by Bridget Hickey-Williams
It’s fifteen years since I inherited my family of four children, then five, seven, nine and eleven years old. Although I entered into this commitment with trepidation, I never doubted my ability to cope — my first mistake! Being the eldest of eight and having worked as a teacher and community social worker with children and families from deprived backgrounds and a wide range of needs, I felt experienced. Though I was challenged to the utmost in my new role, I never felt out of my depth in those early years, but later I felt I was drowning more than once.
My own experience in family life as a child was marked by harmony, peace and a loving environment at home and school. Relationships could be counted upon. I set out to provide my children with the same experience, only to discover there was little in our lives which resembled my own childhood experiences.
The children came heavy laden with all sorts of baggage — health problems, special education needs, emotional and behavioral problems — the result of difficult and grievous experiences at home and school which culminated in their losing their natural parents and original homes. They had a host of individual reactions from silent resignation to frequent volcanic explosions. Added to this were the normal interactions of family life in an extended group with all its ups and downs. Our home often resembled a battlefield of temper tantrums, defiance, and conflict characteristic of children who have experienced trauma. There was also a lack of peace within myself, in part due to resentment and anger against the institutions and individuals which had damaged these children.
My situation — an instant mother with a prefabricated family — may sound unique. However, meeting so many families as I have done in recent years, has given me the awareness that many ordinary families face similar challenges.
I have learned that peace in the home is not automatic but has to be established, maintained and constantly reestablished, challenging us to find appropriate strategies for each generation. It is our special role as parents to cultivate this peace. We are the builders of peace regardless of the age of our child or young person. I have often been reminded of what St. Seraphim said: “Seek peace, and people all around you will find it.”
During one of our most traumatic periods, when things were going very wrong for one of my teenagers, I enrolled him in a tutorial school. Though he dropped out soon after, the principal invited me to attend the school’s parenting skills course. “Work on yourself, acquire new skills and confidence, and you will see your family life will change for the better,” she told me. I can vouch that it really works. I also learned that it is never too late to restore and build peace even in the most dysfunctional of families.
I have seen and observed in other families, and experienced within my own home, how peace in the home can be built by very simple strategies.
Clearly the most essential ingredient is the love that cements a family together, but there is much one can learn about loving in concrete, practical ways: learning to give time to each other; and really listening to how the other is, not just to the words uttered, but to the underlying feelings, and letting them know we have heard and understood by “naming the feeling.” These useful skills can be instrumental in preventing many a resentment or aggressive outburst.
There are times in family relations, when harsh and difficult realities must be confronted and hurt feelings aired. If this is done in a prayerful and appropriate way, respectful of the other’s feelings, and showing true understanding, then peace can be maintained and even deepened, for there is no real peace when harsh feelings are bottled up and start to ferment. However, it is equally true to say that some of the liberal thinking about needing to give vent to one’s feelings whenever one wishes can be equally destructive.
As parents, we need to help our young people to become emotionally aware, empathetic and open to join in problem solving — what John Gottman, in his book The Heart of Parenting, calls “emotion coaching.” This approach excludes negative criticism and judgmental remarks. As parents, particularly of teenagers, we are often confronted by attitudes and behavior that at times are unacceptable.
I found it difficult not to rush in with possible solutions, wanting to fix problems or show a way out of an unpleasant situation. I learned to allow them to feel it was okay to have their feelings of disappointment or anger — to let them be there with their feelings and silently pray them through the pain. At certain periods of our family life it was possible to pray together about hurts of rejections or disappointment — at other times even the suggestion of doing so would have communicated a lack of respect. At times we have to remember the value of silence — of simply “being with.”
I recall a very moving experience. In times well past we used to say the “serenity prayer” as a family: “Lord, grant that I may accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.” While doing the dishes one night with my 17-year-old-daughter, I apologized for being aggravated. Then I truly shared and said I was not aggravated but upset. She said “just leave the dishes and sit down and say the serenity prayer.” I was so moved. Peace was restored. Little practices had been remembered and put to use. Having shared my own true feelings brought the best ut in her!
