relating

12 Ideas for Rebuilding Connection

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It happens every once in a while that I find myself at odds with my children after several months of getting on so well.  Somehow we lose our connection and end up trying to control each other in some way or another.  We fall into the trap of making our lack of connection about ourselves rather than recognizing it as relational.  When undesirable behaviours amplify and begin to take a front seat in our home, I know it’s time to take a step back and look for a way out.  It is in these times where we’re all feeling tight and frustrated that we need to revisit how we are exerting our power.  We need to refocus from ‘power over’ to ‘power with.’

Every time I find myself in one of these phases of disconnection, I try to think back to the previous time, thinking hard about how I managed to resolve it.  But I am never quite sure how it was that I got out of it the last time.  It seems that simply drawing attention to the problem as a lack of intimacy and placing some conscious effort on rebuilding it seems to do the trick…with slow but steady results.

I feel like restoring connection is rather like a slow cooking stew.  I know some good ingredients to put in the pot, but almost never follow a recipe.  Sometimes it turns out great while other times it ends up a mediocre meal.  But at the end of the day, no matter how stellar the meal turned out, we have all eaten.  Not only that, we can cook up a new stew the next day and hope for a winning combination.  Once we get the hang of it again, we seem to be able to knock out great tasting food day after day…that is until we’re missing some essential ingredients one day and find ourselves needing to revisit the recipe.

I find myself just on the far side of one of these disconnected states now…on the heels of birthday week – my three children were born on April 6, 8, and 9 – which throws us all for a loop.  So I have been reflecting on how it is that we are steadily climbing our way up out of the darkness.  After some reflection, I realized these strategies are great for parents, but can work for any relationship in need of more intimacy.

So here are some ideas I’ve thrown into my stewing pot of re-connection:

-spending lots of time outdoors together, especially in unstructured environments.  We took a lot of hikes in the woods this past week!

-spending a day (as often as possible) doing what they want to do.  If my children can’t agree, thy each get one choice.  Yesterday we baked muffins, made a huge outdoor fort, had a picnic and spent some time creating with Play Dough.

-giving more hugs, kisses and snuggles.

-going out of my way to notice and respond to positive interactions that are happening in our home.  For example, my sons were trying the comfort the baby while she was upset during dinner.  They came up with many creative ideas and games to help her through it.  They ended up calming her down and helping her through the meal.  I made a point of telling each one separately just how helpful that had been and how grateful I was for their creativity and compassion.

-looking forward to things yet to come by talking about them in advance.  For example, we have been making a plan for the coming day at bedtime, each telling something that we are looking forward to the next day.

-taking genuine interest in what they’re working on.  I get them to tell me about what’s interesting them, encouraging the conversation with probing questions to deepen it.  This includes making space for just that child, including eye contact and physical contact if possible.

-play with my children by joining into their games.  This week I’ve been building Lego creations alongside them on the floor.

-roughhousing.  This is more my husband’s forte, but I’m pretty good at instigating tickle fights!  A note on this – it is key that everyone involved is enjoying themselves.  Consent is a huge part of feeling connected.  We stop all roughhousing and tickles at the first ‘no.’  Teaching consent, even at a young age, is imperative learning for all relationships that happen outside of our home.

-being mindful of making connection a priority.  This commitment changes my body language, tone of voice and general response to my children.  It also reminds me to slow down and patiently wait for the storm to blow over.  We are not a family who uses computers/cell phones/etc. while the children are present, but during disconnected times I make extra effort to further reduce all use of technology.   For example, my blogging time during rest time is reduced to ensure the children do not see me using the computer at all.  This really brings the focus back to the people, and they can feel it.

-remembering it is more important to listen to understand than to respond.  Releasing my need to ‘fix it’ allows me to roll with the waves of emotion a lot easier.

-taking time for myself.  I let go of things I think I should do in order to pursue things that feed my soul and try reduce my own use of technology which I find allows me to ‘escape’ but doesn’t actually refuel myself.  If I can treat myself with compassion, I will have more of it to give my children.  In order to be mindful, I need to be connected to myself.  To make space for this, I re-prioritize how I use the times where I am not normally with my children, like rest time and after they’re in bed.

-lighten up!  I look for ways to focus on joy.  I look for ways to have fun, laugh and find opportunities to turn a situation around.  I share statements of gratitude, and encourage my children to do the same.  Life always offers more than one perspective.

 

What ideas do you use for re-connection?

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Setting Limits with Children Effectively

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When I read about respectful parenting or mindful parenting I was always confused about setting limits.  There are very few examples in the literature, which makes it hard to figure it out.  Once we did away with punishments, I found myself at a loss for what to do.  When I was no longer relying on punishments, I couldn’t quite figure out and effective way to help keep my children safe.  We spent some time trying to figure it out – which didn’t make any of us particularly happy, but has served us well in the long run.  But then, isn’t that how all change happens?  I thought I would share a bit about what I use to help set and maintain limits for my children, not because I am an authority on the issue, but because if I could help someone else through their parenting transformation, it would be a worthwhile thing to do!

