What does it actually mean to ‘hold space’ for your child’s emotions?

· You may have heard this expression before - and wondered what exactly is implied when we talk about 'containing' our child's emotions - or our own for that matter. Let me explain ·

Jan, 31, 2020

One of the most surprising parts of becoming a parent – certainly this was the case for me – was to discover how much more emotionally vivid my life would become.

Up until the point I became a mum – I thought of myself as a balanced and emotionally literate person – comfortable with all of the ‘happy’ emotions – and rarely getting into situations that would trigger more difficult emotions like; anger, worry, sadness, guilt etc.

This was part of my self-image – and nothing could prepare me for the journey that saw me catapulted into a different realm of emotions that at times feel off the scale.

Meet baby

We all know that babies cry. Few of us had any idea that some babies cry….A LOT! And for reasons that feel utterly mysterious to a first time mum. No nappy, milk or cuddle will soothe enough for the crying to stop. And it is in these ‘dark’ moments – that many of us parents first come face to face with our own ability (or inability) to tolerate another’s emotions.

Worry. Anxiety. Shame – are common responses to this helplessness. And rather than remaining the calm presence that baby so desperately needs – and offer a calm nervous system for baby to lean into – the attempts to soothe become more desperate – a ssshhhhh – and anxious rocking that really says; STOOOP!

Because it’s hard!
And unfamiliar. And there aren’t many – if any – real role models around – like aunts, grandparents- elderly – to copy and learn from.

Why do we need to hold space?

Both adults and children need to fully experience one emotion before we can move on the next. That is the nature of emotions. They come through us. To be felt. Acknowledged. And accepted – only to make space for the next feeling.
Being allowed to feel disappointed – is necessary in order to feel joy and contentment. And when we are allowed to experience and express these emotions we feel more free, alive and balanced. There is a sense of flow and agility in us.

The partner test

You only need to picture this to know what I mean:
Let’s imagine you return from a trip into town – furious that you got issued a parking ticket – even though you made it back to your car just as the parking warden was issuing it.
‘Nothing I can do‘ – you are told. And there you are; ticket in hand – FUMING! Feeling humiliated, belittled, controlled.

Still fuming – you rush home – dying to share this unjust experience with your partner – about to ring up the first 10 friends on your journey back – so that you can offload.
But your partner isn’t in the mood to hear your anger. He’s in a ‘zen mood’ today and has had a calm day and isn’t willing to ‘hold space’ for your ‘negative’ emotions.

So the response you get is:
‘Well, you should’ve probably not left it so late, love’.

I think you know all too well how this feels. And what happens next. The emotion wants out. It wants expressing. Perhaps you ring a friend afterwards – who can ‘hold space’ while you rage – knowing that you won’t stay mad forever. Or ..the feeling will lay dormant in your system – blocking the free flow of feelings for the rest of the day – until one of the kids or said partner does one thing wrong.

And then it comes out. Out of context. Disproportionate to the ‘crime’ – and causes more harm than good to those around you.

So how do we ‘hold space’

We hold space for our child’s feelings by not stopping the EMOTION

– by talking them away from it:
‘At least you didn’t lose all of your ice cream’

Or distracting:
‘Look – a cat’

Or minimising:
” It isn’t that bad.. “

Or asking it to stop:
” Stop the fuss / whinging”

Or comforting by saying:

Because – emotions that aren’t validated don’t go away.
Anger can become the ‘go to’ emotion for many children who have not had their disappointment tolerated. This is a smart way for the child to guard against further hurt – as anger requires less vulnerability than does sadness… and the tears that ultimately ensue.

Therefore to ‘hold space’ can look like this:

“You really wanted that.. I can tell it meant a lot to you.
And now you’re disappointed”.

“I know.. I you’re mad at me for… x”

This – said with EMPATHY (coming from a genuine place in you than can relate) – coupled with a vow to NOT CONTRADICT – will send a signal to your child that you can bear his/her feelings. If the feelings were born out of a no – given by you – it is so powerful to be able to still show empathy for the disappointment without feeling obliged to changing your mind.

What if my child ‘acts out’?

Many children will want to express their difficult emotions physically.

By lashing out. Causing harm to others or self or property.
The process here is the same. These behaviours deserve a boundary. No to the hitting – yes to understanding what is making you so angry.

Many of us underestimate the amount of communication that takes place without words. We need not be so wordy in these situations. In fact, we are often far better able to connect at soothe when we use fewer words – and trust that our calm and confident body (nervous system) is sensed by our child – and is instrumental for their emergent ability to self-regulate.

If your body could talk it would say:
I’m here for you.
You’re not alone.

Imagine your child as a little and helpless person:
And feel the love you have for him/her.

Trust that you child is doing the best he can in this moment:
She is not an a mission to make your day miserable.

It is in these situations, when we feel overwhelmed by our child’s reactions, that we are often the most likely to send our children to their room / give them a warning / take away privileges or things they care about.

This is because we ‘buy in’ on the BEHAVIOUR. Not the underlying difficult feeling that needs to be experienced, contained and expressed in a safe way. This ability never matures in isolation.

This can be learnt

We need not have been met in this way ourselves growing up. Although it helps. Because when we feel up against it – and reactionary there will be a strong impulse to revert to autopilot. To do what was done to us. This is not a very free place to be – and often not in line with the kind of parent we would like to be.

Therefore, it begins with awareness. Simply noticing what our child’s emotions do to us. Makes us want to do and say. We cannot change what we aren’t aware of.

And the biggest game changer – certainly this has been the case for me – is learning to express my own feelings too. To recognise when I’m getting frustrated and learning to set limits before frustration escalates to anger.

Allowing ourselves to feel all emotions – and welcome the idea that no emotions are bad. Difficult yes. But not bad. Every emotion has a function.
This, and a willingness to give yourself what you need – whether help, rest, a time out, more fun, more creativity in your life.. whatever it is – means you can afford to make space for your child’s distress in a different way, because you aren’t coming from an unfulfilled and frustrated place in you.

Begin – by simply noticing your own reactions..
Good luck

Louise Brooks

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