For my birthday, my twenty-three year old son gave me a gift that I will always treasure. It was a letter he had written, chronicling some of his childhood memories, and thanking me for the part I had played in helping him grow into the man he is becoming. Sprinkled throughout were recollections of times when I had said “no” to something he wanted, followed by a comment from his now-adult vantage point, appreciating that I had held my ground about whatever it was that, in retrospect, he could see had not been in his best interest.
I sat quietly, touched by this gift not only because my son had shared something so sweet, but because his reflections allowed me to recall those experiences when I had struggled to stay present with his unhappiness rather than scrambling to transform things more to his liking.
I remembered those times when I had to be what I now call the ‘Captain of the Ship’, sacrificing approval from my son that my ego wanted in favor of his safety or welfare. Those moments weren’t easy; like most parents, I wanted my child to like me and to be happy. But I knew that while my painbody might try to get me to cave in to please my son or avoid the discomfort of establishing boundaries, I could choose to simply be with my uneasiness and my son’s frustration, without trying to change either.
In my work with parents, I talk about the challenge of avoiding power struggles or coming across as desperate and needy when things with our child aren’t going as you wish. When we are the Captains of the Ship, we are capable of navigating whatever storm our child is sailing through, demonstrating a willingness to stay in the moment while he is upset without explaining, debating or trying to fix his problem.
Our child says, “I hate this dinner. Why can’t we have frozen pizza like Eddie gets every night?” We may take his upset personally. “Frozen pizza has no nutritional value. Why can’t you appreciate the wonderful meals that I work so hard to prepare?” At war with what is, we push against our child, participating in the power struggle that disconnects us from our hearts and sets up an adversarial relationship with our child.
If, however, we are able to Captain the ship, simply allowing our child to experience his frustration without feeling a need to remedy it, we may respond with, “It sounds like you’re tired of fish and veggies…You were hoping for pizza tonight…” without debating the merits of healthy food or heading to the kitchen to prepare an entirely new meal.
As Eckhart Tolle says in A New Earth, “while the child is having a painbody attack, there isn’t much you can do except to stay present so that you are not drawn into an emotional reaction. The child’s painbody would only feed on it. Painbodies can be extremely dramatic. Don’t buy into the drama. Don’t take it too seriously. If the painbody was triggered by thwarted wanting, don’t give in now to its demands. Otherwise, the child will learn: ‘The more unhappy I become, the more likely I am to get what I want’” (page 106).
This idea is what is powerful. When we argue or negotiate with a child while he or she is caught up in an emotional hurricane, we only make the winds blow more fiercely. Instead, parents can stay quiet and still, listening with a loving and open heart, without having an agenda for making things different than they are.
Embracing this moment as we parent with presence, even during the challenging times, offers us a gift that truly does keep on giving—for us, and for our children.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting without Power Struggles, a guidebook for transforming your day-to-day parenting life. For more information on being the Captain of the ship, please visit here.