How to Hold Space for Children

by | Jul 21, 2017 | Family, Holding Space for Others

I swore I’d never write a parenting blog. Parenting feels like a lifelong experiment where the variables, subjects, and researchers keep changing so that there’s never any way to prove your hypotheses. Just when you’ve figured out that “Action A applied to Subject B results in Outcome C”, Subject B becomes a preteen and you get a whole different set of results. Suddenly the evening cuddles are rejected and you’re left sitting in the hallway in the cold.

And then there’s the issue of all of the baggage (self-doubt, fear, trauma, mental illness, etc.) that Researcher D brings to the experiment and suddenly you realize that Action A is never happening in a vacuum and you can’t isolate any of the variables to prove any of the results you thought you were seeing. Researcher D might in fact be sitting in that cold hallway feeling triggered because of their trauma memories of childhood rejection, which means that the cuddles were never just about Subject B.

No, I didn’t want to ever put myself in a position where I was pretending to know something about parenting because I was pretty sure at some point my children would prove my hypotheses wrong and I would have to eat my words. Or sit in the hallway picking up the pieces of my failed attempts.

But… people keep asking me for suggestions on how to hold space for their children, and I’d see the lost looks in their eyes and… well, I don’t want to give them advice, but I want to give them love. And I want to let them know they’re not alone. And I want to at least throw a lifeline in case they’re drowning.

So… what follows is not so much advice as it is a list of things that I find are helpful to consider when holding space for your children. I have three very different daughters, and I have to hold space quite differently for each of them, so these are generalizations rather than specifics. I’m still working on the experiment, so don’t attach any “expert” title to what is offered here. And if my children call to complain that what I say below is not always how I act, let them know that I love them and I’ll keep trying.

