TRANSCRIPT: Your Parenting Long Game Episode 208 – How Our Past May Fuel Disagreements With Our Spouse / Co-Parent
Hi it’s Rachel. Welcome to episode 208 of Your Parenting Long Game. Today, I’m going to talk to you about why your past may affect current situations with your big-emotion child… and why your past may also affect your relationship with the person you are raising your big-emotion child with.
Now, I’m not one who thinks that our past determines everything about our future. And I’m certainly not someone who thinks we should use our childhood as an excuse or blame our childhood for everything. But I do know that our past absolutely does affect our current situation. And I’m going to tell you how and what to do about it.
As I talk about the topic of how our past affects our big-emotion child and the rest of the family, I want to remind you that I do have a video series that I created specifically for parents of children with big emotions. And in that video series, I talk about how to diffuse situations more effectively, how to foster resilience, not just in your big-emotion child, but in all of your children and how to not let your big-emotion child affect the whole family, including a relationship with your spouse or co-parent.
I will also tell you that I have a program if you’d like to get more direct support from me in these areas and in raising children with big emotions. There’s now a way to apply for that program. It’s on the same page where the video series is. You will find all of that on my website.
One of the first things I actually talk about in this program, where I support parents of children with big emotions, is our past as parents and what we learned about big emotions. Because our perception of our kids’ drama…of the fact that they go from zero to 60 in two seconds…of the fact that they are inflexible and have trouble with transitions… of the fact that they are sensitive to criticism and respond really big to things — our perception of all of that “drama” plays such a huge role in how we respond to our kids. Our past is a determining factor in how we can either help our kids with their emotions and foster resilience or whether our reactions will put them deeper into Yuck and actually increase their negative behaviors and emotions.
Why does our past have such a big impact? Each of us in our past — and this could be our childhood, but it could also be in our adulthood — we have learned lessons about emotions. We may have heard you’re weak if you have a lot of emotions…or if you have emotions, you need to leave the room or go away…or if you have emotions, it just gets in the way of making good decisions. If you are someone who gets triggered by your kids’ emotions, chances are at some point, your brain learned that having big emotions is bad.
So now when you see your child’s big emotions, your brain will sense a threat and you will go into fight or flight. And as you know, I’ve mentioned this in many, many episodes, once you are in fight or flight, you can’t give your children what they need to deal with their emotions. Because what happens is our kids see our fight or flight response, or our Yuck — our anger, our judgment, or our anxiety — as a threat. And that prevents them from being able to handle their emotions.
So let’s say your child gets really upset because you told them that they can’t wear shorts because it’s too cold out. They really wanted to wear those shorts. You said no, and they melted down. If you see that meltdown as a threat, if you’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe he can’t handle it because I told him he couldn’t wear shorts. It’s 40 degrees out there. Of course he can’t wear shorts.” If you’re thinking that, you’re going to get upset, and your upset is going to make your child more upset, and it’s going to make this situation worse. You probably know this. You’ve probably experienced this. Our perception of big emotions affects our kids, and it affects how we view their behavior and handle situations.
Perceptions of big emotions also affect so many couples who disagree about how to handle situations as they are raising children with big emotions together, because each parent learned from their own past what to think about big emotions. And they want to handle situations in specific ways because of their own past.
So let me give you an example by talking about a dad named Charlie and his wife, Heather. They argued a lot about how to handle their son regularly coming home upset. Either he was whining or he was crying because one of the kids in the neighborhood had been mean to him… and was consistently mean to him.
So dad Charlie, would say to their son, James, “You know what? If the neighborhood kids are being mean to you, that’s life. Suck it up.”
Now James’s mother, Heather, would get really upset at her husband, Charlie. She didn’t want their son to ignore his feelings. So both Heather and Charlie would insist that they were right. Charlie insisted their son had to learn not to let others upset him. Heather would insist that their son, James, needed to be able to express his feelings or bad things would happen in the future.
Because they were on such different pages at this point, I asked each of them about what they learned about feelings in their past. And here is what they said:
Dad, Charlie, said he learned that whining was for babies. He would get yelled at for whining, so he saw whining as a bad thing or a threat. He also learned that when you let others bother you, you look weak. He experienced that his friends made fun of him or anyone else whenever they got upset or had any emotion. So Charlie was actually coming from a place of love. He had learned that complaining and whining and letting others get to you is a bad thing. And he didn’t want bad things for his son.
James’ mother, Heather, when she was growing up, she had feelings, but was encouraged to ignore them. She’d hear things like, “Oh, come on, don’t be so sensitive.” Or, “There she goes again, being dramatic.” So she tried to ignore her feelings, but they built up inside of her, which is what’s going to happen to feelings if we ignore them. So what happened, as they were starting to build up though, was that she didn’t trust her own feelings because she was constantly being made fun of for them. She questioned herself, and she ended up not trusting herself. So she had relationships where she knew those relationships weren’t really healthy, but she ignored that little voice, that instinct, that feeling because she kept hearing voices in her head saying, “Oh, you’re being overly dramatic.” Heather also loved her son, and her motivation was also coming from love and from her own experiences. She learned that pushing your feelings down was a recipe for low self-esteem and bad relationships, and she didn’t want that for her son.
So you can imagine that with Charlie wanting their son, James, to stop whining and Heather wanting him to be able to feel his feelings, there were a lot of arguments. And here is the thing. In reality, the key to resilience lies somewhere between Charlie’s perspective and Heather’s perspective.
