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Middle Ground Mom

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Dear Sally
Weekly Advice Straight From The Horse’s Mouth.

Dear Sally,

My daughter is the true love of my life. Not to say that I don’t feel as much love for my son, but my daughter, being my first child, being challenging as she is, with her passion, her sensitivity, her vulnerability, her explosive temper, her visceral need for my physical contact when she’s feeling unsure, has such a capacity for love, and she is just my heart. But she is not easy. In any way, shape, or form. I do not wish that she be the one who hands out smiles to everyone she sees. I do not wish for her to be nice all the time. She sees many things in black and white, and if she is wronged in any way, heads will roll. As much as I wish she would be able to handle her temper in a more dignified way, I love that she is fully able to stick up for herself, even if it ends up with her screaming insults at the offender in a huge scene, causing kids to shy away from her. She doesn’t have a lot of friends, but the friends she does have are good ones, which is really all I can hope for in life. In that respect, she does it exactly right. She makes people really earn her friendship which will be a huge asset in the long run.

But she alienates people if they don’t love her as much as she loves them. She has a very hard time finding a middle ground. So yes, I guess that’s the best way I can put it. How can I accept her and support her for who she is without hoping she were a little different?

Dear Middle Ground Mom,

You have a fiery filly on your hands! Congratulations. And deep breath, it’s going to be a wild ride. You are spot on about admiring the fortitude and passion in her temperament. It sounds like she has a beautiful spirit and a lot of sensitivity. Of course, you don’t want to squash that. Yet, it needs to be supported and she needs to learn, from you and others, how to live with that spirit in the world.

First, in the horse herd we are completely comfortable giving feedback to each other in order to take care of ourselves, keep the herd moving and cohesive, to take care of each other, and to teach each other who we are and how we wish to be treated. Your daughter is giving a lot of feedback about how she wants to be treated which is a very important skill for self-care and self-preservation, but let’s imagine for a moment a young colt tearing through the herd and double-barrel kicking others when he doesn’t like something. We have to be honest about our needs, but we also have to learn how to modulate our reactions so as to not hurt others.

Our herd is our most precious resource. If I had a colt like this I’d be pissed! And I’d be scared for him, which it sounds like are for your daughter. After all, this behavior in the herd would lead to injury and isolation. It wouldn’t be tolerated so he’d end up getting corrected or cast out. My job, as his mom, would be to show him a softer way, to school him on the ways of the herd. It’s not about invalidating his sensitivity at all. It’s about learning to use it for good. This is actually an archetypal story and depicted in all kinds of traditional and modern tales. The hero or heroine discovers his/her power and then doesn’t know how to use it, hurts others, is reckless, and then must learn the art and nuances of using that power. Think Frozen and Elsa hurting her sister and turning her world into ice. Your gorgeous sensitivity as a mother to your daughter’s power makes you the perfect match for parenting her. You can guide her and mentor her without shaming her or shutting her down.

Her lessons are about owning the reality of her sensitivity, internalizing just how important it is to be honest and take care of herself, and then, this is going to be the tough part, learning to cope when she is triggered. Coping. Pausing. Making choices about how to treat others. If you think about it, all mammals have to do some adapting of primitive impulses or we’d all kill each other! Black and white thinking, extreme reactions, huge frustrations, these are all common aspects of youth. The gray area of life can take a long time to learn. When we’re young, we have limited capacity for this and as we develop, that capacity grows. But it takes practice. She is going to need you to keep an eye on her and put some pressure on her practicing. Remember, she isn’t shutting down her sensitivity. In fact, it might help you to think of it as growing that sensitivity to expand into a compassion and empathy for how her reactions affect those around her. This is a lifelong balancing act and one that is at the heart of our emotional maturity.

Perhaps it will help you with your internal pressure to call it something very concrete, simple, and normal. You are helping your daughter with her emotional maturity. We do this in our herd all day long. It’s normal and loving. Use your own sensitivity to HER sensitivity to guide you. When you notice she’s unraveling, notice how that affects you, and give her some gentle and loving feedback, and some very concrete direction about coping. When you release the story that you are shutting down her spirit, you’ll be able to get more focused on tools and skills. It seems that human parents often take those simple parts of rearing their young and walk around with pretty heavy hearts. My guess is that if you free yourself of the burden that you are going to hurt her, it will lighten your gait, allow you to move more freely with her, and that might help her too.

With much love and a warm muzzle, Sally