I don’t think I have ever met a parent who didn’t hope to respond patiently and attentively when their child was sad, frustrated, or anxious. And there is plenty to lead our children to these emotions, from the pandemic to wars to social media. But the hope parents have of responding well can often be circumvented by our own emotions, thoughts, and even historical habits of relating. Suddenly we find ourselves reacting in ways that don’t align with the love we have for our children.
As I spend time in my counseling practice with parents, I discover that they love their children deeply and yet sometimes struggle to communicate that love when emotions are running high. They may not even have words for what is stirring ominously in their own minds and hearts when their child can’t seem to get his shoes on fast enough or put his laundry in the hamper, let alone when he yells or refuses to obey.
What is happening in our hearts and minds?
This is the million dollar question I hear in just about every counseling session I have. I’m grateful for the question. It denotes the desire to grow and explore. We usually discover that the answer is multifaceted, with many different influencing factors. But I want to share one answer that keeps coming to the surface for many parents I encounter.
When conflict or tension arises with our children, we feel carried away from the present moment and pulled into the past or into the future.
We may feel pulled into the future with questions such as:
- What should I be teaching my child right now so this won’t happen again?
- What if this problem is a sign of a more serious issue that I’m not seeing?
- What if I’m parenting wrongly and it messes up my kid for the rest of his life?
- What will other people think of my parenting?
Or we may feel pulled into the past with questions such as:
- Why didn’t I correct this behavior sooner?
- What if I’m behaving just like my parents behaved with me?
- What if I have already done too much damage?
- How did we end up like this?
When we are pulled into the past or the future, we cannot be fully present. We cannot focus on what’s right in front of us. We need the ability to slow down enough to notice how we’re experiencing the moment, and we also need to notice how our child is experiencing the moment. We will miss very important information if our minds are busy with the questions of the past or the future.
In Scripture we see a heavenly Father who is fully present with us in all that we experience. Psalm 46:1 says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (ESV). Psalm 121:3 says, “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.” And Jesus says in Matthew 28:20 that he is with us to the very end of the age.
4 ways to be more present with our children
God is present with us in every moment, and as parents we too are meant to tangibly represent the presence of provision, protection, and leadership. So how can we be more fully present with our children through their hard emotions?
Slow Down. Many of us struggle to regularly pay attention to our own bodies, emotions, and minds. If we are not self-aware, we won’t be very good at awareness of others. And self-awareness requires a slow pace that includes reflection and meditation.
We do this best in the presence of God, since our identity is in him, and he knows everything happening inside and around us. And if I don’t set aside time to slow down in reflection and meditation on his Word, I will not instinctively slow down in a moment that is difficult. The practice of reflective meditation before God is beautiful in itself because we are spending time in his presence, but it’s also a training ground for life’s obstacles. If I know who I am and have a strong connection to my heavenly Father, I am more likely to respond in a way that truly reflects my identity.
Attune. Think of musical instruments in an orchestra. When the instruments are individually tuned and then attuned to each other, beautiful music can be created. Attuning to our children means leaning in toward them and seeking to know them in the present moment. But if we do not first seek to know ourselves in body, mind, and heart before the Lord, we will be trying to ‘tune up’ our children while our own instruments remain out of tune. We can attune to ourselves by slowing down, asking God for help, and then getting on the child’s level (figuratively or even literally). We can ask what is happening for him at this moment, and then seek to listen and understand.
Focus. As we listen to our child, we should keep our minds, emotions, and bodies fixed in the present. If we find our minds being pulled to the past or the future, we need to redirect. (This takes lots of practice, so we must be patient with ourselves as we do this work.) Once we seem to have an understanding of what the child is experiencing, we can move forward in wisdom about what needs to be done. By focusing on desired outcomes, we are seeking to do more than just react suddenly to a difficult moment. And focused attention flows out of slowing down and attuning.
Encourage. In difficult encounters, I also recommend dual encouragement: toward the child and toward yourself. Everyone has difficult moments, and we do not always respond in a way that demonstrates love and wisdom. However, we still need to be encouraged to keep moving forward. We encourage our children to keep growing, and we should do the same for ourselves. First Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” The Lord knows we need encouragement in order to fuel us in the work before us, so it’s good to also receive it—and even ask for it when you need it.
As we use this model of being fully present with our children, we will show ourselves to be SAFE (which is the acronym I created from the four principles above: Slow Down/Attune/Focus/Encourage). Our children feel safe and nurtured when we are fully present with them. And when we react suddenly and unhelpfully, by being pulled to the past or the future, the opportunity abounds for us to return to the present moment and demonstrate reconciliation, repentance, and forgiveness.
One final note: it’s unreasonable to expect ourselves to use the SAFE model every time we have a difficult encounter with our children. But I’ve noticed that when we start to practice it, even just a little, our kids start to pick up on something different. They notice a change in our responses, and they welcome it. Not only are we doing something that nurtures awareness in the moment, we are also helping our children identify and find language for their own responses, which will foster their continued growth into emotional and spiritual health and enable them to navigate the everyday stresses of life.