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Trying to lasso the storms: Finding out how little control we have

As I sit here in front of the fire on the fourth day of no power or water in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when seemingly the rest of the town is up and running, when neighbors around the corner never even lost power, I struggle not to feel sorry for myself, bemoan how backlogged my work has become, and how frustrating it is not to have Internet. Collecting rainwater and candles, filling toilet tanks, amassing dirty dishes and laundry is wearing. We’ve emptied freezer contents and filled a neighbors’ to its brim. We’ve called on the kindness of friends for showers and Internet. Power is beyond our control.

I remind myself that our house did not wash away, burn down, or flood as so many did in New York and New Jersey. I am grateful for a supply of wood, warmish weather and a family unharmed. I notice that when I can turn my thoughts in this direction, I feel calmer and more accepting.

Hurricane Sandy inconvenienced the lives of millions, took the lives of way too many, and turned the lives of so many upside down in a matter of minutes. Whether we believe this is God’s will, fate, coincidence or lessons to learn, there is nothing to be done but accept what the storm has wrought.

How do you deal with crisis, natural disaster, major disappointments or failures? Do you feel sorry for yourself and wallow in self-pity or do you pick yourself up, stay present, deal with the circumstances and figure out what needs to be done next? In other words, how well are you able to accept what life presents?

Our reactions are determined both by our natural, innate inclinations, but also by our upbringings — the modeling our parents presented, the support we were given, and what was expected and not expected of us when disappointments or tragedy struck.

How many of you think your children are like natural disasters wreaking havoc as they plow through your living rooms and kitchens? When your children behave like tornadoes do you respond in the same way you do to a real tornado? What is different about dealing with a child who is angry, aggressive, and acting out in frustrating, annoying ways versus dealing with a natural disaster?

The difference is that we think we have control over our children — or should have anyway. In fact, isn’t it our job as a parent to control our children?

Allow me to argue. We do not have control over any other human being including our children and when we try to exert control, we lose — unless we’re willing to use serious fear tactics like the ones we swore we would never use and turn into bullies.

Acceptance is as necessary during a child’s outburst or in response to even the most feared behaviors as it is during a hurricane. Paying attention to warning signals, being prepared, and battening down the hatches is as useful in the face of expected behaviors as expected storms. And like natural disasters, some behaviors take us by surprise, and we are not prepared at all. Still, acceptance is key.

Acceptance does not mean condoning the child’s behavior any more than it means praising the destruction of a storm. To accept means, “to consent to receive.” If we are willing to receive what our children present to us, like it or not, we are in a far better position to respond effectively. When we resist the behaviors our children present to us, it puts us in reaction mode, which only adds fuel to the fire.

Resisting through annoyance, anger, hopelessness and self-pity sucks us into a vortex of suffering and shows our children what we do when something out of our control hits home. Acceptance shows our children that if we stay present, don’t take things too personally, and remain calm, we will likely get through the turmoil unscathed.

The more we are prepared and the less we resist, the more opportunities we are able to take advantage of for getting through the difficulty and moving on.

The fact is that when we can accept that our child is presenting unwanted behavior and consent to receive this behavior, we remain in a much better position to both manage the behavior and acknowledge and understand the fears and frustrations that provoke it. In that place of acceptance, parenting becomes much easier, responding to the child is far more helpful, limits can be set more effectively, and the dynamics tend to change — as long as I let go of trying to control.

When children are in turmoil, we lose our power when we try to stop it. Acceptance allows keeping my power while my child keeps his, no matter the turmoil. Now, if only acceptance of losing power in my home would insure it’s restoration! But there I go trying to control.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed,. is the director of Connective Parenting. She founded The Parent Guidance Center, now The Family Center, in Peterborough, where she continues to teach. Email questions or topic requests to bh@bonnie harris.com.

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