(First published on http://www.handinhandparenting.org)
Those of us who know the power in expressing all of our feelings feel differently about crying.
Instead of shutting down crying, we welcome the tears.
When those of us in the know get together, we might be overheard excitedly exclaiming “Oh, they had a brilliant, long cry this morning!” with an almost triumphant relief.
We know, after all, that good things come our way once our child has had a good cry. That whatever yucky stuck feelings were making them uncooperative, argumentative, clingy, whiny, disruptive or aggressive—the list of off-track behaviour is never-ending—have been cleared. Our children go on with the day happier and carefree.
Staylistening is when we move in, connect and listen to our children’s feelings while they cry, tantrum, rage, thrash, struggle, sweat, and perspire.
Is this idea new to you? Get Hand In Hand’s Guide To Children’s Emotions (And How To Handle Them) Here:
However they choose to let those feelings go, after a child has been listened to, they can think well again. They are more able to cooperate, to reason, and to remember that they love their sibling. They go more happily into childcare, school or bed.
As the parent, when we are Staylistening, we are the anchor for our child. All that is required of them is to release the feelings, through crying, raging, or struggling.
And yet, there are times and days where a child does not appear to take advantage of this opportunity. It can even feel that they resist the moment to be heard.
On those days, you can SEE your child is off-track. They plead for things they know are off limits. They whine and complain. They cling. They do things they know you don’t allow.
You can HEAR how much they need help and you can FEEL their disconnect, and yet, they persist with the behavior and resist the chance to cry or offload.
If you’ve ever been here, you’ve probably asked yourself, why won’t they just CRY?
You may have told your partner or a Listening Partner, “I just KNOW that if my child had a good cry they would be back on track.”
I’ve been here myself. Sometimes my son has easily used crying to offload feelings he has stored up. Some days, I’ve been sure of what he’s been working on when I’ve Staylistened with him, and at other times I can only guess.
But there have been other times when I just KNEW he had stuff to work through, yet he wouldn’t and so the off-track behaviour carried on.
There can be many reasons why a child resists crying. Here are some I’ve noticed.
Has your child already received negative messages about crying?
When I started listening to my son, he was already 5-years-old and the idea that certain emotions make many adults uncomfortable had already taken root. I did not begin parenting knowing the value of crying, and I wasn’t always welcoming of his strong emotions. If you came to parenting this way later, or, if you were told to shush when you cried as a child, you too may have, even inadvertently, sent a message that crying was not ok.
Grandparents and other family members, teachers, and peers can all be unsympathetic to tears or other shows of big feelings.
Once a stranger in a car park shouted at us that “boys don’t cry!”
Building emotional safety when a child won’t cry
Children will naturally cry, laugh, tremble, and otherwise release tension when, and only when, their limbic system signals to them that it’s finally safe enough to heal, or, when their limbic system signals to them that they are in a suddenly threatening situation— whether that’s literally true, or a perception that’s been hammered into their minds by a past unhealed experience.
Children release emotional tension as soon as they feel safe enough to do so, and it’s our job as the parent to build that safety. Sometimes building safety can be quite a project, but children do respond to these efforts as quickly as they can.
Concentrate on connection to build safety. Laughter is very helpful with this, and helps to loosen lighter fears (and pave the wave for deeper stuck feelings to emerge).
Special Time and Playlistening really helped us to bring more laughter into our days. And when we introduced wrestling into our lives—with me spectacularly losing—I felt my son’s confidence grow, and with it, his emotional safety.
Is your child offloading in ways that don’t look like crying?
Not all Staylistening looks how we imagine it will.
I’d noticed that my son often began crying with a hard, aggressive stare. This didn’t look at all like the heartfelt sobbing in my arms that I wanted. But, just as I learned to welcome tears, I then tried hard to welcome all feelings, and understand that there was genuine need beneath.
When he came at me with this aggressive air I started to offer a physical resistance. I invited him to push on my hands as I steadied myself against a flat, sturdy wall. It meant he could push HARD without either of us fearing injury.
Sometimes THEN the tears would come.
Maybe you have felt similar resistance in your Listening Partnerships? I know I have. To get to my fear I had to allow my body to feel its strength and meet any anger first. It’s as if the anger protects the fear, and there is no way to get to it without addressing—and accepting—the anger first.
Could your child be inviting you to Staylisten in a way that may not feel clear to you (or inviting?). Think about how you may respond to that invitation in a way that feels OK for you both.
Does your child finish crying quickly?
Have you ever been in the middle of Staylistening and your child pulls themselves from it? They may stand up and wipe their tears away. They may get angry or tell you to go. Either way, their offloading stops.
I also noticed this some days during Staylistening. I felt there was more emotion to come but my son chose to shut himself down. During my Hand in Hand certification, a very wise instructor suggested that maybe it was because my son had done enough work for the day.
Working on what is uncomfortable is hard. For all of us. There are also some hurts that are so huge and scary for our little ones that they are too big to work on in one go. Sometimes, children need to take the tiniest thing to have a big upset about, and then they need to feel safe again before they can work on it once more.
I started to trust that some days my son had worked on a chunk and he’d work on some more another time. I believed he would figure it out and that I didn’t need to push or prompt. Instead, I focused on how he was, after even a small Staylisten. Was he lighter? More affectionate? More cooperative?
Do you have your own Staylistening agenda?
Of course, the other element in all of this was ME.
You see, when I found out about the listening tools I soaked them up quickly. Immediately, I was on board with the tools and the science behind them. I’d seen it work and I wanted more. Fast!
