Be the Container
“Oy Fek” I mumble under my breath (a combination of Jewish and Afrikaans swearwords). Tom is sitting on the coffee table pouring cold coffee: from the mug into a plastic cup and back to the mug and back to the plastic cup. It’s fascinating to watch and kind of hypnotic but predictably most of it misses the cup. Kai and Bailey has each other by the hair, literally by the hair. Bailey is shouting “cut off his fingers!” she means his nails as they are long and he scratched her. But the idea that his sister wants his fingers to be cut off sends him over the edge. I’m half-dressed. In a wet towel. Trying to get ready for work. I sometimes wish I could record our mornings – people at work will be so impressed that I’m even dressed. They will finally understand why my hair looks the way it does. Go Pro I can borrow anyone?
Recently our house has been a hot mess of emotions. Kai and Bailey have this verbal manipulation thing down like masters. Tom is frustrated that he cannot climb every single thing. The husband hunk and I are tired and occasionally we snap at each other about something stupid, like when we can’t find the remote control and the TV is stuck on some arb channel about caves (the remote was found several hours later in the bin, how on earth could anyone have guessed?). Reading is my motivation for going to gym, so I went for a 20 minute read at the gym later that day (on a bike so it’s not completely useless). I sat on that bike and I felt like a cup that is brimming with emotions, like something is about to spill over. Not just something but more like red wine you are trying to carry over a white carpet on the first night your new boss is having you over for dinner. It will stain and they will always remember you as that employee who messed up the carpet, and you will forever after mumble self-consciously when you’re around them.
Someone once told me that the best thing you can do as a parent is to contain all your kids’ emotions for them. Children get caught up in the emotion of the moment. Their ability to self regulate their emotions (or simply put; the ability to think constructively about how to cope best with a specific emotion) is something that we need to help them with. We need to model it and teach them that it is ok to have lots of emotions, but not to be overwhelmed by them. So it’s ok to be scared and being brave is doing it anyway. It’s ok to be frustrated but to call for chopping off of fingers is unrealistic. It’s ok when another kid makes you sad and then you have to think about how you will cope with this sadness and who you can play with. To do this emotional self-regulation kids have to be able to recognise and name their emotions. They also need us to create a space of safety within which they know that their expression of their emotions are being heard, because when it is being heard it somehow becomes less urgent, less chaotic, something that can be named and controlled. I feel as if I’m starting to go over into preacher mode (did anyone bring a really small violin?).
In short, if we regularly model being overwhelmed by our emotions they might think it’s ok to be overwhelmed all the time. Now please don’t get me wrong, I’m the last person on earth to say that I do this well on a consistent basis. I regularly lose my shit completely, and the kids do see some of it, but then (I hope anyway), they also see me going for a run, or applying a solution focused mindset. Which brings me to my other reason for going to gym…to empty that cup.
As I cycled-read the cup emptied out to leave space for more and I was reminded of the importance of being true to yourself as well as being a parent. If you don’t empty your work cup / your relationship cups / your very large stay-at-home-mom-cup or whatever it may be that challenge you daily, you will not be able to respond appropriately to your kids or your partner. You will not be in a position to contain their emotions as your cup will still be full of your own stuff. And it will spill over, and it will affect your family.
I expected this tsunami of kid-emotions to only start when they are teenagers, but seems that it is already happening and some of it is hurtful, so this advice has been coming to mind a lot lately. (To understand really how cunning kids can be watch this TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/pamela_meyer_how_to_spot_a_liar). They say some pretty mean things. My 5 year old is a door slammer, my 6 year old can sulk the hind legs off a donkey (I just made that up) and my 18 month old can get really angry real quick. We are not ready for this yet. But neither are they, they are too young to process these emotions, much less name them. And so it is up to us to contain these emotions for them until they are ready to take it back.
Containing anger or sadness or frustration or any of the other emotions for someone means that you don’t demean the emotion or make it seem less intense or less important than what it is. You simply show ‘I am here for you’ (By the way, Robert Plutchik suggested there are 90 emotions in a person, Aristotle said we have 14 core emotions and recently psychologists agree that there are between 6 and 8 core emotions). This is all good and well, you can bite your lip or pinch yourself or drown yourself in wine, the thing is that your cup gets full and you somehow have to empty it.
My personal mantra lately has been “be the container” and I’ve said as much to the hunk. Being the container is being present; listening, really hearing what they are feeling and acknowledging their concerns. You don’t have to solve it. You don’t have to make it your new thing to lie awake about, you simply need to take it and keep it for a while. Until it is understood and can be conquered, labeled, processed and put away.
Abraham did not tell Isaac “I’m so sorry for what I’m about to do” or “I promise you we’ll go to the Lego store after and you can buy whatever you want”. He simply said “Here I am” (Hineni in Hebrew). I guess what I’m trying to say is that we often over complicate things for ourselves and thereby confuse our kids. When they freak out we try the text book ‘grow good corner’ (don’t you love that fokking corner that they roll out of while wailing and kicking? “grow good” – older generations laugh at us), We say “let’s see how we can fix this together” (and sometimes that works and it does promote a solution driven mindset in my opinion), we give chilli, we take away toys. We do all of these things and none of them are wrong. But the thing is, we forget how small these kids are and that they cannot process their emotions as yet, never mind naming them. We drive ourselves insane with worry and in the meantime, often, all they need is to know that you are there. You are present, you are there for them, on this journey, no matter how messy it might get. (This counts for teenagers and young adults too by the way, we only reach emotional maturity in our late twenties)
Be the container. As a parent you understand how precious time is. Don’t worry as much about accomplishing the job, worry more about accomplishing the joy. (Corny, sorry).
Ps. did you know that today (29 March) is international take a walk in the park day? Last night my container felt so light that I did the moon walk out of the kids’ room after reading to them. The moon walk, me! With jazz hands. It was something to behold and the kids loved it. I know, because they shouted kisses at me as I left. There is always tomorrow to be a better container.