Resilience is about letting our children have their emotions without being controlled by their emotions. We need to let our kids have their emotions. Otherwise, they don’t go away. They just build up inside. But we also have to teach kids that even when you have an emotion, you can still take an action that serves you well, so that you’re not controlled by your emotions.
Both Charlie and Heather had really good points, but they couldn’t even see that there was a middle ground because they were so deep in their Yuck, which was created from the situations they had learned in the past. Their feelings, ironically, were controlling their behavior, how they were interacting with each other, and what they really insisted was best for their son.
If they had been able to see the situation more rationally, they probably would’ve gotten to that middle ground, but they couldn’t see the rational perspective because their past had created fears, which triggered them.
So what can we do about this? What I suggest for you is that you think about the messages you learned from your past, especially as they relate to big emotions, think about the experiences you had in the past about your feelings. Again, this could be childhood, but it could be adulthood as well.
Once you recognize the messages you learned, I want you to really notice the story you tell yourself about your child’s big emotions. So if you learned that big emotions were bad, what do you tell yourself? Or what really does your brain interpret it?
And when you see your child’s big emotions, then ask yourself, “Does the story you have about big emotions allow you to stay regulated and really respond from the part of the brain that allows you to see what your child truly needs, or does your story not serve you your child or your relationship because your story puts you into fight or flight?”
If you recognize that your story isn’t really serving you, think about a new story that you can tell yourself. I’ve done a couple of episodes on changing your story, but the key to changing your story — so that you can access that more logical part of your brain — is to reduce the threat.
So your new story may normalize your child’s behavior. It may focus on what is in your control. It may allow you to realize why you can handle your big emotions. The key is that you reduce the threat so that you don’t go into fight or flight, and you can access the part of your brain that allows you to actually determine what your child needs. Once you have the new story, you can identify the action you want to take.
So let me tell you what this looked like in Charlie and Heather’s situation.
Charlie realized that his old story was: If our son James whines, he’s being weak and others will make fun of him. So obviously every time he saw a whine or a complaint, he got triggered because there was a threat.
His new story was: He’s whining to let his feelings out and feelings need to come out. We will let him let feelings out, and we will also teach him the skills he needs to stand up for himself. So the action that stemmed from that for Charlie was: I’m going to let him whine for now. At the same time, I’m going to work on teaching him new skills so that his feelings don’t control his behavior.
Heather’s old story was: We have to let him have his feelings or he’ll stuff them down and things will be much worse later. Now Heather’s new story aligned a little bit more with Charlie’s new story and action.
She said, we need to let him have his feelings. We also need to teach him that those feelings don’t need to control his actions. So what she decided she was going to do was continue to let him have his feelings, but also focus a little bit more –once he had let out his feelings — on helping James learn new ways to cope with those feelings.
You can see that the action of Charlie and Heather actually came closer together. Charlie was more focused on letting his son have his feelings, also teaching him skills so that his son’s feelings didn’t control him. And Heather was basically doing the same thing. The only way they could get closer to being on the same page though, was that they were able to recognize how their old story, how their past was triggering them, putting them into fight or flight. So they were each just insisting that they were right, and they couldn’t see what their son James actually needed.
Now, I want to give you one more example. And this actually comes from a couple that is in the program I teach about raising children with big emotions.
When this couple first came to me, the husband was telling me that in his family, they didn’t deal with big emotions. If someone had an emotion, they just happened and everybody moved on. The mom was, I mean that in her family, everyone did actually talk about emotions. They became closer because of it, and they had a very strong family because of it. The dad’s story, the husband’s story, because of his past was: I don’t want to deal with big emotions. We can have them, but we need to move on. We don’t have to talk about them later. This actually triggered his wife because her story was, if we don’t talk about the emotions, we will not be connected as a family. So every time he tried to just move on without talking about them, she got triggered by his reaction.
They actually created a new story together that respected both of their pasts and both of their childhoods. Because the husband hadn’t really learned how to handle emotions, he didn’t like those conversations. And the wife had to realize that those conversations needed to be changed from the way that they happened in her family.
So their story that they created together was, it’s important to talk about emotions so that our family remains close. But we have to do it in a way that’s comfortable for everyone, including someone who didn’t grow up talking about emotions. They decided they wanted to change the generational cycle and start talking about them, but they had to do it in a way that made everyone comfortable.
The husband actually created some ground rules that would make him feel more comfortable, and that is the action they took. They started talking about emotions in a way that he felt comfortable with. That basically included conversations being a lot shorter. It included conversations happening at a time where people weren’t really tired. So it really was the rules he needed in order to help him, based on his past, but also the rules that she needed in order to support what she believed was important for her family.
Because when you start to think about how your past impacts you, and when you start to choose different stories and different actions, you as a parent will not be as triggered and you’ll handle situations better. And when you recognize how the past impacts you and you choose different stories and different actions, you can teach your child how to have emotions without being controlled by them. You can find that balance that is actually the foundation for resilience.
When you recognize how the past impacts you and you choose different stories and actions, there’s less arguing in your family because you can both come from your values rather than the Yuck that is caused by your past. When you recognize the stories you’ve learned, you can start to get control over these stories and do something different.
Now, if you do want to learn a little bit more about this and how you can get my support in the parenting long game method for raising children with big emotions, I do encourage you to head on over to my website, rachel-bailey.com/longgame.
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