A few nights ago, I had a huge a-ha moment. It was painful, but hugely impactful.
My older son, almost 13 years old, has bad dreams and sometimes comes in to sleep on the floor in a little bed (appropriately named the bad dream bed) next to our bed. We have always been totally flexible about our kids coming into our room at night. When they were very little, we even welcomed them into our bed. I always wanted them to feel like they could have our love and affection whenever they needed it.
For a myriad of reasons, my son is now working on breaking the habit of coming into our room at night. He suggested that if we would remove the bad dream bed, he wouldn’t have anywhere to go, so he would be able to “quit” more easily (pretty insightful of him to know that it contributed to his habit).
The first night, he came into my room and, in a whiny voice told me that he has been up for a long time and can’t fall asleep and that he “will never be able to fall asleep.” He wanted to climb in bed with me (my husband was out of town).
I was so tired and I started to get short with him. I started to say things like “Jake, you have to figure this out. You have to learn to sleep on your own. Why do you need to wake me up, can you just stay in your bed and read or something? I’m so tired and I can’t deal. Arggh, why can’t you just sleep bud?”
But as the words started to flow, I literally felt a tightness in my chest and a slight feeling of panic.
Very clearly I saw/heard a message that whatever I say to him is going to become the voice in his head as he faces difficult situations in the future. If I (verbally and emotionally) beat him up, he will do the same to himself.
Shit. Damn. OMG, what damage have I already done?
Why didn’t I think of this before?
I always try to be kind and loving. I broke my habit of yelling a while back. I seek to never ever shame them. But this realization was more subtle than the obvious things we all “know” not to do.
I quickly got a grip and changed things up. I said to him “Hey bud, I know how hard this is for you and I am super proud of you for working hard on this. I know you have been up for a while so I am sure you are frustrated. Why don’t you go back in your room and try again. Do some deep breathing and try to relax. If you can’t do it after that, come in to my bed and you can try again tomorrow night. It’s all okay. You WILL figure this out eventually and I know you can do it.”
I felt so much better about myself. I sensed his relief. I’m guessing he felt better about himself. While what I had started to say wasn’t awful, there were very subtle but critical differences compared to what I ended up saying. I shifted from being negative and judgmental to supportive, loving, and encouraging. I shifted from “why can’t you do it?” to “I know you can do it.”
The Inner Mean Girl
We all have (or had if you have done work to convert her to an inner nice girl) an “inner mean girl” who talks to us with judgment, disdain, and criticism. She tells us when we are wrong or bad or to do it better.
On Monday night, I decided that I do not want to be the one that continues to feed that voice in my kids’ heads. I want to offer their inner voice the language of kindness and support, of love and encouragement.
Do Not Believe that You NEED An Inner Mean Girl – it’s a lie
For those of you who might have a little doubt in your mind – perhaps you think that your kids need a little “attitude” from you in order to get things done. I do NOT believe that we only do things when things are demanded of us. I do not believe we need an inner drill sergeant to get things done. I believe that most of us prefer a gentle and loving guide in our heads rather than an inner mean girl beating us up. And I believe that our kids prefer a gentle and loving parent, too.
Always Honor Yourself Too
One last thing. I do not want to give the impression that we should not honor how we feel in the moment. In fact, to the contrary. Had I still felt frustrated (the panic sort of woke me up and I was no longer feeling frustrated with Jake, rather quite compassionate), I would have told him. I could imagine I might have said something like “I am really tired. I feel impatient and frustrated with myself because I wish I could help you and I wish I could fix this for you.” And then I would have said what I said above.
How the Story Ended
Maybe you wonder what happened with Jake. He ended up coming in to my bed a little later. I didn’t say anything. The next night he came in for a minute, then went to the bathroom and went back to sleep, and last night he slept in his bed all night. Way to go bud! I was super proud of him and, frankly, proud of myself and the way I handled it.
How About You?
I think I still have a long way to go. But I am committed to this.
So, how about you? Can you see how your tone and words might be creating your child’s inner mean voice?
How might you shift the way you speak to your kids so that as that voice continues to develop, it is kinder and gentler rather than berating and critical?
Please post in the comments below! This is a tricky one. Like Jake has to break his habit of coming into our bed, we sometimes have to break our habits too. We sometimes get into habits of talking with impatience and judgment in our tone. Or with abrupt comments. What habit might you have to break in order to cultivate a kinder inner voice for your kids?