Dear Sister of the Heart,
Remember that scene in The Sound of Music, when Maria is having her first dinner with the von Trapp family? She arrives late, of course, and promptly sits on a pinecone (placed by the devious children who want her gone) and she shouts very loudly. Captain von Trapp is alarmed, of course, and then Maria makes the ninja moves of an emotional master. She keeps her cool and does not react. She does not throw the children under the bus for this and their earlier infraction of a frog left in her pocket. Remarkably, she speaks to the children’s higher nature and within a few minutes she is their mama master, and they, her devoted children.
She says something like this to the children, “I want to thank you for being so welcoming and kind upon my arrival here. You must have known how challenging it was for me to come here, from so far away, not knowing anyone and not knowing what to expect.”
And they all feel huge remorse and are reduced to puddles. Captain von Trapp is even more confused- this is clearly not his terrain.
Maria has not taken the children’s behavior personally and by doing so, she has reached their hearts. She establishes herself in a kind of alpha position, dominant by way of her love, and from thereon they are hers. Captain von Trapp’s authoritarian whistle discipline is no longer necessary (not that it was terribly effective).
The great attachment psychologist Gordon Neufeld has said, “If you have your child’s heart, no discipline is necessary.” A big part of having our child’s heart, is to deeply understand that their acting out is never personal to us. There is always a hidden need behind their desperation, and that need is always to connect, to belong, and to feel seen and heard.
If you know my work, you know that I am always telling mothers to learn how to not take their adolescent daughter’s words or behavior personally. Often easier said than done; but hang in with me here.
Nothing has helped me mother more effectively than not taking Eliza’s words or behavior personally. When my reactions are out of the way, I can be a clear mirror for her. When I am able to discern what is true in the present moment, from the false bravado of her potentially disabling words, she gets a mother who is present for her. I’m all there.
Here’s something I am always amazed by. I can be all there when I am feeling reactive. That’s one of the advantages of being a mature adult. You can feel the reaction within yourself (temperature rising, ready to pounce) and not act on it. You can maintain that boundary and keep your reaction to yourself- or to a friend, partner or therapist- who you can share with or vent with later. Which brings me to my first of four points to remember when your daughter is acting out with you:
1. Remember that you have a frontal lobe (executive function) of your brain that is fully developed.
She, on the other hand, does not have the capacity to always be a reliable executive of managing her feelings, her reactions and her behavior. I am not letting her off the hook here, because we also need to teach our children to be responsible for how they treat other people, including us. But it is useful to know that the frontal lobe of her brain is growing and won’t be fully formed until age 25. That means, on a biological and neurological level, she is becoming increasingly responsible every year, and that the proverbial pinecones and frogs will be gradually let go of.
2. Remember that she wants and needs to have a good relationship with you.
As long as you can depersonalize her behavior and remember that she wants and needs to have a good relationship with you, it will be so much easier for both of you. It is important that you remain aware of her essential need for you. She most certainly won’t always remember. She simply does not have your adult perspective, your wisdom of experience, and your level of emotional intelligence to be steady and reliable in her relationship with you and in her commitment to her relationship with you.
3. Remember that some of her worst behavior (and words) are saved for you because you are a safe haven for her venting.
As the mother of a teenage daughter, you are being called upon to muster large amounts of patience and fortitude as your sometimes-frustrated adolescent girl saves her worst behavior for you alone. If you remember that this is usually because you are a safe haven for venting, you will not take her behavior so personally.
4. Remember that your emotional intelligence is informed by your knowledge of, and skill with, moving rupture to repair. This practice lies at the heart of attachment parenting and will actually make your relationship bond stronger.
When you react to her words or behavior (because you will- you are a perfectly imperfect mother after all), you will show her how to repair the conflict. In fact, once you are there, embrace the conflict. And don’t spend too much time regretting your reaction. Only a small amount of remorse is useful and then it’s time to take your daughter through the rupture and repair cycle. Forgive yourself internally, apologize to her for your reaction, and that in itself should help to soften her defenses and help her to feel her own vulnerability. That should help her to feel her deep need for, and reliance on, you. In that vulnerability she will be able to feel remorse and her natural desire to apologize. Not only are you teaching your daughter emotional intelligence, you are giving her the blueprint for doing the same in every relationship in her life going forward.
And let’s remember that though Maria von Trapp lived, we have no idea whether she had the ninja mastery that was written into a character based on her, in a Disney movie played by Julie Andrews. What I love about the character of Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, is that she is an archetypal version of a master of a mother, and that we can be inspired to access that archetypal energy as we mother our feisty, delicious, and sometimes maddening, girls.
Once you’ve gotten a chance to listen to the Love Letter, leave a comment below —