I Took Sides -- C.U.E. #10

I Took Sides - C.U.E. #10

Showing partiality in a face-off between two children who despise each other at that moment is never a good thing. But I did it. And in such a subtle, indirect way that both stung and stunned.

Sigh. P.E.T. instructor notwithstanding, I am a complicated human being first. 

In this latest addition to my Consciously Unskilled Series, I will walk you through my mess-up, what I did to undo what I'd done, and how I've grown. We are truly in this together.

Perhaps a bit of back story first: Jake (15) and Claudia (12) had argued over dinner clean-up the night before when Claudia was quick to criticize him for not pulling his weight.

The Missteps

The following day, I met Jake at the mall for a quick lunch and a visit to the doctor to check out possible shin splints. It was only one day after the Chinese New Year holiday, however, and the clinic was closed.

Jake was amenable to my idea of a grocery store run. It just so happened that I needed a lot of heavy items and, since I had the car, I turned down delivery (we are so spoiled in Hong Kong with free door to door service for purchases above $40 or so!).

We loaded the stuff and headed home. Thinking it would be nice to have help on the other end, I called Harrison (17) but no answer. Claudia, though, picked up and I asked her to come down with her brother in ten minutes. A minute later, Harrison returned my call and I repeated my request.

As we were driving, Jake shared a conflict he was having with a friend; he was feeling irritable and unsettled and didn't know how to proceed with him. I Active Listened on the short ride but we arrived before Jake had any real chance to come to clarity or resolution of his problem.

Uh oh. I saw a lone Harrison waiting at the entrance to our apartment building. Jake was muttering, "Where IS she?! This is unacceptable. She better be coming!" as the two brothers struggled with the several bags plus a twenty pound package of rice.

I drove away down the hill to the parking lot with some misgivings. After walking back up to our tower and taking the elevator to the 20th floor, I entered our apartment and looked for Claudia in the living room. She was curled up in the armchair and we locked gazes for a long moment, her eyes telling me there had been words already between her and Jake.

Then she started to cry and ran to her room.

Jake burst out. "I hate her. She's such a little crybaby. She thinks all she has to do is give me an I-Message, 'I feel scared when you yell.' That doesn't work when I'm triggered!"

I moved toward him. I had the intention of doing a full Active Listen, but partway through, I bailed. "You're really upset with her!" When he resumed name-calling, that was my limit. "Hey, I'm going to go check on my daughter."

"Your daughter???!!" he cried in disbelief.

"Yes." I said gently, backing down and softly begging him to understand. "She's crying! I want to touch base with her."

The Repair

Claudia was lying on her duvet, eyes red. I gave her some AL love: "You're really, really upset by what just happened."

"He didn't have to yell!"

"You don't like that. It's scary and you want to have a conversation that's calmer!"

"Yes," she quieted.

I asked her if she wanted to do a little tapping, and she did. Finishing just a few minutes later, she gave me a big smile.

"Hey, I'm going to go calm down too so I can talk to Jake, ok?" I asked.

"OK, Mom," she replied and turned on her computer.

I went to my room and started to Active Listen MYSELF, to reflect on what I was feeling and needing when I lost it.

I was really feeling sad for Claudia. When she gave me that look, all my protectiveness came jumping out. It was sooo hard to be empathetic to Jake. I was mad and wanted to blame him! 

Under the anger, I realized, was fear and sadness, tinged with despair.

I was afraid of the intensity of his feelings, his rage. It's hard for me not to recoil reflexively. They have come so far and achieved such closeness over the past couple of years. This explosion reminds me of the hard times -- have we really not moved past that?

The self-kindness I showed myself gave me the shift in perspective and injection of hope I desired: I can help make this right. Things HAVE gotten better and will continue to. This is a learning moment for us all. 

It was then that I could reemerge as the parent I want to be. I found Jake still sitting in the same position in the living room. He looked up, eyes soft.

"Jake, I'm so sorry. I was really owning the problem and was taking sides when I said I was going to take care of 'MY daughter.'"

"Yeah, what the heck was THAT?" he asked, more curious than hostile.

"You know, it was operating on so many levels that I don't even know if I understand it. But it goes to the power of the subconscious, I think. I was really identifying with Claudia and striking back at you. I was scared, actually. Despite all the work I've done, I still feel afraid with raised voices and yours is so deep too! And I was worried about you two. I'm sorry."

"It's ok, Mom. I shouldn't have yelled at her like I did." His body language was more relaxed.

Later, Jake came into Claudia's room where we were watching an episode of How to Cake It. "Sorry, Claudia."

Claudia paused YouTube and looked up at him. "It's ok. I'm sorry too. I should have come down to help."

