When we first encountered the work of Hand in Hand Parenting, we were struck not only by the non-judgemental, meet-you-where-you're-at tone, but also by the practical ideas they offer through their Listening Tools. Four of the five tools are aimed at the parent-child interaction, but the fifth tool, Listening Partnerships, is specifically for adults to use together.
The basic premise of Listening Partnerships is that we exchange time with another adult - one speaks and the other listens for a set amount of time, and then you switch over. During listening time, we are aiming to shed some of the emotions that get stuck in our emotional brain, which stop us from thinking clearly and responding to our children in the ways that we want to. But it's not always easy to get past our 'story' to the emotions underneath! I want to share with you here about something I tried which can help.
In my Listening Partnerships, I have a real tendency to talk and talk and talk, and give lots of detail, and to want to explain/justify myself - rather than getting to the actual emotions! I have been doing lots of reading and thinking to try to help myself with this, and something I heard from Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, really hit home for me. She talked about trying to slow down, notice feelings as you talk, and that the listener doesn't have to understand the back story - that you can just say a very few words and see what comes from that.
Our oldest child (just over 7 years old) is, after 18 months of waiting, about to be assessed for possible autism spectrum disorder*, so I have lots of conflicting feelings about this in my mind: do I want him to get a diagnosis and have confirmed my sense of how things are for him? Do I want them to say there's nothing out of the ordinary going on and that his behaviours are typical for his age - but then what is it that I am seeing?! This has been going on for so long and now there's an end in sight, it feels so much more real and concrete. I am pretty much thinking about it all the time now that we have a date for the assessment, so I really wanted to get some of the emotional gunk out of my head to free up my thinking about this - and to allow me to better focus on other things that are going on for us as well!
So I thought I'd try Patty's not-talking-too-much idea. When it was my turn for listening time in the group support call I was on, I just said (and please feel free to add in a random name in place of ‘my son’ if that helps!), "[My son] [pause]. I don't know [pause]. [Sigh] [My son]?? [more pausing!] [My son] [and more pausing!]. Aahhh, [my son]." And then I just stopped and thought about him for a few moments. It felt really weird not talking! But I did feel comfortable in knowing that I wasn't going to be interrupted, or pressed for further information, and I just took my time.
As I allowed my mind to focus on the feelings my son's situation is generating in me at the moment, I found myself thinking about how much harder his life is starting to be - as he gets older, his differences become more apparent, and our society isn't very accepting of differences! I thought how much I want to be there to help him through it, to be on his team, to counter other people not understanding who he is and how he does things. I was saying a few words as these thoughts arose - "I want to be there for him" or "Why don't they understand?" - but without giving explanations. It was very freeing! A few tears came as I talked about not being able to be there for him all the time.
Then I started saying a few words about his younger sister (4) and brother (2) - "[youngest son]'s little - he gets my attention anyway" and "But [middle child] - she needs me - poor [middle child] - I have nothing left for you!" Then lots of tears came as I apologised to my daughter - "I'm sorry I have nothing left for you." My listener told me to 'tell her you'll be there for her' so I said "I'll be there for you [daughter]" and "I'm sorry I can't be there for you right now, but I will be there", and there were lots more tears.
I had known that I needed to put some more focus back on our daughter as soon as possible (she has been clearly telling us with some small off-track, out-of-character behaviours recently!). But I didn't realise how badly I felt about how skewed towards our oldest child my focus has had to be lately. And more generally I had felt very stuck with using my Listening Partnerships for doing lots of talking, but without seeming to get to the emotions underneath the areas that were troubling me. I felt this was a good step forward, and gives me something I can use when I am going over an issue a lot and not seeming to move forwards.
After this session, I found I was a lot more tolerant of my daughter's neediness - which is how she tends to show that something is not right in her world ('I need you to put my shoes on Mummy' 'Mummy I can't get up' 'Mummy I can't reach my drink' etc - even though she is highly capable). The very next day she gave me a great opportunity to test this out when she 'couldn't' do her seatbelt up in the car. And although I felt some frustration rising in me, I was able to recognise that it was much more to do with other emotional pressures (our oldest had had a tough time just beforehand), and that I could work things out with my daughter without letting the seatbelt issue get to me. So I stepped away for a moment, saying 'I love you, I just need a moment for me right now', and then we connected with some cuddles and did the seatbelt up together, before heading off home for a well earned play!
*(Since writing this post, our son has indeed been found to be autistic - follow the links in this article for further information on this.)
- Life is easier when you listen - more on the brain science about why being listened to helps both parents and children
- For more on Listening Partnerships - what they are, and how to do them - try 10 tips for being a good listener
- And now you just need How to find a listening partner!!