Letting Go of the Story
P.E.T. saved the day again!
Upon arrival in Los Angeles earlier this summer, I was able to help Jake* (15) and Claudia* (13) Active Listen each other, move past their blameful ire and make peace before leaving the cool, air-conditioned terminal.
The Back Story
Was there a back story? You bet. We so often let upsets fester rather than deal with them assertively in the moment.
A couple of nights before we left Hong Kong, Claudia had had a giggling fit at the dinner table. Jake plopped down to eat and asked what was up. She gave him one look and started in even harder. Her brother got annoyed, especially when she intimated that it had something to do with “his face.”
I could have helped then but I was preoccupied with finishing admin before our long annual trip back home (including filing our 2014 -- yes 2014! -- US taxes).
Dr. Thomas Gordon says that emotions follow a special pattern -- they simply have to be acknowledged in order to be released.
None of this had transpired and now my kids found themselves de-boarding in flare-up mode.
This time, Claudia had become “laughative” (an ingenious term she coined at the age of five -- I mean, there's "talkative," right?) at the way Jake was smiling as we waited to file off the plane. To Jake, this was painfully reminiscent of the recent incident; again, telling her to stop wasn't working. The bickering ensued down the stairs, onto the shuttle bus all the way to the luggage belt.
In my prior life, public meltdowns and fights between my kids would instantaneously trip my alarm system:
Incoming negative judgment of your parenting!
Urgent action necessary to save face!
Instead, I calmly observed the two trying to work it out. (A big shout out to meditation, EFT tapping and the clarity of the Behavior Window -- Who Owns the Problem? My children do!) Jake paused to collect his thoughts and I loved the construction of the Confrontive I-Message that followed:
“When you laugh and say it has something to do with my face [behavior], I feel really annoyed, sad and angry!" [feelings]
What To Do When Faced with Resistance
Yet, as we learn so often happens, the listener can still become defensive and Claudia was no exception: “I was not even laughing at you the other night. When people look at me when when I'm laughing a lot, I just laugh even more."
Hmmmm . . . what, ideally, should Jake have done at that point?
That's right, Shift Gears between Active Listening and assertive I-Messages. That would mean Jake tapping into his empathy reserves to say something like: “It’s hard for you to hear that I felt roiled and was taking it personally when you were laughing uncontrollably.”
A big ask. A humongous ask, even for parents who have fully formed prefrontal cortexes! (But something we are all striving for and making progress towards!)
I could more than understand when Jake continued, instead, to Roadblock:
“Claudia, the fact is, when I asked ‘Why are you laughing?’ you could easily just have told me that you weren't directing it at me but you didn’t! I had no idea what you were laughing about so why don’t you just admit you were wrong?!”
His irritation grew as his little sis started to tear up. “What!! Why in the world are you crying now?”
It went on in this vein, with Claudia desperately asserting that he was making it even harder for her to calm down.
When Children Are Stuck, We Can Help
When kids are caught in a bad pattern, we may choose -- without taking over -- simply to help open their ears and hearts to each other.
So I said:
“Sounds like Jake is annoyed because he has heard twice now in the course of a few days that you are laughing about something related to his appearance. And Claudia is feeling sad when she hears your words and tone of voice because she never intended harm.”
Letting Go of the Story
During a pause, I Consulted with an inquiry I learned from meditation leader and author Tara Brach.
“You both are stuck believing the other person is wrong. Jake, you are saying that Claudia shouldn’t cry. Claudia, you think that Jake should realize that your giggling has nothing to do with him. One way under the anger and blame you are both feeling is to ask yourself:
If I had to let go of the story of how the other person is wrong, what would I have to feel?"
“Huh?” both asked me.
I tried to explain, but before I could, Jake got under his Anger Iceberg and, eyes glistening, blurted out:
“I find it hard to see you cry! The only time I ever see you cry, it has to do with me. And I’m just being myself, not even trying to be mean, and you still end up walking away crying. And then somehow I feel like a bad brother to you!”
I felt Claudia soften, her gaze following him as he walked briskly off to grab a suitcase from the belt.
“That’s what I meant," I commented softly. "Jake let himself experience what he was pushing down and then showed you his real feelings. And that self-disclosure opened your compassion.” Claudia rested for a moment in that realization, and then went to go speak to him.
A few minutes later, the three of us went out to the arrivals hall, closer and ready to meet the summer.
* Thank you Jake & Claudia (both pseudonyms) for approving this post and allowing our family's real life examples to enrich our understanding of P.E.T. principles and practice. Love you!
Credits: Letting go (https://tintintheexplorer.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/let-go.jpg)