In my post “It’s normal not to feel ok” I’ve illustrated my motivation to sharing with you some thoughts on modelling and teaching mental self-care and emotional health in the family. So I’ll be totally blunt and dive straight in …
1. “Are you ok?”
We ask this question all the time, usually when someone looks or acts like they are not. We ask it because we sense that someone is not ok. Yet we ask this particular question, instead of “How are you feeling?” or “How was that for you?”
When putting the “ok?” in our question, we are implying the answer we are expecting. Once we get the “yeah”, we experience an inner sigh of relief and move on. Or maybe we’ll double check with “You sure?” The answer isn’t often “No, I’m not, actually.” So instead, ask an open question. Ask “How are you?”.
2. “You’re ok.”
Or the more Irish version “Ah, you’re grand.” So often, that’s the first thing a child hears when they’ve had a fall or bump. And usually, those words are uttered several times in a row. Let’s be that child for a second: You’ve tripped and landed on your knee. You didn’t expect that. You wanted to go get that pen off the table, now suddenly you are on the floor. You can feel where your knee hit the floor. You are not quite sure what just happened there… Does that feel “ok”?
If we completely ignore all that goes on for the little person and brush it off with “You’re ok”, what they hear is “It doesn’t matter, suck it up, get on with it.” Here’s what that line doesn’t teach them: coping skills. Yes, there’ll be many more falls, trips, bumps, disappointments to work through. No, the world won’t end every single time. However, to be sure of that, and to be able to navigate those sudden speed bumps or forks in the road, we need to learn how to.
3. Name it.
“You kept your eyes on that pen and didn’t notice the truck on the floor, you tripped over the truck and fell. Your knee’s a bit sore now and you are feeling frustrated.”
Explain. Give words for what happened. Name how it feels. And then offer age appropriate suggestions. First, for dealing with the situation at hand (e.g. a kiss, a hug, a check if there’s a cut, an ice pack). Then you can explore why it happened and what could be done to avoid it occuring in the future. And: do the exact same thing for situations your encounter yourself! Out loud when your kids are around, or after the fact, when you’ve composed yourself.
You are doing several things here for your little person: building their vocabulary, teaching them coping skills, modelling cause and consequence, showing them that we are free to make choices.
4. Eliminate “but”
This one was a revelation to me a few years back (There was another epiphany the same weekend, more about that later…). How do the following sound to you?
“I know you want to stay but we’ve to go pick up your brother.”
“I understand this glass was really special to you but I can’t do anything about it being broken.”
“I imagine you’ve had enough of me banging on about it but you need to understand …”
Now try this:
“I know you want to stay and your brother is finished school soon.”
“I understand this glass was really special to you and I wish I was able to fix it.”
“I imagine you’ve had enough of me banging on about it and at the same time I need you to understand …”
See what’s happening there? “But” makes the first statement less worthy, belittles it, kinda pushes it to the side to make way for the more important fact. “And”, on the other hand, puts them on the same level, opens possibilities. It’s a bit like “but” closing a door while “and” keeps it open, fully aware that the door is there. It takes a while to get used to it, and it really is worth the effort!
5. Listen with curiosity.
When you listen, do so fully. Listen with your eyes, your nose, your ears. Do it with openness, ready to learn. When listening, be aware that someone may feel different about a situation than you experience it or interpret it from observation. “You did awesome!” or “You were so confident!” may shut down communication when the other participant doesn’t feel awesome at all, or was fighting to keep it together. Try “How did that feel?” as an open question. At the very least, we should listen carefully when the response to our excitement is “Actually, no …”
6. Your needs are equal.
This is the epiphany I mentioned earlier. The first major wow was actually the fact that I have needs beyond fed and housed. I knew my little people did, it never occured to me that I do, too! The second biggy: My needs are just as important as anyone else’s, and that includes the babies. I’m older, able to delay gratification, reason, act independently, so my needs are often less immediate than the small people’s. At the same time, they are just as valid. Some of my big needs are space, compassion, support, companionship, validation. Your needs are different. They may be the polar opposite. And they are just as important.
Needs are the building blocks that make up the foundation of the mighty house that’s you. They crumble when they are not looked after.
7. Bring your portable comfort zone.
We all have little pick-me-ups, be that going for a spin on the bike, listening to certain music, meeting a friend. And sometimes, when we are in the thick of a downward spiral, or with someone who is, it can be so hard to remember and access them. I love Scott Noelle’s idea of a portable comfort zone to help here. You can read Scott’s full article by following the link, here’s the quicky:
Create a list of simple, soothing/energizing activities you can do whenever it all gets too much. Write the list on a small card and carry it with you. Here’s my favourite bit: Include things you can do with your kids, things you can do away from home, and at least one thing you can do entirely in your mind (yes, Scott has children himself!)
8. It sucks.
So say that it does. Also remember: It sucks differently for different people in different situations. Don’t compare and feel you’ve no reason or right to “complain” because others seem worse off. Other people’s stuff doesn’t make your experience less real for you.
Likewise, just because you’ve been through more than someone else doesn’t mean their struggles feel small for them.
9. It’s normal to feel cold.
What do you do when you feel uncomfortably cold? Dislocated your finger? Pulled a muscle when lifting a heavy table? You put on another layer, take a spin to hospital, get a friend or two to help with the lifting and put a heat pack on. You wouldn’t question your discomfort, nor would you ignore it. You’d set about putting measures in place to feel comfortable again, either yourself or with help from others.
Mental wellbeing is no different. It’s normal for it to be off whack. And it’s equally normal to take steps to realign it … by yourself, or with help from others. Until you embrace that for yourself, it’ll be tricky to be comfortable with and there for others and their feelings of sadness, anger, loneliness and dispair.
10. It takes time.
As a little after thought: Don’t expect change overnight! Learning happens by being aware, then noticing your own actions, then practicing until it becomes second nature. Take “Are you ok?” for instance. I only copped to that a few weeks ago. I am currently at the stage were 8 times out of 10 I’ll ask exactly that, followed by an internal “Darn!” and a voiced “How are you?”. Gradually, it’ll be 5 times out of 10, then 3, then only the very occasional slip. We write words one letter at a time. Eventually, they form sentences, paragraphs … then a story. On paper, and in life.
The language we use and are surrounded by impacts how we think. Being aware of your use of language and making minor changes can provide invaluable opportunities for growth and reflection. It creates awareness that there’s always more than one point of view and thus providing an invaluable foundation in developing empathy. Being aware of options and choices is a major component in self-care. It’s empowering knowing that YOU get to make the choice (even if it is between bad and worse) instead of just taking things as they are and being left feeling like a puppet.
An edited and extended version of this article was published in Natural Parenting Ireland Magazine 01/2017 as “The Power of Language “.