Disaster! Crisis! Alert!
This is how my everyday life often feels to me. Say I’m already a couple of minutes late to a scheduled meeting, and as I step onto the front porch, I see a neighbor walking over to say “hi”. My brain yells: “Alert! Abort conversation immediately, or lateness may increase by a disastrous 30 seconds to a minute!” My blood pressure rises, my brain goes into fight or flight, and I truly feel as if I need to ward off an enemy or flee for my survival. I only relax when I arrive at the meeting, and the other person, as usual, is either totally fine with my lateness or is even more late themselves.
“I have been practicing giving myself compassion instead of criticism for this degree of alarm. As a young child, I relied entirely on others, so getting scolded really did feel like a threat to my survival. And it’s understandable that a lot of that fearful thinking has carried over into my current life, however unproductive it may feel for me now as an adult.”
With two sensitive young children at home, sibling conflicts used to be a major source in triggering this kind of fight or flight energy. Tears, shouts and thumps would ring my alarm bells many times a day. Then a few months ago, I had a powerful experience of responding differently to a sibling conflict that has begun to change this pattern in our family. It was my son’s birthday, and I had bought a few boardgames for us to play together with his sister that day. I bought whatever looked good at our local second-hand store, and one of the games happened to be made by a company called The Peaceable Kingdom. According to the box it was designed to “inspire cooperation and cultivate kindness”…so it was no surprise when my son grabbed a token out of his sister’s hand and began to run around the room with it, laughing. She yelled in anger and frustration as she tried to get it back, and he yelled back, “Look mommy, isn’t it so funny when she’s so angry?” as he continued to dodge her and keep the token out of her reach.
Maybe because of the humorous irony of witnessing this war break out in the Peaceable Kingdom, I did not hear any alarm bells in that moment. Instead I felt a calm conviction that my daughter does not “need” that token back and my son does not “need” to learn a lesson. From my new felt vantage point I saw that what I can calmly offer them right now is to see, hear and understand my daughter’s distress, and to validate her feelings. Those feelings were intense, and yet there was no disaster or danger going on – just a lot of discomfort and intensity that was difficult for her to process in that moment. As I held and listened to my daughter, I connected to my own inner child, and to all those times that I was frustrated or thwarted as a kid. I saw that what would have supported me to process and move on from those events with my self-love and self-image intact was not for anyone to be punished or for the problem to be fixed. All I needed was to feel someone’s kindness and care towards my feelings, to hear someone gently saying: “Of course you feel that way. Of course you didn’t want that to happen.” What I needed was for someone to be my SafeSeat.
Since that event, something has changed in how I see sibling conflicts, and some of the emergency-urgency energy has dissipated. Since I can validate my kids’ feelings almost anytime, under any circumstances, it does not feel so urgent to resolve the conflict. With the sense of crisis removed, I’m not jumping into fight-or-flight right away, and I’m able to provide support and make space for a creative and collaborative solution that my kids often come up with on their own. (“OK, I can throw the balls that way so that it doesn’t break her tower.”) Or if safety is a concern I can step in to take one child to a different room. Whatever I decide to do, it is so much more effective when I don’t approach the conflict as a disaster.
When I do approach conflicts in an urgent way, I pit myself against reality. Then I feel trapped between the voice screaming in my head to fix everything and make it better, and my inability to control another person’s behavior. Pretty quickly I’m overwhelmed with a feeling of powerlessness, which I then try to avoid and push aside with a big dose of anger. Once I’m at that point, my inner wise adult is not available to support my children, and I join them in their distress and dysregulation until I take a time out for myself and spend some time in the SafeSeat. This comes with its own benefits for me and my children…and it is really nice when we can coast through a conflict without a 30-minute dysregulation fest.
So in a way, the Peaceable Kingdom game did “inspire collaboration and cultivate kindness” – it inspired my kindness towards myself and my children’s feelings, which makes space for them to resolve their conflicts through collaboration.
Masha is a Purejoy graduate from the class of 2021. She has mostly moved on from Guess Who to cushion fights with her son and setting up all the dinosaurs in a row along the piano keys with her daughter. She is now slightly favoring improv comedy classes over stand up open mics as a participant, though it’s still a toss up for which is more fun to watch.