It Depends

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There’s this thing that happens.

It happens in the parenting groups that I run.

It happens in workshops that I teach.

It occasionally happens in consultation or coaching sessions.

It sounds something like this:

“But last time, you said….”
“But Robin said that other time…”
“That’s not what you said last time!”
“I remember that other conversation, and then you said _____ and now you’re saying _____.  Which one is your position?”
“Wait.  In that other conversation about ____ you said to do.  Now you’re saying thae opposite.  That seems kind of hypocritical and it’s awfully confusing!”
“So which one should I be doing?”

In other words, there is dissonance.  And it makes people really uncomfortable.  And sometimes frustrated.  Occasionally, even angry.

It all makes sense, of course.  It’s human nature to want things to be clear and consistent.  It’s in a lot of people’s nature to want there to be a “right answer” and a “wrong answer” (don’t get me started on where I think that comes from, that’s another post…suffice it to say I don’t subscribe to those sorts of dichotomies.).   Parents want to do well, we want to learn, we want to know “what to do”, we seek clear instructions, so we know what to do or say when “x” happens, and it’s confusing and frustrating when someone says to do something and then in another situation seems to say to do something completely different.

I get it.  I really do.  I have compassion for how frustrating it can be.  The more literal you are, the more black and white your thinking is, and sometimes the more vulnerable you are, the harder it is to entertain ambiguities.  I know it’s hard.  I know it’s challenging what I ask of my readers.  I know that it’s outside–sometimes WAY outside–the comfort zone for so many.  I am asking you to embrace uncertainty.  I am asking you to reject polarization.  I am asking you to sit in the discomfort of not knowing…because that is the place where growth lives.  I am inviting you to train your mind in “it depends.”

Yes.  Sometimes I say one thing.  And then later, I say something else.  And they seem contradictory.  Maybe they ARE contradictory.   That can happen.  What I am asking you to do is to hear the voice in your head, growing more agitated as it speaks, that says “But they can’t both be true!”  And when you hear that voice, I am asking you to breathe deeply, quiet it down, and repeat–out loud if that’s helpful:

“Both things can be true.  I can hold two conflicting ideas.  It depends.”

This is the hardest work for many people.  I know.  That’s okay.   You don’t have to get there right away.  You can rage as long as you need to.  Just keep saying it until you get there.  Because it’s true.

Maybe it would help to give you an example, to let you “behind the curtain” so that you know a little bit about how my mind works and how I come to the responses that I offer.  (Fair warning:  It’s a messy place.  Don’t be scared–it’s messy in there, but not dangerous)

I’ll use an example that came up today in one of my groups.

Apparently at one time or another, in response to a parent’s question, I said that we should not try to distract children from their emotions or seek to avoid them expressing negative emotions–that expression of any emotions should be accepted without alarm.  Okay.  That sounds like me.

And then, apparently at another time, in response to a different parent’s question, I said that as parents, we should set children up for success so that there is less likelihood that the situation will cause them to become emotionally disregulated.    Yup.  That sounds like something I would say.  (And yes, that might sound like avoiding or distracting, which seems like it contradicts the other one)

And then, apparently at another time, in response to a third parent’s question, I said that we shouldn’t avoid or distract, nor should we necessarily set up conditions so they don’t get upset, but we should offer them empathy and offer strategies and conditions to help them restore themselves to a more settled and calm state.   Sure.  That definitely sounds like something I would support.

So which one IS it?  Distract?  Avoid?  Help them earlier?  Help them after?  Let them express until they’re done?   Offer them a hug to calm down?  Empathize?  Leave them alone?  Let them scream?  Tell them that the screaming hurts our ears?   Accept their emotions, no matter what?   Set limits around expression of emotions–if so, under what conditions?  So anything goes?  Is this true for toddlers?  Preschoolers?   School aged children?  Adolescents?  What is the right thing to do?  AND WHY DOES ROBIN KEEP SAYING ONE OF THESE IS RIGHT AND THEN SAY THE OPPOSITE?  HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHICH ONE TO DO IN WHAT SITUATION?

See?

(Are you reading this, your blood pressure rising with the dissonance?  If so, this is a good time to pause.  Breathe.   It’s okay.  Remember that mantra up there in blue?  Read that again.)

So this is the part where we pull back the curtain (ooh ahh).

Here’s the deal.  I have been doing this work a LONG time.  I have been observing and listening and digging through and diving deep and analyzing and reading between the lines and looking for key words as if they stick out in neon and studying child development and understanding people’s parenting struggles for a LONG time.  (Did I mention that it’s been a long time?).  You learn some things when you do this work for a long time.  Mostly, you learn that there are no simple answers.  And no short cuts.  And you learn that most of the time, there is a lot more to parents’ concerns and questions than meets the eye.

Anyone who is in one of my groups can testify that I respond to most inquiries by asking a LOT of questions…many more questions than answers.  Why do I do that?  I do it because It Depends.  I do it because there are SO many variables that matter.   Do you know that if there are 20 different variables, there are THOUSANDS of possible combinations of those factors?   And do you know that EACH of those thousands of possible combinations might call for a different solution or strategy?

