Do you remember what you thought about parenting when you were a young adult? Did you have an opinion about what makes a "good parent" or how kids "should" be raised? Did you have any ideas that were different from the way you were brought up? I remember saying, as a young expectant mother, "I'm never going to yell at my kids, I'm going to listen to them and pay attention to them. I'm going to be a good mother." Needless to say, I have experienced surprise at my own behavior when I have reacted more harshly than I ever thought I would to my children. How could this happen when I said I would never behave this way?
My fierce love for my children has always been a focal point throughout my life; the intensity of this strong emotion has been an anchor for me to the high-road state of mind. By high-road I am referring to our ability to have choice about how we act and our ability to choose our long-term goals for our children's well-being over short-term goals like quiet or ease. This is different from being driven by our emotions or unconscious memories, and different from a knee-jerk reaction in service of those short-term goals: the low-road. I have a tendency to be catapulted into the low-road in situations I perceive as confusing and stressful. Finding my way in the midst of these moments, and continuing to choose my child, continuing to reach out for an attuned connection within the relationship with this other being, is to trust it is not only possible to connect, but that with faith when we let go we find out we are already connected. This is my life's work.
When we feel stressed in relationship with our children, we may experience becoming flooded by intense emotions, such as sadness, fear, or rage. These emotions can result in inflexibility further impairing our ability to think clearly or maintain an attuned emotional connection within our parent/child relationship.
One morning sitting with Rylan at the breakfast table, in the midst of sharing what we each wanted to do that day, I was reminded of upcoming plans "Rylan, I've been thinking about when we go to help Dad move the rest of our stuff from Waitsburg..."
Before I even completed my sentence I saw Rylan's eye's widen, his body stiffen, and his hands fly to cover his ears as he hollered, "I'm not going anywhere b---!"
Upon hearing myself being called a b----, my face flushed, my heart began to race, and I felt flooded with an intensity of anger that demanded action be taken now! Standing, I walked swiftly toward him saying with heat, "Don't you ever call me a b----! I am your mother and want to be spoken to with kindness and respect! Do you hear me?"
Tears sprang to his eyes as he cringed away from me in fear, "I'm scared, I'm scared, I'm scared!" he whimpered.
Horrified to have stimulated such terror in my child, I shifted my posture, facial expression and tone reclaiming my ability to reach out to him with the love "Please forgive me, Rylan. I became so triggered hearing myself called a name, I "flipped my lid" and reacted with anger. I showed him the hand gesture that signals that our emotional alarm system has taken control of our actions. "I so much want to respond from love, no matter what, especially as your mother. What do you hear me saying?"
"You need kindness and respect!" Rylan answered. (In this moment Rylan's emotional alarm system was in control and what was still echoing for him was my initial anger.)
"Yes," I replied. Feeling some relief, I reached out to him, "thank you for telling me what you heard."
He quieted, yet still shrank back from my touch. Taking a moment to calm myself further, I shut my eyes to take in a deep calming breath, letting it back out slowly, all the while noticing where I felt the breath in my body. Renewed, I opened my eyes and gazed upon my son with tender curiosity, "I imagine it was pretty scary for you when I reacted with anger. Is there anything you want me to hear about what that was like for you?" I asked in a quiet, low tone of voice. (When our emotional alarm systems have taken control, it is very important for the adult involved in the situation to make repairs with the child, because children are not able to regain their emotional balance on their own without support. The part of the brain that would do this is not yet developed)
"Yeah," Rylan responded, sitting up straight and speaking quickly, "I am scared, and then horror comes, and I have to get mad. The more horror there is, the more mad I get! When you get mad, I get more scared, and more horror comes and then more mad! You can't get mad, I get too scared!" This was a hugely important moment in our relationship; Rylan had never before given me such a clear picture of his internal world. To support both of us in our deeper understanding of this clarity, I offered him a reflection, "Oh Rylan, I'm hearing how scared you feel, and then horror comes and you get mad to feel safe? Then you feel more horror, so get more mad, and then when you see me get mad, it gets just too scary? Is that what you want me to hear?"
"Uh-huh," Rylan nodded with fresh tears in his eyes.
"Thank you so much for helping me to understand. No wonder you reacted the way you did! Are you ready for a big hug now?" I held out my arms as an invitation for connection, and he flew into them, giving me a fierce hug. "Please forgive me," I said again, "I will do my best to remember your fear and respond with love and curiosity."
Many children on the autistic spectrum have little access to their sense of safety, living with nervous systems constantly on alert that regularly react to life experiences with a perception of danger or life threat, while others might perceive the very same life experiences as no big deal. Moving to a new house is a very significant change for a child and often involves the need for extra support to grieve their sense of loss. When Rylan was triggered, hearing "move the rest of our stuff" his system was flooded with the emotion of grief so strongly, he was unable to hold it, let alone make any sense of it.
In addition, my perception of my son's behavior initiated an automatic flooding of implicit memories within me, which quickly shifted my state of mind. Although I did not know it at the time, because of my own unresolved and leftover issues (around being called names) I was vulnerable to shifting into the low-road state of mind without the feeling, or conscious awareness, that I was recalling anything. Such shifts can be experienced as a frozen, foggy state of mind, or as a sudden onset of agitation and explosive rage. (It was only several weeks after this incident, while receiving support to reclaim my traumatized teen-age self that this story of Rylan and our move fell fully into place. Recalling a moment when I had received horrific verbal abuse, I held that young self with compassion and tenderness, and in the process experienced a wave of understanding about why name-calling takes me into my own low-road.)
Making sense of the triggers and how they stir up particular emotional reactions is critical to freeing ourselves from the stuck pattern of automatic disconnection. As parents, creating places where we are held with compassionate support as we reflect on our own lives, and moving from self-judgment to self-acceptance, is key to experiencing a new sense of inner clarity and response flexibility in our relationships.