By: Randi Rubenstein
It was November 1st, 2017. I’m driving my sixth-grade son, Cory, home from school and he says, “Halloween really sucked this year.” Immediately my brain started swirling. I felt my body temperature rise and my heart began racing ever so slightly. This is what happens when you find yourself in a triggered moment.
What happens next is usually words, actions and behaviors that you don’t really want to do or say, but nonetheless, you find yourself in The Parent Gap.
The Parent Gap is the name of the book I wrote and the term I use to explain the gap between being the parent you want to be and the one you currently are during a triggering situation — when you say and do things you never intended and might feel guilty about later.
On that car ride home, I found myself declining into The Parent Gap due to my son’s disappointment about one of his last “little kid” Halloween memories. I know it may sound trivial to some, but to my brain this situation was serious enough to induce a flood of stress hormones into my body.
You see, as a mom, I have a big subconscious mission when it comes to my kiddos. I really want them to have magical childhoods. And this is due to the fact that mine, let’s just say, was seriously lacking in the joy and magical thinking department.
And Halloween, the holiday of make-believe, costumes, and candy seemed like the quintessential magical childhood experience to my brain. Halloween is a primo magical-memory-making opportunity, and here was my little boy specifically letting me know that this wasn’t the case for him. Halloween 2017 was an epic magical fail on my “best mom ever” agenda.
Now don’t get me wrong, I realize this sounds ridiculous and irrational. I can see things clearly when I’m thinking about it from a conscious place. The problem is, when you find yourself in The Parent Gap, it’s the subconscious part of your brain that comes online.
The brain is funny like that. It loves to blow simple things, like a rainy disappointing Halloween, way out of proportion. Unfortunately, we operate from that subconscious part about 95% of the time.
However, I was one step ahead of my dramatic triggered brain because I study this stuff. I have specific tools to quickly quiet the drama and get back into the thinking or conscious part of my brain.
I found myself ready to launch into all the reasons why Halloween hadn’t been a disappointment and tell him how it really went down for HIM:
I mean, we knew bad weather was headed our way so we had umbrellas and rain boots available. I enlisted my brother, the creative gay uncle Wawa, to create the most hilarious costume ever for Cory: a mall-walkin’ middle-aged mom. We invited a gaggle of sixth-grade boys over for pizza, trick-or-treating, and candy swapping. AND, I actually witnessed them all having a great time.
Oh, how I wanted to point out all of these details to my disappointed eleven-year-old son in an attempt to “happy him up” and convince him that he was mistaken. This would have been me jumping into fix-it mode by telling my son how he SHOULD feel. And as most of us “fixers” have experienced, this never ends well.
Instead, all I did was take a few really deep breaths. I’ve learned that three deep inhales and exhales is like natural Prozac for my brain and body. This is how I help my brain to get back into the driver’s seat and think clearly when I’m in The Parent Gap.
Next, I empathized with him through active listening. I simply mirrored back how he was feeling by saying, “Yeah. You waited all year for Halloween. I mean, it’s the one day a year when you get to eat as much candy as you want, and then it rains on your sugar-filled parade. What a major letdown, especially since this might be one of your last real trick-or-treating years before you become a teenager.”
What followed felt nothing less than miraculous. My kid ended up “happying himself up” and he actually said, “You know, it really was pretty fun. I mean, my costume was awesome, and trick-or-treating was like playing in the rain without worrying about getting soaked and dirty. And the big house that gives out full-sized candy bars gave me a Crunch and a giant three-pack Reece’s because my costume was so good.”
Here’s the thing: empathy is the best parenting tool I could ever teach you. When we master our mind by closing the Parent Gap and show up with true empathy by seeing our kid’s perspective and active listening, our kids are able to find their own solutions.
I believe this supports our kids in having not only the most magical childhood, but ultimately a magical life as well.