I can’t remember where I heard that you should say that you love your child before you discipline her. Did I read it in a parenting book? Was I given this advice from a therapist? Or did I invent this strategy myself? I don’t remember. I do know the choice of those words, “I love you, but” followed by a rebuke, a lecture or even an attempt at empathy and communication, were not delivered with ill will. I believed that somehow prefacing anger or concern with the reassurance of my love for our daughter would somehow leave her esteem intact and reassure her that my feelings for her didn’t change despite her behaviors and my frustrations.
Now, at this point in our journey, I have come to realize that the “but” in that phrase implied conditions on my love for my daughter despite my intentions.
I believe now that what she heard (and it is what I would hear if someone said those words to me) is that “I love you, but” you’re just not meeting my expectations of you as a daughter, as a human being, and my love for you is indeed diminished because of your behavior. The “but” implicitly implied that my love was conditional and believing that there was good cause for her to retreat instead of reaching out for comfort, guidance, support or a hug.
Her behaviors were indeed increasingly concerning, frustrating and frightening, but the distance those words created perhaps facilitated the ever-increasing sense of isolation she experienced and the fear she must have felt as her life crumbled and we, at that time, were woefully ill-prepared to give her what she needed most; to hear “I love you, and…”
Those words alone may not have changed the dysregulation and pain she experienced, but perhaps, she would have felt more connected and safer in those challenging times. Those words might not have changed the events of her life, but I am grateful that because of the journey that brought her to Lake House Academy, we as parents, have learned the power of “and.”
We knew that her behavior was not a choice. We knew how lonely and sad she was most of the time, even though she had friends and is articulate, engaging and intelligent. We knew how frightened and desperate she became as she tried to cope with the pain and shame that was her constant companion. We tried parenting her as we would a typical child, and those strategies were not what she needed. Even the therapists we worked with could not reach her and shift the deeply held beliefs she held about herself. It’s only when we came to Lake House that we started to learn to approach her with curiosity and empathy first. With curiosity and empathy, we could open dialogue so she would be less likely to become defensive and retreat. Now, when we say “We love you and we are curious to hear what you are feeling,” it allows her to feel safe in our presence.
We try not to go into ‘fix-it’ mode because we have learned the sagest of advice will fall on deaf ears unless she is open to hearing it, and even then, there is little guarantee that anything will change because we have offered our advice. We have found that it doesn’t really matter. The signs of success we look for are different now: have we enhanced our connection with our daughter and does she feel and know that she is always loved?
Parents, please try not to feel guilty because your daughter is at Lake House Academy and you couldn’t “handle” this on your own. There is no manual for this. Your daughter being there allows you space to not be in charge of the daily management of your daughter’s challenges. It creates a space for you to recover and to learn how to connect with, communicate and love your daughter without the stressors of managing a child with very special needs. It allows you time to work with your team and learn.
We have a ways to go and we have come a long way, individually, and as a family. I know I will continue to make mistakes; my patience still gets tried and I wish that progress was speedier. I am hopeful more often, even though I’m not sure what our future holds.
There is one thing, however, that I can say with the utmost certainty, and that is that our girl will never hear the words “I love you, but” ever again.