A wise father once shared with me, years after I had worked with him and his family, that the most powerful lesson he had learned was not to get upset when his child was upset. This is of course very difficult to do. We are hardwired to be distressed by our child’s distress, which is linked to our motivation to relieve it. This works well when they are babies when their distress points to a need we can meet. But as they get older it gets more complicated. They are distressed when things happen that are necessary but not expected or preferred, for example. They are distressed because they want something and we deny them because it is not in their best interest. At these times (and also when they are babies) it is best if we can stay calm and not join them in their distress, to not get anxious or angry.
This is what I call “staying on the shore.” When the person we love is upset, when they are in the ocean being tossed about by the waves, so to speak, of their emotional storm, the best thing we can do is stay on the shore, to be a landmark for them so that they can find their way back. This is not to be uncaring or indifferent. We need to have an attitude of compassion and patience, but without getting irritated or panicked. “I’m sorry you are so upset. You will feel better soon. Everything will be okay.” Focus on your breath, stay grounded, and know that the upset, the wave, the neurochemical event of emotional distress, will pass. Try to keep your perspective. Stay on the shore.
Again, this is very difficult, particularly when you have to get the child out the door for school, for example, or to eat nutritious food. But, depending on the age of the child and the situation, it is sometimes possible to be firm and effective while remaining calm and fully present. And it is our loving presence, our mindfulness, that is the best bet for calming the child. This kind of parenting becomes possible when we have a mindfulness practice and work toward our own wellness. It is always the case that we need to take good care of ourselves first, to heal our relationship with ourselves before we can have a healthy relationship with others.