motherhood wholehearted living

How to Respond Like a Zen Master When Your Child Complains

She pulled out her white board. In my experience, breakthroughs come when a therapist pulls out a white board. 

Moments before, I’d been unloading all of my feelings on her. I didn’t expect anything to change; I just knew I needed to get the weight of parenting off my chest for a while.

“I love my kids,” I said. “But I can barely handle all of my feelings, much less theirs!”

Our oldest, in particular, had recently started sharing only his negative thoughts with me. He’s nine, so most of them are trivial, but I was struggling to handle his many complaints.

Mom, my ears were hurting when I was swimming… Mom, I don’t think I like my teacher after all… Mom, the yogurt in my school lunch was warm by lunchtime… 

The grievances are so small, but when it’s almost all you’re hearing, they add up fast.

Add to that the negativity all of us encounter on a daily basis—a pessimistic co-worker, a Facebook feed filled with polarized political views, even a spouse who just plain had a bad day—and it can weigh us down.

My therapist adjusted the white board on her lap and said it represented a continuum. On one side she drew a circle using a dashed line, and on the other side, she drew a circle using a solid line.

Then she drew arrows pointing toward each circle, but only one of the circles (the one made out of a dashed line) was penetrated by the arrows. The arrows pointing at the other circle (the solid one) couldn’t get through.

“You,” she said, “are the dashed circle. We call that ‘enmeshed.’ Everything gets through. You take it all in.”

She added that we also don’t want to be “disengaged,” the solid circle. That’s too far on the other extreme. Nothing gets in, and it’s an isolating way to live.

So where do we want to be? You called it—the happy middle!

If I had to guess, I’d say most women err on the side of being overly permeable. (We know how our children feel about each of their friends, how our mom friends feel about each other, how our colleagues feel about their jobs, how our spouses like their toast! 

And sometimes what we know—all that information that we’re the keepers of—becomes how we feel.

What we’re looking for, though, is a balance between permeable (or enmeshed, as my therapist called it) and impenetrable (or disengaged). 

Not everyone’s opinion needs to rest on your shoulders. Not every like or dislike needs to be filed away in your memory. Not every complaint that escapes your child’s lips needs to be fixed by you. It’s okay to just hear them… and let them go.

Two Things to Remember

Next time your child hits you with another negative statement, try remembering these two things:

1.  You determine how much you let in. 

You know how a hurricane can be raging, but deep within is a small circle of stillness? I try to think of myself as the eye of the storm anytime I’m facing something I don’t want to disturb my inner calm.

I am the eye of the storm. That negativity isn’t getting in right now. 

2. Everything is a bid for attention.

When you can keep yourself from becoming enmeshed—from letting those negative feelings inside—you’ll be more able to recognize what’s at play under the surface.

Everything is a bid—a request, a plea—for attention. For connection.

Maybe when your son comes to you with negativity, it’s not a problem for you to solve as much as it is a need for you to simply be there with him. And maybe your daughter can live with the way her door hinges squeak or the way her brother chews at the dinner table, but she can’t thrive without you.

Related: 42 Ways to Make Your Kids Feel Absolutely Loved

You’re what your child needs. Everything is a bid for attention.

Work to find that happy middle—the place where you can choose what you let in—and see if you can transition with your child from negativity to connection.

“Mom,” my son says. “Do we have to have to eat this for dinner??”

“Yeah, bud. This is what I made. But tell me about your favorite meal you’ve EVER had. I want to hear all about it.”


I’m curious—Where would you say you naturally fall on the continuum? Do you let it all in like I do?

11 Comments

  • Reply
    Christine
    October 17, 2017 at 9:05 am

    Hi Erica, I feel like we’re on the same page even though my kids are older. To be perceptive enough to look past the comment or behavior and give loving connection – such a gift for you both. Thank you for reminding me to put attention on what’s important and find my happy middle instead of absorbing the negative.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      October 17, 2017 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks, Christine! YES, for some reason this simple visual has really helped me be more thoughtful about absorbing the negative. Hope you have a great day, girl!

  • Reply
    Amy L Miller
    October 18, 2017 at 9:52 am

    This is a great perspective! As a highly sensitive person I REALLY feel everything that comes at me. This really helps. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      October 18, 2017 at 1:52 pm

      YES, me too, Amy! Hopefully this visual will be especially helpful for the highly sensitives. 🙂

  • Reply
    Anonymous
    October 19, 2017 at 12:36 am

    This is really helpful, I’m going to be mulling this over and working to apply it to my relationships with my little boys … and my husband! That said … I am currently in conflict with my mom, who is angry/not speaking to me after I called her out on her constant negativity a couple of weeks ago. In her case, it’s not just complaining about little life stuff (although there is plenty of that), it’s constantly saying horrible things about family members and people I love. The tendency in the family for years is just to sit by silently while she dominates every conversation with her toxicity … a couple of weeks ago it was happening at my grandma’s funeral with zero concern for any of the family members who were grieving … in fact, she kept up a steady stream of hateful comments about those family members, as usual. I was finally fed up and emotional enough to say something. The idea of not having to absorb her negativity makes sense but … does there come a point when that isn’t enough? When actual boundaries should be set? Changing the subject/redirecting doesn’t work with her the way it’s talked about above (she either ignores the attempt, or pouts when she can’t control the conversation, or gets outright angry and starts making random accusations against the person who confronts her, then completely withdraws. For a while.).

    Whew. I’m aware that this issue and all my own baggage with my mom cannot be resolved or addressed deeply enough in a blog post comment … but I loved the post and basically am wondering how it can be applied in a rather extreme situation.

  • Reply
    kris
    October 19, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    I like this article but it really doesn’t tell you how to apply this practically.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      October 20, 2017 at 10:59 am

      I was thinking of doing a follow-up with more examples—Sounds like that might be useful!

  • Reply
    Carey
    October 21, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    Thank you for this. Recently my nearly 7 yo daughter is complaining about everything and its just overwhelming in a time when my husband`s job isn’t going well and my father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. (add my special needs son on top and its just too much)…I want to run away and leave this all behind but I know my family needs me and I do need to be less permeable!! So much easier said than done……….

    • Reply
      Lynn
      November 13, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      Please do give more examples – how to live in the middle.

  • Reply
    Zoe
    December 11, 2017 at 6:17 am

    More examples would be great! The one at the very end would never work on my oldest, for instance. She would straight up refuse to answer the positive question, or turn it even more negative by saying she’s never had a great meal or something. She is the most stubbornly negative person I know. Any attempt to derail her complaints and get her to focus on the positive is unsuccessful.

    • Reply
      Lauren
      December 13, 2017 at 3:29 pm

      our counselor suggests that any attempt to sympathise with our daughter – or as in the case above to so obviously redirect her – is taken as a denigration of her feelings and contributes to resentment and estrangement. She needs to feel them (so.many.feels! she’s 8 but you’d think she was 16!), the trouble we have is in coaching her to let them just be yet keep them from harming anyone. Unfortunately this often ends up sounding like: “I’m sorry to hear that you are unhappy, but hurting others with your words or body is not allowed and will not help the hurting”. Which turns her inability to cope right back on her.
      I have to focus on the idea that her feelings are powerful, rather than negative, in order to maintain some perspective and composure. Sometimes her emotions are so powerful that she can’t contain them in her tiny body. Perhaps she experiences anything other than total enmeshing as disengagement (I fail to absorb her overflow, fail to save her from this tsunami inside her) and a rejection of her Self.
      Or not. All I know is that she slammed her door so often that I took it off the hinges.

    Leave a Reply

    11,598