I live on a steep, cobbled hill, which is also a busy pedestrian street full of pretty, colourful little shops. The talking of passers-by trespasses constantly through my large bay window, so I’m privy to a lot of conversations. Little snippets of sweethearts chirping at one another, some business-y phone calls, and many, many endearing interactions between parents and their offspring.
Because this hill is tricky and tiring for tiny legs, most small children ask to be carried. And they get a range of responses, depending on how resourced their parent happens to be in the moment. One of the responses that tugs at my heart most is when a parent threatens to leave their child (or actually walks off) in order to get them to follow. I’m not judging. I’ve been there myself. (In fact, if you saw my article in issue 77 on how trauma patterns are passed down, you’ll know that I have a compulsion to walk away from my own daughter.) But every time I overhear this, I can feel the terror in the little one’s voice. They plead, “No Mummy, please Mummy, WAIT for me.” I’m sorry for every time I did this to my own children out of desperation, urgency, annoyance and exhaustion.
When we do this, we do it because our mind has been hijacked by our emotional state and we’re not thinking so well anymore. We feel a burning sense of urgency, panic or rage, and in that moment, we are physiologically unable to feel differently. This is because the reasonable, thinking part of our brains (the part that can remember we don’t actually want to frighten our child or what that sexy parenting woman said in that genius article) has temporarily been shut down. Usually, our general stress levels and the way in which these moments would have been handled by our own parents have a big impact on how we react. And most of us experienced our parents threatening to walk off, or actually walking off, when we were children. And I suspect they experienced this with their parents too.
So, I offer these phrases in the hope that next time you’re climbing that steep emotional hill, they give you something to hold onto as you regulate yourself. Sometimes, of course, you can just put your little one in the buggy or the sling, or indeed carry them. These phrases are for the times when you don’t have those options, or you’re too tired, or your back hurts. Or you are just beyond yourself and being totally rigid and unreasonable, acting out some stiff-upper-lip ethic that was instilled in you when you were little about children needing to walk by themselves.
Another reason why you might respond in this way is if you suspect the protest is not so much driven by a genuine inability to walk further, but instead is a sign that your child is feeling disconnected and full of feelings. Often lots of emotions come up for children when they are presented with a challenge (such as climbing a hill or doing a household chore) around how small or weak or inadequate they feel.
When we can help children express these feelings in the form of a protest – ‘I can’t climb this hill. I’m too tired. You carry me!’ – they dump these feelings of inadequacy, leaving them more confident and capable. It’s actually connection that is the underlying issue, because their perceived inadequacy, or other feelings that have accumulated, are causing a shutdown that prevents your child feeling close to you and hopeful about their day. They need this sense of connection to feel enthusiastic about walking. So many times, I’ve seen my children switch from floppy, lethargic and whiny to skipping down the lane when they have managed to regain their sparkle through a little game or through being able to offload some feelings.
|“I’m not walking ANY further.”||Moving in close, perhaps getting down to their level: “You are so done with walking. I can see your legs are tired. I do still need you to walk though, my love.”|
|“Carry me Muuuum/Daaaaad. Pick me UP!”||Validating and still holding the limit: “I know, sweetheart, it’s steep and long, but I’m not going to pick you up. I think you can keep walking.”|
|“I CAN’T walk. I’m too tired.”||Validating: “You’re too tired. Tell me how tired.”|
|Wails||Staying close, bathing your upset child in your warmth and approval: “I know. This feels really hard. I’m here darling. I’m not going anywhere without you.”|
|Finishes crying||Perhaps giving them a little squeeze on the knee or shoulder: “I do still need you to keep walking, my love. Are you ready to go now?”|
|“Why do I always have to walk? You never carry me.”||“You wish I would carry you. I love carrying you, but I can’t right now.”|
|“OK. You carry my stick.”||“Alright, my love.” Perhaps the stick suddenly has a life of its own. “Ooh, look! The stick wants to go this way. Hold my hand – it’s going fast!”|
|“This walk is boring. I want to go home.”||Setting a challenge: “Bet you can’t find me three different coloured stones before we get to the next gate.” Starting a game: “Oh no, my legs have gone funny! I can only march with my knees up high/walk sideways/walk backwards. You tell my legs what to do next.”|
|Sits down in the middle of the path. “I’m not going ANY further.” Probably starts to wriggle free from you and runs off giggling when you act baffled.||If you think the protest is driven by needing more closeness or affection: “Oooh, that’s good. That means I can stick you to me with glue. Here I’m putting extra strong glue all over my body. Now I’m sticking you onto me. Ahhhh, that’s better. We’ll just sit here and cuddle all day long. “Whaaaaat? How are you getting unstuck? Wait, come back! I need you closer to me!”|
I don’t have time to listen to my child. I need to get on.
If your child is off track, you’re probably going to spend the time whether you listen or not. Either you’ll be investing in connection and supporting your child to offload tension, or you’ll spend just as much time negotiating, pleading, threatening, except you won’t have increased the level of connection. If you know your child will just obediently follow if you start to walk off, you might use that to fall back on in moments when you are really pressed, but remember, obedience comes at a cost. When our children routinely learn to abandon their needs and wants in favour of keeping our approval, it has an impact on their emotional intelligence over time.
I’m a million miles away from being able to crack jokes right now. I am way too frazzled.
It’s OK. You don’t have to be a comic genius to bring a playful touch to your communications. But if you can’t muster playfulness, a little bit of warmth and understanding goes a long way.
Yes, listening is great, but how do I actually get them to walk?
It may not seem like this at first, but you can be sure that when you can listen for the full duration of the upset, you can expect your child to come back to the sweet, centred, flexible version of themselves. They will be able to cooperate when they have lifted out the feelings driving the conflict.
How will my child learn they need to keep up with me if I don’t teach them? Won’t they learn they can get away with anything?
Remember, your child has an innate sense of right and wrong and generally knows how they are expected to behave. When their behaviour goes off track, it’s never because they don’t understand how to behave; instead, they are physiologically unable to behave as expected because their prefrontal cortex (rational brain) is hijacked by not feeling connected. It’s the connection that needs addressing, rather than there being anything to teach.
Roma Norriss is a mother of four. She has 15 years’ experience working internationally as a parenting instructor, speaker and consultant. Based on the groundbreaking Hand in Hand Parenting approach – which offers tangible, pragmatic strategies for generating connection – her ideas serve as a counter-cultural but deeply intuitive homecoming. The approach values listening, play and warm, kind, but plentiful boundaries. Follow Roma on Facebook for parenting guidance, @handinhandparentinguk, or find out more about her work at birthingabetterworld.co.uk.
Illustration by Ana Kobern anakobern.com
First published in Issue 80 – Autumn 2022. Accurate at the time the issue went to print.
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