Magnus’s turned away from me at bedtime when I felt his body shudder with sobs.
“You’re sad, aren’t you luv?” I say to him. He turned to face me, his face crumpling as his eyes welled up.
“Yes, I miss Colby so much,” he says through sobs.
Yesterday we experienced a capital T level trauma.
After coming home from the beach at Christina Lake, I got dinner together while Dave and Magnus went outside to play.
A few minutes later Dave storms in Magnus in tow. “Stay in the house,” he says.
I ran to the front window to see what happened.
Our neighbor was crouched over his now dead dog by the highway that runs in front of our houses. His head in his hands and his body wracked in sobs. His wife and 3 kids were falling apart next to him.
When they had opened the gate to pull into their property, their dog Colby – a border collie who wasn’t yet a year old – burst through the gate and was hit by a truck pulling a trailer. He was killed instantly.
Everyone saw it, including Magnus.
If this were me, my parents would have said well-meaning things like, “It’s just a dog, nothing to get too worked up about” or “They can always get another one” or “Colby’s in dog heaven now” or “Grandma will take care of him in heaven.”
This type of support, meant to be comforting, often does the opposite. By “trying to make things better” it makes us feel more alone with difficult feelings because we still feel what we feel.
It comes from a place of trying to ease our child’s suffering. Sometimes because we don’t want to face their suffering, because it’s hard to be with other people’s pain. Or we don’t know how to be present with or tolerate their suffering, because we don’t know how to be present or tolerate our own.
When my husband brought Magnus in, I asked him how he felt. When he didn’t have words, I gave him words of how I was feeling, like surprised, confused, sad, angry, until he could find his own.
I reminded him that whatever he feels is okay even when it feels bad in his body, and that he has these feeling this because he cares deeply. I left lots of empty space for him to ask questions and made it clear that he is not alone in his feelings and that we will get through this together.
He was back to himself for the rest of the evening until bedtime, and that’s when I taught him one of the most important skills we can learn, how to hold space for difficult emotions.
Most of us have never been taught how to cope with difficult emotions like anger, sadness, grief, rage, jealousy, guilt, and shame. We learned to stuff them down, pretend they aren’t here, ignore them, try to change them, deny their existence, or numb them. We do acrobatics to avoid facing uncomfortable and difficult emotions stirring up even more suffering because research shows that feelings that aren’t processed will show up in other unhealthy ways.
As Pema Chödrön says, “What we resist, persists”
It’s simpler – even if it doesn’t feel easier in the moment – to learn how to identify emotions as they rise and create space for them to process in a non-judgmental way, so they can move through and not stay stuck in our minds, bodies, and hearts.
Learning how to lean into pain teaches us that we CAN be with the pain. We gain confidence in our strength and capacity to get through hard things while building our resilience.
Sitting in the discomfort of pain we learn on a deep level that although this is hard right now, it won’t last forever and we will never break from it.
Last night when tears spilled from Magnus’s eyes, I asked him if he wants to learn what I do when I’m sad or have hard feelings.
He said yes, so I asked him where he felt the sadness in his body, where does it live? He said everywhere.
I said, “Right now I feel it in my throat like there’s a lump. I feel a heaviness in my chest, my heart, and a sinking feeling in my belly. Do you feel anything like that?”
He closed his eyes for a moment to think and said yes.
I continued on, “Okay, so here’s what I do. I look inside to find where the feeling lives, then I lay my hands on those places. I’m going to lay a hand on my heart, and a hand on my belly.” He placed his hands on his heart and belly.
“I make sure I’m breathing and breathe deeply, because breathing helps keep my body calm. Then with my hands on the sadness, I offer it the same comfort I would offer you. I say things like, ‘I’m here. This feels hard right now. You’re not alone. We can figure this out together.’ Can you do that for the sadness in your body too?”
He squeezed his eyes tight as I watched him do this exercise with me.
Many days as a mom I second guess myself. I wonder if I’m attuned enough, is he getting enough of my attention, am I missing something with him, am I doing too much for him, how badly am I screwing him up?
When Magnus opened his eyes and turned towards me, I could see something inside of him had shifted. The pain did not go away, and that wasn’t the point. Last night he learned a new skill: how to be with difficult feelings. He strengthened his capacity to be with feelings that are difficult and have the courage to face them.
This morning as I write this, I am reminded of a Dharma talk with Gil Fronsdal. After his talk, an audience member asked, “This is all great, but how do I not screw up my kids?” Gil laughed and said, “Oh, I know I’ll screw up my kids, that’s a given. We never know what our kids will internalize. What I aim to do is give them enough skills to unscrew themselves up later.”
This is my parenting philosophy too.
I can do my best to protect him and parent him, and he will still internalize things. It’s beyond my control, and life will have its way with him. This is one of those hard truths of the nature of living and the human experience.
Although so much is beyond my control, what I can do is teach him skills to cope with the difficulties of life and hopefully (fingers crossed) unscrew himself up later.
If you want to learn more about how to support your own kids in this way, Mindfulness For Kids will teach you the latest research on emotions, emotional regulation, and resilience building through Mindfulness.
Tell me in the comments what you’d most want to learn how to do to support your kids with Mindfulness and self-regululation.