September 26, 2007

All In the Family

Note: Names and some details have been changed to protect the innocent!

When my friend Eleanor came to The Work, she was just about ready to run away from home. In the past year, she has written dozens of Judge-Your-Neighbor worksheets on her husband and kids, most especially on her 12-year-old daughter, Ginger, whom she has found particularly challenging ever since Ginger was a colicky baby.

Not long ago, Eleanor wrote:

"Hey, Carol, thanks so much for yesterday. Things feel much clearer. And the funniest stuff has been happening since we worked on my one-liner 'Ginger's rudeness disrupts our family.'

"Last night, Ginger was going downstairs for a snack, and she voluntarily picked up her little sister's evening snack dishes which were on the linen chest in the hall, took them downstairs, and put them in the dishwasher. This morning, while I was making breakfast for the girls, Ginger got out stuff to put on her oatmeal, and also got the stuff that Margaret likes on her cereal, without being asked. She was incredibly sweet last night, she hung out with me for awhile late in the evening, and she was very sweet this morning as well.

"So I don't know exactly what happened yesterday--are you sure you didn't call her up and do The Work with her while I wasn't paying attention?"

Yes, I'm sure, and I wasn't surprised to hear this. When we do The Work with a modicum of willingness, we can discover that we don't need our children to change in order for us to be happy. When we realize this, things often change in the family. The children seem to pick up on our energy.

Amy came to The Work at the end of her rope. Her adopted daughter Bianca, age seven, has a diagnosis of detachment disorder. One of Bianca's "symptoms" is that she usually refuses to do anything Amy asks her to do, whether it's brushing her teeth, eating her lunch, doing her homework, or going to bed. Often Bianca reacts by hitting Amy or destroying things in the house, showing no remorse. Amy and Bianca have had a battle of the wills from the time Bianca was a toddler. Nothing they had tried previously, from therapy to forging agreements, from screaming fights to medication, seemed to make much difference.

One day, Amy worked with me on her beliefs about Bianca's homework. Amy believed that if she didn't sit with Bianca and "make" her do her homework, it would never get done. Even with this belief, Bianca was not completing her work, often furiously scribbling in her notebook in the early morning on the way to school. Amy began forbidding Bianca to do her homework in the car, resulting in more battles, sometimes physical.

Seeing Amy's frustration and anger about the homework situation, Bianca's teacher had told Amy to back off and let the homework be a matter between the teacher and Bianca, but Amy would not let go. She felt strongly that it was her job as a mother to make sure Bianca's homework was done. We worked on that thought, and Amy left the session feeling she had gotten nowhere; she needed to be right about this one! Something terrible would happen if Bianca didn't do her schoolwork; she'd fail at school, have early sex, take drugs, drop out, live on the street. (I am not making this up; Amy really believed this.)

Later that day, Amy sent me an email:

"Good news...amazingly, effortlessly I gave up getting involved in Bianca's homework today. I didn't do The Work on it at all after our session, but something from talking with you this morning slid into place. One big thing I realized is that I have been holding back doing fun things with Bianca--such as reading aloud to her--until her homework was done. I saw that I didn't want to punish myself, so I decided to go ahead and offer to read, and see what Bianca said. She could have said she had to do her homework, but she didn't say that, so I read aloud to her, and enjoyed myself. She enjoyed the reading too. She will have to deal with the teacher on Friday if her work isn't done!"

How did The Work help this situation? Without realizing it, Amy became aware that night of Question 3, "How do you react when you believe that thought?" She realized that in being rigid and controlling with Bianca, she was being rigid and controlling with herself. There was no way for Amy to have a happy family life if she couldn't allow herself to be happy until all conditions were met. When I last heard from Amy, sometimes Bianca was doing her homework, sometimes not. Amy was still stressing about it, but less. It's a beginning.

What if your issue with your child has nothing to do with behavior? Corinne wrote to me as ask if she should use The Work with her young daughter, who was experiencing night terrors about death. If the child were interested in inquiry, she could certainly benefit from The Work, I told Corinne, and she might benefit most from having a mother who works with her own fears. I suggested Corinne work with the belief she was voicing, "My daughter is suffering," with her own thoughts about death, and with her beliefs about her daughter: "Allison is fearful and withdrawn, and it means that..."

Corinne wrote back to say that she understood she could not expect her daughter to overcome her fears if she as a mother wasn't willing to face her own. She discovered she was holding beliefs that were at least as terrifying as her daughter's fear of death, such as "I am the cause of Allison's suffering," and "I am responsible for my children's happiness." About death: "If I died, no one would love and care for my children as I do."

Children--like our neighbors, spouses, bosses, parents, siblings, friends, perceived enemies, cats, dogs, and elected officials--are here to support us, to point us toward the way to freedom. Whose business are you in mentally when you believe the thought, "My child should...?"

If we can look to ourselves for our happiness, it doesn't mean the kids aren't going to behave, or thrive, or grow up to be good citizens. It's like that old saw about the oxygen mask on the airplane: in case of emergency, affix your own mask before attempting to assist another. We can be of no use to our children if we are suffocating in the name of love.

Byron Katie has said,

"You live as the example of how lovely it is to serve yourself, to create for yourself the world you want to live in, by cleaning up what you want cleaned up. If you love it, [your children] begin to love it also. They become attracted to you and how you live, and all the while you can lovingly ask for what you want, and that is their help. You can ask over and over and over, from a place of love and gratitude for your own life lived well. And they will help you or not. And that is what is happening anyway. It's just, how are you going to live out what you are doing? In peace and joy, or in resentment? If doing what you do brings unhappiness and resentment, why would they want to do it? Notice what you are teaching--is it joy or grievance?"

©2007 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

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1 comment:

Yvonne Spence said...

Thank you so much for this post, I love everything you've written here Carol.
I notice over and over that when I think there is a problem with one of my daughters it turns out that they are just doing what I do (and what I think I shouldn't do so I don't want to face it in me. )
Tonight - after initially feeling frustrated and annoyed - I ended up thanking one of my daughters for not tidying up until she heard me coming back because it led me to think about how I do that - eg, how I guiltily read blogs when I 'should' be cooking and then and try to make up for it by rushing around!
It's not even that I didn't realise I was doing this, but more that I didn't want to realise it, didn't want to accept that part of me, and children seem to keep on reminding us of the bits of us we'd rather ignore until at last we accept them. Truly I am blessed!