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Protest and Repair

Even though this is the month of “Thanksgiving”, I always think of “the holidays” as a two-month period of time connected by anticipation, excitement and expectation.

I enjoy buying gifts at this time of year and I have a ritual of buying little things for my grown children’s stockings. I tend toward the office supply items, like glue, pens, batteries, sticky notes and especially paper clips. My kids always laugh when they open the paperclips and the yearly PEZ dispenser. I still get a thrill when stuffing these stockings and I remember when it was so much fun to buy the toys on my kids’ “want” lists.

It’s hard to balance what kids want with what they need and especially hard when we as parents get as much enjoyment out of giving the “stuff” as they do receiving it. As everyone knows, this time of year is about more than getting a lot of “stuff”’. But that’s not exactly what I’m getting at this month.

Parents try to create the perfect holiday. But try as we might, life isn’t perfect. And in fact, the holidays can be stressful for many, many families. Part of the stress comes in the form of negative emotions from our children (and from ourselves). Kids may want more than parents can or want to provide. Kids have expectations. Parents have expectations. Sometimes these expectations don’t match and either parents or kids can feel let down or disappointed.

In most families, kids can express their negative feelings--disappointment, anger, anxiety--and parents are able to stay “lovingly connected” regardless of the children’s feelings. As Robert Karen says in his book, The Forgiving Self, “the parent is able to handle being experienced by the child as bad.” These kinds of parents “remain confident that love is the umbrella, the overarching truth of this relationship, regardless of what else is felt or expressed.” These parents also understand Parenting 101—as Jane Nelsen says in Positive Discipline, “I love you, but you must do as I say.”

Especially at this time of year, when expectations are so high, parents are working so hard to deliver the perfect day, and so many members of the extended family are present, people’s feelings can get hurt.

It is very important for a family’s emotional health that the process of “protest and repair” is working well among all family members. In a healthy family, a parent can say “no”, stand “firm in the face of tantrummy demands”, and still “feel good about himself in the process.” Robert Karen writes:

“He does not feel guilty because he is still in touch with his love—indeed, he is operating out of that love; and he doesn’t have to overindulge the child to convince himself of it. He also knows that the child, in all his ire, is still ardently in love with him, even if the child himself has lost touch with that. So the parent doesn’t live in fear of an unbearable loss, which might make him alternately clinging and rageful. When the parent operates out of this place a good enough percentage of the time, the child discovers, much to her relief, that her negative emotions—her anger, her complaints about being bored or not liking what she’s been given, her sulking, her jealousy--are neither damaging nor a terrible reflection on her character. All these things can live within a loving relationship. Without that confidence, loving relationships feel confining. Love demands that you always be on good behavior, love demands that you always have to be pleasing, and so on. The confidence that she can be all the things she is without fear of shame or rejection, on the other hand, allows her to grant that freedom to others. It is the cornerstone of a forgiving spirit.”

In a healthy family, members can register protests and still feel that they can love and be loved. Members can make mistakes and be assured that it’s not the end of the world. Relationships can withstand the protests and can be repaired.

More from Robert Karen:

“The confidence to repair and to believe that our efforts will be accepted suggests that, even at our worst, we still have a right to love and to feel okay about ourselves and to know that if we make amends, our love will be accepted and returned.”

At this time of thanksgiving, love, forgiveness and hope, take some time to think about how the people in your family experience “protest and repair”.

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