I wanted my children to be able to get on in their healing, and heal—like, yesterday!
Here’s the hard thing. My kids didn’t feel that way. That was all MY agenda.
And here’s the harder thing. When you have an agenda, Staylistening doesn’t work quite so well because when you have an expectation of where an emotional release should go you can’t really listen to your child.
An agenda disrupts the natural Staylistening process. Maybe you try to prompt a listening session or prolong it. Maybe you interrupt it with your ideas, or question the cause of your child’s crying. All of this takes you further from the healing you actually desire.
It can help to deliberately, silently check-in with yourself as you listen—which I realise may also sound like it would distract you from listening! It’s not quite the same. Think of it as a fine balance. An artful dance between holding that your child is doing what they need to, while you use your warm attention to heal and ground your child in your safe support. Your role is to let go off any agenda, and follow their lead on how much they need to heal and for how long.
This is a tall order, I know. The best thing I know for making it possible is by using Listening Partnerships to keep yourself willing and well resourced enough to listen.
I remember one time my son chose a time without his little brother around to work on some feelings he had. He picked a frequent anxiety he’d had—going to the bathroom on his own. This was a tried and tested, previously overcome anxiety, which was familiar to us both.
We sat on the stairs and he raged and cried about not wanting to go up to the bathroom by himself.
Around that time, I had been struggling with the tone of his crying and during a Listening Time of my own I had worked on how hard it was to listen to my nine-year-old crying like this.
I had found a photo of him on the day his little brother had been born. His two-year-old face glowed as he held his new brother in his arms. The pride, excitement and immediate love radiated from him.
I listened as I held that photo in my mind as he cried about how hard it was to climb the stairs alone.
During that Staylistening, he has a long, hard cry.
Who is resisting Staylistening?
Even when we know how beneficial Staylistening with a child can be, we as parents can develop resistance and this impacts a child’s ability to offload their feelings.
Sometimes, I notice that I am resisting Staylistening. Maybe I’m tired. Or have a lot on my plate.
Maybe the intensity of a child’s feelings has felt confronting.
If you have doubts about the process of Staylistening, or your ability to listen, or be in the moment during the process, you may find it hard to hold the space your child needs.
If you have substantial hurt in your own history and were not listened to earlier in your life, it can feel hard to listen to a child.
Maybe you are distracted by your own life and feelings, or feel like you “have” to listen to your child.
When you feel like you just can’t face another Staylistening session, you may also start to avoid Setting Limits to avoid big feelings from your child that follow.
This has the double impact of draining your resources further and letting your child’s feelings build up even further, and can lead to one of you blowing your top.
So what to do?
Children can sense your lightness when you listen. If you find yourself, in whatever way, resisting Staylistening, the safety a child needs to release the emotional tension they hold will not have built.
If your child isn’t able to release their feelings, ask yourself these two questions:
- Do you have too much going on to listen well?
- How has your child’s crying made you feel recently or how do you feel about listening?
If I notice I’m becoming resistant to Staylistening, Listening Time has worked best to help me answer these questions and get to why the process feels difficult. The chance to feel supported and heard as a parent creates more space to be able to Staylisten with my child.
No doubt as you ask these questions, and others, you’ll uncover feelings to bring to your own Listening Time.
Why it pays to keep Staylistening
It’s taken me a few years to really get comfortable with Staylistening in all its forms, but we have persisted. I’ve worked on building more safety through play and laughter.
On welcoming all feelings.
On giving myself time to be heard.
And I’ve Staylistened to some big, some small, some longer, and some shorter cries.
And now we have built up a very secure space for Staylistening where the very last nuggets of fear can be explored and offloaded.
Next week my son, who is now 11, is set to go on a week-long residential trip with his classmates.
He is so excited and so ready to take this next leap. That is a 360-degree turnaround from even a few years ago, when he often felt clingy about any kind of drop off.
And so I was fully ready to do a whole heap of more work around him going away, but I’m happy to say it turns out we’ve already done most of the work.
He might feel the need to wrestle his dad. He might need a cry a bit about there being no peanut butter for his toast one morning.
He might need a slow goodbye on the day.
But today, I see the confident, resilient boy we are raising. And I see how Staylistening has helped. It’s been a Staylistening marathon not a Staylistening sprint, for sure, and it feels like we are at some kind of finish line.
If your little human won’t cry, here’s some more ideas you can try:
- Want to know more about Staylistening? Here’s how Staylistening is different from letting our child cry it out, and how it can help. https://www.handinhandparenting.org/2016/11/different-from-cry-it-out/
- Could you increase special time in your week? Maybe shorter, more frequent Special Times could be introduced? Maybe a seven- or 10-day Special Time challenge might shift things. For all things Special Time, check out our Special Time Tool Kit for a monthly or one-off donation https://www.handinhandparenting.org/product/special-time-fundraiser-monthly-donation/
- If your older child isn’t keen on Special Time anymore, some unannounced special time can help build the safety that’s needed. Here is a great article about Special Time with tweens and teens: https://www.handinhandparenting.org/2013/08/how-special-time-works-with-teens/
- Might you have your own agenda around your child’s emotional release? If so, Listening Time for yourself is a good place to take it.
- Can you get some MORE Listening Time? Can you organise some longer chunks over a few days to see if you can shift some stuff your end? Find out about Listening Parentnerships with our ebook here https://www.handinhandparenting.org/product/listening-partnerships-for-parents-stand-alone-download/
If you’d like to know more about the Hand in Hand tools, and like to experience Listening Partnerships for yourself the Starter Class is a good place to start. Find out when the next one is here