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What Coat Should I Wear?

By: Leanne H.

This morning, I was listening to a podcast featuring Dr. Gabor Maté on “Addiction, attachment, and the myth of normal”. In the podcast - and I might paraphrase this incorrectly, so feel free to check out the source - he said something about how you might put on winter clothing to protect yourself from inclement weather in January but if you put the same coat on in the summer, it’s not very helpful. He also said that sometimes, you don’t even realize you’ve put the coat on, you’re reacting so quickly. You just look down and there it is.

I appreciate his understanding of how protective behavior (like putting on a coat to stay warm) can go wrong when it’s no longer needed, or when it’s applied to the wrong situation (like walking around in August in a ski mask and mittens). Maté’s example related to addictive behaviors developing as a way to cope with deep pain and trauma. But, I think to a degree, the coat analogy also applies to parenting. Let me explain.

When the kids were little, I was part of a mother’s group, which was alternatively very supportive and terrifying. The former because, well, moms, and the latter because, en masse, the amount of sheer tasks a group of determined moms can get through is akin to driver ants rapidly and efficiently working their way through everything in their path.

One of the moms had a thing about mud puddles. Now, I am the kind of parent who lets my kid sit in the mud and get thoroughly goopy but also would pack a spare outfit in case things get out of hand. This mom, who was easygoing and calm just about everything else, would simply lose her mind when her son wanted to jump in the mud. I think that is the only time she ever raised her voice in my presence - strange dogs, climbing rock piles, crossing the street, dealing with children in restaurants (which should be a parenting class all by itself) - none of this fazed her. We eventually just steered clear of hanging out in settings where this would be a problem, whenever possible.

We’ve since drifted, in the way of mom’s group companions as your kids get older and more opinionated about their social circles. But, when I think about this interaction (and not to throw her under the bus, again, this was a minor quirk in an otherwise lovely human being, and we all have quirks) I wonder if she ever realized she was wearing a winter coat to a nice summer outing. Maybe the issue came from something in her childhood, where her mom said no mud, ever. Maybe she watched a disturbing documentary about what life-threatening germs live in the mud. (Don’t watch those.) Maybe she just really didn’t like the color brown. Whatever the reason, she’d see a giant puddle, and she’d react before she knew she was reacting.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, as people, we have automatic reactions, and we don’t always know why. As parents, this can be even more visible, because kids are unpredictable and gracefully shifting with all the changes and emotions and everything they’re sorting through developmentally and socially is not always possible. Sometimes we put on the winter coat, and we react because of our feelings, and things that have happened to us.

When I catch myself with a family member, post-reaction, coat firmly on and zipped up, I try my best to take a moment, patch things up, provide hugs, and apologies, and talk things out if needed. I also try to not give myself a hard time for wearing the coat. I believe we should be compassionate to ourselves as well as to our kids. In our own time, we may choose to work on taking that coat off and putting on something more seasonably appropriate. Or better, work to give ourselves time to pause and consider which reaction would best fit the situation.

So, as we wander through the unpredictable terrain of parenting, we can try to retain our compassion as we recognize the coats we wear, whether they shield us from past hurts or simply don't match the season. As we learn, we can work towards understanding and patience, both for ourselves and our children.


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