It’s a strange experience sometimes, being the parent of children who have had a very different experience to you. Who have been parented pretty differently, who have never been to school, who have not routinely experienced judgement, shame, punishment, and all the other things that seem to go hand in hand with being a child.
It’s sometimes triggering.
Let me give you an example…
My girls do a lot of dancing. They love it. So much so that they are in the performance team and compete at dance competitions for their studio. It’s full on, but it’s fun for them. They are not put off by the competition side, as people warned me they might be if I didn’t send them to school and parented respectfully. Apparently, school and authoritarian parenting are the only ways to prepare for potential disappointment, deadlines, requirements, and standards. I rather think that the opposite is true.
With a childhood full of so much freedom and a lot of ‘doing what they like’, they don’t feel the pressure of competition as some seem to. They’re there for fun, and enjoyment, and friendship. They are there for them, not because someone else expects them to be. From where I’m sitting this definitely seems to have contributed to their resilience and positive attitudes.
We recently spent three days at their first dance competition of the year. Exhausting and wonderful. In one of the dances, my oldest daughter (14) had to do a certain trick. One she only recently mastered, but one she also had not done successfully for two weeks prior to the day she had to do it! She had hurt her knee and it had been too sore to practice, so she had been resting it.
Luckily, it had been feeling a bit better for the last couple of days. Still, she left it to the last minute to check she could do the trick (literally the day of the competition). In my mind, this was too late. I was stressed. I had reminded her a few times to try, she had told me she didn’t want to in case she hurt it again. She was confident it would be fine.
This stressed me out a lot! I was so scared she wouldn’t get it. She practiced a few hours before and was able to do it, though did fall a few times too. MAJOR STRESS! But only for me. She seemed unconcerned, and confident it would all work out.
We often think of being ‘triggered’ by our children’s difficult behaviours, but it’s not just when ‘negative’ things happen. Sometimes our children’s positive qualities trigger us too! You can want freedom for your children but still find it confronting to see them so free when you did not experience the same at their age. Honestly, sometimes my children’s confidence and carefree attitude is triggering to me. I want this for them, and yet I find it confronting to witness. How confusing!
This is one story where I did ok in the face of my triggers. I mostly kept my feelings to myself this time. I definitely reminded her to practice but didn’t go overboard, and didn’t warn her that if she didn’t practice she wouldn’t be able to do it. I have absolutely done this in the past and ended up making her feel stressed when she actually wasn’t. I’ve learned my lesson. I try to keep it to myself, but the feelings are all there in my head still. I have that icky feeling in my stomach.
What I’ve realised is this: it’s not her that cannot deal with these feelings, it’s me. I want to save her from something bad that I think could happen. I instinctively want to protect her from the negative things I experienced, and I also want to avoid reliving them through her. But she is not me, her experience is not my experience, her world is so different from the world I lived in. She can deal with a bit of pressure, she can deal with some stress, she can deal with a time limit. She can deal with her feelings, both positive and negative. She can even deal with the aftermath if things don’t go to plan. She’s not expecting people to be angry at her, to be disappointed, to shame her, or punish her. She doesn’t think people will laugh, or get angry, or judge. That has never been her experience. She expects the best, she expects acceptance, she expects that people will appreciate her trying her best and if her best is not perfect then that’s ok. That is how she is used to being treated.
That was not my experience. Fourteen-year-old me probably would have cried at the prospect of having to do this trick in front of an audience with no practice and asked the teacher to quickly choreograph an alternative. Or maybe I would have even been too scared to say I couldn’t do it and faked a sickness instead. I would have been terrified at the prospect of failing in front of everyone and struggled to show my face again if I had.
When I feel stressed for my children in situations like this, it’s because that’s what I expect, that’s what I feel. But it is not their experience. There’s a definite risk that I can make it their experience by letting all these thoughts out of my head and putting them onto my kids. But, if I can get control of my own feelings, keep quiet, and offer support and encouragement but not dire warnings, then there is great opportunity for healing too. I get to witness a totally different experience. I get to see that my fears are not reality. Fourteen-year-old me learns it was ok to take risks, ok to fail, ok not to do things perfectly.
Parenting offers so many opportunities for growth and healing, we just have to take them. Sometimes it’s really hard to quiet that voice inside us, to let them have their own experiences and feelings, but it’s so worth it.
And guess what? She nailed that trick! Even with barely any practice, her confidence and relaxed attitude saw her through. I still held my breath while I watched though. But that’s ok. I don’t have to be perfect either.