Friday, August 8, 2014

Recovering from the Mistakes I Make as a Parent

A number of weeks ago, Matthew was involved in an unfortunate situation where he was pushed and kicked and called names by a few kids.  As I understand the situation from both of my boys, towards the end of the incident, Seth also joined in with the others and shoved his brother and likely even punched him.

It wasn't a great situation; Matthew was pretty bruised up the next day in all of the places he said he'd been kicked, and it's taken him a while to recover emotionally; but thankfully all's well on that front and it's been talked and cried out to the point of exhaustion and, ultimately, I think, adaptation and recovery.

However... the week following the incident, I had a hard time with Seth as a result of his involvement in the incident.  I had a hard time looking him in the eye; I was undoubtedly a margin cooler than usual in my treatment of him; and I just had a difficult time overall being as warmly inclined towards him.  I was furious, or maybe just deeply hurt, that he would be involved in hurting his brother; devastated that he would choose to 'follow the pack' by mimicking what others were doing rather than protecting his brother or getting help.  And, as much as anything, I was also pretty angry with myself for not having monitored the situation more carefully in order to prevent the situation from happening in the first place.

In my hurt and anger that following week, I lectured Seth too often:  I told him a story about how my sister protected me when, as a child, I was beat up by another kid; I started talking to him about the importance of being a follower who chooses the right values to follow; I told him that we always protect family; etc etc etc.  I felt a little out of control in my need to manage and correct the situation, even though I knew as the words were coming out of my mouth that I was messing up with Seth.

I wasn't harsh.  I still hugged him and said kind things to him.  But I'm embarrassed that it all felt forced on my part; it didn't come from a soft place inside of me.  And given that my middle-born comes from a place of trauma and struggles constantly with defendedness and a need to prove his worth, this was the exact wrong thing to do with/to him.

At the same time that this was going on, my sleep was suffering - I was experiencing a downward slide into my come-and-go battle with insomnia.  As a result, when the kids got up in the mornings, I was getting into a habit of offering them tv for 30-45 minutes a few mornings a week so that I could rest a little more.  This went on for almost a month.  This wouldn't be a huge deal under normal circumstances, but sadly this affected Seth, too, because usually the early morning is when I get concentrated cuddle time with him and have a chance to talk with him and read him stories.

These things combined did not have a good impact on my beloved boy.  The effect was to create alarm in Seth.  I alarmed him with my disapproval of his actions and by seeming (from his perspective, when I didn't have as much time with him in the mornings) to distance myself physically.  After three years of working hard with him, after three years of helping him bring down the walls that had worked so hard to protect his heart, I alarmed him and made him insecure in the relationship he has with me and made him doubt his own sense of right and wrong.  I made him feel like there was something wrong with him.  It's a terrible feeling, with the clarity of hindsight, to know that you've hurt your child and your relationship with him.

The only thing I'm thankful for in that situation is that I noticed what was happening.  Over the next few weeks, after I got back to my usual self, I noticed that Seth was a little more withdrawn than usual.  He was also very insecure about whether or not he was doing the 'right thing;' he was constantly coming to me and asking "Mommy, is it the right thing to..." or "Mommy, I don't know what the right thing to do is...."  He seemed rather paralyzed in his ability to make decisions, even about trivial things.

So Geoff and I booked an appointment with our wonderful Gordon Neufeld consultant and it was she who helped us put the pieces together...about how what I'd really been upset about was that Seth appeared to have chosen loyalty to his friends over loyalty to his brother...that my lectures had led him into a state of feeling badly about himself and insecure...and that my physical absence a few mornings a week just confirmed for him his sense that he wasn't worthy of my attention/love.  The thing is, she said, when Seth joined in on the gang-up on Matthew, it was instinct, not a decision to hurt his brother, that was driving his action.  He's at the age and development level where he wants and needs to be accepted and to appear funny to other people, so when he saw others laughing at what was happening, he instinctively jumped into the fray.  She assured us that he had no intention to hurt his brother, and that he didn't choose to be involved in hurting him.  We talked about a recovery plan.

That helped.  A lot.  I immediately formed, and implemented, a plan of action to help Seth recover.

The next morning, despite another hard night of sleep, I was up before Seth and was available for our old cuddle and reading times.  He wasn't terribly interested in being very close to me that first morning (or the one after), but I was determined to work my way back under his heart walls; I hoped that it wouldn't take too long because Seth really does love his mama and because there'd previously been so much trust between us that I was very hopeful that his defences would come down again with a little patience on my part.

My plan was to spend the next two weeks of mornings regaining the physical proximity that we'd previously had and then, in a moment of attachment/closeness, raise the issue of 'the incident' with Seth and to start the repair work that needed to be done.

I didn't have to wait two weeks for the right opportunity to talk to him about it.  On the fourth day, something happened that took us right there.

On the morning of that fourth day, the kids and I met up with some friends at a nearby park, where the boys like to wander off into the forest a bit and build forts or collect branches or whatever.  On that morning, it was decided by the moms where the boundaries would be for their wanderings, and we asked them to always be with a buddy.  The kids had a great time, but I could sense on the drive home that something was bothering Seth.

When we got home, I sent Matthew and Lizzie into the backyard to play and sat down at the kitchen table with Seth.  I pulled him in to me and kissed him and asked if there was anything he'd like to talk about.  He pulled away.

"I did a wrong thing, Mommy," he said, starting to cry.  "You're going to be mad at me."

I had no idea what he could possibly be talking about but I was sure of one thing:  No matter what he'd done, I was not going to be mad at him and risk pushing him away again.  This would be a chance to get us back on the right track.

