Do you plan outings with your kids, ones that you both put time and energy into choosing what you'll be doing together and really look forward to? Has anything unexpected ever happened in the midst of one of those special times? If so, how did you react in the moment? Were you able to stay flexible and adaptable or does unpredictability simply knock you way off balance?
I enjoyed planning outings with my son, Rylan, fairly regularly when he was younger, often folding them into our homeschooling program. I remember one Monday we planned to go shopping for his winter coat after going to the doctor. This day was particularly exciting because we planned to go to the Valley Mall to do our shopping! Let me share the story with you.
Rylan took my hand in his as we crossed the parking lot to enter the mall, and as we went through the big doors he gave me a big grin saying, "I love you, Mom."
I gave his hand a squeeze and affirmed, "I love you too, son."
As we looked about us it was clear we weren't in a familiar place. This shopping mall was set up differently from the down-town mall we usually shopped at. Rylan, however, was keen on navigating and took the lead to find the men's winter coats.
All along the way he would stop to marvel at the Christmas decorations that were already set up to capture the shopper's attention. There were so many things to see and take in! When we finally made our way through the maze to the upper floor where the coats were, I could see the disappointment on Rylan's face. His brow furrowed, his lips pressed together, and he took in a calming breath to steady himself. "Well, there isn't much to choose from here now is there." He stated with another sigh. His eyes darted to another rack and he moved to take a closer look. "Oh! Here! This one, I want this one!"
"Would you be willing to try it on and see how it fits you?" I asked, as I pulled the coat from the rack and off the hanger.
He took off his jacket and slipped into the winter coat, then he looked at the arm length, "This will last awhile..." suddenly his eyes widened as his face flushed and he began pulling the jacket off quickly, "I'm too hot - I'm having a hot-flash! Get this off of me!"
Quickly I helped him get untangled from the coat, "What's going on? Did something not feel right?" I asked with concern.
"No, I'm just too hot!" his eyes landed on some stocking caps on the next aisle and he moved to look at them.
"So you'd like to get this coat then?" I was puzzled as I watched him move from one item to another, and I noticed his movements were becoming more agitated.
"Yes...no...I don't know...Mom," he said with mounting panic, "I don't know what to do..." When he moved to the end of the aisle he sank down onto the floor, "I'm just too danged hot all of a sudden! I can't stand it!"
I moved quickly to his side and felt a mounting concern as my gut clenched and a tenseness in my neck and a deep sense of mourning accompanied the fleeting thought, "Oh no, we were having such a fun time."
Unconsciously I moved straight to strategy in an attempt to divert from the pain in the moment, "Come on, buddy, let's just go look at a different store then, it will help to get outside where it's cooler."
His face contorted with pain, flushed with the wave of emotion he felt in his body. "Don't touch me!"
Startled, I backed up. Rylan sprang to his feet and reached to hug me tight, as he whispered frantically, "Stop it, Mom, you are embarrassing me."
I took a deep breath to calm my own spirit as I hugged him back, "it's okay, Rylan," I whispered, "I just don't know what to do right now to support you. What can I do?"
"Just stop being so loud!" In his distress his fingers clenched my arms tightly. "When you do that people look at me!"
When I felt the grasp of his fingers tightening, an implicit wave of overwhelm washed over me and I pulled away frantically from his grasp, "That hurts my arms! Stop that!"
Stunned and frightened by my outburst, he darted under the coat rack for safety. I could hear him crying and talking quietly to himself. But, again I jumped to strategy in a desperate effort to regain solid ground under my feet, I demanded, "Rylan, come out of there right now! We need to leave."
"I can't!" he cried, "I just need to find a white shirt and you aren't helping me!"
I thought to myself, ”A white shirt? Are you kidding me?" Stretched past my window of tolerance I picked up my phone and started to dial my older son.
"Who are you calling?" Rylan asked anxiously.
I was matter of fact, "I'm calling Jeremy so you can talk to him."
Rylan's voice was filled with stress and anguish, “"No! Don't call him, please!"
Flabbergasted, and totally confused, I could hear myself trying to make sense of it all, "What is happening!? He hasn't done this in years! I don't know what to do! I need help! I just want to go home, but he is way too big to pick up and carry out any more!" in that instant a part of me fell into a well of despair and I stared into space as my body caved, "I can't deal with this!"
Through the fog in my mind I heard my son crying out to me, "Don't give up on me Mommy! Please...you said you'd never give up on me!"
(Mirror neurons allow the brain to detect the intention of another person, which enabled him to perceive my emotions and automatically and unconsciously create that state inside himself.)
My heart broke wide open as I took in my son's internal state, in a heartbeat I was back and fully present, the cry of my son resonated within me with intensity. Without hesitation I got down on all fours and crawled under the coat rack to be with him right where he was.
To feel another's experience requires we attune to one another's primary emotions. Resonance takes place when we align our internal states, our primary emotions, through the sharing of nonverbal signals. This is the way our minds become linked and the basis for empathy.
I reached out to tenderly wipe his tears, "Oh, sweetheart, I'm here now, I won't give up on you."
"It felt like you did!" he cried, still scared to believe he wasn't utterly alone.
Finally I was fully present emotionally and offered an empathy guess.
"I'm so sorry, honey, I wonder if it felt like the bottom dropped out of the world and it's scary when you think no one is there?"
He held my eyes with his as he nodded and once again took my hand in his, gently.
I responded honestly, "Oh, honey, I was just so overwhelmed and confused, I simply didn't know what to do. I'm back now, will you forgive me?"
Time stood still for a long moment as we hugged under that coat rack. After a while I peeked out through the coats and pointed, "Hey, look over there, I think I see something white, you still looking for something white? Do you want to be the leader and I'll just follow you where-ever you'd like to go? How's that sound?"
"Really?" he asked with wonder as I nodded, and joy grew in his voice, "Okay, thanks, Mom, you're the best! I love you, Mommy."
"I love you too, Snookens."
We both crawled out from under the coat rack with big grins, wet eyes, and connected hearts - once again ready for an adventure!
I marvel that how we communicate with our children has such a profound impact on how they experience an inner sense of security. Being able to respond flexibly is one of the biggest challenges I have experienced being a parent, and it requires an inner sense of security to pull it off!
When parents join with their child's emotional states, reflecting back to the child their experience with resonant empathy, children experience an attuned connection of resonance. These moments of joining provide a child the experience to feel they exist within the mind of the parent and to know how much they matter. Joining with our children in attuned communication supports them to develop an integrated and coherent story of their lives.