Parenting From the Love/Fear Spectrum

Parenting From the Love/Fear Spectrum

My husband tells a story of when he was a boy out on the river in his family’s small boat. He was horsing around and fell into the water close to the motor’s whirling propeller. His father pulled him back into the boat, hugged him, and then laid into him—the fear so close behind the love, and the anger so close behind the fear.

Tucked deep in the folds of grey matter in the temporal lobe on both sides of the brain are the almond-shaped amygdala, the neural centers of love and fear and all that lie between. It is useful to consider love and fear as emotions located at either end of a spectrum based on how we respond in certain situations. From this perspective hate is not the opposite of love; fear is.

This changes everything.

As parents, we probably have no issue working hard to maintain healthy effective relationships with our children by steering away from and managing our feelings of anger, dislike, or hate. However, I find that it is not nearly as easy to manage fear when it is so intricately tied to love. Nor is it easy to separate the two emotions.

Fear is not a bad thing, in and of itself. One of our most important emotions, fear alerts us to dangerous situations in our environment. The amygdala fires up, the nervous system and body go into high alert, our senses sharpen, and we react instinctively to assure our children’s safety and survival. It’s a marvelous system that has kept us going for millenia. The problem comes when we have a tendency to react at the fear end of the spectrum in our parenting. This is true whether we are trying to protect or discipline our children or both at the same time.

It is helpful to ask ourselves in heated or anxious moments, “What end of the spectrum am I on right now? The love end or the fear end?”

Where is your responsiveness located on the spectrum?

Love-based
Fear-based

strengths            curiosity

trust             compassion

potential             resilient

opportunity             flexible

capable              expansive

motivating              solution-focused

resources            hope

empowered             change agent

uncertainty                    powerless

worry             mistrust

incapable             deficits

problem               controlling   

constricting             limiting

enabling            rigidity

punitive               labeling

helplessness

 

Consider these two scenarios that typically evoke some fear:

1. You get a note from your child’s teacher who reports that your 8 year old daughter continues to exclude a particular classmate from games during recess.

Here are some variations of fears that I’ve heard from parents who have encountered similar situations and that I experienced myself when my children were growing up:

•  My daughter is a bully and will grow up to be a “mean girl” or even a narcissist or

•  I’m a bad parent since my child acts this way.

•  There is something wrong with my child and she is never going to have friends.

•  What will the teacher/other child’s parents/school principal think of me and my daughter?

2.  You hear your 6th grader crying in his bedroom. When you check in with him, he begins to sob, saying, “Nobody talks to me at school, and I’m just . . . . nothing.”

Possible fears:

•  My son will never have friends and will be an outcast for life.

•  My son’s sadness and loneliness will spiral into depression, self-harming thoughts, or even risk of suicide.

•  I’m a bad parent since my child feels this way.

•  I am overwhelmed with my own frightening feelings of helplessness and worthlessness.

Fear-based responses in either scenario often foreclose on the child having a voice about his or her experiences. In the first scenario, we may want to punish and nip that behavior in the bud! Thus the opportunity is lost to explore what might be going on with the child to provoke such behavior. In the second situation, we may want to rush in and solve the problem so our child doesn’t have to suffer. Our son may get the clear message that his suffering is intolerable for us, and he then resorts to protecting us, shielding us from his pain so that we do not suffer.

Our job as parents are to protect our children from harm and to prepare our children for the dangers that they will inevitably encounter. Both movements are necessary to help them be resilient, confident, and competent. Situating our interactions on the love end of the spectrum will go a long way to fostering these qualities in our children, preparing them for the vicissitudes of the world while protecting them.

In a graduation speech I gave several years ago at our local high school, I spoke about the Love/Fear Spectrum. This is what I told the graduating seniors, and the advice holds equally true for parenting, if not more so.

Acting out of Love is effective.

Acting from Fear keeps the world ugly and mean. Of course there is much to be afraid of. We can’t get through life without having moments, maybe many moments, of Fear. The advice I give today is: Acknowledge the Fear. Then wait. Take care of yourself. Breathe. And then decide what to do, what it would be like to choose from a place of Love.

