Parents: hold space, create a clearing

A friend recently shared this poem with me.

She embarked on a personal project this year to read a poem every morning before she gets out of bed. She has gifted herself the option to stay with any of the poems for as long as she wants, so she can read the same poem every day for weeks on end if she likes. I am in love with this practice and so grateful she shared it with me… and occasionally pings me a copy of one of the poems that resonates. Am I not the luckiest? And then, I find myself wanting to spread that delight around, and I’ll read the poem again and someone will come to mind and I’ll text them randomly, a poetry-bomber.

One of the lucky recipients of this particular poem is a friend who has just quit her job to have the time and space to support her kid through some learning struggles.

We could talk about the pandemic and parenting and how it’s impacting women and mothers particularly and setting back the efforts to support women in the workplace by decades – I’ve seen these headlines. We could talk about how under-resourced we are for all the learning and mental health challenges people are facing, particularly the kids – I haven’t seen enough of those headlines and I don’t know whose responding to this (although this twitter thread nailed it.)

But in this space, in this moment, I just want to think about my friend, one person, walking away from a role that she’s really good at, in which she thrives and has an identity and “value” and momentum and time-in, to the far-more challenging “job” of tending to a small human, supporting a little being through some struggles – a role in which it’s hard to feel skilled or successful or valued or as if you have any momentum, a role into which you can pour endless energy and hours and have nothing to show for it – no income, no promotions, no sweet travel gigs, no assurance or certainty that you’re nailing it.

And I think of this beautiful choice she’s made as creating a clearing, in the dense forest of her life, to be patient and steadfast as a tree, and hold space for a person who needs some extra nourishment.

This is what I am doing (I like to think, now, in the calm and quiet of my office, with all the people who need nourishment off doing their things) when I leave a Word document mid-sentence, cursor blinking, when I leave all the unread tabs behind, when I shut the door on the office with 25 projects unfinished, and try and shift from clown-faced juggler, to mother tree, from multitasking entertaining music-playing professional, to a warm body making a clearing and just being present.

I think I want to honour it, out loud, in my friend, because I know how hard it is to do.

And when I feel as though I am singularly and spectacularly failing to solve my kid’s problems or fix the challenging things, I revisit this article, that reminds me that more than solutions, kids need empathy.

“One of our children’s deepest needs is to feel heard.”

(Anyone relate to this? I mean, come on, it’s not just the kiddos.)

“If our kids aren’t doing well, parents often feel the need to be disapproving — otherwise, they reason, the kid will think they’re okay with the behavior.

Also, when kids are upset, their distress induces what’s called a “righting reflex” in parents, or the desire to fix whatever the problem is for the child by using logic. But logic doesn’t calm emotions — empathy and validation do.”

Can we do this for ourselves, for each other, for our kids?

Here are the 4 tools offered by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, the co-authors of “What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home” from the article.

I think of them as ways to create a clearing. And I love holding that image of a forest clearing and my open cupped hands, in my mind, which is why I think poetry is a good pick-me-up, or psychological prescription, as the good doctor said.

1. Stay calm and think of their emotions as an opportunity to connect

Consider the bonds that develop when people share stressful experiences. It’s not like you have to jump for joy when your kid is having a meltdown, is grumpy or is having a hard time in their life.

But when you stay calm and reframe big feelings as an opportunity, it’s easier to exercise patience and compassion. If you can stay calm as they vent, cry or yell, you can lower their emotional charge, which enables both of you to think logically and clearly and put things into perspective.

No meaningful communication happens when one person is hot-tempered. Meet their intensity with your presence, and don’t get upset yourself.

2. Understand and accept rather than judge

When kids are upset, parents often have subtitles running through their heads, telling them to use the opportunity as a teaching moment. But turn those subtitles off.

The experts who have long guided our perspective on this are Ross Greene, a child psychologist who says, “Children do well when they can,” and Barry Kaufman, a psychotherapist who makes the same point, that “people are always doing the best they can.”

Take the generous position that even though your child is in distress, the distress represents their best effort right now — and that’s okay. Every misstep doesn’t have to be a teaching moment. From this position of grace, you can then peel back the layers to investigate what might be going on with them.

3. Reflect and validate their feelings

Careful listening helps kids feel heard, and several experts have pointed out that kids listen better after they are heard.

When they feel understood — and, more importantly, accepted — by their parents, it helps them to see their parents as the safe base they can come to, rather than run from, at times of stress.

Language that communicates careful listening when kids have strong emotions is similar to paraphrasing, but in a way that signals we are trying to understand their feelings.

Psychologist and communication expert Eran Magen uses the helpful acronym WIG, or “What I Got” from what you said, to describe this kind of listening.

Some examples of “WIG-ing”:

  • “What I got from what you said is that you feel like your friend betrayed you.”
  • “Am I getting this right — that the way she said it made you feel like she was trying to embarrass you?”
  • “It sounds like you’re pretty disappointed about your performance.”
  • “I think you’re saying that your emotions were so strong in the moment that you freaked out.”
  • “Let me see if I’m understanding. Other kids were doing it, too, and you feel like your teacher singled you out, and that’s not fair.”

One useful tip for asking questions: Rather than asking your kid why they are upset about something, ask, “How does that upset you?” For many kids, this phrasing sounds less challenging or accusatory than asking why.

Using language that expresses validation is also helpful. It shows kids that they’re not wrong to feel the way they feel, and that they are accepted and loved unconditionally.

Some examples of validating language:

  • “I’d also be scared if someone much bigger than me was threatening me.”
  • “That sounds like it would be painful.”
  • “That must have been hard for you.”
  • “I can see why you say you had a difficult day.”
  • “I think most people would be upset by that, too.”

4. Explore and ask questions

Once you’ve done the listening and validation work, your kid will feel heard and accepted. Since they no longer need to defend or justify themselves, they are more likely to admit their own role in a problem and can walk alongside you, instead of fighting you.

You can move on to a place of curiosity and ask questions to better understand their experience and explore their openness to hearing advice or even come up with ways to solve problems.

William Stixrud and Ned Johnson are the co-authors of “What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home.” William is a clinical neuroscientist and a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine. Ned is the founder of PrepMatters and author of “Conquering the SAT: How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed.” William and Ned have 60 years of combined experience working with parents and children.


I love this wisdom: every mis-step doesn’t have to be a teaching moment.

I mean, when you think about it, you pretty much know when you’ve mis-stepped and stuffed up, don’t you? You really don’t need someone coming in with some version of “I told you so.” But wow, what a gift, for someone to hold you in your mess, and help discharge all those feelings, so once you’ve come back to yourself and your body and a sense of safety, you can process for yourself, hmm, how can I make amends, how can I do better, what can I do differently next time? I love how radical this is. I don’t need lectures, I need a clearing in the forest for the wisdom of a lived experience to land. I don’t need unsolicited advice. I need the steadying comfort of a warm hand on my back. I don’t need to be treated like a job, a task, a to-do item or a thing to fix. I just need to be woven back into a web of connection.

One little tendril at a time.

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