  1. Remember that your children are sovereign beings. Your children are not little versions of you. They are not even extensions of you. They are individual, sovereign beings, with personalities that are all their own. Yes, it is your privilege and responsibility to guide them and help them grow into responsible adults, but it is not your job to shape them into what YOU want them to become. Walk alongside them and delight in them as they discover who they are. When they reveal something about themselves that makes you genuinely uncomfortable because it’s so different from you or what you’re used to (eg. they want to move to an organic farm in the middle of nowhere and you’ve always loved your life in the suburbs), meet that revelation with curiosity and openness rather than judgement.
  2. Don’t take it personally. As your child is discovering who they are, they have to figure out who they’re not, and one of the things they’ll discover is that they are NOT their parents. That means that they’re going to need to push back against you sometimes and resist you and argue with you and probably even make fun of what you wear. It’s all part of their development. And it’s not about you. That doesn’t mean you have to tolerate disrespect, but when you discipline them, try to do it out of love for them rather than because you’re reacting to your feelings being hurt. (Yes, I said “try”, because every parent knows how hard it is to not be reactive when our feelings are genuinely hurt.)
  3. Don’t fix everything for them. They’re going to make mistakes. Let them. And then let them figure out how to recover from those mistakes. Resilience, recovery, and adaptability are some of the most valuable skills they’ll need in adulthood and if you don’t let them learn them in childhood, they’ll be much harder to develop later on. And when you’re tempted to fix everything for them, pay attention to what is behind your desire to be the fixer. Is it your ego that doesn’t want your children to look bad because it will make you look bad? Is it your nature to be overly associated with them and you take on too much of their pain as your own? You can stop them when they’re about to make really BIG mistakes (like driving home drunk), but if their mistakes won’t threaten anyone’s lives or cause your house to burn down, step back and allow them to happen.
  4. Don’t overpraise them. I know… you really, really want to encourage them and build their self-esteem and let them know what wonderful little people they are. But you’re not doing them any favours if you heap on the praise too liberally. Children get addicted to the praise and think their worth comes from it and then they can’t figure out how to find their own self-worth within themselves when nobody is telling them how great they are. And overly-praised children may not learn how to receive criticism in a healthy way because they’ve been so protected from it. Sometimes (especially when they get to be teenagers and they perfect the combo eye-roll-lip-sneer), they’ll feel patronized by your praise and push back against it because it doesn’t make them feel better about themselves. Pay attention to when your praise comes from a place of superiority.
  5. Apologize. You’re going to mess up. Every parent does, perhaps even on a daily basis. Sometimes you’ll snap at them because you come home exhausted and they greet you with their everlasting need and you just want a moment to yourself or A LITTLE APPRECIATION PLEASE. Sometimes you’ll use inappropriate humour and you’ll hurt their feelings. You’ll try hard not to do it again, but you’ll still slip up. And then you get the opportunity to model for them what it’s like to be a flawed human and how important it is to take responsibility for and apologize for your mistakes. Your apology lets them know that their feelings have value. They also let them know that it’s okay to screw up sometimes, as long as you take responsibility for it.
  6. Allow them to change. One day your child will love bacon and the next day they’ll swear off meat for the rest of their lives. One day they’ll want to tattoo “Sam is my BFF” on their arm, and then the next day they’ll be deleting Sam from Snapchat and throwing Sam’s birthday gift away. Children change. Every day. It’s hard to keep up. Sometimes you’re going to want to slow down the change, sometimes you’ll be tempted to make fun of them for being so wishy-washy, and sometimes you’ll resent how their changes are affecting your life. Take a deep breath and listen to what they’re telling you without reacting with the first judgemental or frustrated thing that comes out of your mouth. They’re SUPPOSED to change, because growth is what childhood is all about. Let them know they’re still safe with you even in the middle of their biggest transitions.
  7. Let them grow their lives outside of yours. From the day they’re born, a child will be gradually growing away from you. First there will be the time when they want to hold the spoon ALL BY THEMSELVES. Then there will be the time they choose to play with a friend instead of stay home with you. Then there will be the first sleepover at someone else’s house. And on and on until they leave home and forget to call. It’s a life-long practice in letting go. It’s a beautiful and painful thing. Let them go and let them know, from an early age, that they’re allowed to have fun without you, they’re allowed to have conversations that you’re not a part of, and they’re allowed to have space in their lives that their parents don’t enter without permission. It will feel lonely sometimes, and you’re going to want to invade their privacy, but unless you have genuine reason to worry about their safety or health (ie. you suspect they may be doing drugs), allow them the sovereignty and sacredness of their own diaries, their own bedrooms (when they’re old enough to look after them themselves), and their own friendships. Teach them early on that they are allowed to have boundaries and that consent is important.
  8. Shut up and listen. Oh how tempting it is to rush in with our wisdom every time our children say things that we understand better than they do! We know the RIGHT way to deal with a friend who betrays us, the RIGHT way to study for a test, the RIGHT way to talk to an annoying teacher… don’t we? We somehow get the mistaken impression that our job as parents is to teach our children everything we know from our vast storehouse of experience… but more often than not, what they REALLY want from us is listening and acceptance and love. If you’re lucky enough to have a child who tells you when their friend breaks their heart, don’t ruin the moment by rushing in with advice. Shut up and listen. Rather than bulldozing over their feelings with your solutions, let them know that their feelings are valid and that it really DOES suck to be betrayed.
  9. Treat each child the way they want and need to be treated. If you have more than one child, you may be surprised, like I was, just how different each one will turn out to be. My oldest daughter is an introverted marathon runner. My second daughter is extroverted and likes hiking and biking but HATES running. When I had a third I thought she’d come out like one or the other, but she’s another completely different personality with her own complexity. She hates biking, running AND hiking, but she’s a synchronized swimmer and she’s more of an ambivert (combination of introvert and extrovert). All three are prone to some anxiety, but their anxiety shows up in very different ways in response to very different stimuli. Not only are their interests and personalities different, but their needs are different too and I can’t hold space for one in the same way that I hold space for another. Remembering that they are all sovereign beings means that I have to be willing to be in relationship with each of them differently. That can be tough, especially when you’re also trying to be fair and equitable.
  10. Learn with them. Your children are going to bring challenges and adventures and learning opportunities into your life that you never imagined before. Don’t pretend you’ve already got it all figured out – learn with them. Get down to their level and figure out how to build a Lego castle with them and then celebrate your joint success. When they figure out technology much more quickly than you do (because it’s bound to happen), let them teach you what they’ve figured out. And when they discover a new hobby that they become passionate about, be curious about it and let them tell you about it, or sign up for classes with them (unless they want to do it without you – in that case, let them have that as their own hobby). And if, one day, your child tells you they are gay (as has happened to me), support them in discovering who they are and let them know that you are open to learning about this part of their identity. You’ll be surprised how much your world opens up when you invite your children to show you the world through their eyes.
  11. Delight in them. This might be an obvious one, but it seems worth saying anyway. Take delight in your children, in what makes them unique, and even in what makes them challenging. Let them know that you enjoy discovering who they are and watching them discover who they are. Surprise them with your willingness to drive across the city hunting for the perfect weird accessory for a costume they’re designing. Don’t indulge their every whim or be patronizing in your praise, but show support for their uniqueness and even their weirdness. Even if it means getting up at 5 in the morning to bike through the rain to the start of their marathon, just to stand there and watch them start, do it again and again and let them know they’re worth it.
  12. Let them challenge, correct, or disagree with you. When your daughter tells you that what you’re saying sounds very passive-aggressive and she doesn’t appreciate it, you might be tempted to lash back at her with “Don’t talk to me that way – I’M the parent here!” (Trust me on that one – I get called on it regularly.) But if you work to create an environment where everyone is allowed (and encouraged) to ask for what they need and create boundaries where they need them, then you need to be prepared for them to push back. If there is truth in what you’re saying, even if it hurts you, accept it and let them know that you’re listening. If you need to take a moment because you’ve been triggered and all you can feel is the pain, let them know that you need to step away for a moment and will come back to the conversation when you can do so calmly. This will create safety for everyone in the household to express their feelings and challenge those who hurt them.

And now, with some trepidation, I will release this to you, with this caveat: I have screwed up in every single one of the above points and will probably screw up again. And you will too. So let’s promise to forgive ourselves and not judge each other and keep trying and keep apologizing when we slip up. Parenting is the hardest job we’ll ever do and there is no roadmap. Every one of us is just making it up as we go along, so there’s no point in beating ourselves up over something we’ve never been taught to do or never been given an instruction manual for.

A messed up parent who apologizes and keeps on loving is better than no parent at all.

(originally published at heatherplett.com)

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