Are you really listening?

By Nicole Reilly

I have a three-year-old daughter and one thing I’ve learnt about toddlers is that they will demand you listen to them, one way or another. In her life so far we’ve been through a lot together. We had a rough start, dealt with an unexpected diagnosis, the structure of our family has changed significantly, it’s been split in two and repaired with some additions on both sides and somehow remained intact. We’ve moved house twice, and in a few months’ time we are about to again.

Following the most recent move, we went through a really difficult stage. I increased my hours at work, which meant longer stints at daycare for her most days of the week. I was tired. She was tired. It got to the point where I would get home and she would, on a good day whine and a bad day scream, from the time we walked through the door until the time she closed her eyes to sleep. Most nights she woke a few hours later and continued the cycle throughout the night. We were caught in an exhaustive struggle of her need for me, and my need to feel anything but utterly depleted.

She kept whining and I kept saying ‘Tell mummy what you need’. I kept trying to fix, or find the magical device or combination of, that would soothe her so we both could rest.

The incessant whining became triggering to my already overwhelmed nervous system. It’s not the first time I’ve been in a place where I feel like I just can’t cope as a parent, and it likely won’t be the last. But what I have learnt so far is that when things get like this, I know I’ll need some professional help.

I’ve developed a small team of humans (and horses) around us now and in my quest for answers, what I would learn was that what she was seeking, was for me to really listen. To just sit with her, not to respond, or to fix, but hold the intention to understand her with my heart wide open. She needed me to not move away from her big feelings, because when I did it confirmed that they were in fact as scary as they felt and now perhaps even contagious. She needed me to lean in and validate what she was feeling, even if she didn’t quite have the words for it yet. And once I did, it didn’t appear to feel as big anymore.

And that’s exactly what I had been crying out for too. I needed to know that the big overwhelming feelings that come with being a parent, especially of a child with a few additional idiosyncrasies are okay. My therapist said to me, “You can’t therapy your way out of feelings”. And she was right. And I learnt it wasn’t necessarily the feeling that caused me the most pain, it was the shame that I felt for feeling them. The conditioned belief that this is a wrong feeling and something to be kept hidden. And by not really listening to my daughter and trying to minimise her noise, I was conditioning her to do the same.

Her and I, we’re both likely going to always have big feelings, that’s just the way we’re built. But in becoming a better listener I learnt that we don’t have to do it alone – we were never meant to. And it did make me wonder, whether one of the reasons horses make such good therapy partners, is because they are such great listeners.

“Her and I, we’re both likely going to always have big feelings, that’s just the way we’re built. But in becoming a better listener I learnt that we don’t have to do it alone – we were never meant to. And it did make me wonder, whether one of the reasons horses make such good therapy partners, is because they are such great listeners.”

– Nicole Reilly, Author

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