This is an article that was first published on the Hand in Hand website here.
A few days ago, I had a very powerful listening moment with my son who is 6 years old. This is how it went and my thoughts about how we got to this point 🙂
My child who expresses his negative feelings in aggressive ways
For a few years already I have been trying to figure out respectful and efficient ways of supporting Theodor, who is now 6+ years old, to unload his negative emotions. It’s been very hard, even more so when I notice that there is no such struggle for me with my two other kids. T. has a lot of pent-up painful feelings from times when my husband and I were fresh parents with no knowledge of what a baby’s inner life truly looks like. And his current life is adding every day more to that past hurt.
I worry about him because he gets angry very quickly and snaps, hits (generally not hard, but it’s still hitting), throws objects around or uses foul language.
I worry and seek effective ways of supporting my son and my family
T.’s frequent outbursts pain me from morning till the next morning till the next morning of the next morning for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-betweens. In my worst mother moments I have asked myself if he may have ADHD or any other sensitivity that nowadays can be easily labeled, contained within a framework of symptoms, reactions and drugs. I’ve considered undetected allergies, reactions from past vaccines, clash of personalities.
A few moments of staylistening to him a few days ago shockingly for me created an immediate connection with him. I felt like I finally uncovered one way of efficiently supporting him, firstly, but also supporting my family, since T.’s aggressive behavior many times throws all of us off balance in our home.
It took 10 minutes of my life
It was powerful. To this day I can still see the effects of that evening. T. cooperates much more than before, he pays compliments to us and his siblings, focuses on his interests, plays for long spans of time and asks his siblings with kindness to leave him alone when he wishes that. A few times when he was upset, even, he came in my arms and cried with real tears, 0 violence. Thinking of the times that I’ve seen T. cry, I think I can count them on the fingers of one hand. I consider crying a constructive and efficient strategy to heal from hurt, as opposed to being aggressive.
Breakthrough support for myself in my parenting struggle
“How did you do it?! Please pass the magic formula over to us!”, you may say. First off, it’s not entirely my doing. It’s Patty Wipfler’s and Tosha Schore’s.
Patty outlined and refined a set of five efficient and simple tools to (re) build connection with kids. I believe in Patty’s work, the ideas she promotes, how she proposes to approach parenting and the organization that she’s built, Hand in Hand. That’s why I’m currently training to become a parenting instructor in their one-year program and that’s why many of my articles on this blog will be from the Hand in Hand perspective, as I learn and experience it.
Tosha is a very experienced Hand in Hand parenting instructor who specializes in boys (she has three sons). She is also the co-author alongside Patty of the book “Listen”, a simple, easy-to-read book with description of the Hand in Hand tools and tons of real-life examples to support that.
In a recent discussion that I had with Tosha about my struggles to support Theodor, Tosha made a suggestion that has made all the difference in my life. She advised me to drop the agenda that I had built inside of me concerning T.
I had a plan and… it didn’t work
Since that discussion, I’ve been doing some soul searching and have realized that in my desire to have harmony, peace in the family and to see Theodor thriving (i.e. as I thought he should thrive, not in the way that he needs and is able to), I had more or less consciously made a “plan” to help him. When he was upset, I’d mentally plunge into “fix it”, “force the hurt to pour out”, “guide him” mental mode.
I value Hand in Hand approach and I use the ideas with my two other kids and the results are remarkable. So, I know they work. I really couldn’t figure out why T. was sending me alarm signals that how I was holding him when he was getting him even more upset than he already was. How I was coming physically close to him seemed to scare him. What I was saying to him was making him even more enraged.
I understand now that I have been focusing on “applying a parenting theory”. I was NOT following my child. I was NOT respecting his pace and process of healing (should have he needed to heal at all in that very instant!).
I had no plan and… it worked a miracle
That night at T.’s basketball practice, I truly listened to him. I followed his lead. I even had no idea what I was doing, what he was going to do next, what I was going to do next. I used the knowledge of genuine listening that I have acquired in the past six months of doing listening partnerships to create a space for him to express himself. And here’s how that went 🙂
How it went
That early evening, I picked up my three kids from daycare and school and dropped T. off at his basketball practice that takes place in the sports hall of a high school. When I left for home with my two other kids, my son was in a good mood. He immediately changed his shoes and joined his colleagues for the warm-up. After dropping off my two other kids at home, I returned an hour later to pick up my son at the end of the practice.
