Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Learning my Limits: Native Language as my Trigger Language

At the Cabin, playing "Kuckuck" (Peek-a-boo)

Late last week, I started talking to Kaya in English as she would start to ramp up in her frustration level. Up until this point, as you may know, I've been using exclusively German with Kaya--regardless of my or her mood. Lately, however, I'm finding that when I get "triggered"...meaning, when she starts screaming and fussing and I feel overwhelmed and/or helpless as to how to help her...it's becoming more and more difficult for me to speak German in those moments. In part because I hear myself speak and I find that I am incredibly judgmental of what comes out of my mouth and how. I find that I start worrying about how to say things to her, and whether she's really understanding me (even though at other times, it's clear to me that she is). So, in those moments, instead of focusing on what she's needing and how I can help her get that, I end up focusing on me and my insecurities. Not good. For either of us. Instead of helping her calm down by saying what I think will help her, I shut my trap in reaction to the negative feelings I described above.

I enjoy playing with the language, looking up and learning new words, and trying on new expressions when life is easy and comfortable. Add a screaming child to the mix and it's no longer my first choice.

I'm learning to be the kind of parent I want to be. It's not good enough for me to go with my gut all the time and act from what comes naturally. So, I'm finding that it's hard enough to get these new expressions to come out of my mouth when I'm overwhelmed or anxious--in English! It's seeming impossible, lately, to do it in German when I don't have my pre-frontal cortex available to help me do the processing.

So, for now, I'm speaking to Kaya in German all the time, EXCEPT when I'm feeling that come-on of overwhelm. And I'm finding that the results are VERY positive for both of us. I turn on my empathy knob full blast and tell her how I truly wish I could give her or offer her or help with what exactly what she's wanting or needing in that moment. I don't stop adding details to the mix until she calms down, which generally takes about 20-30 seconds. Sounds a bit like this: "I hear you, Kaya. You sound SO frustrated, like you REALLY want out of your carseat RIGHT NOW! I SO wish I could unbuckle you RIGHT NOW and bring you up to my lap, and sit you in front of the steering wheel and you could drive with me! That would be SO fun. (she stops or quiets down while I'm saying these things, generally...if she doesn't, I keep going)...I hear your voice getting louder like this '(model voice)', and I see you arms flailing too. You must be SO frustrated. It's HARD to sit in your seat when you want out, isn't it?" After she's calmed down, I'll ask her, in German again, if she sees the tree, or the red car, or the 'whatever it is' that we've seen together many times in the past.

The first person that comes to mind when I practice this process is my former roommate, Rachel. She told me about this on the phone a few months ago, as something she used to do with her son, and it really made sense to me as a GREAT parenting tool. It gives me something to do and say while she's getting upset, and ends up having the effect of her feeling heard and understood--which is what we all want when we're upset, right?

In addition to Rachel's advice and support, Geoff and I took a parenting class on Mindful Parenting, by Sheri Louis (www.mindfulparentingpdx.com) which is similar to Positive Discipline, which you may have heard about. The basic premise is the focus on empathy, as well as the importance of dealing with our own "baggage" so that we can model the behaviors that we want our child/ren to exhibit.

I've also been reading a lot of Daniel Siegel, who not only has a lot of great things to advise about parenting, but about brain research and development as well. He advocates for "mindsight parenting" and has been monumental in helping me 'deal with my own baggage' so that I can be the parent I dream to be.

Active empathy is a learned skill. I thought I learned it growing up, but as it turns out, I still have a lot to learn and apply effectively. Trying to apply this new skill in a language I never learned it in is proving very challenging...particularly when I'm stuck in my limbic system! =)

There's a big part of me that wants to be that "perfect" bi-lingual parent and speak to Kaya in One Parent One Language (OPOL) like so many professionals recommend. They say, pick the rules and stick to them. Kids need the structure. I'm finding, however, that more important than structure, rules and even learning a second language is relationship. Without the strength in relationship, we have nothing (in my opinion). That's what matters to me most with my daughter, is that she not only has a strong relationship with me and her Dad, but that she's capable of forming positive relationships with others throughout her life.

At this point, I'd love to be able to "do it all"--meaning, speak to her in German all the time, regardless of my emotional level. But, the reality is that I have limits and in order to be the kind of parent that I want to be, I have to operate within those. It feels really, really good to be learning that--and even better to see the efforts paying off.



  1. You really feel FRUSTRATED when Kaya is screaming, don't you, Tamara? I bet those high pitched shrieks really GET ON YOUR NERVES sometimes. You probably want to SCREAM yourself, sometimes, huh, Tamara?

    You are doing a great job - as a mother, as a writer, as a thinker. It is a joy to be able to read about your thought processi and follow the evolution of your brilliant mind.

    Keep it up!


  2. I'm so glad to hear you say this, because there are definitely times when I just have to give myself permission to speak English with my 2-year-old. For instance, if he's hurt himself, my instinct is to coddle in English, and I think that's ok. If he's about to seriously hurt himself (you know, beyond what a "Pass auf!" might curtail), I also feel the need to shout a warning in English, to be confident he understands me (and that I say it correctly). Because there are two factors at work: My lack of confidence that my German is perfect (it's not) and my lack of knowledge of how much German he understands (I believe he understands nearly everything I can say, but there are times I don't want to test it).

    I like your bringing of empathy into the mix and will check out those parenting resources you've mentioned.


I LOVE reading your comments, they make such a difference! Thanks for sharing!