Yeah.  Heck, yeah.  It’s overwhelming.  Be glad I do it, so you don’t have to.  I mean, who would want to do that?  (Well, I do, but, you know.)

So….yeah.   Just cut to the chase.  Sometimes the thing to do is to allow all emotions without any distractions or avoidance.  Sometimes the thing to do is distract or avoid.  Sometimes the thing to do is to offer comfort.  Sometimes the thing to do is to steer clear and let the child direct when and how they might be ready for comfort.    Sometimes the thing to do is to set up conditions so they won’t experience such extreme frustration, at least for awhile.  Sometimes the thing to do is to accept that things are going to be hard and to get through it and not try to twist yourself into a pretzel to try to set them up for success.  Sometimes setting them up for success if possible.  Sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes the thing to do is to completely accept, without conditions.  Sometimes the thing to do is to consciously help a child develop or enhance their emotional regulation skills.  Sometimes the thing to do is to walk out and take some space.  Sometimes the thing to do is stay.

You get the idea.  It depends.

For those of you who are just darned curious, like me, and you are just dying to know what these many variables are that make the difference, this is your lucky day.  Here are just a few (there are many more), for your…..um…..enjoyment?

  1. How old is the child?
  2. Is the child typically developing?  Neurodiverse?
  3. Is this the parent’s first child?  How many other children?  Stepchild?
  4. Is there a sibling?  More than one?  Newborn?
  5. Are there health concerns, for either the adult or the child?
  6. How frequent is the behavior?
  7. How long has it been going on?
  8. What are the conditions under which it most frequently happens?  Time of day? Location?  With some people more than others?
  9. What has already been tried?  What happened?
  10. How does the parent typically respond?  How does the other parent (if there is one) respond?  Are the parents on the same page?
  11. Are there other people are involved?
  12. How is the parent speaking about the behavior?  What is “in there”?
  13. What is the parent’s self-care like?
  14. To what extent is the parent “triggered” (by their own traumas or life history) by the behavior?  How does the parent FEEL when the child is upset?
  15. Does the parent want to set a limit in this situation?  If so, what is the rationale?
  16. Does the parent seem afraid of their child’s emotions on some level (“heartbroken” if the child gets upset, scared of the child’s anger)?   How is that impacting what happens?
  17. In what ways, if any, does the adult seem to be projecting their own lens or experience on to the child’s behavior and emotional experience?
  18. What are the external pressures (relatives, strangers, etc.) and how does the parent speak about those things?
  19. Does this parent have a history of asking many similar questions about similar scenarios–questions that feel distinct and different to them, but which seem like one large pattern or pretty much the same thing to an admin’s eyes?
  20. What risk or external factors are present in the family’s life?  (moves, changes, deaths in the family, traumas, new school/job, divorce, etc.)

Yeah, I really weigh all of these.  Yeah, every time.

Now keep in mind….this list is a START.  I listed 20 potential variables, because, you know, I mentioned 20, and I figure there has to be consistency somewhere.  There are more.  More exist “between the lines” in what people write or say.  More exist in what I know about the individual who is asking–sometimes very little, sometimes a great deal.  They ALL matter.   The “right answer” is the one that takes into account ALL of the relevant information and variables.  In other words, It Depends.

For what it’s worth, this is why private, one-on-one consults are so much more effective than anything that can take place in an online discussion group.  All variables matter. And group discussions simply can’t dig out, discover, name, and accommodate all of those variables.  When I speak with a client, one-on-one, we can do all of this, get through ALL of these…and when ALL the relevant pieces are laid out and accounted for, finding the “right answer” for THIS family, THIS parent, THIS child is not only easier, but also far more effective.  It is possible to do, in an hour together, at least ten times (maybe more) what can be done in a large group setting.  This is why I do what I do.  This is why I love what i do.  This is why consults work.

I understand that you want to know what to do.  I want for you to know what to do, too.

I understand that it is comforting to have a concise, clear toolkit that will tell you “what to do” when “x” happens.  I understand and agree that it’s laborious and unwieldy to go through all of these possibilities every time that something happens.   You’re right about that.  And it’s not out of reach.  You CAN have a concise, clear tool kit.   It will need regular revisions as your children grow–take some things out of the toolbox, put some new things in.

I always smile when parents say “But we’ve had the same bedtime routine since she was BORN!!  Why would it suddenly not be working?  We’ve always done it exactly the same way!”   Right.  That’s WHY it isn’t working.  Because it’s what you’ve always done, and your child is telling you they need something different at this stage of development.  Take some things out of the toolbox and put some new things in.

I know the next question, I can hear it (I’m like that):   “So how do I know if I have the RIGHT tools in the tool box right now or if they need to be changed?”  That’s an easy one (for once.) Is it working on a pretty consistent basis, even if there are a few times here and there when things are “off”?  Yes?  Great.  You have the right tools.   Is it not working–for a consistent or persistent period of time?  Great.  You need new tools.  It’s really that simple.

Yes.  Robin said THAT.  And then she said THAT.  And then, yet again, she said THAT.

Which one is right?  Which one does she stand for?

All of them.  All of them.

It depends.

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