"You know, Seth, I really don't think I'm going to be mad, but even if I am, we'll get through that, too.  Our relationship is waaaay to important to me - we'll get through it no matter what."

"I didn't know what to do," he cried.

"About what?" I asked.

"At the park.  You said that we had to stay with our buddy."

"Yes," I prompted.  "You were buddies with M.  Do you want to tell me what happened?"  I kept my voice as gentle as possible.

"He went past the line, the boundary thing.  Where we weren't supposed to go past.  I made a bad decision, I think."  He was crying hard now.

But ahhhh....the light was turning on for me...I could see where this was headed and the opportunity that was coming my way.

"Seth, it's going to be ok, really," I said.  I reached out to hug him but he pulled away to arms' length...a manifestation of our recent distance.

"I didn't know what to do," he cried in an anguished voice.

"It sounds like you had a huge struggle.  Why don't you tell me what happened?" I asked, already knowing but wanting so much to hear him say it.

"You told us to stay together but he went past the line and I didn't know what to do!" Seth responded.

"You must have been so confused, Seth.  What were thinking or feeling when you saw M go past the boundary line?" I asked.

"I was scared because I didn't want to do the wrong thing.  I wasn't supposed to go over the line, but M did and he didn't come back and I was scared that he would get lost and he's my friend and I didn't want him to get lost and you said to stay with your buddy." All of this came out in a gush.

"Seth, oh Seth," I remember saying with great feeling.  "Those are such big, hard things to have to feel and think all at the same time.  You were all mixed up about what to do and such strong mixed feelings.  On the one hand you really wanted to honour the rule about not going past the boundary; and on the other hand you wanted to honour the rule about staying with a buddy.  Is that right?"

"Yes!!!" he shouted, sounding almost relieved.  "And I think I did a bad thing then, made a wrong decision."

"I doubt that, but tell me.  What happened then?" I asked.

"I crossed the line and stayed with M because I didn't want him to be alone or get lost!!  Soon we came back.  Did I do a wrong thing?"

"Seth, my Seth, that was such a hard thing to have to figure out all at one time and all by yourself and no, you didn't do a wrong thing.  I am so proud of you for thinking through everything you thought through all at the same time.  That was a very, very hard situation for you and you managed it and made the best decision you could when it was a hard situation."

"So you're not mad at me?"

"No, love, I'm not mad at all.  I'm proud of you for working through that situation and trying so hard to do the right thing and for making such a hard decision, and I'm proud of you for telling me about it."

He took a step closer and leaned on me, the way he used to when all of his walls were first coming down.

"Seth," I said.  "I want to tell you one more thing, ok?"  This was my opportunity to start repair work on the past incident and my response to him.

"OK," he said.  "About what?"

"Remember a few weeks ago the incident with Matthew...?"  I used a few specific words to remind him, but he needed no refresher was still uppermost in his mind.

"I remember," he said.  "I did a wrong thing then.  I'm so sorry.  I'm very sorry."

"Seth," I said.  I gripped his shoulders and looked him straight in the eye.  "I don't need you to be sorry.  You have nothing to be sorry for.  No more.  And I want to tell you this.  You know how when we're at home here and one of your siblings might hit you and hurt you, and I get frustrated with them because you've been hurt?"

"Yeah," he said.

"Well, when that thing happened with Matthew, it was kinda like that for me - I was frustrated when he got hurt.  And I didn't handle it as well as I could have - you got a lot of my frustrated voice and face those following days and I think that hurt you with so much frustration."

"Yes."  He was crying now.  I put my arms around him, where he was leaning against me, and I squeezed him tightly against me.

"Seth, I want you to know something about that.  First, I never wanted to hurt you and I wish I could do those days over.  But more important, I want you to really, really understand that I know you didn't mean to hurt your brother; and I know you love him and would never want to see him hurt. I totally and completely know that about you and that you have a kind and soft heart and that you didn't mean to hurt your brother."

It was a classic, textbook response:  Seth sighed deeply, still crying, still leaning against me.  Then he turned to look at me and he climbed up onto my lap and put his head on my shoulder.  I started to cry a little, too.  I put my arms around him and Seth put his arms around me and I repeated those last words to him and then told him how much I loved him; a few seconds later he said that he loved me more, and we started that age-old game of words about how much we loved the other.

And then he said, out of the blue, with tears still on his cheeks, "Mommy, could you and me have some chips and dip together?  And can we eat from the same plate?"

I have no idea where this came from because we don't often have chips and dip, but I could tell that something in him wanted us to break bread together and that sharing a plate was a sign for him that we were one again.  Of course I said yes and we went to get some chips (thankfully I had some!) and dip.  We put some of each onto a small plate and Seth dipped a chip into the dip.  Rather than place it in his own mouth, however, he reached over and held it in front of my mouth until I took it in; I then did the same for him.  There was something intimate and uplifting about that action.

It was, quite honestly, a beautiful moment, sitting there, munching our chips together and feeding each other.

I certainly know that I mess up as a parent; sometimes, as now, with greater impact than at other times.  But I'm so thankful that I'm close enough to Seth to see how I'd impacted him and then to have some help figuring out what to do about it.  Mostly, though, I'm just thankful that Seth and I are in right relationship; that the walls around his heart that we worked so hard to break down didn't have a chance to get really built up again.

I have my Seth back; and he's got me back.


  1. I don't know about Seth's birth culture but many cultures in the mideast eat from the same bowls at a family table. Perhaps he has a memory of feeling loved and accepted while eating that way. What a valuable thing to know for all of you. A language of love, so to speak.

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