We've been at this parenting thing for a little while now (we have three children, aged 8, 5 and 3), and we have always tried to parent in a respectful way. There have been more times than we care to remember when we have lost our cool, but we always strive to do better.
But until we discovered Hand in Hand Parenting, we didn’t really have a grasp of how to do significantly better. Although we read a lot of parenting books and articles, and tried hard to implement the strategies suggested, we just seemed to keep slipping back to the same old feelings and patterns of behaviour at those times when things weren’t going so well with the kids.
Understanding how the brain works
Hand in Hand offers practical tools you can use, both with your children, and for yourself, alongside stacks of evidence-based information to help you understand why things happen like they do. For example, learning about the brain science - what's going on in the children's heads when they're showing off-track behaviours, or expressing big emotions - was a huge game-changer for us. At last we started to really understand things like why off-track behaviours signify that our children aren't feeling connected to us, or how they literally can't think when they're in the midst of big emotions. So things like reasoning with them, or distracting them, or getting shouty, were just not ever going to work!
But the other side of understanding more about how our children's minds were working, was also looking at our own brains - at our own reactions. I guess deep down I had always kind of assumed that my, shall we say, negative reactions to my children's challenging behaviours were, in some way, reasonable responses to their 'irrational' actions or feelings. But we began to realise more and more just how much of what we do is directly connected to how we were raised as children. Which in turn is down to how our parents were raised in their own childhood - and so on. And we realised that what we took for granted as being a 'reasonable' response, was in fact a habitual reaction ingrained in us from our own childhood experiences. In other words, we started to understand that it didn't have to be that way.
There was a point where looking at myself in this way felt like a huge struggle. I had to look deeply at my own practices as a parent, and it wasn't all pretty. The more I read, the more I felt like it was too big a mountain to climb. And I didn't want to do it, didn't want to hear about all the things I'd been doing wrong, didn't want to go there anymore!! But the guiding light was the fact that we can change the way we do things - we can literally change the way our brains are wired. So if there are destructive patterns in your family (maybe smacking or shouting were the norm in your house as you grew up), Hand in Hand really helps you to hold in mind that you can break free, and you can do things differently. And it also gives you the tools to do this.
Being listened to as adults
Changing the way we react to our children's big feelings and off-track behaviours has needed a great deal of our attention. It's one thing knowing that the children aren't deliberately trying to annoy us with their challenging behaviours - it's quite another to truly convince ourselves of it. For this, we use Listening Partnerships. In a Listening Partnership, two people exchange listening time - each person takes a turn to talk, for roughly equal amounts of time, whilst the other listens with all their warmth and good attention. Listening Partnerships give us a chance to talk, to think, to experience and express our own emotions, and to break down some of the old patterns that are wired into our brains from our own childhood experiences.
Listening Partnerships have helped with so much within our family unit. Patterns of behaviour which felt stuck in me - like responding harshly to sibling fighting (a real trigger for me!), or meeting aggression with aggression - have received lots of work in my Listening Time. And this means that when these challenging situations arise, I can move past my ingrained behaviours, and try new things - I can get creative in my responses! Who would have thought I could be warm, instead of disapproving, in response to a child coming at me with all guns blazing? Or that I could get playful when one of the children is bugging their sibling yet again? But I can - and it's because I've worked through situations I find difficult, had time and space to talk about them, and a safe space to express all the emotions I feel when I'm in the middle of those times which challenge me so much. Having someone just listen to my thoughts, ideas and feelings - with no judgement, advice, or interruptions - has been life changing, and has brought our family dynamic so much closer to the connected, warm, and responsive place we want it to be.
But Listening Partnerships had a much wider impact than I had anticipated when I set out down this road. They have brought my husband and me much closer together, as we now understand so much better what the other needs in a listener. When one of us goes through a tough time and needs a listening ear, the other one knows to make themselves available, hold that the speaker has good intelligence and will work through the difficulty in their own time, and not offer advice, relate personal stories, or interrupt. Prior to discovering Hand in Hand, I didn't think communication between us was an issue in our relationship - but it is so much better now! I also find that I am generally more compassionate and accepting in my life, and that I am able to remember that everyone has challenges going on in their life - and that if I just listen, I give them powerful support in working through their issues.
Listening to our children
So what does it look like when we listen to our children, rather than to another adult? Well, not much different in many ways! In Listening Partnerships, you agree the time and place, and you have equal turns - with children, they 'choose' when and where it's going to happen, and you don't get to vent back at them in turn! But in many other ways, we are offering the same thing. When our children express big emotions (like crying, tantrums, or aggression), we know that all they really need is a safe space to release whatever is bothering them - they need us to be their solid anchor in the rough seas of their overwhelming feelings. When the stormy emotions come, we stay close, we give warm attention, and we listen. We call this kind of being with our children 'Staylistening'. We might have to set a warm limit on the off-track behaviours they show, but then we can stay warm and loving as they pour out their difficult feelings. And there is no need to stop the feelings - all we need to do is listen, and offer our warmth and caring. The children feel safe to express themselves, and we fully appreciate the value our listening and attention gives them.
