanced notice due to conflicting calendars and extracurricular activities. Nothing is spontaneous because children love routines and predictability—until they are in their teens and make impulsive spontaneous decisions to the detriment of our blood pressure and growing ulcers.
The point is, very quickly after children bless us with their presence in our lives we forget we were people too. We forget we had likes, dislikes, hobbies, and possibly even careers (for the parents who sacrifice work in order to stay at home and do the most difficult and unrecognized job on the planet—raise children). Sometimes, for those who are able to carve out a little of themselves during this time are often made to feel guilty or self-centered. However, maintaining our own identity and balancing our needs with those of our children, will contribute to better mental health, engagement, and attachment with our children. When we feel happy and fulfilled our kids also live this experience. We tend to be more positive in our interactions—less reactive and more patient--contributing to increased feelings of connection, understanding, and overall contentment in our children.
Acknowledging that we were people before we were parents does not make us bad parents. It means we can better balance our own needs and recognize that our self-care is as important as meeting all of our children's individual needs, making us better parents. We are also modelling the importance of self-care to our children; In addition, we are teaching them it's OK to have needs and how to balance these needs in the context of the relationships they will have throughout their lives.
So, find the time for self-care and rediscover who you were so many years ago. Pick up a paint brush, spend that extra little on a trip to the spa, have a night out and dance until 4 am, plan a weekend getaway with your partner where you can stay in bed all day. Rediscover you, and rediscover your partner. You'll be glad you did.
Make YOU a priority among all the crazy that is life and enjoy it!!
Until next time!!
Welcome to Practical Parenting
Ok, so full disclosure, I am not a blogger. I am usually the person who skims through the endless gobbledygook that is social media to get to the information that I want, often to find that after all the ads and back story, the content I was looking for wasn’t all that helpful or enlightening—trigger feelings of irritation and annoyance. So why am I writing a blog? Well, my hope is that I am able to provide some helpful information, useful insights, strategies and practical tools, as well as a different perspective on some of the issues I encounter in my practice as a mental health and family therapist. I also want to provide information in a forum that is accessible to individuals and families who may experience barriers to accessing services.
So, where do we start?
Parenting is one of the most important jobs in the world and surprisingly there is no training or education required! Most of our knowledge we have around parenting comes from what we learned from our parents, the advice of family members and friends, as well as basic instincts. I would argue that very few people proactively read all the ‘how to be a good parent’ books. We may have bought them—even skimmed through them, then likely set them down with the best intentions of getting back to them eventually… Because let's face it, as parents and people with busy lives—whose every waking moment is dedicated to child-related activities—the last thing we want to do during those brief child-free moments is engage in child related learning. Despite warnings from other seasoned parents, prior to having children we never really fully understood how little personal time we would actually have in the run of a day, so it was easy to make excuses not to read all those books.
There are lots of people out there who have written ‘how to’ parenting books, the purpose behind my blog posts aren’t to tell you how to parent your children. You are the ones who know your children best. Unsolicited advice is often well intentioned, but generally leaves us feeling annoyed and frustrated. As parents, we have likely tried all of the things in our tool boxes many times over. Have you ever been in the aftermath of a child’s tantrum and emotional meltdown, and you contact a friend or family member for support just to be inundated with comments such as ‘did you try it this way?’ Or ‘you should really try this..’ Very rarely do we ever think ‘You know? I never thought of that!’ … and even if we hadn’t thought of it, when it is delivered in this way we often feel defensive and are not receptive to hearing suggestions of all the ways we could be better parents. Often when we are reaching out to someone we simply want them to listen and empathize with our plight, and even validate that we managed to not completely give in to our anger and rage responses despite the many invitations to do so.
One thing we do know is that having knowledge in and of itself doesn’t lead to long lasting behaviour change. Many of us have ample knowledge about the risks associated with a variety of behaviours such as eating foods with lots of sugar, not exercising, or using substances such as alcohol and cigarettes; however, that doesn’t dissuade all of us from doing these things. Sometimes we may change our behavior briefly out of guilt or external pressures; however, we often quickly resort back to old habits. Why? Because doing things differently is hard, and because long lasting change requires consistent awareness and practice. We are creatures of habit and patterns; we thrive on predictability and routine (this is hardwired into our brains and reinforced by all the feel good chemicals such as oxytocin and Dopamine). Creating new ways of doing things isn’t impossible, but it does require active effort, practice and determination.
Unfortunately there is no magic strategy that I will be able to offer you that will resolve all of the struggles we experience as parents. Through these posts I hope to explore information and strategies that have been helpful to others. I hope to provide some education, while at the same time offering a different perspective or way of approaching your interaction with your children, partner or other relationships in your life. Ultimately, I want the information I write here to be useful, relevant, helpful and relatable. I don’t want parents to read my blog and feel like I have ‘missed the mark,’ or that I don’t ‘get what it’s like’ to be living in the midst of such bedlam! My philosophy is that all parents are doing the best that they can with the tools that they have and that all parents are motivated to assist their children in being their best selves.
I am glad you stuck with me! I hope you will continue with me along this journey and I definitely welcome comments, feedback, and even suggestions of topic areas that parents are interested in knowing more about. I can be easily reached through my email [email protected], through my Facebook page, or my website: http://compassionatecconnectiontherapy.com.
Until next time remember:
“Parenting isn’t a practice. It’s a daily learning experience.”
- Everyday Parenting.