“The ocean scares me,” she said as we walked along the pier the first day of our month long stay in California.
That’s not what I expected (or wanted) to hear, with 30 days of beach play in front of us. But one of the rules I follow in parenting is that I let my kids articulate their thoughts and feelings without reacting to what they are telling me, so they don’t shut down. I want them to be honest (and not hide) so I know how to guide them through their experiences.
“Oh yeah,” I asked inquisitively, “What about the ocean makes you feel afraid?”
“I don’t know, it’s just so so big,” she said sweeping her hands out from her body, “and you like, don’t know what’s going to happen, Because it’s just SO big.”
“It IS big,” I said. “I can see how someone your size might feel that way.”
(Affirmed what she revealed to me.)
I paused for a minute thinking about how best help her through the fear.
After a few moments, I asked, “Because it feels so big to you, do you not feel in control of what will happen?” (Follow up question to help her get more clarity on the problem.)
“I don’t know,” she said, “I might.”
“When things feel out of control for me, sometimes there is a part of me that wants to feel afraid.” (Relating to her so she felt safe to keep talking.)
“What do you think are some things we can do to help make it easier for you?
(Focusing on the next step to help her solve the problem.)
“I am not sure yet.”
She changed the subject and I let that be the end of it for the day.
I told David about the experience and on Day 2, he went to the surf shop with her and together they got a wet suit to keep her warm and buoyant in the water.
It hugged her body and covered her arms and legs. She looked like she’s been spray painted with colored, cushion foam.
On Day 3, wrapped in her wet suit, she grabbed a boogie board and headed for the water all by herself. To my amazement, she kept going father and farther away from shore.
After a few minutes, I tried to get her attention to tell her where to stop, but immersed in the roar of the ocean, she couldn’t hear me. She never looked back; she just kept swimming and soon she was so far out, I sent one of her brothers out to retrieve her so I could tell her where the limits were.
“So, I guess you’re not afraid of the ocean anymore?” I asked.
She smiled, “No, I LOVE it out there.”
A total and complete change in less than 48 hours.
I love this story because it reminds me of the STEPS children (and adults) need to go through when they are addressing fears–especially ones where they feel their safety is involved.
One of the things to remember is:
HOW PEOPLE FEEL … is HOW THEY FEEL.
It doesn’t mean that it’s right (or wrong), it just means that it’s TRUE for them.
A simple acknowledgement of an emotion will cause it to get smaller, but denying it, will make it bigger.
Acknowledging WHERE PEOPLE ARE, is the fastest way to get them to the next place, because they more you deny it, the stronger they feel they have to hold onto that emotion in order to get acknowledged.
Emotions are a lot like children throwing a fit. They want some attention. Giving it a very brief, “I see this,” is all you have to do.
It also doesn’t mean that we need to over-indulge the emotion or give into what it’s saying.
Enabling children by telling them to stay away from their fear, doesn’t help them cope with life and learn how to move past things, which is a skill they are going to need.
When we can SEE where they are, we can GUIDE them (effectively) in WHAT to DO ABOUT IT.
I have seen parents shut their children’s feelings so much that eventually their kids shut down altogether when they’re with them; they lie to their faces or they just go to other people. (They still feel the same, but they withdraw from their parents.)
It’s low on the emotional intelligence scale and totally self-oriented.
What we’re really saying is “I” want you to feel what “I” THINK YOU SHOULD.
Of course, other parents go too far in the other direction where they don’t guide their kids PAST what they are experiencing and keep them away from anything that feels emotionally difficult for them.
This isn’t serving them either, because they don’t have the SKILL SET to move forward past their emotions.
It’s important to be aware that all life experiences of our children are stored in their subconscious for their entire lives. If you think that how you are treating them when they are 3 is not going to be remembered, it will be.
It will not only be remembered, it will become a part of how they see and respond to the world.
It’s low-scale when you try to solve one problem with a strategy that creates lateral damage.
Instead of shutting down the people in your life and running over their thoughts and feelings (or placating them so much they become weak and immobilized), try these simple steps instead:
1. Ask them to give voice to the emotion and show no reaction other than affirm you’re listening.
2. Acknowledge that it’s real for them. Don’t argue or disagree with what they tell you. Once people feel acknowledged, their emotions usually lessen or go away; if you resist or deny them, they increase.
3. Ask them a follow up question so that THEY have more clarity on what’s going on.
4. Ask them “What’s the next step?” Don’t stop the conversation with empathy and baby them so much that they get the message they can sit down and stop moving just because they feel afraid.
I did the listening part, but it was my husband who saw the solution right away.
When he gave her the wetsuit, it made her feel more physically comfortable and being buoyant made her feel in control enough to totally go for it.
I love how my daughter changed on her OWN when she felt safe.
I love that we have learned over the years how to guide our kids through the steps, instead of violating them.
I loved that when she had gone through the process, and felt she had control,
we had to REIGN her in..not throw her in.