My Best New Parenting Tool

It was a hard, hard day with my middle child yesterday. I found myself staring at my red-faced, screaming, disheveled blonde beauty, wondering if she had somehow entered adolescence at age 7, or been possessed by a demon, or accidentally ingested some kind of hallucinogenic agent. “Who the h*%$ are you??” I felt myself asking her in my mind, over and over. “And what have I done wrong?”

Today, I vowed it would be a better day. I dug deep and decided I needed a serious strategy to make sure I did everything in my power to meet my girl’s emotional needs in a more productive way. This is a child who is far too smart for her age, and whose profound sensitivity makes me certain she will be some kind of artist, or healer, or spiritual leader when she ripens into adulthood. In the end, to do right by her at this phase of her life, when she’s too little to reign in all that passion, I settled on the one piece of advice that has helped me most as a journalist, actor, mother, wife, employee and human being. It’s also the one piece of advice that is the hardest for me to remember and implement, especially when I am stressed: SHUT UP AND LISTEN.

I decided I needed a more spiritual mantra to play back in my head, should one of those stressful moments arise. “Nothing but love” is what stuck with me. I decided I would shut up, listen, and let nothing be uttered from my lips that wasn’t inspired by love. Simple, straightforward rules.

No matter what crazy issue tripped her trigger today, I vowed I would stick to my plan: shut up and listen. Nothing but love.

It was close to bedtime, and the entire evening had gone so beautifully that I thought maybe just the fact that I had bothered to make a “listen and love” plan had worked as preventive medicine.

No such luck. Clara and her older brother got into a silly, ugly fight just as everyone’s exhaustion was really setting in for the night. She fled the room in furious tears. I followed her.

It was so much harder than I thought it would be not to try to explain, or justify, or teach during that moment. I dropped down on a knee, put my hand on her shoulder, and kept my lips closed tightly but my eyes opened wide, focused on her face. I let her spill everything that was in her heart onto the floor between us. I kept as quiet as a mouse (which is HARD!) and watched as she embraced this unexpected platform. Finally, as her words trailed off, I permitted myself to ask her some questions. “What do you think we should do? How does this make you feel? What would you like me to do to help you?” She poured out a little more of what was inside her. I nodded and told her I heard her. I asked for a hug. She melted into me.

Then, I reminded her about the board game she had been asking me to play with her, before Armageddon began. Board games work like currency with this girl. Usually, she’s the one begging to play. But not tonight. “Can we still play the game? Only if you’re still in the mood to play it,” I gently pleaded with her. “But could we maybe play TWO games? I was really hoping for two games, but only if you’re not too sad.” She agreed – sweetly.

It was a good, good day with my middle child today.

Mamas and daddies, take this advice to heart: when your child is hurting, SHUT UP AND LISTEN. They need nothing more from you in that moment – nothing but love.

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