When setting limits, the most important thing to do is to ensure all children are safe.  If the situation is something like a fist fight between children or they are engaged in an unsafe activity like playing with the stove for example, I stop the activity immediately.  Sometimes I can use words, sometimes a gentle hand to restrain a child, sometimes I have to put my body in the middle of it, and sometimes I have to move a child to a safe space by picking them up or guiding them there.  I try to communicate as clearly and calmly as possible through the whole thing what it is that I’m doing and why.  The key to success here is how I follow through on this.  Once I know everyone is safe, then I can take a moment to regain my composure if needed.

Most importantly, when setting limits, I need to keep my emotions under control.  If my children see me react in a big way, they know they’re hitting on something that is an emotional catch for me and will turn it into a power struggle in an instant.  This is the most important element for me, and the most difficult!  It is something that I still don’t do consistently, because, well…I’m human!  Before responding to any situation (unless it is a safety issue – as addressed in the previous paragraph), I try to take a moment for myself.  A deep breath often works well for me.  The point here is to gain some self-awareness about my own inner landscape and how it may be contributing to the situation.

When I started with limit setting over punishment, I began to notice my emotional reactions only after a blow-up – I would reflect on how I could have done things differently in hopes of making a different choice in the moment the next time around.  Then I began to intermittently notice in the moment that I was spinning my own emotional story about the event, which led to engaging with my own past hurts, judgements, etc.  This was/is a particularly difficult phase to be in.  It is painful to watch yourself do things you don’t intend…especially when they are hurtful to those around you!  Here is where I remind myself that no one is perfect.  Not only that, but it is in my imperfection that I am the most effective teacher for my children.  What my children see me do to ‘make things right’ after I have made a bad choice is the best kind of teaching – modelling!

Once I have myself as under control as possible I will relocate myself so that I’m close to the disruption, if I’m not there already!  Proximity can often solve an issue in an of itself.  When children know you’re nearby and will step in to help them if things go off the rails, they are far more willing to try solving the problem themselves because they feel supported in the process.  This comes with time, as it is related to building trust in each other.  I remind myself to trust that the children can sort it out themselves, and my presence reminds them that their safety is my top concern.

If the dispute is between my children, I will interject with sportscasting, narrating what I see happening – just the facts.  Often I will also use non-violent communication techniques to relay back to my children the information they’re telling me about their emotional state.  The key to both of these strategies is to avoid judgment.  Deep empathizing with their situation helps to reconnect us and it allows me to keep my perspective on their needs.  To do this, I listen to each of them, repeating the problem back in my own words if necessary to reassure them; showing that I understand.  I will often ask questions about their emotions.  Something like, “Did it make you feel angry that he took your marker?” or “Are you frustrated because you can’t get your shoes on yourself?”  I will ask if they need help to fix the problem, or if they know how to fix it themselves.  Often being heard is enough to help my children through a problem and I can stop here. Sometimes what they want me to know, understand or do is not appropriate.  So following the clarification of the issue, I will set and maintain a limit.  This sounds something like, “I know you are really excited to play at the park.  Right now, we need to go home for lunch.  I’m going to put you in the car now.”

If things continue, I offer my children a choice.  This allows them a way to gracefully exit the situation, saving face and avoiding a power struggle.  A situation like refusing to go to bed might have me offering a choice like, “You can go up to bed on your own, or I can take you, which would you prefer?”  If the child doesn’t answer in 20-30 seconds, I will take action on the choice that best suits me…so in this case, I will pick them up to go upstairs to bed.  I make sure to only offer the choice once and follow through with reasonable swiftness.  This ensures that my children listen to my words and trust that I will do what I have said.  Usually following through on a choice does not end in a grand display of refusal, since after a few times through this, children come to expect that you will take action.  In the event that they don’t respond well, I return to non-violent communication methods to understand their emotions, asking questions while I continue to follow through with the choice, reminding them they can make a different choice next time.

It sounds so easy in writing, but offering choices is difficult sometimes.  There are many instances where there is not a clear choice.  An example that comes up for us a lot is poor behavior once the lights are out for bed.  Knowing that unfavourable behaviours are rooted in unmet needs alerts me to take note and pay attention to what my children are saying so that perhaps the next day I can do something differently prevent this situation.  But noting that there is a need is not so helpful in the moment, especially when the kids are in an out of the bathroom slamming doors and yelling for us to come up for another hug and kiss…waking up the neighbourhood as they do!  The tricky part of this situation is getting them to calm down enough to communicate.  I try to use a non-verbal form of non-violent communication – empathizing with how difficult it must be for them to go to bed when really they still want to be near us and play.  If they can hear that I understand and answer a few questions, we can open the conversation.  Then a choice like, “Do you want to go back to bed yourself, or shall I take you there?” can be received.

