Blog #3: Courageous Caregiving: Why Parents and Caregivers Need Self-Awareness

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Holding Up the Mirror

Imagine this scenario for a moment:
You come home after a long day and find your 11-year old son once again glued to the TV playing his favorite video game. You notice his dirty socks on the coffee table amidst the crumbs and empty chip bags and your blood begins to boil. Before you know it, you slam your bag of groceries down on the counter and march yourself over to the TV and turn it off. The ensuing argument is one you and your son have had many times before, you accuse him of being lazy and irresponsible, and he accuses you of being crazy and uptight before stomping away and refusing to speak to you for the rest of the night. Sound familiar?

Moments like these are unfortunately all too common in the world of caregiving. You do your best to be patient and fair, but no matter how many times you communicate your expectations, your child still fails to live up to them. Before you start pointing fingers however, take some time to work through the following reflection – the answers might just surprise you.

Let’s rewind this situation and pause just at the point where you come home and first take in the scene…

What thoughts would be going through your mind at this moment?
“Has he been like this all day? I just cleaned up last night! Why do I have to do everything around here?”
What sensations would you have in your body?
Would you feel your fists or jaw getting tight? Perhaps heat or tightness in your chest?
What would you be feeling?
Anger? Frustration? Disappointment?

Now that you have an idea of what your experience would be like in the moment, see if you can remember a time where you felt this way before, perhaps even the first time you remember feeling this way. What comes up for you? How old were you?

Hang onto that memory and go back to the present imagined scenario. How much of your reaction felt like it was coming from your past memory? How much was in actual response to what was happening in the scenario?

As you may have discovered from your own reflection, when we find ourselves having an intense reaction to our children, it’s often because they’ve accidentally triggered something from our past. It’s not that you wouldn’t have a right to be upset as the caregiver in this scenario, but would you have handled the situation differently if you had realized that your son had just triggered you in some way?

When we are able to pause and become aware of what’s happening inside us before we react, we create a space for awareness and choice to emerge. This awareness allows us to distinguish between what has been triggered in us, and what the reality of the situation is. To put it simply, with awareness we are far less likely to take children’s’ behaviors so personally, and are far more likely to choose an appropriate response for the situation. This doesn’t mean that that we won’t ever be angry or upset with our children, but it does mean that we have the choice to respond in a way that we will be less likely to regret.

The Need for Self-Awareness

Your greatest caregiving tool is yourself, and this is why developing self-awareness as a parent or caregiver is so critical to creating healthy relationships with the children in your life. Your emotions, attitudes, and actions will have a far greater impact on children than your rules or expectations will. Indeed, kids are far more intuitive than we give them credit for, often picking up on our feelings even before we do. This is particularly obvious with young children, but it holds true for older children and youth as well. As one mother relates:

I was at the park with my four-year old daughter when she noticed an elderly man sitting on a nearby bench. He was dishevelled and alone and appeared to be quite sad … I’m ashamed to say it now, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable looking at the man and my first thought was to grab my daughter by the hand and take her home. Before I could react however, she dashed off towards the bench and quietly sat herself beside the man. For a moment they looked at each other, and then my daughter gently reached out and touched the man’s hand. He began to weep and still she just sat there, touching his hand and slowly nodding her head. After a minute or two, she got up and smiled at the man before skipping back over to me. As she slipped her hand in mine she looked up to see my concerned face and said “It’s okay mommy. I helped him to cry.”

The little girl in this story was not only aware of the elderly man’s sadness, she was also aware of her mother’s fear, comforting both of them without needing to be asked. In this way, our children often act as mirrors, reflecting our ‘inner world’ back to us. When we are present and aware of what is happening within us, this can be a marvelous gift; but when we are stressed, anxious or reactive, this can be a recipe for conflict. Self-awareness enables us to respond to our children from a place of equanimity, recognizing how our own insecurities, fears, and frustrations are influencing our reactions and giving us the ability to respond from a wiser place. This isn’t to say that self-awareness will ensure you never overreact or make a mistake, but it will help you recognize what’s happened and repair your relationship with the child when you do.

Naturally, becoming a parent or caregiver transforms our external lives as we sacrifice our time, money, and energy in service of raising children. However, the inner caregiving journey can be equally, if not more, transformative if we embrace it with humility and openness.Children have the ability to show us what we can’t see about ourselves, revealing the many ways in which we are still immature and challenging us to ‘grow up’ so that we might ultimately allow them to do the same. The task of becoming self-aware is at the heart of courageous parenting and caregiving. For, it is only when we are able to step into the present and see children for who they truly are in this moment – without our wounds, agendas or expectations obscuring our vision – that we will become the parents and caregivers they need us to be.

In everyday ways, as well as more profound ones, our children are constantly saying to us, “Wake up, look at yourself, transform yourself. Do this for you, so that I may be free of what burdens you.”
– Shefali Tsabury, The Awakened Family

Tools for Developing Self-Awareness:

1. Pause

– Practice pausing throughout your day. The practice of pausing helps us come back to the present moment and reconnect with ourselves and others. So the next time you’re in line at the grocery store, stuck at a red light, or waiting for your child at after-school pickup take a moment to breathe and notice what’s happening in your body and your mind.
– For example: Are your shoulder really tight? Is your jaw clenched? Are you silently cursing the woman in the car in front of you? Thinking of the million things you have yet to do today?

2. Reflect

– Take a moment or two at the end of your day to reflect. The practice of actively reflecting can help us notice patterns in ourselves or our children we may have been unaware of before.
– For example: Was there anything particularly challenging? How did you respond? Is there anything you’re specifically grateful for?

3. Journal

– Not everyone loves to write, but for those who do, or who are willing to give it a try, journaling can be a great exercise as it helps our brains integrate and understand our experiences.
– For example: Write about your best and worst moments during the day, your thoughts and feelings about a particular situation, or your hopes and fears for your children.

4. Mindfulness

– Mindfulness is about learning to pay attention to what’s happening in the moment without judgement, and it can be a great tool to start cultivating your self-awareness. The best part is that the practice of mindfulness meditation doesn’t have to take long, 5-10 minutes a day or even spread out through your day will make a world of different. You don’t need anything to practice mindfulness, but if you are curious or wanting some guidance, there are numerous classes, books, audio resources, apps and videos so it might take some searching to find one that works for you. In the meantime, here are some suggestions to get you started:
– Jon Kabat-Zinn (Author). Numerous books and audio resources available.
– Tara Brach (Author). Numerous books and audio resources available.
– The Mindfulness App. Available on iTunes or through the App store.

Questions for Further Reflection

1. How often do you find yourself reacting automatically to your children?
2. What kinds of automatic reactions do you have? For example, do you tend to withdraw? Lash out? Yell?
3. Which of your child’s behaviors do you find the most triggering? Or, what are your ‘buttons’?
4. How willing are you to look in the ‘mirror’ your children are holding up for you?
5. What is preventing you from taking a closer look at yourself? Or, what are you afraid you’ll see?

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