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The One Where We're Listened To

Ever have one of those days where the needs of the younger people in your family feel endless and the thought of supporting them feels impossible? Maybe even intolerable? Like, if you have to listen to one more question about where such and such is, one more tantrum about school work, one more request for something to eat… (no, not that, something else!) you might blow a gasket?

I have. Even more so this past year. Sometimes I can find humor and levity amidst the overwhelm and sometimes nothing is funny.

I’ve started to notice that often my intolerance peaks at the same point as my son’s. These past few weeks he has not wanted to leave the house or move his body much. He doesn’t want to paint or do puzzles. He doesn’t want to bake. He doesn’t want to draw or write. It seems like he only wants to do legos and ask for legos and cry about not having all the legos. There’s clearly something happening here- some connection he’s needing and not getting. It’s a bigger emotional project that I’m starting to work on, but in the midst of working on it sometimes I. Just. Can’t. Do. ANYTHING. ANYMORE.

For me, that feeling of being unable to rise to the occasion is a signal of some unmet need of my own that’s built up a little wall of resistance inside. It’s a signal that I need to stop and take some time to listen to that still, quiet (or roiling?) voice within.

Listening partnerships or group listening sessions are a great place to explore those feelings inside that get in the way of our ability to support our children. Every first and third Monday of the month I offer free, drop-in group support calls where parents talk and listen to each other. Early on in the pandemic, I noticed how my listening sessions with other parents helped me move through my own feelings and resistances, leaving me better equipped to listen to and connect with my son.

One instance stands out in particular. We had been sheltering in place for weeks, my patience was shot, and I felt I couldn’t take it any longer. I was exhausted by my son’s rigid refusal to do any activities other than special time or make-believe, and the monotony and endlessness of our days. I realized pretty quickly that I needed a little bit of time every day to connect with a listening partner.

In Hand in Hand Parenting, listening partnerships are agreements between parents to take turns listening to each other. We listen differently than we do to a friend or a partner. We don’t interrupt, we don’t relate our experiences to theirs, we don’t offer advice, we don’t try to make them feel better. We bring warmth, unconditional positive regard, saying very little, if anything, while holding the belief in our minds as we listen that the parent is good, they are doing just what they need to be doing, and they are capable of solving their own problems.

I decided to begin by using my daily listening partnership to say all the things I wanted to say during the day, all the big feelings I had that were making me resistant, but never would actually say out loud. On my first call, sitting in my car away from my family or anyone who could hear or see me, I pounded the steering wheel and stomped my feet yelling “I WILL NOT STAY IN MY HOUSE! YOU CANNOT MAKE ME!!!”

I used subsequent sessions (again, where no one could hear or see me) to talk about my son’s resistance to doing anything that I suggest, no matter how fun. I hollered things like, “You will do what I want to do today and you will enjoy it!” and “NO! NO MORE SPECIAL TIME FOR YOU! I refuse!” and “You don’t control me! I decide what I WANT TO DO!”

Eventually, memories from my own childhood surfaced of feeling powerless and unheard by my mother. She wasn’t a bad parent. She did her best with far too much on her plate and not nearly enough support. I recognize that I am fortunate to have the support of listening partners. I work to fit this way of listening into my life and I treasure it.

Over the course of the next few days I began to stand up for myself to my mother (in the privacy of my car in the presence of a listening partner- not actually to my mother). With increasing frequency, I'd find myself at the end of my calls laughing at the absurdity of having had a little tantrum of my own. It sounds a little nutty, I bet, to anyone who hasn't experienced this way of listening or sharing with another person. But, I tell you, it makes a huge difference for parents to be able to speak their minds with no fear of retribution or judgment. I always feel lighter and less alone afterward. Every single parent I've ever had the privilege to listen to in this way says the same (in so many words).

After a handful of days of repeatedly working on these feelings, my patience began to expand, rather exponentially. That release made a huge dent in my unwillingness to show up and connect with my son. It expanded my ability to be light and silly whereas before I felt stuck in the mud. It also helped me to trust that my listening to and supporting my son wouldn’t come at the expense of my own ability to listen to and support myself.

So often the feelings we have toward our children when we find them difficult have nothing to do with them. Listening partnerships and support groups are a great way to build a practice into your life of giving voice to the thoughts and feelings you have that get in the way of your good, clear thinking, love and leadership as a parent.

Our thoughts and feelings need to be listened to, apart from our children. If we don't find a way to make space and express them on our own, they will show up in our parenting. If we can tend to those feelings and thoughts in the presence of an experienced listener, we magnify our ability to tend to our children with warmth and compassion.

I’ll be opening up a 6-week support group on February 20th. If you’re interested to learn more, visit my website or contact me for more information. As a bonus, I have a little discount to offer: the first 5 people who sign up for my next support group will receive the Listening to Children Booklets at half the price, which includes an entire booklet on how to do Listening Partnerships. This instructive set is the go-to resource for building Hand in Hand practices in your family, and are useful not just for building listening partnerships, but for learning all 5 Hand in Hand tools. Email me to sign up and receive your coupon code.

I hope you’ll consider joining a listening call or support group. We were never meant to do this alone!

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