The following are some paraphrased guidelines I use on offering choices from the book Parenting with Love and Logic:

  1. Choices shouldn’t include limitless options. Two clear options are all a child can really deal with in order to make a choice. Don’t add another choice because your child suggests it. Tell him: “That was a good suggestion. These are the choices I’m offering now. We’ll try your suggestion next time.”
  2. Use parent-approved choices only. Offer choices that guide your child toward the outcome you’re seeking. Make sure both options offered are 100% okay with you. If you offer two choices hoping your child will choose “a” instead of “b”, your hesitancy about “b” will act like a magnet and cause your child to choose “b” instead of “a” every time.
  3. Take action when a child doesn’t choose. If a child won’t choose between the apple or the cranberry juice you need to choose for her. Follow through and choose so your child comes to understand that when you offer her a choice and she doesn’t choose, the ability to choose goes away. You can say, “I know you’re upset that I had to choose the juice for you. I have another choice for you to try now. Would you like to drink what I chose for you now or not have juice right now?”

Examples of what I do are hard to come up with out of the moment.  The framework of how I progress with my children through a problem varies from situation to situation – like permaculture is site specific.  Setting and maintaining limits actually helps to build connection and trust.  As difficult as it is to see in the moment, situations where I need to set limits are the very things I need to pay attention to for growth.  They are the weeds in our garden.  They are the indications that there is a deeper unmet need.  Setting limits is really an art form.  Like with permaculture, a set of systems can be applied, but you have to just try them out, fine tune them, learn as you go…and get messy in the process!  This is why permaculture style parenting really needs mindful presence and to be treated as a process.  For this reason, when a situation is resolved and I consider that the storm has blown over, I take a moment to reflect on our interactions.  How did I do with regulating my emotions?  How did my children do with the limit?  Was it a necessary limit?  Do I need to revise the limit?  What could I do differently the next time to make it a better experience?

To sum it up, here are the strategies I use for effective limit setting:

  1. Ensure children are safe.
  2. Regulate your own emotions.
  3. Get close to the action.
  4. Sportscast or use non-violent communication to demonstrate you understand the problem, allowing children to solve it themselves.
  5. Offer a choice once and follow through immediately.
  6. Reflect on the situation – make changes if necessary.

Life without Complaining

It always seems like there’s something to complain about.  Today, it’s the weather.  A rainy day which is providing fresh water to our ground sources for drinking, to the crops and gardens that will nourish us through the winter, and the living systems that generate oxygen from our carbon emissions.  So is the rain really something to complain about?

I have been circling around the desire to stop engaging in complaint wherever possible.  The trouble is, it seems to be something that our culture does so well.  We seem to love to retell the ‘terrible’ things that have happened to us.  But this serves little purpose beyond calling the same energy back toward ourselves.  Conversely,  I often don’t want to share too many positive stories either, for fear of coming off boastful.

So with either extreme as something I don’t want to engage in, I find it difficult at times to relate to others.  Much of our relational time is spent complaining or giving each other advice.  These are two things which are not part of my landscape anymore.  I have made a strong distinction between advice giving an empathizing.  People don’t want me to find a solution to their problem.  Anything I could offer they’ve likely thought of already anyway!  That having been said, I do offer advice when it is solicited.  There is something to be said for ‘venting’ – being heard when we’re in the midst of turmoil, but that’s a search for empathy.  So why do we need to wallow in the empathy?  Perhaps because we were deprived of it as children in a culture and educational system that pushes you to ‘suck it up and get on with life.’  We are culturally depriving our younger generations the ability to sit with their feelings and learn how to move through their temporary appearances.

It’s so easy to get caught up in drama.  Our own, and other people’s.  People love to talk about other people.  I’m not sure I understand this phenomenon.  Perhaps in an effort to understand the ‘other’ we re-frame who they are through our own lens and use this to relate to others at the someone’s expense.  One thing I do know is that this type of communication does not create a climate of community.   What I want most when I’m going through something difficult is empathy. Not a fix, but just someone to really hear what I’m saying, and try to understand my perspective.  No solutions necessary.  When I feel I am being understood, it is so easy for me to let the dramatic parts of an event fall away.

So if I don’t want to talk about current events (because I choose to disengage from most of it), or complain about the weather (or any other object of disdain for that matter), or commiserate over what someone else should or shouldn’t be doing, or engagement in consumerism, then what do I have left to talk to people about?

What about sharing joys, gratitude and dreams.  If human energy was directed toward that which we value, love and desire the world could be a much different place.  Much of our collective consciousness is directed toward getting stuff or complaining about things we do not like.  But the conversations I want to have with people aren’t always available.  There are so many things I want to talk about in life, but certain relationships don’t afford the opportunities for them.  I want to continue to engage with our current world, and not completely hermit myself from culture at large.  But I also want to protect my own energy stores, choosing carefully where to engage.  Not everyone understands my perspective.  It is here that I remind myself that I love to listen to other people.  I love to hear their stories.  And that I am always able to choose silence.  Listen with presence but without engagement.  Empathize without commiserating.  Perhaps if we treated each other a bit more like books, we could learn a whole lot more in a lifetime…