Just Like Me

“Remember she may share very similar traits with you, but she is not you.”

Told by a friend, these words moved me unexpectedly physically as it did emotionally. I felt the muscles in my shoulders stiffen immediately and defensively, my throat narrow as I tried to swallow the emotions that were arising within me. It was denial at first, then guilt. My vision blurred as my eyes felt damp. I allowed myself to take a deep conscious breath. I nodded and lowered my face. I felt ashamed.

Struggling to process these feelings alongside an assault of images like a flashback scene in a movie. How did she know? Why did she say that? What does this mean? What can I do differently? What have I done? I am so sorry. I feel awful. I feel sad. I feel like I’ve failed. I should change. I want to change. I want to be more aware. I need to be. I need to keep myself in check. I will start today. I am sorry, I did not realise. How could I not have realised?

It felt like exhausting hours passing in mere minutes. I was relieved to be interrupted hearing her reassuring words “It’s ok. She’s fine. And you will be too.” She smiled and I absorbed the kindness in her eyes. I welcomed another deep breath.

I could hear voices entering my head again. The chatter of self-disappointment, berating commentary. I straightened my slumped posture and energetically pushed the negativity aside. I opened my eyes with a new resolve, strengthened by trust. Encouraged by my friend’s courage to be honest with me. My dear friend was a messenger, a reminder that struck me hard.

This aspect of my relationship with my daughter continues to be one of my constant challenges. I instinctively make assumptions about my child’s actions, reactions, motivations and intentions. I assume she knows certain things. I do not always take the time to labour my explanations. Perhaps, I even speak to her the least. I dare not calculate. I cut her off when she starts her sentences or wants to explain how she feels with a dismissive comment that implies “I know.” I expect a lot from her. As I do of myself.

I drive her hard without always compensating with softness. I get annoyed when she displays certain traits, because it reminds me of the parts of me I struggle to accept.

While she bears the curse of being most like me, my inspiration is to set her free.

LAUGHTER

Written together with my children.

Laughter starts with a giggle.
Laughter is noise added to a smile.

Laughter is living in the moment.
Laughter is spontaneous.
Laughter is impulsive.
Laughter is real.
Laughter is authentic.
Laughter is sharing love.
Laughter relaxes.

Laughter is playful.
Laughter is pure delight.
Laughter is loud.
Laughter is liberating.
Laughter is uncontrollable.
Laughter is contagious.

Laughter can dissolve tension,
lighten spirits, break despair.

Laughter makes your shoulders shake.
Laughter makes your tummy feel fizzy.
Laughter makes you roll around the floor.
Laughter makes you want to pee.
Laughter makes you drool.
Laughter makes your cheeks hurt.

Laughter makes my whole body vibrate.
Laughter makes my eyes water.
Laughter makes my heart dance.
Laughter makes me clap.
Laughter makes me breathe more.

I feel happy.
I feel funny.
I feel warm inside.
I feel energised.
I feel like nothing else matters.
I feel I have nothing to be afraid of.
I feel understood.
I feel I have been able to share.
I feel unconscious, it doesn’t matter what other people think.
I feel like there is no sadness in the world.

Laughter is a reminder to come together,
To fill your happiness bucket,
To make joyful, forever memories.

Keep laughing!

The End

Unpacking Stress

Building self-awareness and emotional resilience  

“Of course my children are not stressed. What’s there for them to be stressed about? They have food on the table, a roof over their heads. They have nothing to worry about…” Like many, I have been guilty of making statements like this.

If we ask grown-ups to define stress, they would probably describe it as being overwhelmed by responsibility, working outside a comfort zone, juggling multiple responsibilities or dealing with deadlines or managing personality conflicts. But what does feeling stressed mean? Psychologist Richard Lazarus’ states stress occurs when “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” Put simply, stress is a feeling or reaction that arises when one feels unable to handle a situation, task or challenge.

There are some events that are monumentally stressful for children such as loss, illness, separation, abuse or poverty. However as parents we may dismiss our children’s daily challenges as being “normal” and over time we may underestimate this anxiety and its opaque impact. Navigating friendship groups, dealing with siblings, coping with parental expectations, managing academic, sports or music curriculum does cause stress among children.

