This article is a guest post from parenting expert Billy Kaplan, LCSW. He is the President and Clinical Director at House Calls Counseling, which develops and promotes healthy family relationships by encouraging the emotional, behavioral and mental health of children, teenagers, adults, couples and families. This post on therapeutic parenting first appeared here.
I learned to sail when I took time off this summer. While I was out on the lake, literally catching the wind, I realized that sailing is a LOT like therapeutic parenting.
The first time I took a boat out without an instructor, but with my teen daughter, the clear sky held a few pure white, puffy clouds and the glistening sunshine reflected off the lake. Gentle winds lovingly filled the sail of the boat as I successfully steered it back and forth across the lake. I felt like a champion! I could do anything! I felt like I was a sailor!
And then the next day. The sky was grey and the winds blew harshly with occasional gusts. Just after I launched the boat it was taken by a fierce wind. I got scared. I felt out of control. I pulled in on the rope that tightens the sail, and I caused the boat to capsize and my daughter and I to be thrown in the lake. I was thankful for the life-jackets we were required to wear as I swam, with a wildly racing heart, around to the “bottom” of the boat, pulled down on the centerboard with all my strength, and got the boat back up (which I had only learned to do the day before). Then I headed straight back toward the dock.
I was done. I was no sailor. And the instructors on the dock could hear the fear, frustration, and sense of failure in my voice when I talked with them. They acknowledged those feelings. They accepted them. They told me I did what was natural based on instinct – to pull in, to tighten up – when feeling out of control.
And then they told me that what I needed to do instead when the wild winds blew, was let go and the let the sail go WITH the wind. Then the boat would slow down instead of speeding up, and I’d be fine. So, with some faith and a lot of encouragement, I took the boat back to the lake for another go, again with my teen daughter aboard. And when the winds blew hard, which they did, and we started to move faster than I felt comfortable with, which we did, and I feared another capsizing episode… I let go: I let the sail loose, stopped fighting the wind, and the boat righted and slowed and things calmed. I felt safe again.
So how was this sailing experience like therapeutic parenting? When things are light and breezy with our kids, we feel great, confident and successful in our parenting. We feel: I got this!
And when the strong winds blow, and our kids get into a rage or have just really, really, big feelings, our first, natural, instinct is to tighten up. We feel fearful, frustrated, and like failures. We clench, try to hold on to something. Ironically, it’s at times like these that what we may need to do first is let go… of those feelings of ours. To shift from the issue being about us and our experience of this very unpleasant moment, to being about our kids. We can recognize that we’re having some very big feelings of our own and that we can be the adults (though we may not want to), and manage our emotions.
Don’t get me wrong, we get to have our feelings, it’s just that when we rise to our adult selves, we don’t let our feelings control us – we control the feelings. We take some time out for ourselves, do some focused breathing, some stretching or anything else that helps us to manage our feelings. Because when we and our kids are both dysregulated, only chaos can prevail.
Then… when we’re back in control of ourselves (though we may still have feelings inside), we can shift our attention back to our kids, the ones whose feelings and/or behaviors got out of control in the first place. Instead of resisting or reacting to our kids, and risking having their behaviors or emotions get more powerful (strong enough to even capsize a boat!), we can go with their feelings, we can accept them.
We can resist our natural instinct to stop our kids from doing whatever they’re doing. We can instead send them the message that their behaviors seem to be telling us something, and that it’s really acceptable for them to have the feelings that their actions seem to be expressing. And all feelings are okay. By identifying, acknowledging, and accepting our kids’ feelings, we send them a bigger message: that we acknowledge and accept them: “Wow! Seems like you’re having really big feelings right now! Seems like you’re really, really mad! And that’s soooo hard! Thanks for letting me know!!!!” And, ideally, that will make them feel heard sufficiently to calm their feelings and behaviors.
I recognize that how they’re expressing their feelings is a matter that we need to explore. We just need to do that after our kids are regulated again. As I can imagine some sail-boat captain once said: never argue with a drunken sailor!
I also recognize that even after we learn to “let go of the sail,” to “go with the wind,” things may not go perfectly. That day of the strong winds on the lake, after I went back out on the lake with my daughter, I decided to try a jibe, which is a sailing maneuver to turn the boat quickly. It’s a risky maneuver, but a fun one! So, I completed my jibe, successfully kept the boat from capsizing, and also successfully threw my daughter off the boat!!! We both laughed about it as I turned the boat back again to pick her up. That time I did the slow, steady turn, realizing that risk-taking during strong winds may not be the best idea. Sometimes, when the seas are rough, it’s better to just stick to the basics!!