All my life I’ve struggled with the temptation to take on too much work. The path of least resistance for me is to get wrapped up in what I’m doing professionally and miss opportunities to connect at home.
At no other time in my life was that struggle more obvious than during the busy years of parenting.
My wife and I both had careers outside the home while trying to raise two kids. There was a span of time in there where things got especially chaotic. We were navigating the daily routines of school and meals and housework and homework. We were providing taxi service and putting in volunteer hours for the kids’ practices, games, and extracurricular events. We were both trying to grow professionally. I was often far from my best self.
My friend Lisa Peaty, a child and family therapist, describes those years well:
Juggling jobs, housework, extended family relationships, aging parents, children’s activities, and personal health is the equivalent of multiple full-time jobs. Exhaustion and distraction feels like the norm many days and misattunement with your child is likely...
You yell at your child about their homework as you were answering a text from a colleague and fixing dinner. You and your teen got into a fight over her lack of follow-through on her chores. You snapped at your child for their incessant questions while fighting traffic to take them to school…
I love Lisa’s word misattunement. Lisa and her husband, Nate, are in the throes of those crazy parenting years—two professionals raising two young daughters and working hard to put into practice all of the insights that Lisa provides for her clients. Her recent blog post Wet? Hungry? Tired? gets to the heart of what’s really going on in those moments of conflict between parent and child: a misalignment, a disruption of connection, a thirst for worth and belonging (on both sides).
We have this need for belonging both at home and at work. As we navigate both worlds, misattunement with our kids, our partner, our spouse, our coworkers is inevitable. After reading Lisa’s post, it occurred to me that the action steps for repairing a misattunement at home and at work are largely the same:
It’s easy to overlook when something’s off amid the pressures of responsibility. We’re prone to miss the signals (the origin of the child’s tantrum, the shift toward passive aggressiveness from a coworker). Or maybe we do notice, but we’re annoyed. We think, I don’t have time to deal with this. Either case is a failure of compassion—the failure to notice because we’re too caught up in a narrow, self-centered perspective.
“Even highly sensitive parents only “get it right” about 50% of the time, as competing interests pull them away from ‘digging deeper’ into their child’s behavior and emotions,” Lisa writes. “However, the hallmark of a sensitive caregiver is that misattunements are recognized…”
Noticing translates to I see you, which is the starting point for a repaired sense of belonging.
2. Lead With Curiosity.
When we do notice, we may be tempted to leap to judgment. We may punish reactively, focusing on control and managing behavior. We may snap at a coworker, aggressively going on the defensive. But when things don’t feel right or fail to meet expectations, curiosity can help keep us from further damaging an already misattuned relationship.
In Lisa’s words: “... it takes a curious and mindfully patient caregiver to ‘dig deeper,’ below the surface of their child’s behavior, and understand the unmet need that may be driving it.”
Curiosity is the posture that prepares us to get to the heart of things. When we deploy it, we set the stage for understanding and reconnection.
3. Show Empathy.
Responding well in moments of misattunement requires intention. When we see our struggling children, empathy is the choice to, as Lisa says, “remember them as that crying infant (wet? hungry? tired?), craving connection.”
Coworker to coworker, it’s similar. Remember them as a human—with that need for belonging—trying their best. Ask questions. Start a dialogue in the interest of understanding. This is the work of re-engaging.
“Acknowledging your part in the conflict and asking forgiveness for your hurtful words and harsh tone creates opportunities for connection,” Lisa writes.
When I think about our two grown kids, I’m humbled and grateful that our communication is still open and our relationships are strong. Even after our worst moments, we have managed to reconnect. I attribute this to grace and the value of being present.
Nan and I have always encouraged open conversation. I’ve apologized to them. They’ve apologized to me. We’ve been re-attuned and repaired by walking together through the chaotic times. We did pretty well in sustaining the practice of a daily meal together—fighting distraction, avoidance, and the temptations to go our separate ways. We worked hard and imperfectly to lead with curiosity and empathy instead of judgment. We’ve somehow managed to create a space in our home where we each feel worth and belonging—not least because when it was me (the parent) throwing the tantrum, they noticed me and chose to dig deeper.
I also want to say: If you’re a working parent, someone with wisdom and an outside perspective (like Lisa) can be an invaluable resource. You may be fighting patterns of behavior that have been in place for years. Those years take a cumulative toll, and both children and adults can benefit from a third-party point of view. Don’t wait until it’s too late to undo the damage done. Misattunement is relational cancer—early detection and skilled treatment greatly improve the hope of long-term survival.
Sometimes that new perspective is the exact thing we need to see through our busyness, our stress, our effort, ourselves—to the belonging right in front of us.
Lisa Peaty, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Winston-Salem and practices at Camel City Counseling. Feel free to reach out to Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at email@example.com