Anxiety manifests differently for each child. I have learnt not to make judgements. Instead I stay alert to indications, in order to help them define the emotions they are experiencing and guide them in managing these feelings. For one of my children, having her father out of the country on work trips triggers anxiety and personal insecurity. We did not initially make the connection, but there seemed to be a noticeable change in her behaviour during his absence. She would be uncharacteristically irritable, ridiculously intolerant, highly sensitive and have restless nights of sleep. Initially, when I tried to find out what was behind all the unhappiness, I met with a scowling face, folded arms and throwaway declaration of “everyone’s just being so mean to me!”. I could not fully accept her dismissive explanations or finger pointing, blaming others for making her upset. It took some persistent yet gentle inquiry and during one of our discussions around her behaviour, she described experiencing an overall sense of anger. When I asked her why she felt angry, she shrugged her shoulders hopelessly and said she felt out of sorts, uncertain. “I don’t know why. I just feel sad.” she said. After some minutes of us both sitting in silence, she blurted out that she missed her dad terribly and was anxious about his personal safety. Her tantrums and “blaming the world” attitude was masking her inability to deal with vulnerability, insecurity and stress. It was not easy for her to articulate these emotions but the realisation liberated her. Being able to notice that discomfort and unease can occasionally spark a chain of emotions and actions has not only helped her during her father’s absence but when she has had to deal with tension triggered by experiences of loss or friendship issues.

While we know that experiencing some level of stress can be motivator as it gets the adrenaline working, prolonged stress has been shown to impact physical functioning, brain development and emotional growth. As grown-ups, we occasionally forget to put ourselves in the shoes of our child, instead we judge their experience and situation as trivial. Emotional resilience can be taught and like most skills, develops with practice. Just as we have learnt to deal with varying degrees of stress through years of self-discovery, I hope to equip my children with a better understanding of their own nature. From there, they can learn how to untangle the web of overwhelming emotions that life will bring up. I want to encourage them to have a curiosity about their own emotions, decipher the range of sentiments being experienced and to notice when they arise.

When it comes to feelings there is no place for judgement, only realisations. From greater self-discovery and emotional understanding we can be guided towards compassion and kindness. This in turn will bear self-love and self-forgiveness, the invisible sentinels that protect us against lingering stress and anxiety.

 

 

 

 

 

Room for Settling Conflict

Enforcing a ceasefire and self-regulated dispute resolution

“Staff members are strongly encouraged to first try and solve a dispute through informal channels…Resolving disputes through negotiation, mediation and other alternative means is usually quicker, and often proves to be less stressful and less cumbersome…” A guide to resolving disputes, Administration of Justice in the United Nations (2009).

It was a busy few weeks leading up to the end of the academic year for our children. Mixed emotions filled the air. There was weariness from jam-packed school days and weekends of performance rehearsals. Alongside this, the delight of anticipating a long summer break and the sorrow from having to bid farewell to departing classmates. We experienced some tranquil post school afternoons, as each found their own corner of our home to reflect on memories or rehearse for upcoming exhibitions. In contrast, some days had an atmosphere that was volatile, where I found myself playing moderator to outbursts when moods caused spectacular collisions of sentiment.

While I sat finishing my week’s course assignment over a weekend, I was rudely interrupted with shouting: “Mom! Did you just see what she did? Did you hear what she said? MOM!” I stood up. I had no desire to referee any more disputes, incapable of mustering patient parenting practices. I summoned them all into my bedroom. Exasperated, I barked, “You are all going to stay in here for however long it takes to work it out. These few weeks, there have been so many tiffs. You are going to listen respectfully to each other, understand how the other person is feeling. Scream, yell, I really don’t care! Come to some sort of resolution about how you are to exist together in this home peacefully. Do you hear me?!” I stormed out the room, pulled the door closed and returned to writing my assignment.

It was twenty-five minutes since I had left them to reconcile when I heard my bedroom door open and footsteps heading towards me. While concerned and curious, I resisted the temptation to insist on a post mortem. They needed time to consolidate and take ownership of whatever resolution they arrived at. In the next few hours, I observed their interaction. The ambience had transformed; they were gently cordial, almost affectionate and even helpful to one another.

I eventually interviewed them separately about their experience and conflict resolution process. This is what I learnt. Behind those closed doors, after a period of silence, they took turns to voice their grievances to each other. While one spoke, the others grudgingly paid attention. Upon individual reflection, they admitted to observing each other’s reactions, listening and eventually discussing their varied perspectives. In closing, they made commitments to each other to “be less annoying” and “set a better example”.  They proposed self-help strategies to manage moments of overwhelming emotions, such as walking away or taking time out for some deep breaths.

