There’s nothing harder as a therapist than withholding a helpful comment. Over the course of treatment, defenses are active and timing is crucial. Therefore, interventions are calculated. At times, movie-worthy one-liners surface in a clinician’s head, begging to be executed. These carefully placed comments, questions, or thoughts, can produce colossal changes in a client’s life - just maybe not yet. It is challenging to stay silent because we all have a desire to help. Not just therapists or others in the helping professions. Helping others is the fuel that gives us all purpose, and reminds us that the world is bigger than ourselves.
Parents and spouses struggle with this tenfold. The love one has for their family drives their need to help transform painful moments into learning experiences. Children of all ages can imitate the mantras commonly chanted by their parents. Do we spend enough time asking ourselves whether our words are helpful? Are our goals being accomplished? Maybe the fact that we always say something indicates that our messaging is off. If we are being heard, why do we need to repeat ourselves?
In 1944, John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, published the very first paper on family therapy entitled, “Forty-four Juvenile Thieves.” He theorized that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive. He attributes survival to emotional connection. In the 1930s and ‘40’s, orphaned children in the halls of American hospitals died in droves, lacking only touch and emotional contact.
Touch and emotional connection are prerequisites for survival, like food, water, and oxygen. What happens when someone threatens our survival? Threatens to take away our water supply, food, or oxygen?
For some reason, a child in distress triggers our instincts to provide instruction. We impart insight that will “prepare” our children to handle this struggle in the future. We rationalize our thinking with the idea, “Rather than give a fish, we must teach our children to fish for the rest of their lives.” So, we teach, inform, instruct, direct, dictate, illuminate, and educate.
In their most vulnerable moments, children do not need directing. They need their most fundamental needs met. They require touch and emotional connection. There is nothing worse than the deprivation of a primal need, and when a child is deprived, they will push, kick, scream, and find other creative ways to act out, flailing for survival. This behavior then calls for more instruction, leaving less time for connection. Their impoverished love tank causes them to double down on their pushing, kicking, and screaming behavior, and in the words or Dr. Sue Johnson, around and around we go. This spiral is common, unhelpful, and preventable.
When we do not connect with our children over their struggles, we are robbing them of the optimal response: a supportive, validating message from a loved one. “I’m so sorry. You’re experiencing something really difficult. It is okay to feel how you feel. Your feelings make sense. Your reaction is valid. I accept your emotions. I understand how you feel, and yet I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you. I love you, I’ve got you, and everything is going to be okay.”
Connecting, rather than teaching, is difficult. It requires composure. It requires confidence in our children that they have the capacity to develop outside of our instruction. It requires vulnerability. Talking about feelings isn’t easy for everyone, but for our children’s sake, we must push that boundary to give them the emotional support we once coveted as children.
Connecting requires the ability to stay quiet when the thought that pops into our head invites disconnection. It requires keeping certain comments to ourselves.
“I told you so.”
“Why were you late? Did you get lost?”
“If your head wasn’t attached, you’d lose that too.”
These “fun,” “innocent,” “nonchalant” lines send all sorts of messages. These comments are often born out of the discomfort of not knowing how to improve our child’s behavior. We “drop a line,” as if they’ll get the message and figure it out from there. With a little introspection, we’d be embarrassed at the types of things we have tried to accomplish with these silly and hurtful little lines.
There is a mysterious wisdom that accompanies silence. Those who choose their words carefully and sparingly, often appear to know something that the rest of us don’t. That’s because, often, they do. There is a maturity in silence; a maturity in realizing that it may not be a good time. There is a confidence in understanding the saying, “If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.” This is not another saying to be used to educate our children. If we did a better job of exemplifying this quote, it would never need teaching. If our children were the beneficiaries of us calculating our words, taking their feelings into account, to do so for others would go without saying. The best education is example.
When our children approach to complain about their day, let us take a minute to live with them in their struggle. Try not to run away from their pain, as it will only teach them to run away from it as well. Resist the urge to remind them that if they’d simply “grow up,” they would feel better. Imagine your spouse telling you to “grow up and get over it” the next time you have a hard day at work.
Imagine we save the teaching moment, and rather take advantage of the opportunity to connect. Imagine the relief children will feel when we welcome their emotions. Imagine a world where we spend less time teaching, more time connecting, and allowing our actions to speak louder than our instructions.