Monday, May 24, 2010


I have been thinking about shame the last few days. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject and I am just going to get them all out sort of randomly, but hopefully coherently.

Shame is so prevalent in Christianity. I was thinking about the origins and it really comes down to the belief that people need to feel bad enough about themselves that they realize they need a Savior. The belief goes that once they realize that they are inherently evil, the vile scum of the earth, then they will fall down and confess their sins and get saved. Which, under the same belief system, supposedly "washes all your sins away," which would logically follow that it would wash away the shame for the sins too, and yet Christians are probably the most shame filled group of people I have ever met. Why is that?

I should clarify what I mean by "shame" and how that is different from guilt. Guilt is our natural reaction to doing something wrong. And by wrong, I don't mean developmentally appropriate childish behavior, mistakes or having a different opinion than your parents. I mean, in it`s simplest terms, "hurting someone." It is totally natural and healthy to feel guilt if we hurt someone. That feeling is like a guide, showing us the way towards making amends. I would even say it's an extension of love, because if we love someone, we care if they are hurt. If we caused it, we feel guilt. Guilt is an internal process, between us and the Holy Spirit.

Shame on the other hand is externally imposed and is used to control another person`s behavior. It is yet another chapter of the Bible of Behaviorism: Christian Child Rearing Practices by B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov. When a parent shames a child they are essentially saying, "If I can make you feel bad enough, you will stop that behavior, thereby making parenting you more convenient for me and making me look better to those around us." Things like "don't act like a baby," "how could you do something so stupid," and "can't you do better than that?" cut to a child's heart, but do work in the short run for changing or stopping behavior.

For Christians, it is too often one of the primary tools for making kids (and adults) realize that they are sinful and need a savior. I was just told a story about a mom who went trick or treating with her kids and her six year old was given a tract. The tract went into great detail about how Jesus suffered and died for her sins, and the mom was concerned that some kids would believe that doing normal childish things were deserving of not only a man's death, but the death of God himself. I don't know exactly what the tract she saw said, but I remember handing out those tracts myself at Halloween when I was around 10-12. Some of them were pretty intense and scary!

Those tracts and the shaming parenting methods are designed to show kids just how bad they are, out of the belief that we are all inherently bad, in order to get them saved. And it works! Lots of people are saved out of fear of hell. Fear is a great motivator, but not a good relationship builder. I know people who have "gotten saved" multiple times out of fear that they somehow messed up the first time. I did that a few times myself as a kid, but never had a real relationship with Yeshua until I started dropping the shame.

I am not saying not to tell kids about sin, but I think the definition of sin needs to be challenged as well. Torah is God's directions for how to live and love and serve. It is "the way" and to deviate from that way is to be like an arrow missing it's mark. We all miss the mark every day, and therefore all feel some level of natural guilt. Even those who know nothing intellectually about how God wants us to live, have Torah (love) written on their hearts, and feel guilt when they have missed the mark and not acted as loving as they could have.

Shame does nothing but cloud up those natural feelings. It turns something very loving, into something very self centered. Shame makes a person feel worthless, hopeless and scared. Fear drives people to be people pleasers, always trying to prove that they can be good and that they are worth something. Shame makes people feel like if only they can follow a certain set of rules well enough, *then* God will love them.

YHVH wants a relationship with us based in love, not fearful groveling. Yeshua provides a way for us to have that relationship and *then* out of love, we can strive live out loving actions.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Handling Emotions

In my last post I said:
"However, I was still not being very open to allowing her to express those emotions, sending her to her room or getting angry about "temper tantrums." (That is another whole post in itself!)"
So here's that post!

I remember one time very vividly, when E was right around 2 years old, that she was screaming and crying over something. I don't remember what started it, but I was convinced that allowing that kind of temper tantrum would turn her into a complete brat for the rest of her life. It was completely unacceptable to me for her to scream when she was angry or really for her to be angry at all. I would say "she can do it, but not around me. If she wants to scream, she can go in her room." I played that parenting card called "consistency" and every time she would scream about something I would put her in her room and tell her she could come out when she was done. Well, this time that I remember so well, she was far from being "done." In fact, she just kept getting more and more upset and the screaming turned to hysterical crying. She kept trying to come out of her room and I kept putting her back in. Finally at some point I realized that she was not going to be able to stop on her own. It was no longer about whatever had made her angry in the first place. Now she was so hysterical that she couldn't stop even though she wanted to.

I don't know if I realized it right then or soon after, but it dawned on me that her own anger and sadness were scary for her. They were SO BIG and taking over her whole body and she didn't know what they were or what they were called or what to do with them. And I was telling her that I didn't know either! Her feelings were too big for me to handle! Me, the grownup, the person in her life who was supposed to protect her and help her was just as scared of her feelings as she was. On top of that, I was basically saying that I only wanted to be around her if she was happy. That my love and acceptance was contingent on her behavior and emotions.

