THE BLOG
03/17/2016 02:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The secret weapon every parent needs to know about

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I have a secret weapon. Something that has changed my personality, my beliefs and even my posture. A practice that has rewired my brain and left me 80% less reactive to my children's difficult behaviours and other things that used to trigger me. A tool that has lifted me from a place of being debilitated by severe nerve pain to feeling pretty bombproof in my resilience and deeply supported by others. A process so powerful that people in my life very quickly noticed and adopted it into their lives too! Ok it's not that secret, it's one of the Hand in Hand Parenting tools that we call Listening Partnerships.

Listening Partnerships (where two parents exchange time to listen to one another with a focus on releasing emotion) have allowed me to unwind jumbles of thoughts and concerns and to work deeply on the core issues that get activated by being around children. When we have unresolved issues from the past it impacts on brain function. The brain's emotional centre gets stirred up by current challenges that remind us of something historic; firing out stress hormones and suppressing the function of the part of the brain responsible for logic, reason, memory. We literally can't think when we are under a cloud of emotional debris and we're more likely to react inappropriately to our kids. Enabling a release through laughter, crying, trembling or raging, allows us to restore clear thinking by offering regular opportunities to pour out emotion. If you can't immediately get in touch with emotion, your listener helps you get to feelings by offering specific suggestions or questions.

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Beautiful tears from Anon, Jamie Catto, Joy Horner (credit Sarah Hawkins) and Jemima House

One thing I love about 'LPs' is the mutuality of the exchange, which is so unlike a relationship with a therapist, where you take the role of she-who-needs-fixing. Being able to listen to someone else builds the muscle for holding space for others and as a knock-on effect, cultivates that calm, wise, adult presence that you can use to parent yourself through your own tantrums at other times. Dan Siegel in his book Parenting from the Inside Out describes the 'wounded healer' phenomenon; how an integral part of healing trauma in ourselves is through being able to see ourselves as capable of helping others.

Warrior level 'LPing' is when you agree with your Listening Partner that it's Ok to reach out for 'Emergency LPs' when you get unexpectedly triggered - (let's say your kid refuses to put shoes on and you wanna throttle her), instead of acting on it, you call someone. This not only breaks the cycle of shame that perpetuates our reactive, off track behaviours (like throwing the wretched shoes at her head), but also creates deep intimacy when you let someone see your irrational, enraged self. The genius is that often through uncovering the causes of these mundane triggers, we are led to great insights. Almost always the thing that brings up feelings stems back to a past experience (perhaps your mother would get very angry with you if you had wanted something different to her, so your daughter's defiance feels unsafe and triggers that same kind of reaction in you). This process of sorting through memories and beliefs gives us the 'narrative coherence' (or ability to tell our life story in a systematic way) that researchers correlate to a stronger attachment status with our children.

Interestingly, I've noticed 'Emergency LPs' are where I feel most connected to others. Last week one of my beautiful partners Skyped me as I drove between clients, so she could offload some angst about a panel she was sitting on that morning. I got to see her freaking out (just like I often do) about presenting her awe-inspiring bigness and tremble through fears of what others might think... then I helped her pick out her shirt and earrings. It was the closest I'd felt to anyone for a while and pulled me out of a 'I can't feel anyone' kinda funk.

One recent Sunday afternoon, I found myself still in bed, surrounded by dear friends stroking my hair, massaging my feet, snuggling and listening to me. I noticed how much (previously unparalleled) support and connection I now had in my life. And it was starting to become habitual. I would send out a SOS when having a hard week and a glorious tornado of woman power would appear at my house; one hanging laundry, one clearing the washing up and the other offering Special Time to my son while I focused on my daughter, just like in Patty Wipfler's utopian vision of the Parent Rescue Squad! Another night at 4am I texted four people that I had to go to a birth and hoped someone would catch my kids and three of them called me right back!

I'm certain that Listening Partnerships account for this level of support. It has countered the belief that I am alone. Since birth (and quarantine in an incubator), I've had a head trip about isolation and a belief that no-one is going to help me. I developed very powerful and lifelong feelings of separation and by reaching out most days to others all over the world and repeatedly noticing their attention on me, I know I have changed the wiring in my brain. I don't recognise this stranger in my body who stands tall and is apparently now so flexible about things that she once felt strongly about. I think essentially the verdict is that when you keep stretching your ability to give and receive, it spills over into all areas of your life in unexpectedly marvelous ways.

If you are interested in learning how to build Listening Partnerships into your life you can do this amazing course from Hand in Hand or if you are local to Bath/Bristol, spend a day with me learning the intricacies of making this kind of arrangement work well.