"Yeah, I was still mad over the other night," Jake wrinkled his nose.

"Yeah, I know," Claudia acknowledged.

I chimed in, "It sounds like both of you sometimes want acknowledgment that you feel tired or lazy in the moment and it's just hard to move. You want understanding that you're doing something FOR yourself, not doing something TO the other person."

"Yeah," they agreed.

Jake said, "Ok, bye," and left us to our video.

The Take-Away

Be Proactive

When I sense a storm brewing, I can move with more alacrity! 

For instance, before going to park the car I could have done a few things:

  • Active Listening -- "You are so aggravated with Claudia. You heard that I clearly told her to come down and the argument from last night is still very fresh in your mind!" (Since I knew the background of the situation, I think it would have been effective to flesh out the facts like this. Recall that AL = Facts + Feelings.)
  • Confrontive I-Message -- At this juncture, a gentle but firm sharing would probably have helped. "I'm really worried hearing your words and tone of voice that there is going to be conflict up there between you." I think he'd buy this effect; he knows their closeness is important to me.
  • Declarative I-Message -- I'd quickly follow that with: "I'd really like to help you and your sister. As soon as I park the car, I will be there."

All this might have been enough to ease Jake's feelings in the moment. He has been practicing mindfulness; maybe he would have told himself, "Just focus on breathing until Mom gets here." By the time I arrived, perhaps he wouldn't even need my assistance.

Either way, taking some early action might have jump-started the self-regulation process for Jake. 

Realize They Own the Problem

When the situation falls in the top box -- here, both children jointly owned a problem -- my optimal role is helper.

Next time, I will remember to be more of a passive listener and facilitator, instead of a strident parent who knows just who's in the wrong! Choosing sides doesn't help anything.

So, if I walked into the argument all over again and got that look from Claudia, I'd put my hand on my heart to soothe and calm myself down. When she dashed away, I'd do a self check-in: Are you ready to AL your son with empathy and acceptance, Catherine?

If yes, then I'd stay there and let Active Listening work some magic: 

"These two events with Claudia -- boy, you are really incensed. You were expecting three people to take up the groceries, not two! Plus you were already feeling down about that issue with your friend."

If not, then I owe it to myself and Jake to take time away until I can:

Active Listening is not a simple technique that parents pull out of their ‘tool kit’ whenever their children have problems. It is a method for putting to work a set of basic attitudes. Without these attitudes, the method seldom will be effective; it will sound false, empty, mechanical, insincere . . . You must genuinely be able to accept his feelings, whatever they may be or however different they may be from your own feelings or from the feelings you think a child ‘should’ feel. This attitude takes time to develop.
— Dr. Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: the Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 68

I resolve to spend some time alone next time even before speaking with Claudia. The oodles of compassion I was feeling for her position was an emotional overreaction that was due, I believe, to some deep programming:

Oh my baby! He shouldn't bully a girl! He scared her, doesn't he see that? I must protect her. If I don't go to her aid, he's going to think this is ok behavior for a big brother to a little sister!

I'm going to keep up my mindfulness practice to help me catch these cascading thoughts and detach myself, rather than blindly running with them.

When I am even-keeled, then I can check in with each of them alone. If they need me to facilitate, I'd be more than happy to morph into "a transmission belt" and Active Listen them to each other (Gordon, page 283).

Remember to Consult Later

Later, I can Consult on strategies they can use in quiet moments that serve them in the crazy, conflictual ones.

Claudia, for instance, concedes that when people attack her verbally, it's so very hard not to lash back in defensiveness. Without practice, it's nigh impossible to remain calm and maintain closeness with the ones we love. I can support her in finding practices to make her intentions a reality.

Because imagine . . .

  • How freeing it would be to be able to choose an AL response to her brother: "You're super aggravated that I didn't come down, especially after I asked you right away last night to get up and help clear the table."
  • How liberating to then assert through a Confrontive I-Message: "When you call me a hypocrite, I feel sad because I already knew it and felt bad without you even telling me." 

Yeah, that kind of emotional self-regulation, resilience and direct communication will take time and effort.

But then, most things that are worth it usually do, don't they?

Thank you dearest Jake and Claudia for authorizing me to share your story with the world. I'm grateful whenever my children preview each post that involves them and feel safe enough to give me the green light. This way, I feel, it becomes a family effort to make change for the better!

Credits: Parents scolding son (http://media.buzzle.com/media/images-en/gallery/relationships/brothers/450-78631175-parents-scolding-their-teenage-son.jpg); Man on mountain quote (https://metanoiaofme.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/wpid-wp-1439743254239.jpeg?w=840)