Right around that time I joined the Gentle Christian Mothers message board, and started learning about age appropriate behavior and normal childhood development and what might be going on in her 2 year old mind. I realized then and it has become more and more clear to me since then that my desire, my NEED to push her away when she was upset was more about my feelings than hers. Watching someone else's emotions is extremely uncomfortable for someone who doesn't know how to handle their own. I had all these messages that I had told myself "suck it up," "don't be weak," "only girly girls cry" running around in my head and I projected them onto her. I masked it with some vague discipline philosophy about not letting kids get their way or they would be disobedient brats. But really, it was about my own comfort levels, fear and insecurity. And I had set up such an adversarial relationship that once I had made a decision I had to "win." It was a battleground and I could not accept defeat.

After doing a lot of reading, learning and praying, I started changing how I view her emotions. I slowly started dealing with her tantrums better and better and started learning to deal with my own as well. I remember another time not long after L was born, when E was 2 1/2. I was at DMV with both girls and we had been waiting a long time. Again, I don't remember exactly what started it (besides being tired, bored and maybe hungry), but E started melting down. I had L in the wrap, sleeping on my chest and I was trying to calm down a kicking, screaming toddler. For the first time ever, I didn't feel that flash of rage (which of course is really just fear) wash over me. Even though everyone in the place was looking at me, probably thinking what a brat my kid was or what a bad mom I was, I didn't care. My priority was my child.

She kept trying to get out of my arms and I couldn't hold her with L on my chest, so I took us all to the bathroom. I sat down on the floor and let her go. She raged and raged. She screamed that she wanted out, that she wanted daddy. She kept hitting the door and trying to hit me. For the first time, I was just present with her, feeling her pain with her. Not trying to fight her or win a battle or keep up appearances. I offered to hold her and nurse her when she was ready. I let her know I understood how she felt, I *heard* what she was saying. I was bigger than her fear and anger and sadness. We were in there for 10 or 15 minutes before she finally let me nurse her and calmed down. When we came out of the bathroom, I knew that everyone in the room had heard her screaming and of course they had all seen me take her to the bathroom. I don't know if they thought I was spanking her in there or what, but I got plenty of dirty looks. I didn't care, because it was my first success at not letting my own fear dictate my response to her.

E has always been a very emotional, intense child. She was colicky as a newborn, fussy as a baby, and threw frequent temper tantrums as a toddler. Now at 4, she still feels everything to the extreme. When she's happy, she's overjoyed, blissful, on cloud 9 over the slightest things. When she's sad or angry, she plummets to the depths of this dark, deep pit and looks like she's fighting dragons trying finding her way out. I didn't realize just how intense she is until L was born. In a lot of ways they are similar, but L is the much more laid back version. Part of it is personality, but part of it is that L has not had to go through the things E went through as a baby, like the nursing issues I talked about in the last post or having an emotionally unavailable and often angry mother like I was for E's first 2 years. Or the stress of moving several times and other situations.

Since that day at DMV I have had complete successes, complete failures and everything in between with how I have handled E's emotions. I'm getting better and better every day at learning how to just BE with her and see *her* not the behavior. I'm learning how help her identify her emotions and find healthy ways to work through them. I'm learning to balance that with helping her learn what is socially acceptable and not letting her emotional expression cross other people's boundaries. I am giving her tools (usually right as I learn them myself!) to work through emotions. Deep breathing, prayer, meditation, throwing stuffed animals since they won't break like toys, screaming into a pillow, identifying and acknowledging feelings, accepting them and holding them with care until they inevitably pass.

This evening, D took her to play outside. After they came in, she was very upset and started screaming and crying. I held her on my lap and she screamed at the top of her lungs. I knew it wasn't at me and I knew it wasn't all about going outside. After a few good stress releasing screams, she relaxed into me and sobbed and sobbed on my chest. She gulped out how she was having fun outside with a friend and she missed that friend and didn't want to stop playing. I didn't try to change her mind or convince her that it was all ok. I just reflected back to her what she was saying. She let out all the stress of the past few busy days and missing her daddy who has been away from home more lately. Then she asked me to rock her, so I stood up, cradled her in my arms, turned out the lights and rocked her back and forth. Then we laid down in bed and she laid on my chest. I told her she used to sleep on my chest like that all the time when she was a baby. We snuggled for a long time.

The myth is that if parents let their kids scream and cry and be dramatic that they will *always* act that way and *never* learn that it's not socially acceptable in public. I don't believe that anymore. She is 4, practically still a baby, and still needs me to be her anchor in the middle of her storm. In fact, who doesn't need someone else to be an anchor now and then?! I am so glad that when I need a good cry, D doesn't tell me to take it somewhere else, he doesn't push me away or scold me or tell me to suck it up. He just holds me and lets me get it all out and lets me know he understands.

I don't want my kids to be in their 20's before they learn that it's ok to cry in front of the people who love you and care about you. I don't want them to have 20 years worth of tears to cry at that point either. In order for something to heal, it has to be acknowledged and accepted and then dealt with. I want them to be able to work through that process on a daily basis over things small and large. I want them to reach for healing as naturally and quickly as they would reach for a salve for a burn. And when they have kids of their own, they won't feel uncomfortable or afraid in the face of their children's fear.

