I am kneeling next to his bed, where he is submerged under two big soft blankets. My sweet 11 year-old boy.
I ask him, “Will you forgive me?”
Me, the mother who vowed she would never be like her mother, earlier in the night repeating patterns that broke me as a child. Repeating the fighting and the biting words to my husband, loud and boisterous for all the house to hear. And he ran to his room sobbing, his chest heaving in deep cries.
I stood in the doorway with my heart in pieces. I was disgusted with myself for my lack of restraint with my tongue. For my lack of respect for my children’s precious ears. Because next door in my mind is a room with similar memories of another 11 year-old who was curled up in a ball crying due to similar fighting. A resolution never came. Apologies never made. And a childhood was split into houses, moves and step-parents and child support.
I understand his fear. I understand it too well.
And I know in this moment I have a choice.
I can do what was taught to me, or I can do something different. I can change the pattern. I can’t change the fact that I make mistakes and hurt his little spirit, but I can teach him something different than I was taught.
I can ask him how he feels, teach him to express his emotions, and teach him about apologies. I can show him I am human and make mistakes too.
I ask him, “Will you forgive me? I am sorry.” He looks me in the eyes with those eyelashes I swear were sewn on by angels. “Yes, it’s ok.”
And I continue, “How does it make you feel when mommy and daddy fight?”
“It hurts me. It makes my stomach drop.” he says.
“Oh sweet boy. I am sorry. I love your Daddy and sometimes we fight like you and your brothers’ fight, but I love him. I will try not to yell like that again, ok?
“Ok.” he says. I kiss him on his cheek goodnight.
A simple conversation, a simple discussion, but one that I wasn’t offered and it changed the trajectory of my life. The conversation (which was never had) where I the child was allowed to have my own feelings, my own experiences, and my own emotions. It is so simple, yet you would be surprised how uncommon it is. And how crucial it is to the healthy path of a person.
This ability to express and have needs.
This ability to feel one’s own emotions and to have room to experience them.
The question I am asked most is this, “How can I prevent my son or daughter from developing an eating disorder and/or an addiction to drugs or alcohol?” Every time I speak or meet someone who finds out what I do, this is what they ask me.
My response is always-teach your child emotional intelligence.
This isn’t a lesson you teach over dinner one night, but a lesson in your home on an everyday basis. Asking my son how it made him feel, without me telling him HOW to feel, or how he is supposed to feel, is one simple way to do this.
Emotional Intelligence is not only an indicator of alcohol and other drug abuse, but is linked to emotional competence, social and emotional learning, the development of healthy and life promoting behavior, and has been proven to reduce some of the risk factors associated with alcohol and other drug abuse in adolescents and adults.” – Journal article
Allowing him the language he knows and the space to have a voice.
Of course, I am not guaranteeing that he won’t travel down the road I did, one marked with a need to disappear and hide and not exist in this world. But, I know from the years of working with hundreds of patients and from my own experience, that emotional intelligence is a powerful prevention tool.
I know this because I wasn’t offered this as a young child. I was told how to feel and told my emotions weren’t real, as I wrote about in my book Table in the Darkness, I wasn’t asked how things made me feel and was expected to walk in the lines drawn out for me. My emotional experience was sucked out of me, so I stayed numb, because numb was easier than never being what the world expected me to.
What if someone had asked me that question all those nights alone in my bedroom crying, “How does this make you feel?” Would that have prevented the road I went down? Yes. And what if there were apologies and an ability to see that my parents were human? Yes.
And…could I still have gone down that road if my parents had been emotionally savvy. But, I know it would have made it harder for me to want to numb out had I understood my own emotional landscape, made room to have needs, and a place to talk about how I was feeling.
I turn the light out, but before I do, I blow him a kiss. He grabs the imaginary kiss, closes his hands around it and places it in his heart.
I am not the perfect parent, in fact I most of the time feel like I am stumbling along in the dark. But, I know this to be true and I hope you will place it in your heart – Your children need room to have their own emotions.
They need words (their own words) to express these emotions without mom and dad telling them how they are supposed to feel. They need to see us be human and to be valued for their own needs, wants, and experiences.
Emotional intelligence appears to be a key predictor of children’s ability to make suitable peer relationships, get along at home, develop a well-balanced outlook on life, and to reach their academic potential at school.” – Psychology Today
This, will be one of the most powerful ways you can provide an emotionally intelligent household and reduce the risk for your child to need to numb out of life.