Last night my daughter stayed up way too late and by the time she was snuggled in bed, she was over-tired. When she is over-tired everything unresolved in her heart comes out as a meltdown. On this particular night, Amelia sobbed about the girl drama that never ever ends. I won’t describe the events specifically, but just know that she was experiencing typical growing pains. She felt rejected by a friend and she feared it was because of a mistake she made. She felt alone and different.
Intellectually, I know, this is just kid stuff. No big deal–the emotional equivalent of a skinned knee. But every single cell in my body wanted to fix it. My mind raced to find a solution:
I’ll homeschool her.
No. That’s a terrible idea. I love working and could not manage being a stay at home mom.
I’ll call the offending child’s mother.
No, that will be weird and I’ll be even more of a helicopter parent than I already am.
I’ll go on a meditation retreat and climb my way to the top of my own personal evolution and then I’ll model perfect mental health every single day and my daughter will absorb my supreme self-confidence and never suffer again.
Ok, so that’s just ridiculous.
There is no solution. The next place my brain takes me is inevitably: “This is my fault. What have I done wrong?”
But before I can collapse into this psychological sinkhole, which leaves me less available in the Here and Now moment of Amelia suffering and needing my support, I remember attachment theory. Attachment theory teaches me that:
- Amelia doesn’t need me to be perfect. She just needs me to be there.
- The fact that she is sharing her feelings means that she trusts me, and that indicates that I’m doing a good job as her mom.
I was able to steady myself with the understanding that right in that moment my daughter was NOT alone and NOT different. She was letting me in on painful feelings and that willingness to turn toward someone you trust in a moment of fear or sadness is the very definition of being well-adjusted and secure attachment. I listened and held my sweet daughter, letting her have her melt down in the safety of my arms.
After the tears subsided and she could take a breath, I said, “Thank you so much for telling me about these hard feelings. I’m so lucky to be let in by you, Amelia. I treasure these moments when you are able to tell me your big feelings, even if they are hard.”
This is a counter intuitive response to suffering. It almost sounds like I’m saying, “This is so AWESOME that you feel like shit and I am really happy about it.” However, feeling rejected and hurt is inevitable, no matter how well you parent or how charismatic your kid happens to be. The important thing is not about preventing these difficult and inevitable moments, but being present when they occur and accepting wholeheartedly the suffering.
I then told her a true story about when I was a little girl and believed that I was the only real person in the whole world. Then, at some point, I decided that there was one other real person and they lived in NY City—because it was the farthest away place I could imagine. I reassured her that she would find her person or a few persons even, and I asked if I could be her person for now.
She pulled me close and said, “YOU ARE MY PERSON, MOMMY.”
“Everyone makes mistakes. Ducks quack. Bears hibernate. People make mistakes,” I said.
“It’s just what we do?” she questioned.
“Yep, there is no way around it.”
With that, she fell asleep.
We can never prevent our loved ones from suffering, but we can always make sure they don’t suffer alone.
Jennifer Olden, LMFT and Mom