Each child confessed to me that this closed room discussion invoked self-realisations. One acknowledged that her siblings “are hurtful to me because I can sometimes be purposely hurtful to them”. Another child made a commitment towards self-improvement after hearing her siblings’ perspectives. I feel slightly more equipped for more misbehaviour over the long summer break. Gladly, I now know we are armed with at least one resolution technique! I will just usher them into a room, shut the door and convene a “three-in-a-room” session.

Stars, Rainbows and Pots of Gold

A profound realisation from abandoned star charts.

“It’s not fair! My friend says if she scores an A in her end of term exams, she will get her own iPhone. This other friend, her parents have promised her money for getting a distinction in her piano exam! It’s just so unfair!” This is not the first or the last time I have heard such declarations of injustice from my children. They live with parents who do not believe in incentivising them materially to achieve certain grades or scores. Disgruntled, she reluctantly consoles herself with “I know. I know. I know what you’re going to say – what else would be worth more than a hug and a kiss from your mom?” I smile empathetically and offer no retort.

For many years, I have been unable to articulate why I am ineffective in administering star charts or incentive programs at home. It is not to say that we have never celebrated our children’s effort or achievements. Rewards are received as surprise treats. They have initiated proposals to us which we have considered and acceded to. At the age of six, our youngest child desperately wanted a hamster as a pet. She pitched that if she completed her daily chores for a whole month without having to be reminded, would we allow her a pet hamster? She impressively achieved it and we welcomed Honey Macaron into our home. Sadly, after a few months, her weekly cleaning of Honey Macaron’s cage triggered her asthma, so we found the hamster a new home. While the end of this incentive story was heartbreaking, I digress.

As a motivational tool, some reward systems create expectations of a direct correlation between completing a set of tasks and the immediate receipt of a material reward. Not every action in life will reap a tangible reward, let alone deliver immediate gratification. I am cautious about encouraging a sense of entitlement and nurturing children who only take action after a favourable “what’s in it for me?” evaluation. How about taking action simply because it is your responsibility or that it is a way of expressing gratitude? I have tried to find creative ways to inspire action from my children. For example, making their beds has been coined as “1-minute appreciation in the morning”. I did a quick survey around my parent friends and most admitted that while they would like to implement it, not many have been successful, with the early morning rush, to insist their children tidy their own beds on weekdays. A few were successful by offering a reward. I decided to experiment without any enticement. One relaxing bedtime, the children and I discussed how each of us loved snuggling or reading in bed, how much time we spent in our beds overnight and the importance of a good night’s rest. I suggested that routinely making their beds in the morning would be one way they could express their gratitude for the adults who tidy around them. I confess my method is unlikely to yield as effective a result as dangling a personal iPhone reward for bed making, but when I ask them “Have you done your 1-minute appreciation this morning?” it feels less like nagging than a reminder to express gratitude.

Through avoidance of direct reward schemes, I hope to lessen the effort my children will need to devote as adults, to recalibrate the balance between external fulfilment and inner contentment. I encourage them to find happiness in the present moment, to recognise that the overwhelming sense of self-pride, tremendous satisfaction and uncontainable excitement they feel as a result of an achievement, is the ultimate repayment of their own effort. Any tangible reward may distract from fully experiencing an exceptional, inimitable emotional uplift which nourishes and powers the soul.

I desire for them to set their own goals and find ways to inspire themselves to achieve their dreams. The gift may be in the journey towards realisation of their own vision. To my dearest children I say, “While you may map your dreams with stars, illuminate your journey with magnificent rainbows and the pot of gold that is your heart.”

 

The Tale of Two Arrows

Neither an archer nor a target be…

The Tale of Two Arrows from the Sallatha Sutta is an interesting representation of how humans experience physical and emotional pain.  When experiencing physical pain, the human body suffers a bodily sensation, discomfort or injury. In this depiction, this pain is referred to as the first arrow. The second arrow however, is the emotional response to the first arrow or the physical sense.  As humans, we may spend hours, days or even years lamenting, analysing, reliving the pain or the infliction of the first arrow. This second arrow, is the mental anguish associated with examining regrets, bemoaning or reprimanding our past actions or undergoing anxiety of the future that is associated with this pain. The moral of the tale is that while the first arrow is involuntary, we can be taught to avoid launching the self-inflicted second or any subsequent arrows.