I’m not talking about a mushy push-over Love that has no boundaries. I’m speaking of ferocious, wild, oceanic, mountainous, deep rooted Love. I’m talking about Love that only the immeasurable heavens can hold.

When we look for courage in the face of Fear, we must look to Love.

When we are searching for understanding at the Wall of Anger, choose Love.

When we need strength while vulnerable—

when we seek justice in the midst of injustice—

when we look for clarity while in the tumble of chaos and confusion that comes from change—

choose Love.

As many times as we can.


About the Author: Dr Robin Barre 

Dr. Robin Barre is a depth psychotherapist in private practice in the Pacific Northwest. She aims for balance in her life by haunting coffee shops, writing, and creating art journals. You can read more about her on her website at www.theshiftlesswanderer.com. She also has a Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/theshiftlesswanderer/, where she shares lots of wisdom, including Hey Sigmund articles. 

7 Comments

Gayle

When I read this, I thought of the scripture that says “Perfect love casts out all fear” & realized I’d never before questioned why it doesn’t say perfect love casts out all hate (what we normally consider the opposite of love). Hmmm…lightbulb!

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Katie

I appreciate this concept very much, but in the two examples you site, you give the negative fear-based responses. What would be appropriate love-based responses to those two situations. What would acting out of love look like in those two examples? I read a lot about what NOT to do in parenting, but only get theory when it comes to what TO do. Examples of the right way to respond are equally as important as examples of the wrong way. It helps give me the words to consider when parenting in those difficult moments. Words that don’t always come as naturally as the anger and frustration. Thanks!

Reply
Robin Barre

Hi Katie, Such a good point! Thank you for bringing it forth.

In the first scenario, a love-based response might look something like this:
Be curious first and foremost. Sit down with your daughter with a snack after she gets home from school. Make the time and the space to really work through the issue and begin a conversation – rather than a lecture.

“I heard that you are having a hard time at school during recess with So-and-So. What’s going on?” with an even appropriately concerned tone. Ideally you will have taken some deep breaths after getting the notice and are putting the parental judgements aside for the meantime. And then go from there.

Your daughter may report that the other child is mean, cheats, won’t play by the rules, wants to boss everyone around. Or it may be that other children started the trend and your child went along with it. Whatever the case may be, it’s a prime teaching opportunity. So rather than punishing or giving a negative consequence right off the bat, find out what’s going on and move to problem-solving if possible or implement a respectful, relevant, reasonable, helpful consequence if necessary.

In the second scenario, I would hold off on the curiosity for awhile. Being with your child in those moments can be very powerful. Let him know that you understand how hard this can be, that you’ve been in this place before yourself – in some way or another. Let him know that you see and hear his hurt, and that you love him still. Tell him these four powerful words suggested by Thich Nhat Hahn – “I’m here for you.” The desire is to go right to the problem solving or the reassuring. That can come later but first being with him in that difficult place is going to be a powerful move. If you saw the movie “Inside Out,” Sadness does just this with Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong. It’s a brilliant scene.

Hope this helps and thanks again for the feedback!

Reply
Laura Cooper

This article is so useful! I’ve been struggling with managing my own (universal, human) fear in order to parent from love, and this helped frame my thinking. Very grateful for your writing.

Reply
Meg F

This is so beautiful! My son and I are working on anger as the tip of the iceberg and the myraid of emotions that lie beneath the surface that are the real root. We haven’t taken it a step further to talk about balancing anger/fear with love. But in fact, talking about the root, airing the anger, both are a form of love themselves. Now if we can flip the switch to let love win out, well… win-win!!!!

Reply
Robin Barre

Ah, this does my heart good. It can be hard work, but as I often say, “What other work is there?!” You both will be so grateful in the long run from the sticking-to-it and managing the fear – which is so often lurking beneath the anger. Many blessings as you navigate this work.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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