EDITOR’S NOTE: Being a good parent at times takes superhero skills. To help you develop your own, “The Relational Book for Parenting” authors Saliha Bava and Mark Greene offer advice. Go here to read more in this exclusive periodic series for City Dads Group.
We previously wrote about the power of listening with curiosity. As we get into additional relationship super powers, we’ll refer back to previous ones and show how all interconnect and interrelate. Growing these relationship super powers, what we sometimes call our “relational intelligence,” provides us with a web of capacities we can access in fluid and intuitive ways. We can learn to combine and engage them, moving easily from one to the next, through a process of playful improvisation. At the heart of all this is our willingness to stay playful. (More on play in a future post.)
This brings us to developing the ability to hold strong when others present us with challenging emotions rather than trying to explain or fix the situation.
Relationship Super Power #2:
Not Collapsing into the Emotions of Others
Sometimes our children will need to share challenging emotions, like sadness or rage. This is uncomfortable for many of us, especially those without much experience engaging others in these situations. When we see others in pain or sad, we often end up trying to fix their problems, thinking, “There I solved it for you, so don’t show me those emotions anymore.”
This, however, is a temporary fix at best; often, as much for us as for them. Instead, our partner or children need to feel heard. They need the space and support from us to engage with their emotions. By asking calming, age-appropriate questions, we help very young children gain courage. They actually learn to play with what they are feeling and further explore it. They learn how to hang in and be curious with their emotional responses. They can then create new meanings and connections within this safe relationship container we create for them. Our calmness becomes their calmness. Our exploration, theirs. Our patience, theirs.
As parents, we can show our children that they don’t have to heighten their emotional response, but instead they can see the beauty, the “wowness” of being human. Later in their lives, they can learn to say, “Wow, what was that? That was strange what I felt. I wonder what that was?” Research shows that our capacity for experiencing “wowness” increases our overall happiness (more on it in another post).
In choosing to ask questions and stay curious, we help grow our children’s “relational stamina.” Over time, in their relationship with us, they learn to explore, identify and grow their emotional expression along with the back and forth of relating to others. Even emotions like anger, which at first might appear to be challenging to express, can become less so and more familiar over time. Eventually, feeling angry can even morph into new forms of healthy, generative expression through the power of conversation. Our task is keeping our children company throughout this process and provide them framing questions while they explore. (“Do you think you may be feeling sad? What if there are some other emotions in there, too?”)
When we model listening with curiosity for our children, and how not to collapse into someone else’s strong emotions, we are modeling a powerful form of emotional courage. In these moments, we show it’s OK not to know all the answers right away. It’s OK to wait and see what emerges for us. In this process, we increase our own capacity to do this in our adult relationships, creating a powerful way to listen to our partners or our co-workers. We also show our children that we trust who they are and the conclusions they will reach.
The great joy here? The rich, distinctive conversations that emerge from listening with curiosity help maintain the closeness and connection we long for as parents:
- Try it out! See if you can hold the emotional responses of others without collapsing into (reacting to) any challenging emotions they might be feeling.
- What did you discover about your own emotional reactions when you try to do this?
- How did your attempt to create a calm holding space for the challenging emotions of others change the conversation?
- Share your comments here.
Next up: Considering Context
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Saliha Bava, PhD, is a couples and family therapist who you can follow on Twitter @ThinkPlay. Mark Greene is senior editor of The Good Men Project who you can follow on Twitter @Remakingmanhood. Their book on growing our families’ relationship capacities, The Relational Book for Parenting, is available on Amazon.
See their introductory video at http://ThinkPlayPartners.com