E's Emotional Eating/ Nature vs. Nurture

I have said before that I am often pleased and surprised with the food choices E makes. She does not always eat what I would choose for her if I were choosing for her. But on a daily basis, she chooses fruits and veges over sweets, she does not binge on food, and she can easily put food (including sweets) down when she is in the middle of it just as soon she's had the last satisfying bite. (I struggle hard with this, and will just keep going until it's gone, then go back for seconds, even if I am no longer enjoying it, though it is getting easier.) I have also said before that I see her choosing food because of taste, texture, excitement to try something new, fun, experimentation and most importantly hunger. It seemed like she was not choosing because of emotional reasons, such as feelings of restriction/deprivation, out of rebellion or as a way to deal with sadness, fear, loneliness, etc.

I still see that she is not choosing food because of feelings of restriction or rebellion, because we do not restrict her food therefore there is nothing against which to rebel. However, I am noticing some emotional eating in the sense that she is sometimes turning to food when she is sad, lonely or tired.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my mom about food and emotional eating and she commented that she remembered that E used to ALWAYS be hungry. I have been thinking about that and it is true, she has been saying "I'm hungry!" 183,909 times a day since the day she was born. She's usually not hungry when she says that though, and it has been a source of frustration in our house in the past. We often have food out on the table or easy snacks to grab in the fridge so that when she utters those words for the 3 millionth time that day we can simply answer "There's food on the table" without having to get up and get her something AGAIN that she doesn't eat.

And that's the thing... She usually doesn't eat it. For the first couple of years of her life, being a new parent, not very in tuned or aware, and completely emotionally clueless myself, I thought that it was just one of those kid things she would outgrow. Then as I began to learn how to identify my own emotions and realize how often I stuff them down, I noticed that she says she is hungry when she doesn't know how to express what she is really feeling. So, I started giving her the words tired, sad, angry. However, I was still not being very open to allowing her to express those emotions, sending her to her room or getting angry about "temper tantrums." (That is another whole post in itself!)

Over the last couple of years, as I have worked on a lot of my own emotional issues, learned to express my emotions in healthier ways and learned to accept hers (usually!), her constant requests for food have definitely lessened. However, I still see that she does it. In fact, just today I was on the phone with my mom and E and I had a tiff over the office light. She melted down crying and I offered to let her talk to my mom. She calmed down and talked to her, but also went straight for the watermelon on the table and told my mom "Only food makes me feel better." Now, I know that "only" was just 4 year old exaggeration, because she has also told me that snuggles or playing or other things help her feel better. But it reminded me that she still has some healing to do.

I say "healing" because I believe that damage has been done and it started when she was only 3 months old. I went back to work, 40 hours a week and a few months after that I started working 60 hours a week until she was a year old. She nursed on demand whenever I was home, and was held in her daddy's arms all day, but she would not take a bottle of expressed milk. She would not take a finger feeder, sippy cup, eye dropper, regular cup or anything else we tried to get milk into her. We ended up starting her on solids at 4 months. I was quickly able to change my schedule to be able to come home on lunch breaks, but she still went 5 hours in the morning and then 5 hours after lunch every day without eating and she cried all the time. She was always hungry! While I do believe it is biologically normal and perfectly healthy for nursing to be for both food and comfort, she must have been physically and emotionally on over drive, swapping between extreme hunger and sadness for hours to suddenly having food and comfort on demand for hours, then back to hunger and sadness.

I have started occasionally asking her "are you hungry or lonely" when she expresses hunger, and she often answers lonely. Or I will say "do you want that (item of food) or would you like to play together?)" She knows she is free to say both, but often she will say that she would just like to play together. This is one more reason I am SO GLAD we have chosen to parent this way. With my emotional eating issues, the feelings of restriction (even the ones in my own mind about what I "should" eat) have a huge effect on the amounts I over eat and the unhealthy foods I choose.

I do believe there are nature issues at work here as well. In the nature vs. nurture debate, I tend to fall on the side of nurture usually being the main influence, but nature causing genetic tendencies that nurture can potentially expound upon in either healthy or unhealthy ways. D and I both have family histories of addiction, so I believe that there is a genetic component to her addictive tendency toward food. I think that addictive tendency could have played out in other ways had the circumstances been different, but the particular set of circumstances that has influenced her life so far led toward food.

I am glad that we can provide her an environment, support and awareness that is mostly free of the types of things that can cause food addiction, overeating, binging, and emotional eating. She does not have to deal with factors such as restriction, deprivation, extreme stress or fear, lack of emotional support or empathy, and comments about weight or body image. Instead, we can raise her with an awareness of this tendency (offering observations, not telling her how she feels) and support as she explores how her own body feels emotionally and physically in different circumstances and with different foods. We can partner with her to help her meet her needs, physically and emotionally, as she learns exactly what those are and how to express them.