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!

Reply
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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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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