When I was a kid, I did things that irritated the adults in my family, often. My grandparents would take my cousins and me to the lake every summer in east Texas. The best thing about the trip was we didn’t have to take showers. Swimming counted as bathing, and we swam every day. So, who needed a shower, right?
My grandpa kept a golf cart at the lake and when we arrived my cousins and I would fight over who got to drive first. There were trails around the lake for miles. We would go on long excursions and return hours later with the battery drained.
One day, we were cruising along one of the main roads and I spotted a trail on the left that snuck into the woods. This was in east Texas, which is covered in forest, as far as I’m concerned. At least that’s what it seems to me being from the Texas Panhandle and all, where the landscape is essentially barren of trees.
I suggested we take the trail into the forest. My cousins refused, so I grabbed the stick and shoved it into reverse. The golf cart came to a screeching halt and was done for, broken. I braced myself for their wrath…ooops. To be honest, I thought the cart would simply change directions and head back toward the trail we just passed. It was an honest mistake.
We pushed the cart all the way back to the cabin for at least a mile. Nobody was happy with me, my grandpa especially. Everyone’s disappointment was palpable. It stung. I just wanted to run away and hide. As a 6-year-old, I didn’t know how to process everyone’s disappointment in me.
Most of us tend to think in black-or-white terms. They either like me or they don’t; it’s black or white. In this instance, they obviously didn’t like me, or that’s how I perceived it. I was devastated.
As a professional counselor, I’ve learned that things are rarely black and white.
Parental, or caretaker, ambivalence is closer to what my grandpa actually experienced, although I didn’t know it at the time. Although he was irritated that I broke the golf cart, he also loved me. He experienced two contradictory emotions, knowns as ambivalence. In other words, he had mixed feelings about me in that instance.
I’m convinced he was highly attuned to his feelings because he never responded to me inappropriately or out of anger. His love for me kept him silent and supportive throughout the whole ordeal. Our ability as parents and caretakers to help our children develop a sense of security demands this type of self-reflection. Having the ability to sense the wide variety of mixed feelings we have for our children at any given moment is vital.
My children didn’t always like to bathe, either. When they were younger, they’d fuss about having to take a shower, which would irritate me. I chose to keep my mouth shut as the irritation built, welling up inside me. It took all I had not to say back in a frustrated tone of voice, “Go take a shower like I told you!”
I didn’t say anything in that moment of intense irritation, though. I took some time to self-reflect on what I was feeling in that particular moment when my daughter was whining about having to take a shower. Take a deep breath…what am I feeling right now?
Definitely irritated! Hold on…what else are you feeling?
I love my kid and she’s obviously upset. My compassion for her suffering, even if it is just about taking a shower, kicks in. In those moments, I’m grateful that I remain silent long enough to see past my irritation. The compassion wells up to the surface and I attune myself to her, responding directly to her suffering with what she needs most.
“Hey, come over here daughter.” She approaches me slowly, all bent out of shape.
“What!?” She asks rhetorically as if she doesn’t really want to hear what I have to say.
“What can I do to make it easier for you to take a shower, right now? How can I make this a better experience for you?”
“You don’t have to do anything, daddy. I’ll go take a shower.”
We prevented this little rift between us from turning into an unhelpful and painful argument. My daughter was upset, so I responded firmly with compassion. This closed the gap. Yes, I was firm and compassionate at the same time. It works.
I wonder if my readers get tired of hearing about my life. These stories I share with you are to illustrate what I’ve learned and what I help teach my clients at Recovatry. To be honest, I’d rather put myself on the chopping block. I’ve heard hundreds of stories over the years from my clients, but those are theirs to share.
Parental ambivalence is a skill. It’s the ability to sense the mixed feelings you have for your child, to sit long enough in silence, and to self-reflect when they irritate you. When we do this, we begin to sense the compassion we have for them. Waiting will usually cause it to bubble up to the surface and serve our kids in the moments they need it most.
Keep learning my friends!