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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Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things 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. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare

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