When I teach co-parenting classes, the questions I get about parenting issues often start with “What do I DO when my child…”
But I think a better question would be “How do I BE when my child…”
And the answer to that question is always the same: BE PRESENT.
What we have learned from research is that children benefit immensely when we are PRESENT to them or ATTUNED to them.
I like to describe attunement as “feeling into their experience.” In other words, putting aside our own needs, desires, emotions temporarily and imagining what it is like to be them. What are they feeling? How does the struggle feel inside them?
Attunement is important because when we are attuned to our children, we are connected and there’s nothing healthier for children than connection. Why? Because connection is all about safety. When you’re connected you’re not alone. Someone is with you. Someone sees you. Someone is trying to know how it feels to be you.
Disconnecting feels like the safety net is gone. It feels like you’re floating out there alone. That feeling of disconnection, aloneness, can be worse than whatever the pain or struggle is.
When your child asks a question, like “why did you and mommy get divorced” or your child is acting out in some way, if you proceed directly to the solution, you are not providing them with the safety they need.
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Behavior is driven by emotion. If they are behaving in a way that is challenging or distressing, it is because they are in some kind of emotional response. Before you jump right to trying to solve the problem or answer the question, consider what emotional state they are in. Let yourself feel that. Look them in the eye. Hug them. Hold their hand. Sit next to them. Whatever it is you do to just BE with them. Imagine that you are them. Let yourself feel into their experience.
Even if you can’t solve the problem for them, attunement helps build ground under their feet. It lets them know that they can count on you to be there for them when they need it.
Here are some co-parenting pointers for being present:
- If they are behaving in a challenging way, use mindfulness to help yourself be present, and get your own needs and emotional states out of the way.
- Remember that behavior is driven by emotion. Even though they can learn to choose their behavior over time, they are not choosing their emotional state. Emotions just come. We would never choose difficult ones.
- If they are asking a challenging question, like “Why did you two get divorced?” remember to first attune to them before launching into answering the question. They are asking the question because they are distressed in some way. Questions of this nature are usually emotionally driven. They are looking to feel better, not to get a logical answer to a question. Feel into their experience. Consider why they are asking the question. Don’t seize the opportunity to tell them your version of the story. That will not help them.
- If they tell you something that their other parent did, remember to first attune to them. They are telling you this because they are distressed, not necessarily because they want you to fix it. If you launch right into trying to fix it, they will stop coming to you to help them with their distress.
- Think about your own experience. When you’re upset, don’t you want to know that someone understands how you feel? If they try to fix it it feels disconnecting.
- We go right to fixing problems because it is hard to sit with our children’s distress. Remind yourself that it is difficult, but that it is what is needed.
It takes practice to break out of DOING mode and into BEING mode. Practice it not just when things are hard, but in neutral daily life situations. Stop. Look at them. Feel into their experience. Turn away from you own busy mind, your phone, all the distractions of daily life. Just be with them in simple moments. The more you do this, the more you will build the muscle.
Connection is everything. Learn to BE more, and DO less.
Thanks for reading this! I hope it was helpful!