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When It’s Not All Holly Jolly

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by Jamie Roach

Gathering together with extended family over the holidays can be life-giving, exciting and incredibly fun. Gathering together with extended family over the holidays can also be stressful, hard, and incredibly painful. We often think about these competing feelings for adults, but they can also be true for our children as well. That’s where we as parents come in.

As we gather with friends and family this holiday season, helping our children connect with others without either losing their sense of self (boundaries) or losing their sense of the other (empathy) is an important challenge. When we hold on too tightly, we risk squashing or suffocating the other. On the other hand, when we hold on too loosely we risk dropping them or watching them slowly drift away.

If navigating relationships is tough for us adults, think about how complicated it must be for our kids. They need us to model and teach how to set boundaries and practice empathy. Both are essential ingredients to loving our neighbor as ourselves. Too often people do one at the cost of the other, and this always leads to anxiety, shame and depression.

As parents, we must be careful of putting our children in situations where, in the name of obedience and respecting others, we inadvertently step on their blossoming sense of self (lack of boundaries). In other words, we teach them to love others by hating themselves. For example, when a child feels forced into thinking, feeling or believing a certain way that is contrary to their inner experience, they have the felt sense of being deeply misunderstood and violated, which wreaks havoc in their inner world. This misattunement with their parents plants seeds of self-doubt in the child’s heart. Over time and especially if watered, these seeds will bear the fruit of insecurity and shame.

Patricia DeYoung in her excellent book, Chronic Shame, points out that research literature reveals it is not unrequited love that is the primary cause of children feeling worthless but rather the felt sense of being misunderstood by one’s parents. On the other hand, children who grow up feeling deeply understood tend to develop a healthy and cohesive sense of self.

Imagine with me for just a minute. What do you think the inner experience is like for a child who is forced to express delight to Grandma for a gift they actually don’t like? How does this experience leave them feeling about themselves and their parents? Does their fragile and developing sense of self feel supported or stepped on? Do they feel understood by their parents? Will they trust their parents?

This Christmas season, I encourage you to give your children two gifts through your presence with them. First, set an example of connecting with friends and family while not losing yourself. And second, really tune in to what your kids are thinking and feeling, especially when it comes to how they feel about being with friends and family.

Thinking about being with some people may elicit feelings of joy and excitement while thinking about being with others evokes anxious or uneasy feelings. Once you can help your child name what they are feeling, validate and normalize it. Then seek to deepen the feeling by asking them where the particular feeling is broadcasting from within or around their body. Finally, ask them what their body feels like doing whenever it feels that way. In short, tune into their inner world and help them make sense of what they are experiencing.

Modeling healthy relationships for our kids along with supporting them as they take the risk of knowing and being known is far more effective than telling them what to think, feel or do.


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