Señor Secondthoughts

Who wants to hear about a parenting victory? This one comes with a mascot, and his name is Señor Secondthoughts. 

Our youngest got a much-desired present for her sixth birthday: A stuffed Owlette and and a stuffed Gecko, of PJ Masks. She’s had Catboy for a while, but she really wanted the other two. I discovered it was cheaper to buy a set of three, so when the new stuffies arrived, I tossed the extra Catboy in my closet and wrapped up the other two, and she was absolutely thrilled.

A few weeks later, she barged into my room and stumbled across the extra Catboy. So we explained what happened and said she could keep the extra toy if she wanted to. My husband suggested that she could give him a mustache and turn him into Catboy’s evil twin. She thought that was amusing, and went on her way.

Half an hour later, she barged in again, this time in tears. She explained that she “actually took Daddy seriously” and went ahead and gave Catboy a mustache, and now she changed her mind, but it was too late, because she used permanent marker. She then dissolved into sobs of real, terrible sorrow and regret.

 My first struggle was not to burst out laughing, because Catboy looks hilarious with a mustache. The one she gave him has a little twirl and looks very evil indeed. 

My second struggle was to resist doing any of the things I would have done in the past, if a child had come to me with a problem like this.

In the past, if I had been feeling cranky, I would have told her that it wasn’t so bad, and it wasn’t worth crying over, because it was just a toy and she does have another toy, and some kids would be happy to have two Catboys.

If I had been feeling sympathetic, I would have said I don’t want her to feel sad about a birthday present, and I would have ordered a replacement on the spot (for a grand total of three Catboys) to make her stop crying.

Or if I had been in a hurry, I might have just tried to distract her, make it into a joke, or change the subject, so she would forget her problem and be cheerful again.

Behold: I have been in therapy for several years, so here is what I did instead.

I held her and rubbed her back while she cried, and said I could see how sad she was and how bad it felt, and how I know she wishes she hadn’t done it. And we just stayed with that for a while, and were sad together, until he started to calm down a little. In pop psychology terms, this is called letting her “feel her feelings.”

Then I said there is a name for what she’s feeling, and that name is “regret.” I told her regret is when something seems like a really good idea, so you do it, but then you suddenly realize it wasn’t a good idea. I said that everybody does things and then feels regret sometimes. She is a kid who loves words and loves to understand how human beings act, so giving her a name for what she was feeling was important; and it was important to let her know that it was a common human feeling, and she wasn’t uniquely foolish or uniquely suffering. This also gave her something intellectual to focus on, and broke up the storm of feelings somewhat.

Then I told her that sometimes, we feel a lot of regret over something, and it feels really bad, but sometimes, after a while, we figure out a way to make it work, and then it stops feeling so bad, and might even start feeling good. I said that it was okay to feel bad right now, but that she probably wouldn’t feel this bad forever. I said that everybody knows she’s really good at figuring stuff out and finding ways to have fun with things, so she could probably someday figure out a way to have fun with Evil Catboy — or, as I was by now calling him in my head, Señor Secondthoughts. I wanted to build her up a little, and remind her that she’s capable of rising above this. And I wanted her to know that this was going to be something she herself would be dealing with. 
 
She was quite a bit calmer by this time, but I know she has a habit of suddenly reminding herself of what she was upset about and getting worked up all over again; so I seized the moment and distracted her with some other topic entirely. She took the bait, got excited about the new thing (some snack or something, I forget what), and off she went, leaving Señor Secondthoughts behind.  
 
She has since re-discovered this mustachio’d villain, and it doesn’t seem to bother her at all. 
 
Here’s the important part: This is not a formula for making everything better. That did happen in this case, with this particular kid, for this particular problem she had. But even if she hadn’t responded so well, I would have been happy with how I handled it, because it’s not about the problem right now. It’s about the kid and her future.
 
More and more, I’m realizing that my job as parent is not to fix my kid’s problems, and it’s definitely not my job to make them stop feeling bad and start feeling good as quickly as possible. You can do that with babies, but once a kid is old enough to have a conversation, they’re old enough to start talking about feelings, and learning what to do with them. 
 
When a kid is upset, my first impulse is usually to try to push past the bad feelings, either with sternness or with sympathy. But even if it does quiet the kid down quickly, this is just papering over an emotional mess. The mess will still be there, and the kid will not have learned any skills for how to clean it up when it inevitably happens again. 
 
I had a big revelation: Part of the reason I want to fix things as quickly as possible is because my kid’s strong feelings elicit strong feelings in me; and sometimes, that’s actually what I’m trying to manage: My own feelings, not my kid’s. It’s very normal to feel impatience or disgust or distress or pity when a kid comes to you sobbing. But it’s not fair to make the kid to change her behavior so that my feelings about it are more manageable. This doesn’t help the child at all. It doesn’t equip her for the future, and may even teach her awful mental habits of inappropriate shame and nameless resentment that will emerge in various unpleasant ways for the rest of her life (not that I would know anything about that, twitch twitch). 
 
My job isn’t to make her shush. My job is to teach her how to be a human being who will inevitably make mistakes, feel bad about them, and live to tell the tale.
 
So this is how we do it: We let kids feel their feelings. We name the feeling, and we call it normal, and let them know it’s okay to feel this way. Then we talk about what might happen next, and remind them that they do have the power to move on and be awesome. And then we do something else. You can actually do this with kids of all ages, using age-appropriate terms. 
 
