He smiles at me from the top of the twisty green slide, beaming with pride after climbing to the top all by himself. He pauses just for a second to gather his breath, and his courage, before he settles in at the top of the ramp. Damp hair and flushed cheeks are the only visible signs of the warm summer day, the thirst for freedom and adventure to explore the play structure surpasses any discomfort the heat might have brought. He looks up to make sure I’m watching before he launches himself and yells “Go!” He shifts his weight forward and jettisons down the slippery slope, weaving from side to side, giggling the entire way.
The moment is perfect.
Your heart swells, feeling all the feels.
It is everything you thought parenthood would be.
Now at the bottom of the slide, he shouts “Again!”. His momentum still carrying him forward, his feet search for the solid ground. First one foot and then the other and then……his feet tangle together in a way that only a toddlers can. Unable to unravel them, he lands in a heap. My breath catches. His eyes lock on mine and for a split second we both wonder how the other is going to react.
My primal parental instinct is to rush over, scoop him up and make sure he is ok, but I know from experience that could lead to tears and a total meltdown. I give a quick scan, no blood, no broken bones, probably a few scratches and a bruised ego. I look into his eyes and see tears starting to pool. Now standing beside him, I push aside my worry and use my happiest voice to say “You’re ok buddy! Hop on up!” In one fell swoop I pop him back up and dust him off. “Can you climb that ladder again? I’ll time you. Go!” And just like that he is off and running, as if the fall had never happened.
We have all had those moments where we realize our child is looking at our reaction to decide whether to cry or not. Before they see you, they appear to be just fine, but when mom appears the waterworks start. As toddlers, they watch our reactions and use them as a guidepost on how they should react. A calm mama meant everything was ok and they could keep going. If mama was freaking out it meant, I better freak out too, I must be hurt!
We understand this dynamic when our kids are young. We know they are learning. We patiently teach them and accept the fact we will have to repeat ourselves over and over and over again. As they grow up and their reactions become more aligned with their actions, we start to feel comfortable that they’ve learned the basics. We subconsciously release the need to monitor our reactions as closely as we did on the playground.
But this is a false sense of security. As our children grow, they still look to our reaction as a guide. The difference now is they are not as likely to just accept our reaction as “the truth”. They have their own thoughts and feelings they are trying to interpret while weighing our reaction. It can be overwhelming and confusing for them, but what we see is a moody kid with an attitude. We don’t realize our reaction during these times is as important as it was that day on the playground when they were deciding to cry or not.
As we reach this new stage with our growing kids, we must remind ourselves that how we approach them is going to set the tone for the entire conversation. Our instinctual reaction on the playground feared they were injured, hurt or bloody. You were afraid of what was physically wrong, and your reaction was to protect them, so it wouldn’t happen again. Now that our children are older, we don’t have this immediate fear and may skip this step all together. We see the moodiness or the attitude and react without truly considering what might have brought all of this on. We rarely pause to consider how our reaction is going to influence what comes next.
As our children grow our relationship with them needs to grow too, we can’t rely on how we used to do things. Too often we keep doing what we always did and don’t recognize the subtle changes that are occurring. But even as things are changing, some of the fundamentals stay the same, they are still learning and looking to us as a guidepost.
Strong communication is at the heart of every relationship, especially the one we have with our kids. As many of you know, I compiled the work I’ve done with clients and friends, and created an online course for parents to learn key strategies on communicating with our preteens and teens. If you feel your communication is shifting and needs a little extra help, I encourage you to click on the link and check it out.
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I started writing this blog because I wanted to have deeper conversations beyond "How are you?", "Busy", with other parents. Over the years I've shared personal stories, articles, authors and topics to facilitate conversations with parents about the joys and the challenges of parenting.