And we see the difference in our children. Not only the difference in our older two since we have started to understand what it is they really need in those challenging moments (connection, listening, understanding, connection, listening…!), but also in just how much easier it is for our youngest child to come and share his big feelings with us. He's the lucky one, who has been listened to so much more (rather than distracted, reasoned with, or spoken to harshly), and from a much younger age, than the other two. Sigh. Ah well, you know better, you do better - and we really are working to do better! It's so much easier now to feel compassion towards our children's upset over 'unreasonable' or 'irrational' things - but, oh, how we wish we'd heard about, and understood, the brain science sooner - and had the tools to support us. With the older two, they still need lots of this kind of attention. They need to learn to believe that there's safety in expressing their emotions - whatever those emotions might be - even whilst we might warmly limit their actions.
Here's how Staylistening and Listening Partnerships can both help in a challenging and emotion-filled situation:
My husband and I had taken our three children (aged 7, 4 and 2 at the time) to London for a day out. They were really excited about going the idea of going on the trains, and seeing the sights of London, and also the Christmas lights which were still up. But as we bundled us all off the train, me sorting out the kids and my husband carrying all the 'stuff' that we had with us, we realised that we had dropped a few things, and 3 of the kids' gloves had fallen down onto the track under the train. Our oldest son had lost one, and our middle daughter had lost a whole pair.
Cue major meltdown from them both! They were saying things like 'Just go and get them' and 'We have to get them back', quite angrily, but with lots of tears as well. As we were both available, we just took one each and listened to their upset - saying things very warmly like 'We can't go and get them' 'They're gone now' and 'I think we can still have a good day'. Our daughter calmed fairly quickly (I think she was partly so upset because she could see her big brother was - otherwise I'm not sure she would have been that fussed about gloves to be honest!), but our son cried and cried and cried. This was quite unusual for him, as he tends to go straight to anger when he's upset over something, and it also interested me that he never even wears that particular pair, I don't think he likes them, but it was all we could find that morning as we got ready to go! So something about the situation, other than the loss of that particular glove, was clearly bothering him a lot.
When I think about what I would have done before I came across Staylistening, I definitely would have been trying to stop the outburst - we never did say things like 'don't cry', but we still wanted to stop it somehow, like I would feel a bit desperate to make the child feel better as quickly as possible. I would have tried to distract, and get them moving, to try to get away from the source of the discomfort. I'm so glad that I now know that in order to deal with the feelings raised, it's much better to let it all happen in the moment if possible! I was also really grateful to all the work I have done on dealing with the children's big emotions through my Listening Partnerships - all the tears and recriminations didn't trigger anger or frustration in me like they used to in these situations, so I was able to quite calmly and rationally think about the best responses to give.
It was great that the two of us were there, and that we weren't really pushed for time, so we just let it go on for a while. Eventually as the other two children were getting a bit restless, we decided to gently start to move away. Our son was still crying, but not sobbing and distraught anymore, and was happy to walk along holding my husband's hand (again, this is quite unusual - he usually refuses our physical contact when upset!). He huffed quite a lot though when a well meaning ticket collector asked him why he was crying and told him that big boys don't cry!! We just said 'Oh we don't mind' quite cheerfully, which I'm not sure would have been my reaction if I weren't feeling so calm about the whole situation - thank you again Listening Partnerships!! Our son then sat quietly and thoughtfully on the tube, but seemed fine once we reached our destination.
He didn't then mention the gloves again for the whole day, and when we were all chatting about our visit the following day, and we were wondering if anyone had any bad bits that they didn't like about the day, he didn't talk about it at all! I'm convinced that if we had distracted him and hurried him away from the scene, he would have harboured a grudge about it and probably been grumpy and mentioning our mistake all day, and instead we were able to have a lovely day out which we all thoroughly enjoyed.
Children are good people
The Hand in Hand approach has helped us to understand that our children are innately good people - that they want to be cooperative, happy, and creative if they possibly can. If they can't, they are asking for help to reconnect with us and to release some of the big feelings they are holding. The approach has also given us the tools to make significant changes in our own behaviour - so we can become the responsive, connected family we want to be. We still slip up more than we would like, and we know that there will always be new challenges, but we know where to turn to work through difficult situations, and we are confident in our increasingly strong family bond. As a family, we now hold listening to each other as one of our highest priorities. And we are all reaping the benefits.
- Grab a copy of 'Listen' (the Hand in Hand Parenting book) for a fantastic overview (including details of the other Listening Tools), and lots of inspiring and practical stories from parents who have used the approach
- Attend a Starter Class to get the best possible foundation for using the approach – watch this to find out what other parents thought about it
- Read this great article about how children use small pretexts to offload their big feelings: "I want it now!" Children's wants and needs