Two years ago, we started seeing a family therapist to provide some test anxiety support. I quickly discovered how much I love having a therapist in our routine and how it benefits our entire family, so we continued our visits–sometimes spaced out quite a bit if we’re busy and comfortable, and sometimes arranged a little more frequently if it feels necessary to make some designated space for talking about our feelings. Our therapist’s office is roomy and cozy and has lots of toys, and with our busy schedule and responsibilities, sometimes sessions for us look like Dash and Nella playing with the doll house in the corner while Lainey and I sit on the couch (I’ve found having Nella and Dash there lightens things up and makes everyone more relaxed and open). We go less to address problems and more to make space for talking, and everything we take away is applicable to any of us and helpful for our entire family. Mostly, I do it because I recognize that my kids aren’t all outgoing and talkative like me, and when I talk about deep, emotional important things because I love talking about deep, emotional, important things, sometimes it can make an introvert shut down. Therapy for us is creating important space, another avenue for vital communication and connection as our kids grow up and deal with stresses and discovering who they are. Lately, it’s been a parenting refresher course, reminding me of all the things I know but sometimes forget. Our therapist is so skilled, insightful and loving in everything she shares, I’ve actually wiped tears listening to her talk, amazed at how she had the exact thing we needed to hear. I have taken away so many nuggets of parenting truth from these sessions, I thought today I’d share my five favorite ones.
Nothing is good because other people say it’s good.
I mean, I know this is something I need to teach and model for my kids–it’s a truth that’s changed my own recognition of my worth and willingness to pursue creative work–but it’s funny how my reactions in parenting situations don’t always mirror what I know to be true. Case in point: We were talking in therapy recently about a poem Lainey had written and showed me but didn’t think my “It’s beautiful–I love the creative personification you used here” represented a true 5-star review.
“You don’t like it, do you?” she said.
“So how did you answer?” our therapist asked me. I started laughing because I immediately recognized that what I said next suggested that the more people who think her work is good is what makes it good–and that’s okay because parents impulsively react all the time, and that doesn’t mean we are doing it “wrong.”
“I so badly wanted her to see how good it was, so I started naming all the people who were going to love it, calling Brett in to read it and tell her it was good, telling her she should show Poppa–he’s going to love it too.” I built up a case that maybe if we got enough people to give 5-star reviews, suddenly she’d believe her poem was good.
Our lovely therapist smiled and assured me that’s a completely normal reaction but suggested the following: “Maybe next time, put the reaction to the poem back on her. Ask her, “Do you love the poem? Because that’s all that matters. What did it feel like to write it? What do you love about it? And if she doesn’t like it, you can deal with that too–asking her why she doesn’t and making it better so she does love it.”
And of course I knew this deep in my bones, but that’s what I love about therapy. It’s such an open, forgiving, accepting place that brings all the reminders to the surface and sharpens what we know but forget to put in practice. Because of this little lesson, I’m much more aware of bringing satisfaction of my kids’ work back to their own feelings about creating it.
Shy people play powerful roles in our world, and their personalities are needed and important.
It was a simple lesson to kill comparison to all the kids with big outgoing personalities making very visible contributions at school.
“Can I tell you something?” our therapist said. “I have clients that come in my office who are very outgoing. They’re successful and funny and have no problem taking a stage or talking to groups, and everyone laughs at everything they say. But do you know what? So many of those people come in my office and sit on my couch and cry and tell me about problems in their life because they are lacking some of the amazing qualities of shy people. They want to be more like you. Do you know what shy people are good at? They see things other people don’t see. They’re observant, and they listen, and they’re okay with sitting back and quietly doing work. That’s such an amazing quality to have, and a lot of people could learn from it.”
This one conversation ignited a passion in me–to celebrate the beauty of quiet observant listening. It’s not something to work to grow out of. It is something to own and be proud of.
Don’t trap your kids for serious conversations.
This is especially great for the little introverts. I know as a kid, nothing made me want to shut down more than, “Come sit down, we’re going to talk about something important.” Having face-to-face sit-downs to talk about things that are uncomfortable can feel especially intimidating and stifling for some kids and can shut them down for future communication. Stealthily slipping these conversations in while you’re on a bike ride together or out moving in nature can help them feel more light-hearted and give kids something to do while you’re talking, creating more freedom for them to open up. Another great tip our therapist gave us: let your child know that you’re setting the timer for five minutes when you do need one of those full-attention serious conversations. It creates an “out” and keeps you from getting locked in to an endless orbit over an issue that you need to move on from (parents can do this sometimes).
When your child is looking to you to fix something, it’s okay to create some space and take a break before you help.
As parents, we are often our kids’ one “person”–their safe place to bring all their fears, release their frustrations, get mad, demand help, cry, and look for solutions. That puts a lot of pressure on us, and unfortunately our mom hours of business are 24-7, no holidays, no weekends. When our kids are upset, it can heighten our own anxiety. So when there’s a crisis or a concern–even tears–and I feel myself taking on some of that heated energy and too anxious or upset to deal with the situation appropriately, here’s the therapy suggested response: Look at her, grab her hand, and say, “Listen. Everything’s going to be okay, alright? But I just need a short time-out before we deal with this. I’m going to go make a little space to regroup so I can be calm and really listen, and then we’ll talk about it. But I want you to know that everything’s going to be okay.” Those “everything’s going to be okay” bookends are powerful.
“The Sun Will Rise Again”
This has become the theme we return to in therapy, a mantra that started with our first appointment and has been incorporated in our home and conversations daily. We even made a poster for it in therapy, writing all the constant things in our life on the sun’s rays and the words “The Sun Will Rise Again” right in the middle of the sun. This mantra works for every problem, every anxiety, every situation–the assurance that no matter what happens, even if that thing you fear comes true--the sun will rise again. The world will not end, the people who love you will always love you, and if you fall, you will get up again. It’s been proven in our lives time and time again, so its validity is data-based. I love the way our therapist will humorously remind us of this in the most child-friendly way, bringing up times that Lainey “fell” or “failed” and asking questions about that time–“So, when you fell, were you still lying there two weeks later and people had to bring you food because you couldn’t get up, and everyone was like, “Did you see Lainey? She fell two weeks ago, and she just never got up. She’s still lying there.” This always makes Lainey laugh. And that laugh paves the way for worries to melt away.
Does anyone else have good parenting lessons or tips they’ve been reminded of in therapy? We go about once a month now, and while it’s not always convenient or “fun,” we always leave feeling more connected, strong and on course where we should be. With every appointment, I leave feeling like I just finished an inspiring parenting book.
*Note: While our therapy sessions are more of a family effort to create a space for good communication, right now Lainey is really the only child old enough to benefit from the things we’re talking about (although the littler ones beg to go because they love the office). The little part of her story in this post is shared with her permission.