When love smothers

Oil on NFA Rice sacks by Archie Oclos. We started at the left most panel and Achi immediately asked me why their heads were tilted. I told her, “you’ll see.” Towards the end, right before the last panel, painted directly on the wall, is a bullet that had pierced all of those heads. As soon as she saw that, she took off her glasses and started wiping her face. We hugged and I told her about the artist’s statement about this painting: “Bayang Magiliw…para sa bawat miyembro at tahanan ng pamilyang Pilipino na nagugutom, nagdurusa at nagluluksa, hustisya nasaan at kanino ka?” And her tears really gushed.

My carpool partner and I recently chatted about how, as our kids have grown, their lives have become more and more separate from ours.
Her kids are 14, 11 and 7. Mine are 11 and 9. The two 11-year-olds always sit at the last row and whisper to each other so mommies don’t hear their conversations.
In recent years, we feel more and more like glorified chaffeurs as our girls plan their weekends with friends, either for group projects or on play dates.
We feel that we are also very lucky to have raised independent children who can decide for themselves, and navigate the complicated adult world they live in. We often try to make their events happen, because after all, it’s just a matter of dropping them off and fetching them in the evening.
But life gets in the way, and sometimes, the adults in the family have their own plans. Or Ahma wants them in her house for the weekend, and that trumps play dates with friends. Or we planned to go somewhere and family comes first.
There are no fits thrown when plans don’t go their way. My girls know they are loved and that their needs will be addressed in time, in the order in which it was received, and in the order of urgency. I have written about helicopter parenting years ago when the girls were younger (Tulay, Oct. 9-22, 2012 issue).
Through the years since, I have seen so many variations of love and care that really smothered children and did not help them grow up as humane adults.
These children who were the center of attention all the time grew up feeling that it was normal for them to always be first. These were the toddlers and young children who interrupted adult conversations and were immediately addressed by their parents.
They never learned about boundaries or to be considerate of other people because their parents never modeled it for them. These are the children and teens who did not know how to behave around adults because they were always coddled and protected from the big bad world.
As Achi approaches adolescence, I’m in danger of hovering and smothering her with love and care.
In the past couple of months, I have noticed that Achi is more emotional than usual. She cries at her books, at television shows, and became extremely upset at an installation by artist Archie Oclos at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, one of the Thirteen Artists awardees this 2018.
I’m getting a bit anxious about her emotional outbursts. She has seen other “disturbing” artwork before, but has never been this upset. She used to just feel awful for a few minutes and then we’d discuss things. This time, I had to hug and console her for quite a while.
She came home one time in a fit of frustration, teary-eyed and looking like she hated herself for crying – all because she did not get a turn at something they were playing in the car on the way home. She is getting into that age where she cannot really distinguish different emotions.
In a study last June 2018 by Harvard and the University of Washington, they found that teens feel a whole range of emotions but cannot distinctly label these emotions. Everything is a blur, so to speak.
The study asked participants ages 5 to 25 to look at a series of unpleasant images, such as a baby crying, and rate how much they felt five negative emotions: angry, disgusted, sad, scared and upset. Their scores were analyzed to see how often they experienced a certain emotion independently from the other four emotions.
According to the researchers, when individual emotions could be labeled distinctly, it is a sign of good mental health, and these are the same people who tend to use appropriate coping strategies when facing difficulty instead of turning to alternatives like alcohol or drugs.
Upon analysis of the results, the researchers found that teenagers often felt two or more emotions simultaneously, but could not differentiate them from each other. When teens conflate different emotions together, then it is also more difficult for them to regulate their emotions.
Children scored higher in emotion differentiation because they tend to feel only one emotion at a time. All parents have been through this. When your 3-year-old is mad, then he’s mad – he knows it and everyone else within hearing distance knows it.
Adults, on the other hand, have more experience in dealing with different emotions and have learned to differentiate one from the other. Teenagers, on the other hand, are at that stage when they experience a barrage of mixed emotions but haven’t learned the important skill of differentiating them yet.
What do parents do then?
One good method is to teach them mindfulness. My daughters’ school teaches them this in their Safe Space class (sort of like guidance and counseling). They also learn mindfulness, where attention is given to one’s inner mental state without judgment to help them distinctly label emotions they are experiencing.
Armed with this research, I quietly asked Achi one evening if she was feeling more frustrated than usual, more angry or more wishy washy and off-kilter. She shrugged, stared at me and said, “meh.” Which I translate to, “I don’t really want to talk about this. If I were really feeling anything, that’s my business.”
I plod on and do a monologue, “If you are feeling off, like you’re not yourself and don’t feel that your body fits, let’s talk okay? This is the time when all those feelings could overwhelm you and it’s totally normal. All girls go through it, but it would be good to have someone to talk to, okay?”
She shrugs again.
So, where do I draw the line? When does my care begin to smother her? I know she needs space and I’m confident that she would come to me for support when she needs it.
But right now, I’m watching her like a hawk, but pretend that I don’t really pay attention to what she’s doing. More and more, I’ve been peeking into her Google Hangouts chats with classmates for any signs of impending doom (for me).
I need to prepare for this. There wasn’t a class for this!

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