By Liz Macdonald, Student Support Staff
With summer just around the corner, I am looking forward to spending some time at home with my family. To use Waldorf lingo, I think we have all earned a great big outbreath. I am also mindful that the lack of structure during any given summer can make the days and weeks drag on a bit, and can create more opportunities for conflict to emerge. And of course, this isn’t just “any” summer: for many of us it is the summer following one of the most difficult years in recent memory. The end of the Covid pandemic seems to be finally in sight, and there is much anticipation about returning to normal, mingled with anxiety about what that will all look and feel like. I know that I am looking forward to more time with my siblings, and my kids’ cousins and grandparents, and getting together with long-lost friends (remember friends?!?) for some good food (that I didn’t cook!!) on some lovely patio downtown.
I’ve noticed, however, that when we are busy with routines and activities, it is easy to ignore the subtle (or not so subtle) signs of stress which might begin to show up once we slow things down and create some space for them. Have you ever noticed yourself getting sick every time you have a long weekend off of work? Or that your most reliable holiday tradition is passing a virus around over winter vacation? Our bodies sense when we have time to rest and if we don’t listen to the more subtle signs, the demands for real rest will get louder until we might find ourselves in bed, ill and unable to do anything BUT rest. And here’s a surprise: conflict often works the same way. Endless activity and busyness can mask it, keeping challenges on a barely discernible simmer which we may not notice until we slow down a bit and give it space to emerge. It is a mistake, however, to believe that the remedy here is continued busyness and activity - that we can perhaps outrun the signals we are receiving that we might need to take more time and more care, for ourselves, for each other, and for our relationships.
The key to navigating any conflict well, whether it is internal (body disregulation, illness, etc.) or external (relational, situational, etc.) is to check in with curiosity and compassion. Most conflict escalates when we are in judgment (wondering if someone SHOULD feel what they feel), and curiosity and compassion are the antidote to judgment.
Conflict is a bid for connection: it can help to think of it as an invitation - an opportunity to learn something new about someone (and also about ourselves). Sometimes these invitations are supremely unappealing, and can look like sudden overwhelming feelings of rage or grief, a child throwing a temper tantrum on the floor in the grocery store, or a violation of what you previously thought were clear family expectations and boundaries. Rather than moving to simply stop the negative behavior or the feelings underlying the behavior, try instead to regulate yourself well enough to engage with curiosity and compassion. What legitimate need is this person trying to meet through this negative behavior? Is there a way that you can help to meet this need? The bottom line is that we can’t de-escalate a situation when we are escalated.
We CAN sometimes get negative behavior to stop through reactions such as punishments, threats, incentives, bribes, or perhaps even by throwing our own tantrums in response to theirs. But if we want to truly solve the problem we need to address the underlying cause and meet the deeper need. By doing this we manage to not only prevent harming our relationships and our children, but if we choose to accept the invitation, we can actually use the conflict to deepen those connections. Conflicts can end with both parties feeling closer to one another rather than further apart. If damage is done and distance is created during a conflict, it simply means that the conversation isn’t over yet. Keep returning with curiosity and compassion as often as you need to until you feel like the connection has been restored.
One thing I would encourage all parents to do (maybe before you find your kids bored and squabbling or suddenly underfoot in a week or so!) is to take some time and determine your values: how do you WANT your family to be? What do you want from your relationships with your children? Even though figuring out how to respond to a specific situation can take some time, knowing what you want your relationships to be like and letting your values guide your actions can help us figure out our ‘why’ which can in turn help us to figure out the ‘what’.
The ability to pause and connect through curiosity is dependent upon our own ability to navigate difficult emotions, triggers, sore spots, and especially the unresolved wounds from our own childhood. The more compassion you can offer to yourself when you are feeling difficult emotions, the more compassion you will be able to offer to your children when they are feeling difficult emotions. If we get stuck judging and condemning our own unpleasant emotions, we will certainly judge and condemn those of our children as well. Remember that difficult emotions are a part of life! One of my favorite researchers, Dr. Susan David, reminds us that “The only people who are not afraid, don’t feel hurt, don’t feel pain, don’t fight with loved ones, etc. are no longer with us.” We can do better than pain avoidance, or what Dr. David humorously refers to as ‘dead people goals’. Instead, let’s spend summer of 2021 celebrating life by joining the living, feeling our feelings, and teaching our children to do the same.
Wishing everyone lots of rest and connection over the summer holidays!
Some of my favorite books which explore these ideas in an in-depth way are: Permission to Feel - Dr. Marc Brackett
Emotional Agility - Dr. Susan David
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child - Dr. John Gottman