When I entered the sports hall, I stopped and instantly entered a state of worry. All the kids were nicely playing a basketball match, while my son was trotting around. When he saw me, he frowned toward me, stuck his tongue out, turned his back and hit with his leg a bottle of water lying on the floor. I also noticed his jacket and backpack were un-orderly lying on the floor and guessed he had thrown them there.
His basketball trainer approached me with a worried face and told me that she had no idea what had happened to my son. At some point, without any apparent reason, he had started to run around the room, hit his colleagues and was not making sense when talking.
I glanced back at my son, felt scared for him and was completely at a loss: how was I going to help him??
Since discovering Hand in Hand tools, I’ve tried numerous times to staylisten to him. I sometimes took him in my arms, but he’d fight back in huge anger and hit me. Some other times, I told him a few things while listening to him such as “I’m here listening to you”, “I’m sorry it’s hard for you right now” and others, but me speaking seemed to really push his buttons and he’d growl or yell. This approach visibly helps his siblings, but my son seems to get enraged and even more hurt.
That’s why I was feeling helpless in that moment. So I decided to stop trying to help him altogether and follow his lead. Really listen without trying to think of things to say or do.
I started walking behind my son without saying a single word. For the next about 10 minutes, he walked around, climbed the stall bars, turned his back to me, turned toward me and stuck out his tongue or made angry faces. I waited a few meters away from him. In the past, I have tried offering him my physical presence so many times and I knew that this was somehow triggering him even more. I looked in his eyes focused on noticing/listening to him. When he moved on, I followed at the same distance. When he finally ran outside the sports hall, I picked up his stuff and walked calmly after him.
On the hallway, he climbed the staircase, which I usually insist he doesn’t do because it’s dangerous. I didn’t say anything. He ran down the hallway toward the exit of the school and I followed. Finally he stopped at the exit. He was still in his sports T-shirt, sweated from running, and for a split second I asked myself if at all and what I was going to do if he went outside, in the cold, rainy school yard. He didn’t.
He forced a door which turned out to be locked. I stood at the same distance that he seemed to be comfortable with (about 3-4 meters away) and quietly looked at him. Then he pointed in the direction of a dark corridor and said to me “I’m going to go that way”. I didn’t say anything. Then, he said to me “what?” On a hesitant, low voice, I said “I’m listening to you”. Then he quickly asked me “what do you want?” to which I replied “I want to be with you”.
In that instant, his face lighted, he quickly walked to me and said “ok”. I lowered my body and welcomed him in my lap, hugged him and caressed his hair without saying anything. Then, he asked me if I wanted to hear what had happened to him. I said “yes”.
He told me that some kids from the practice laughed at him and said that he was a monkey for climbing on the stall bars. He added that the teacher also laughed at him and that he’d hit his colleagues for that. I don’t know about the kids, but I didn’t believe his teacher had actually laughed at him. I have watched the teacher many times and she obviously highly appreciates my son. She’s also a warm, caring person, so I don’t imagine her making fun of him.
But my opinion did not matter one bit. I didn’t comment in any way, making space for him to express his troubles, his interpretation of what had happened. Just like I do in my listening partnerships, I made small noises of “aha” or “oh” to let him know that I’m carefully listening to him. Through my listening partnerships for the past 6 months, I have had several huge revelations about my inner life right when my listening partners were saying almost nothing.
Then, as quickly as he confided, he said to me that he wants us to go home. I stood up, offered him his jacket, which he accepted. We walked in the rain hand in hand, entered the car and I offered him his snack. Then, he asked me to play a song on my phone that says (in Romanian) “I want to sing, to dream and laugh”. I had never heard the song, but looked it up on Youtube and played it, at his request, twice. We both listened the singer say “I want to sing, to dream and laugh / Never to forget how to play. / And when I go in the wide world / Never to forget to come back home.”
I heard him say “I feel safe with you, momma, I can come back home”
I cried when I listened to the content of his song and thought that it was my son’s way of enjoying his re-found inner peace and joy. I felt deeply connected to him and grateful to all the people in my life who have in one way or another supported me to arrive at those few moments of meaningful support for my so often tormented son.
If this article was interesting for you, maybe you’ll like to explore other resources:
The website of Hand in Hand organization created by Patty Wipfler.
A short description of the five Hand in Hand tools.
A short video about the book “Listen” in which Patty and Tosha say a few words.
You can find further details about Tosha on her website.