Important: Sometimes, you just don’t have time for this, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes a little kid is melting down and you absolutely need to be somewhere, so your only choice is to scoop them up and deal with it later. This, too, is normal. But if at all possible, it is a good idea to deal with it later, and not just chalk it up to a kid being bad. 
And sometimes you just blow it. Sometimes you’re not the ideal parent, and you handle things wrong. And what is this called? This is called having regrets. It feels bad, but etc. etc. etc. See?  You can do this for yourself, too. 
 
When you do have time to go through all the steps, though, remember that it won’t always result in a calm, happy kid, but that’s not really the goal. The goal is having a kid who has emotions, knows it’s okay to have emotions, and has some clue about what to do with her emotions.
 
That’s my goal for myself, as well. We can do it! Señor Secondthoughts is here to cheer us on.  
 
 

Learn to tolerate other people’s discomfort (like Christ did)

I’m a member of numerous women’s groups, and one question comes up time and time again: Someone I care about (my mother, my adult child, my husband, my brother) behaves such-and-such a way. What can I do differently to change it?

The best answer is: Nothing. You can’t change how other adults act. You can influence it, but how people behave is their decision, not yours. How they feel is their responsibility, not yours.

Really, truly. Not yours. Even if they tell you that they do what they do because of you. Even if, your whole life, they’ve expected you to take responsibility for their behavior and their emotions. It’s just not your job; it’s theirs.

But in our culture, it is so deeply ingrained in women, especially, to take on this responsibility that we don’t even realize we’re doing it, and we actually mistake other people’s emotions for our own. We think that feeling what other people feel is just part of love, part of caring for others.

Some of it does properly go along with love, and is normal and healthy. We are made to be connected to others, to care for them and to take their suffering seriously. But this sense of connection becomes an unhealthy entanglement when we can’t tell the difference between what someone else is feeling and what we’re feeling ourselves, and when we therefore assume that someone else’s anger or unhappiness is always a sign that we’ve done something wrong.

The truth is, if someone is unhappy or angry, maybe we’re doing something wrong, and maybe we’re not; but it’s very unhealthy when someone else’s sadness, anger, disgust, or distress automatically prompts us to rush around, searching for what we can change in ourselves, so their emotions and behavior will improve or at least make sense.

The problem comes when we set up our lives in such a way that other people are never left to deal with their own emotions and their own behavior, but automatically look to us to take responsibility. This is unfair to everyone concerned. It crushes the one who takes responsibility, and it stunts the one who refuses to take responsibility.

One of the great skills I’m learning in my mid 40’s is the skill of sorting out whose emotion is whose. It’s liberating, but it’s difficult, and a little bit frightening — partly because it’s new and unfamiliar, and partly because it feels a little bit forbidden or impious. When Catholics learn to become more psychologically healthy, we sometimes have the haunting feeling we’re turning our backs on our faith, or that we have to choose between emotional health and holiness…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

Returning to Mass after a long separation can be an emotional experience. Or not.

It’s been a long, dry spell. Many Catholics have never gone this long without receiving the Eucharist since before their first communion.

Now that more and more parishes are finding ways to safely offer public Mass or some form of communion service, many Catholics are taking to social media to describe what an overwhelming emotional experience it has been for them. Some are even sharing photos of themselves with tear-stained cheeks, overcome with emotion after receiving communion again.

Much of this emotional response is surely sincere, a spontaneous outpouring of joy and gratitude after a time of trial and deprivation. It’s understandable to want to share our delight in the Lord with people who will understand.

So let’s set aside the question of how spiritually healthy it is to take and share selfies of pious displays, and look instead to Catholics who aren’t coming to pieces over the opening of churches.

There are a lot of them. There are a lot of Catholics who most certainly want to return to the sacraments, but they aren’t feeling wracking pangs of longing as their separation continues.

They aren’t spending their days in misery and distress, ceaselessly imploring the Holy Spirit to open the church doors again. And when they do receive the Eucharist again after a long time away, they aren’t going boneless with spiritual bliss. They believe in the saving power of God with all their hearts, but they’re not getting very emotional about it.

I’m here to tell you that if that’s how it is for you, it’s okay. It doesn’t prove there’s something inferior about your faith. It doesn’t mean you’re lukewarm or spiritually mediocre. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the sacraments, and it doesn’t mean you don’t understand how precious they are. It might mean any number of things, but it’s certainly not automatically a sign that you’re the wrong kind of Catholic.

Emotions are just emotions. They are not nothing, but they are not the same as faith. Sometimes emotions come to us unbidden from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes they are given to us as a gift. But sometimes…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

Feeding time in the Father’s nest

Sometimes we’ve developed such a strong taste for unhealthy, unnatural foods that good, plain ingredients taste bland and pointless to us. We have to retrain our palates before we can enjoy or even tolerate the things our tongues were designed to delight in.

And the same is true for the words of God. If the Gospel sounds dull, if the laws of God seem stodgy and arbitrary, if prayer always feels tiresome — well, there could be many reasons for this, but one common reason is that maybe you’ve ruined your spiritual palate by training it only to respond to cheap thrills and passing pleasures. Time to retrain.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Robert Lynch via Public Domain Pictures

“Emotional rest” is our duty and our salvation

We often think of rest in terms of physical breaks – actually lying down, putting our feet up, breathing slowly, maybe cracking open a beer. While rest like this is vital, it’s at least as important to take a break from emotional drudgery and chaos. This year, I’ve been working on taking emotional breaks.

Boy, does that sound bogus! Catholics don’t have time for squishy, feel-good nonsense like that! We’re too busy with the salvation of our souls to worry about – ptui – “emotional rest,” right?

Well, let me tell you . . .

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

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Image: Steve Snodgrass via Flickr (Creative Commons)