Holding Space…a Conversation with Heather Malley

Heather Malley is a dear friend and colleague. Someone who thinks deeply about children, who respects, and values them. Someone who lives her truth every day as center director and owner of Caterpillar Cottage in the San Fernando Valley. I invited Heather, who, by the way, is writing a book you will want to read, to share the page with me for this newsletter… here’s some of our conversation…

“…[Let] go of being the fixers, being the extinguishers of every uncomfortable emotion our child has. That’s not our job and it doesn’t help our children.” ~Janet Lansbury

Heather: This quote caught my attention as an important point for so many parents who are trying to help their children have better experiences than they had growing up. Their goal is a wonderful one. However, when our own needs weren’t met in early childhood, we might easily confuse want with need. If my child is not content, they must need me to solve something in some way. This comes up often for parents, as children have many episodes of discontent as they grow, but when we act by jumping in to fix every problem or discomfort they may have, this can inadvertently make a child feel as if you believe they can’t handle anything on their own. Even though that is far from what you want to do.

Melani: Your line about “if my child is not content, they must need me to fix it in some way” really struck a chord with me when I read it. I think because I’m fresh off of the ​RIE Conference​ and Dr. Claudia Gold’s keynote is ringing in my ears. She talked about resisting certainty and sitting in the unknowing place. It’s such a hard thing to do, especially as someone who provides care for others…we want to solve, to soothe, but it is often soothing to let someone find their own way to the solve.

In her presentation, she talked about how she makes sure she has a box of tissues nearby when she talks with a family…not handy for her to pass to someone who is crying, but handy for them to reach for if they need it. It hit me like a ton of bricks…there’s a subtle message in handing a tissue to someone who’s crying, right? Because what happens when you hand a tissue to someone who’s crying? They may thank you, they may not, but either way, they come out of their loss to be with you again. Now, that isn’t to say, don’t ever hand a tissue to a crying person, no, but the idea is to be ready to be there for them, when they are ready to reach back out…let them do the reaching. You do the waiting. And just like we’re not saying ignore a crying baby when we say not to shush and say “you’re okay,” this also doesn’t mean that we abandon someone in their misery. No, it’s holding that space, not being afraid of those feelings, that is what is so valuable.

Heather: Right. Oh gosh I love that about the tissues, it’s so true. We can all be so sensitive to how others are processing or receiving our pain, and it is such a gift to do what we can to not impede the processing of others. Being a stable and loving presence of acceptance is the goal, and also happens to be where co-regulation really can best thrive. It’s worthwhile to think deeply about whether it is our child’s immediate discomfort we want to avoid even if that is at the risk of depriving them of the trust and autonomy, they need to find their own agency and comfort. How do we best provide them with the support to emerge as resourceful and innovative humans that can solve their own problems easily?

Coming from a perspective of not jumping in to save our child(ren) does not omit nurture, by the way. Nurturing someone is nutritive, and will lead to growth. Hovering, though well meaning, is confining and might stifle growth or opportunity. By being compassionately by their side or available to them as a resource without jumping in to solve things, we are showing our children that we trust in their current and growing capacities. Offering support if we feel it’s appropriate might be just right, while often allowing children to navigate circumstances on their own is the best approach.

Melani: Yes, this exactly! And it is hard to do, but, and again I return to Dr. Gold’s keynote…she shared this gem of a quote: “Containing the impulse to speak before fully exploring and understanding – letting the process unfold and withholding suggestions, interpretations, and conclusions that may shortcut the process.” (Dr. Mary Claire Heffron.) How many times have you been in a conversation with someone who talks over the ends of your sentences? Who thinks they know what you are thinking and feeling? Do you really want to spend time with such a person? Neither do children!

Heather: Definitely, AND our counsel is so important to young children. They will show us this as they grow if they feel seen and heard. We can be available and willing to help without constantly anticipating their needs. They can be allowed the opportunity to discover their needs as they go, which is such an act of love for their relationship to themselves. In our roles as parents, we each know the value and wisdom we possess, if we can avoid the power struggles or forcing compliance, and instead be clear in our expectations and connect with our child(ren) regularly – taking the time to listen to really try to understand, they will seek us out as their resource. This is what we want, right? I have come to understand that trusting that cooperation will emerge when we present ourselves in our best light and lead with intention but without force, we align ourselves with them in ways that feel more supportive, and that can last a lifetime.

Melani: And this is what comes out of allowing that space for uncertainty, for not knowing…it fosters within children an ability to look within themselves first, but with the certainty that they can trust in us to be their sounding boards…it is the path from parent and guardian to parent and collaborator.

Thank you, Heather! This was such a lovely way to write! Always a joy to think with you!