One morning, preoccupied with getting to an appointment on time, I hastily picked up my then toddler while balancing a few bags in hand and rushed us both out the front door. I bolted up a flight of stairs and almost immediately, I tripped.  I winced in pain from a twisted ankle and realised my child had fallen out of my arms onto the concrete floor.  She did not sustain any injuries and in fact, I can still see her rather unperturbed facial expression staring back at me. This incident happened many years ago. While my ankle recovered within days, I have continued to suffer the effects of secondary arrows.  When I am in a hurry, it is not uncommon for me to be transported back in time and I relive the awful guilt for not being more careful and wave accusing fingers at myself for having dropped my toddler onto concrete. At times I even catch myself wondering if my child has secured any “yet to be discovered” injuries!

There are so many such incidents that have occurred during my parenting journey, that have involved physical injuries to myself or my children, as well as corresponding emotional wounds too. Some days when friends ask me “How are you?” I find myself replying with diminishing vitality “I feel tired”. While I am not physically tired, what I am expressing is more akin to emotional or mental exhaustion. It is likely that I am drained from nursing these wounds from secondary arrows which arise from unfounded fears, critical self-doubt, futile regret or even unreasonable expectations of myself.

Armed with realisations from this teaching, I will put my bow down and choose to attend to wounds of any first arrows with empathy, self-compassion and personal forgiveness.  I will no longer allow myself to be a target for arrows of mental anguish that are launched by my unconscious, uninstructed inner critic.

The Tale of Two Arrows (Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental… 

Now, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental.”

There is Power in Absence

A little distance in love can provide a refreshing perspective and personal growth.

It was 6:35am. We were having as relaxing breakfast on a weekday morning before the children departed for school. Seated around the dining table, there was lively chatter in anticipation of the day ahead. Then one of the children realised that I would not be home to greet them after school, “Mom, we have to say goodbye to you now!  You won’t be here when we get home today.” I nodded. Like a burglar tip toeing, escaping a scene of a heist, I was hoping for an uneventful departure. Instead the alarm had been triggered and instantaneously the atmosphere of the room changed.  Someone annoyed the other and there was a confrontation. Tears streaked, pouts extended, feet stomped, voices became louder as they each competed to share those precious few seconds of my time and presence. I was leaving that afternoon for a week to visit my parents.  On the sudden reminder of my impending absence, emotions ran high. This heightened state of awareness was exactly what I had hoped to avoid by speaking openly throughout the week, exchanging calm goodbyes, warm hugs and wholehearted good wishes.

No amount of planning or preparation spared us from this morning’s collaborative outburst. I stood up from my seat and bellowed. Admittedly, not the most patient or forgiving of reactions but it silenced them all. “Girls! We have five minutes before I won’t be seeing you for a week. Please!” I then walked over to each of them and reassured them with hugs and kisses. No words were exchanged as I held each of them. Words of assurance and comfort had already been spoken in the preceding days.

While this is a line is from a poem on love and marriage from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, I believe it aptly describes the relationship between parent and child:

And the oak tree and the cypress

grow not in each other’s shadow.

While it is never easy to be away from our children, there is great power in absence.  In the physical separation, there remains a strong connection.  We communicate and listen with our hearts.  We recall and listen to each other’s words and wisdom in calm reflection.  Away from ego and judgment, we may even take the other’s advice and suggestions, after all, the individual is not there to smirk or bask in the glory of being right!

A Convincing “No”

Fostering assertiveness in the complaisant

“He didn’t listen to me. He just didn’t get what I was trying to say.” She turned her face away from me, self-piteous and dejected. I reached my arms out and pulled her into an embrace. She grudgingly accepted a hug. Moments later, I felt my shoulder feel damp from her tears. I sighed. I understood her dispirited exasperation. Her father was hardly easy to convince or sway in an argument. During moments of opposition, you would need to stubbornly stand your ground, engage in a well-executed debate or raise your voice above his and push back, forcibly. It was not in her nature to do any of that. She retreats easily from confrontation, compromises readily to preserve peace, which she values supremely.

