Do you have a close friend you enjoy spending time with? I remember when my close friend, Jenn, was planning to come visit us after we’d moved with her two boys, Mason, who was 8, and Isaac who was 6. I was so excited to connect with her in person and just to hang out together again.
I also remembered some of Mason and Rylan's relational growing pains and a little anxiety crept into my awareness. My window of tolerance felt really stretched when I perceived disharmony between our sons. It found it painful and confusing how to stay self-connected when the unexpected happened, especially when I was looking forward to what I’d planned and it would get interrupted.
I put a lot of thought into how I might engage with the boys differently if something unexpected happened. I recognized a post-hearsal opportunity for myself. A post-hearsal enables us to shape our experience of ourselves in the world by using conscious, reflective, autobiographical awareness, as well as conscious awareness in the here and now.
I sat in a self-reflective state, and remembered a specific experience I’d had with the boys that I had perceived as intense. Simultaneously, I consciously noticed my internal state (interoception), while remaining open to any images that arose in my mind.
I remembered hearing Rylan cry out in a loud voice, "He won't listen to me!" and saw him falling to the floor while Mason and Isaac ran to hide behind their Mom. As I remembered this, my stomach clenched just like it did the first time it happened, and my body curled inward in resistance and fear.
I slowed down my inner process and touched into a part of my mind that felt blinded by a piercing light. I heard a ringing tone in my ears. As I witnessed myself begin to freeze in a state of confusion and panic, I heard my own thoughts, "I have to do something right away so everything will be safe, but I can't think!"
As I sat with this experience, I gently acknowledged to myself how much I desire to stay present and open to life, especially in the midst of unexpected intensity. I held this new insight and again sank into my bodily sensations. This time I imagined myself meeting Rylan in this reflection with curiosity, warmth, and acceptance.
My stomach relaxed, my heart opened and felt warm, and as I smiled my shoulders released tension I hadn't even known I was holding. Wow, it felt fresh and strong, like some solid ground under my feet. I drew in a deep breath to anchor a sense of strength within me, then let my breath back out slowly.
Deliberately I shifted my attention and imagined Rylan's expression of distress with his friends. I felt a shift in my belly, like a new sense of possibility awakening around how to communicate with the children with an open heart.
I leaned slightly forward, towards my inner image of them, with a present and accepting state of awareness, and imagined reflecting back to Rylan with curiosity, "He won't listen to you?" I saw the possibility of our eyes meeting as new neural pathways were laid down for collaborative, contingent communication and trusted a new connection would be possible.
Collaborative, contingent communication allows us to expand our sense of self. As we feel connected to our children, we can become more receptive to them.
A contingent response is when the quality, intensity, and timing of the signals we send clearly reflect the other's signals. My response to Rylan is not just a mirror of his signals but it incorporates the essence of my presence (silent empathy - nonverbal communication, occasionally words) which makes sense of his communication. In this way, children begin to feel felt (needs to be seen, heard, and understood.)
Through this co-creative process, children begin to construct both social knowledge and an understanding of the self that cannot be created outside of relationship. They begin to experience that they are not alone in the world, because their sense of self is connected to something larger than the boundaries of their own skin. Over time, this repeated pattern enables children to develop a coherent autobiographical self that connects the past, present, and anticipated future.
As I consistently take time to make sense of my own life experiences I grow new neural pathways that expand my window of welcome. I am also modeling for my children how to stay self-connected as well as heart-connected with others.
What a relief it has been to live into this new time when neuroscience clearly shows that our brains are actually incredibly resilient, with the powerful ability to grow and heal throughout our lifetimes!