A few days ago Katia, who blogs at iamthemilk, wrote a post after noticing how polite her young son is with other kids. She expressed concern that in putting the need for acceptance first, he would surrender control over his feelings to others. I could understand Katia’s feelings, having felt that way about one of my daughters many times.
What parent hasn’t occasionally thought that their child should be different? We see them looking sad and want them to be happier. We see them struggling at school and we want them to pay less attention to friends more to schoolwork. We see them lonely and we want them to pay less attention to schoolwork and have more friends. And on it goes. When my older daughter was a baby, I even worried that she didn’t cry enough! I’d read that babies cried to release tension and were extra sensitive to the emotions of others. I wondered if my baby was sensing my anxiety and repressing hers. It might have been more useful to wonder if I’d read too many parenting books!
It makes me laugh now, but new parents stumble through the early years, bombarded by conflicting advice and struggling to know what’s best. Is it any wonder that we think we’re doing something wrong or that there’s something wrong with our child?
What happens when we think: “There’s something wrong with my child.”
Several things happen when we think there is something wrong with our child, including:
- We see our child (and ourselves) as having problems that need to be fixed.
- We focus on these problems and, because we do that, we notice evidence to back our belief
- We miss evidence to the contrary
- We try to change our child, ourselves, or both, and feel despondent when our strategies don’t work, or not for long.
This keeps us stuck with exactly what we don’t want. Are we bad parents for thinking our children should be different? Should we force ourselves to stop worrying? No, for several reasons.
- If we worry about our kids, that’s reality and no amount of saying it shouldn’t be is going to change reality as it is right now.
- If we judge ourselves as wrong or bad, that’s the same mode of thinking that got us into trouble.
- Trying to force change just adds more pain. The original thought doesn’t disappear when we fight it. So as well as “My child should be different,” we also have, and, “And I should accept him as he is.” We vacillate between the two, and feel more stressed, not less.
When we go to war with ourselves in an attempt to change, we don’t get change, we get a war.
When we think our children should be different than they are, especially when we see our “weaknesses” reflected in them, we feel guilty. We already think it is our fault. And that hasn’t created one iota of change.
How to have compassion for our children and ourselves
So are we doomed to watch our children repeat our mistakes? We can learn to have compassion for our children and ourselves. One way to do this is to lovingly question our stressful beliefs, to notice how they make us react and to consider what it would be like without them. Instead of explaining how this works, it will be more effective to show you. As I’ve written on other posts, a process I often use is The Work of Byron Katie. You can find other examples of inquiries on this blog, or you can go to thework.com to download free worksheets. Very simply, when doing The Work, you write down your stressful thoughts, and answer the following questions:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know it’s true?
- How do you react when you think that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
- You then turn the original thought around – to its opposite and to yourself.
Do not try to do the turnarounds before answering the questions because that’s likely to lead to the internal struggle I described above. When you go through the process, you will get insights and feel yourself relax. The Work is never meant to make someone feel wrong, but to allow us to see our own innocence.
A process to question stressful thoughts
The belief I’m going to question is very common one:
I’ve had this thought many times over the sixteen years I’ve been a parent, most recently relating to one my daughters and her school work. As you read the following inquiry, you might find it beneficial to think about a situation where you’ve had a similar thought and answer the questions from your own experience.
She should be more confident in her schoolwork.
Is it true?
Can you absolutely know it’s true? No. (The reality is she can only ever be as confident as she is in any given moment, and I can’t 100% know that she’d be better off if she was more confident.)
How do you react when you think that thought?
- I worry that I’ve done something that’s made her feel less capable – that perhaps I’ve inadvertently taught her to compare herself to her sister, or that my lack of confidence has rubbed off on her.
- I get into “fix-it” mode, seeing her lack of confidence in her abilities as a problem. I try to talk to her about it, even if she’d rather watch TV!
- I imagine future failures for her, others judging her, and I want to protect her.
- I remember my own lack of confidence as a teen, and that I didn’t get the grades I wanted, and I want to save her from that.
What do you fear would happen if you didn’t believe the thought? (This supplementary question can sometimes be illuminating.)
- That I won’t support her, and will leave her to flounder.
What do you get for holding this belief? (Another supplementary question.)
- I get to feel as if I matter.
Who would you be without the thought?
- I’d be calmer. I’d see that in some subjects she is confident and that her confidence has grown overall.
- I’d hear her laughing right now, and I’d know she’s fine.
It can be useful to remember a specific situation when you had the thought, and again ask: Who would I be without the thought? I did that next and these were my responses:
- I’d listen to her. I’d hear her tell me why she thinks she sucks at that subject. I wouldn’t argue or try to persuade her differently.
- I might ask her, “Is it true? Are you sure the others are better at that than you?” If she says, “Yes, I’m sure,” then maybe I’d see that she’s right and that isn’t the subject for her.
- I’d see that by trusting her, I teach her to trust herself.
What I notice now, is that when I believe the thought, “She should be more confident,” I don’t always listen to what she has to say. Instead, I override her opinion and try to show her she’s better than she thinks she is. Maybe listening would be more effective!
For each turnaround we find, we look for three ways in which it is as true or truer than the original stressful belief. These reasons are not meant to punish or chastise, but help us let go of limiting beliefs. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask, “Why would it be better for me (and the other person) if this turnaround were true?”
Turnaround – to the opposite: She shouldn’t have more confidence in her schoolwork.
- That’s the reality. In this moment, she can only have as much confidence as she does.
- Because if she had had more confidence, I wouldn’t have seen that I could listen more. She’s given me the gift of knowing myself better and of learning to listen. Already I can see that the times when I have listened she’s been articulate about her ability – and has gone on to do better.
- She doesn’t need more confidence, she needs to be heard, and that allows her confidence to grow.
It feels freeing to see this – now I know what to do! Before I didn’t think I did know. If she says she sucks at something again, I need can ask her to tell me about it. She will find her way.
Turnaround – to myself: I should have more confidence in her.
- Because she does find her way. She has got more capable and confident at several subjects.
- Her teachers said she’s doing fine.
- When I have confidence in her, I’m more relaxed and more able to listen.
Turnaround – to myself and about myself: I should have more confidence in my work.
This turnaround feels uncomfortable at first, and that’s okay. It lets me know that I am judging myself. So now I look for kind ways in which this turnaround could true.
- When I am confident I work more consistently.
- I have been writing for years and I have an MA in it, so I could give myself permission to feel confident.
- If I want her to be confident, then let me model it!
The effect of doing an inquiry
Having been through this process, the same thought that previously felt stressful now feels peaceful! I have compassion for myself and see how hard it has sometimes been for me to feel confident when I’ve tried to force myself to change. When we allow beliefs to dissolve in this way, it becomes easier to see what to do. It’s also important not to make that into something we should do! Having seen that I could listen more to my daughter, the next time she has a worry it will be more helpful to concentrate on what she has to say than it will to keep reminding myself I should be listening!
Over to you
If you have stressful thoughts about your children, I hope this has encouraged you to see that letting go can lead to solutions. If you had insights while reading my inquiry I’d love to hear from you so do drop me a comment!