“You know what? Start today. Start saying no more often. Practice. Just say no, until people get that you really mean it. There’s little point in complaining that the other person didn’t listen to you, feel sorry for yourself and cry.” While she nodded obediently, it was apparent she was not entirely convinced. This conversation felt familiar. My mind drifted to a memory of her at the age of five. We had sessions of role-play at home; rehearsing dialogue to empower her with words to stave off the children at kindergarten from raiding her lunchbox. This reminded me of how overwhelmed and powerless she can feel during confrontation.

I looked into her watery eyes and repeated encouragingly, “Let’s start from today, ok? Start with me.” I made a promise from that day on to respect her “no”, even if was emitted with the lightness of a whisper. I would occasionally instruct her speak it louder, more convincingly; after all, she was already assured of her outcome and this was just a drill.

In the ensuing months, we spent time exploring how she felt when her wishes were not heard or respected at home. While she had initially thought she was ambivalent about most outcomes, this was not true. She gradually discovered more about herself, albeit upon reflection, that she had in fact felt more passionately about her viewpoint. During the post mortem of some incidents, the grave regret she felt, having allowed herself to give in or give up, made her recognise she did have strong preferences. This self-awareness has helped her uncover her stance on subjects and regulate the intensity of her response accordingly. As a family, we have grown to understand each other’s boundaries better.

Today when I hear her uncharacteristically roar “NO!” at her sisters without offering any reason or justification, I hear myself cheering her on in my heart. It’s a start. Equipped with self-awareness, home is a safe environment for us to spar, like boxers in a training gym. For if we cannot practice at home, how will we be ready for the big bad world?

Workshops

PARENTING WITH MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION (SINGAPORE)  Mallika Kripalani (from The Conscious Zone) and I are both practitioners of mindfulness. I have practiced meditation for over 20 years. Mallik…

Source: Workshops

Attitude … a Cry for Attention

Unraveling the vulnerability that lies beneath tantrums.

I have just been struck with a disrespectful, piercing one liner that stuns me immobile for a few seconds. My jaw drops, my eyes blink, I am aghast. Too slow to react or subconsciously choosing not to respond, I have no comeback. I close my mouth, take a deep breath and reluctantly, I let it pass. An image of an animated teenage girl doing the horizontal headshake appears in my mind and taunts me, “Seriously girlfriend, what’s with that attitude?” I almost laugh out loud and it disperses my fury for a brief second, before I switch back to mom-mode and I am once again exasperated by the inexcusable impertinence.

Days on, I am still unsettled, trying to understand what triggers such impudence from this child. One afternoon, I hear her obstinate voice ring in my head. I put aside the book that I’m reading. The voice speaks “I am annoyed. I am angry. I can usually handle everything, so why can’t I now? I do not need anyone’s help. I certainly do not need your help. I am fine. Leave me alone. Can’t everyone just leave me alone?” I decide to ruminate on the emotions arising and dedicate the next few minutes to explore them. I settle comfortably into my reading chair and close my eyes. This is how I connect with and listen to my intuition. I call it meditative reflection.

With eyes closed, I bring up an image in my mind of my child. I notice that I have appeared in this scene too, as a ten-year-old child, beside her. I take a few deep breaths and allow myself to be drawn in. I experience a twinge of pain in my chest. I realise it is more a feeling of frustration than anger. I can feel determination. I feel the immense weight of self-expectation. All of a sudden like an explosion, the sensation of self-worth being crushed into a pile of rubble arises. The emotions are powerful.

Unexpectedly, I am reminded of an incident during my childhood when I felt great disappointment in being unable to complete a task, to my satisfaction. I recall my mother’s consoling words “But no one expects you to….”. And my fierce retort with fists clenched, a deep frown and angry tears “I do!” In this moment of inward reflection, I feel my face contorting and my brow furrowing. My body temperature rises.

If I had the opportunity, what would I say to the younger me, at this moment? I would say that while it is important to be determined and have expectations of you, remember, be kind and forgiving too. Practice self-love.

The next time your child sucker punches you with attitude, take the time to reflect, dig deep, step into the shoes of a child and you may gain a deeper insight. It is unlikely that a child is motivated purely by insolence or disrespect. Instead, you are likely to discover during this inward reflection, that your child is seeking compassion, quiet support and assurance during times of anxiety, fear or self-doubt.