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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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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