by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin County, California
RAISING CHILDREN IN AN UNCERTAIN WORLD
In my work as a psychotherapist, I am right there in the grief, rage and despair that threatens the fabric of my clients’ lives. I am not merely mist through which this pain passes. It impacts me. It triggers my own grief and anxiety. Holding the space for others to express their suffering alters my perception of the world and sometimes can make it seem a heavy and desperate place. It’s not entirely untrue. Human life is fraught with dangers.
One of the dangers we are constantly being reminded of is climate change. Many of us are dealing with some level of climate anxiety, grief and anger. Some may even be in denial of their feelings because it’s just too scary. As parents, finding our way through and back to ourselves is more important than ever. It’s vital that we model sound mental health. Here are three ways I’ve learned to navigate such treacherous waters to find home again.
1. Embracing the emotion
We are constantly regulating our toddler’s emotions. In order to do that from a place of patience and love, I strive to be with mine. I often end my morning meditation with chanting the Loving Kindness Meditation, an ancient Buddhist instruction on compassion as an integral piece to personal happiness. One line lands new each time I recite it. May all beings be easily contented and joyous and may they not be submerged by the things of the world.
To not be submerged by the things of the world — it’s my central daily goal.
The honest thing, though, when we’re talking about pain is that sometimes I’m a mess. And by pain I mean the doom, the gloom, the fear and the isolation, the catastrophic thinking and the rage. As humans we move in and out of neurosis. I help myself and my clients to do that with more awareness. There’s something really important in allowing for the internal craziness. I watch it, I make room for the rapid thoughts, noticing the associated feelings. I trust that I’ll get through it, that there’s been so much of my life that hasn’t felt that way. I put faith in change. Sometimes I collapse into it. We all feel alone in it, and shame — I should have this down by now.
Sometimes when I’m in it there’s no making contact with me. My family can feel it. I’m not as interested or engaged or joyful. I’m retreating because I’m processing. I hope I can get to the point where I can let others in when I’m in it. That’s something that allows for deep connection.
What I educate couples to do is understand that what the person who’s in the pain state needs is emotional responsiveness in the moment from the partner. That could look like giving space, that could look like holding their hand. It could look like finding the same dark place in themselves and saying we’re gonna get through this together. The ideal is when the person in the suffering can name it while it’s happening and then there’s the opportunity for a shared holding of it.
The other side to the problem is when people think they don’t have any feelings.
I’ve had clients experience this nonstop in therapy. They’re numb, they’re numb, they’re numb and through gentle questioning with me, in the safe space developed by a bond, all of a sudden they’re dropped into their sadness or anger. And because they’re held it feels good, it feels really good. And they leave not feeling numb any more, not scared of themselves. We can be that safe bond for our children to help them feel really good, especially when they are holding scary and sad emotions.
2. Keeping Perspective
As in all eras of crisis, this one demands our full attention and effort. But it is important for me to remember that this crisis is ours. It seems to be a human constant, to face extinction. Some vital part of us is always in danger of changing. Perhaps it is part of how we grapple with our own mortality. The certain apocalypse, death, cannot be averted. So we fight like hell while alive to keep what we know is worth fighting for.
This long-term existential view helps me to not think, “If only it wasn’t so.” It is always so and seeing it thus I can embrace crisis instead of cringing and tensing before it. This is the fight of our lives.
It also helps me to reflect on our blessings. Despite how it may seem, we live in an unprecedentedly hopeful time. At the very least our crisis brings us together. There is a Zen saying that the depth of your grief is the height of your gratitude. Along with the grief, this time brings gratitude to the foreground. My main hope is that in everything we do for the world it all can be an act of love rather than fear.
Sometimes I can see the benefits of the crisis for my son. I want to let him know even little guys can do big things. It will tap his ability to be nimble, taking action and not being thrown off balance.
I think we all can see that the further we move away from our existential precariousness towards comfort and security, we move away from a real kind of joy. There’s so much vain suffering, so much ego and shame. People get caught up in things that aren’t real. When you have a bigger, more real problem, you step out of yourself and connect to humanity.
3. Self Expression Through Action
One of the most impressive Eco-fighters I know is my father-in-law. He is a passionate appreciator of natural environment. He’s a retired executive who has picked climate as his fight and chosen the Citizens Climate Lobby, which champions carbon tax, as his weapon. He writes letters to the editor of his local paper, speaks in churches and has had meetings with his congressman. He is imminently practical, relaxed, friendly and non-divisive. He knows his fight.
That being said, that’s what works for him. My current action is more on the personal level. Apart from attempting to leave as little of a carbon footprint as I can, I try to do things that inspire my kid. I’ve turned it into a fun treasure hunt to clean up trash on the beach with him. This year our Christmas tree was made from tree branches that fell in the storm and we decorated it with shovels we collected on the beach. I hope such actions have an impact. I’m always hoping that something I do that’s positive can inspire.
Sometimes it’s writing. The process of composing this piece has helped me move out of the darkness, process my feelings. I feel bolstered in my climate action by writing these words. I hope it moves other parents to find their own form of self expression. We need an outlet for such a global trauma and hopefully it brings joy.
I want to set up my kid to thrive. I know in order to do that I need to be thriving first. Modeling how to be with intense emotion, finding a healthy viewpoint and discovering rewarding channels to pursue all help me feel lifted. I don’t want to just show him the problem— I want to equip him to respond on all the necessary levels. When I am able to do this for myself, then I am less submerged by the things of the world. I think that matters to the little guys who are paying attention, and maybe with some luck, it is even inspiring.