“When Fixing His Problems Didn’t Fix Anything, I Finally Learned to Listen.”
The instinct is understandable and strong: When our kids face crossroads and challenges, we want to fix their problems with advice, with lectures, with ego boosts. But what if our ‘fixes’ communicate to them that something inside them is broken? What if we could do more good by simply listening? To validate their feelings, you first have to stop fearing your own. Here’s how.
I am a fixer. I am smart and successful and there is nothing I can’t achieve with a little research, love, and hard work. This mindset is how I approached parenting for a decade, and it was a disaster.
My oldest son has ADHD. The diagnosis didn’t faze me at first. After all, I am a school psychologist. This is what I do! Bring it, ADHD! I’ll have you managed in no time… or so I thought.
But then my son went to elementary school. He dreaded school so much that he couldn’t fall asleep at night. His stomach hurt, he became hyper and silly. He drove us nuts! I spent 30 minutes every night trying to ease his anxiety. We read books like “What to Do When You Dread Your Bed” (#CommissionsEarned). We went on walks to distract him with ants and pine cones. I used my hands to make a worry-eating monster. Each night, he dumped his worries into the monster’s mouth and I whisked them away.
The anxiety got so bad we went to therapy, where I received my first lesson in something called containment. Our therapist said, “Worry isn’t bad, it’s just a feeling. It isn’t dangerous and you don’t have to DO anything about it.” My job was to just listen and be with my son in the feeling, to communicate to him, “You are not broken.” I liked the idea, but I didn’t understand just letting my son feel worried. So, I soldiered on fixing.
Was Fixing Him Actually Hurting Him?
When my son asked if the other kids were smarter than him, I quickly provided a list of evidence demonstrating his intelligence and talent: “Look at this artwork; do you think Johnny can do that? Who knows more about birds than you? You are the most creative and smart kid I know!” I was so busy praising him that I never stopped to just listen. I was so uncomfortable with his feelings, I quickly swooped in to fix the bad feelings.
In high school, when he wanted to try javelin in track and give up his best event — sprinting — I strongly encouraged him to stick to sprinting. After all, self-esteem comes from being smart, gifted, and accomplished, right? I thought if I could just “help” steer his ship into some positive school experiences, the impact would overshadow the pain, anxiety, and loneliness that come from being different.
My Aha! Moment
When my son began to have such horrible anxiety that we could not safely get him to school anymore, I had the “Come to Jesus” moment. My fixing wasn’t fixing ANYTHING. In fact, in all of my efforts to fix things, I created the very experience I feared the most: I communicated to my son that HE was something to be fixed.
So, I got to work and started making changes. It was time to find new parenting tools and put the old ones away. I got busy supporting my son instead of intruding on him with my solutions and advice.
How do parents shift from fixing to supporting? ADHD can leave our children doubting themselves, feeling different and misunderstood. Children with ADHD receive 20,000 more negative messages by age 10 than positive messages. How many of those negative messages come from us, the parents?
Three Ways to Be a Container for Your Child
One way parents can support their child with ADHD, is to shift from being a fixer to being a container. A fixer advises, a container listens. A fixer lectures, a container understands.
Want to try it in your family? Here’s how being a container can communicate more love and support to your child.
#1. Containers hold things. Be a safe place for your child to share and explore his feelings. Listen to him with a single intent: To understand his experience. Resist the temptation to solve anything. Instead, simply reflect and repeat what you hear him say. For example, “School was tough today, your teacher got really mad at you.” Say no more.
#2. Containers have boundaries. Learn to keep things safely inside his boundaries. Instead of lectures, solutions, making deals, and having arguments, learn to set a boundary. “If you’re going to scream, you’ll have to do that in your room.” “If you don’t get a 3.0 on your report card, I’ll be unable to pay your car insurance.” Draw the line and stick to it.
#3. Containers are strong, predictable, and comforting. So, instead of fixing feelings, be there in it with your child. When containers see our children just as they are, our children learn that uncomfortable feelings are part of life and can be tolerated. When we trust kids to manage their feelings and hardships, they build inner strength and learn to believe in themselves.
Having a place where some of the angst, frustration, and sadness can just be provides relief for your child. When we listen to our child and truly understand his point of view, this is the solution. No fixing required.
For a mom who spent many years fixing, this shift has been transformational. When my son comes to me now, the litany of ways I could “help” him still chatter away in my head. But I resist the temptation to fix. I listen. I reflect. I set boundaries. I arm him with the knowledge that I trust him to find his way and when he needs me I will be right there with him — his container.
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Updated on November 6, 2020