Whilst as a therapist I know this intellectually, based on practice experience and extensive attachment research, the difficulty I have found is that sometimes these bids for connection can be lost in the every day craziness of living or perhaps more challengingly, may look like another type of behaviour altogether.
This was powerfully evident when recently my children were on school holidays. School holidays are a wonderful opportunity to share more time together and yet are often tiring for the very same reason! Inevitably, I find myself presented with moments where I feel challenged to rethink the way I connect with my children.
Each holiday we tend to have one day when we go shopping to get much needed clothes and various other bits and pieces. My son, who doesn't like shopping at the best of times, was dragging his feet and being moody and sullen. He avoided eye contact and it literally felt like I was dragging him through quicksand as I encouraged him to get ready. A major meltdown was hovering threateningly and my patience levels were wearing thinner by the minute. My initial reaction was to get cranky and hurry him up and minimise his moodiness. Yet, as I went to give him another agitated direction, I noticed his face. Beyond his eye rolling and muttering under his breath there was something else. He wasn't sullen, he was sad ; though it would have been hard to tell the two apart if I hadn't been looking closely.
I took a deep breath and with enormous effort swallowed my frustration and anger. Instead of telling him to hurry up, I went over to him and sat quietly. I placed my hand on his back and gave it a gentle rub. As we sat together in this moment, I thought about his day and backtracked to when his mood had changed. He had been happy and enjoying time with a friend yet had come home unexpectedly and was quiet, and not just because we were going shopping. As I gently reflected back to him that I had noticed he had come home from his friends place a little quiet and asked if something had happened , he turned to me with teary eyes and told me of an argument they had had which had upset him deeply. We talked it through and though we didn't come up with any obvious ways to solve the problem with his friend, his mood shifted a little and he quickly got ready.
In that moment, I had had two choices. I could parent reactively, borne out of frustration and tiredness. I could hurry him along and express irritation that he was taking so long. Or I could go deeper. Instead of talking over him I could position myself alongside him and explore the moment not as an expression of defiance but as an expression of a moment that was too big for him to handle alone. My son needed me to go beyond both my feelings and his behaviour and offer him something more. He needed me in that moment to say 'I am here, I understand what you are feeling and we can survive these feelings, and this moment, together.' He needed me to be bigger, wiser, stronger and calmer. It was a bid for connection.
I am the first parent to say that this is not always easy in the crazy daily grind of life. I know at times I miss these bids for connection because I am distracted, impatient, hurried. Our everyday lives are busy. Too busy. And to be very honest, parenting less reactively and with more thoughtful engagement takes energy. Stepping up to this level of parenting can feel very tiring.
Yet, these holidays have been a wonderful revelation. I realised that the more I reached for my children's hidden emotions, slowed down and offered connection instead of direction, the calmer our home seemed to be. We laughed a lot more. There was much less arguing. My children opened up emotionally in ways that were unexpected and rich. No doubt it won't always be possible to be this intentional, but as we head into another busy school term I hope to hold these two moments in mind and seek out connection.
C Leisa Stathis 2016
Leisa is the author of Becoming a Mother, Finch Publishing 2015 available nationally in most good book stores.