Being understanding does not mean being permissive. One of the foundations of peace in the home is firmness and discipline, establishing clear ground rules that set limits on misbehavior. One useful practice is to have family meetings. In our own family we did not call them such, but being together to make propositions and to establish acceptable approaches when faced with new challenges has always been fruitful. When a recalcitrant teenager starts “reacting against” a decision taken together, it is a powerful tool to remind them they were part of the decision making. It is important to be clear and realistic with demands or goals. I found it difficult but well worthwhile persevering to write down what our expectations were, commitment made and any consequences.
An example: One of my teenagers asked to borrow money from time to time. I agreed, but when loans weren’t paid back, I withdrew my banking facilities, instead offering the possibility of working in advance for money. He learned through experience that no amount of bargaining would change my approach. What began as a conflict situation settled into an acceptable approach. And so it has been with many situations in our home. Having established clear ground rules, as often as possible in discussion and mutual agreement, and set firm limits on misbehavior, provides a foundation for peace.
True, there are often periods of testing limits, but children, even young adults, need the security of knowing what is expected of them and where the boundaries lie. This “preparing for success” method avoids future conflicts. This proved particularly true with such practical issues as smoking and television use. We cannot expect peace in the home if we allow uncensored watching of television. I have seen a direct link between disrespect, verbal abuse and aggressive behavior and violence with what has been seen on the screen. It is essential to establish a code of practice with regard to TV-watching and stick to it.
Flexibility should not be a matter of daily practice as the belief that things can be negotiated only leads to constant confrontation and arguments, then resentments, if not to more negative developments. This need for clarity and firm boundaries is one of the cornerstones of harmony in the home.
Obviously as children grow and become more responsible it is necessary to review policy and adapt accordingly. But this is done as something intentional and as an expression of our respect for the emerging adult.
One of the areas where peace is often shaken in daily life is when the young person or child becomes uncooperative. The desperate parent, such as I was often, resorts to cajoling, pleading, nagging, eventually shouting, threatening if not screaming, all of which fail to produce the required response and can have a shattering effect on the whole atmosphere of the family.
I learnt that using the skill of “descriptive praise” was effective in bringing about positive change — much more than in arguing. For example, when the miracle happens of a teenager breaking the pattern of leaving a mess in the kitchen, instead of just saying thank you, say, “I want to say how much I appreciated finding the kitchen clean when I returned. I noticed you had cleared away and washed up. It really was a help as I was so tired.”
Praising the effort and not only the end result is important. It requires that we, as parents, become more observant and pay attention to detail. All this diffuses the aggravation which so destroys the peace in a family or relationship.
Another essential for maintaining peace is for parents to present a united front. This implies dialogue between the adults and a willingness to sort out differences so that open conflict can be avoided. There are great benefits to be reaped by parents sharing their approaches and challenges and supporting each other through difficult times.
It is interesting to see the new enthusiasm for parenting skills and the availability of courses and books. It would be good to see more on these lines within our own Orthodox community. I am hoping a camp for families with this as a theme could be organized one day. We will discover how so much that St. Paul wrote has relevance for us as parents. He cites so many “skills” for building and maintaining peace, for example to make peace with each other before going to bed: “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” (Eph 4:6)
There are moments in the life of a family when peace is possible simply through the action of God’s spirit, and the parents holding it in their hearts, who, because of their willingness to forgive, to move forward, leaving the difficulties where they belong — to the past — knowing that reconciliation is possible only where there is no bitterness and resentment. We simply have to live with the pain and sorrow of our teenagers and young adults struggling to become — trusting them and their path to God, asking his caring Mother to cast her protecting veil around them, and continue daily and ask “the Comforter, the spirit of Truth, to come and abide with us, cleansing us from all impurity.”
Finally a word is needed about patience, second only to love. Starting and ending the day with prayer and occasionally pausing even for a moment in the day to ask God for patience and wisdom can make quite a difference in how one responds to crises when they erupt. Perhaps if there were parental discussion groups within our parishes, one might more easily find the patience needed at difficult times. So often we feel very alone.
Bridget Hickey-Williams is willing to correspond with other OPF members interested in parenting skills. Her address is: All Saints Barns, Garboldisham Ling, North Lopham Diss, Norfolk IP22 2NJ, England.