I could sense something was off but couldn’t quite put words to it yet. Day after day, positive reports about her school day, yet something was simmering. When it would erupt, it predictably was directed toward me or her sibling. A week later, the pot was boiling over – full tilt emotional jags lasting an hour or more.
I hadn’t read Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting since she was a baby. Revisiting it nearly nine years later, I found myself nodding along. His chapter on “Soul Fever” was describing our chapter and how to meet each other during this volatile inner (and outer) time.
He describes symptoms of Soul Fever as feeling and acting “off,” more agitated than just a tough day. You might see signs of anxiety, rumination, prickliness and it has reached a point where it is affecting their behavior. “Inner turmoil extends beyond a bad mood or brief snit. It also lasts longer. A child with soul fever stays “out of sorts.” ... An introverted child may withdraw physically and emotionally, but perhaps still “snipe” or take “pot shots,” at others to announce their discomfort. An extroverted child usually manifests their unease more directly, with anger to blaming.”
He goes on saying, “they’re upset, overwhelmed, at odds with the world. And most of all, at odds with their true selves.” (pg 38) Soul fever may be a product of internal or external stressors, such as stress from an authority figure, belonging among friends, or academic expectations to name a few.
When family life is rhythmic, spacious, predictable, slow and balanced, sensing your struggling child will come more easily. When family life is overwhelmed, stressed out, flooded by media, too many activities and commitments and choices... it can be more challenging to pay attention to one another and to intuitively respond and tend to your child’s behavior and underlying needs.
With a physical fever, I wouldn’t send my child to school or soccer practice or attend a birthday party. I would cancel outward facing activities for her and me. I’d stay home, close by, watching in case things take a turn. I’d comfort her and keep things quiet. I’d expect the fever to run its course and make myself available to listen, support, and comfort her.
Kim John Payne asks us to imagine responding to soul fever the same way we would treat a physical fever. Imagine seeing your child out of sorts and sensing that this feels more intense than usual. Imagine cancelling your work commitments, even just for an afternoon, to prioritize spending time together - not watching movies or running errands or going to a play space together - just quieting down and reconnecting. Watching, listening, comforting, just being.
Simplify. Cancel activities, create space to observe and reconnect. Accept that this emotional growing pain is natural and trust that it will run its course in due time and that your child will be stronger from weathering it, as will your relationship.
Some ideas that may help as you endure the emotional tsunami…
Create space for 1:1 connection. A bedtime chat after lights are out is a quiet, open space to connect.
Talk less. Listen for the sake of understanding and connecting, rather than to fix or alleviate pain.
Don’t take grievances personally. They may be directed at you but keep the focus on the trust they are exhibiting by sharing with you. Resist any impulse to defend or explain your actions (if being blamed) or to blame them for not telling you sooner.
Trust that they will reveal what they need. If they say you don’t understand, focus your attention on understanding them now. If they say you don’t they don’t belong at school, focus your attention on creating belonging in this conversation, and later in your family activities.
Remember this is temporary. Even though it is difficult for you both, it will strengthen your child and your relationship by getting through the turmoil with compassion and calm presence.
Connect with specially selected others (a wise teacher, friend, relative, therapist, or coach) who have been down this road to affirm that this is a typical and healthy part of growing up, to hear their wisdom and stories and to receive empathy for how intense it can sometimes be.
This week I asked my daughter for a minute.
I asked if I could say I'm sorry for something I did a few days back that had been wearing on my heart. She dropped everything and said sure. She came right over. I told her about when her shoes were missing at a friend's house and we looked and looked... and when we couldn't find them anywhere our friend assured us we could pick them up another day and I agreed... then I sighed and said "goodbye shoes." It may sound like nothing. "Goodbye shoes." My tone wasn't mean. It was fairly matter of fact. Maybe it seemed like no big deal at the time or no big deal reading this now.
Except for two things: I know my daughter. And I knew in that moment just as I know right now that my intention, seeping through the subtle edges my tone, was to shame her. To make her feel badly for forgetting where she took them off and for the time it took to look in the yard and in the rooms, upstairs and down. I knew when I said it it was hurtful. I was irritated and ready to leave and annoyed that I had let my attention drift away from the time. I was living halfway in the future, thinking about a late bedtime and tomorrow and…
Wanting things to be different. Fighting with reality. "She shouldn't have lost her shoes." In retrospect, I shouldn't have lost my mind. I shouldn't have lost my heart. I shouldn't have lost my compassion. I shouldn't have lost myself. So I said it. Goodbye shoes. I knew it stung, at least a little. Nights passed. Each night I would have a moment of remembering, planning to apologize. The next day would come, with all my distractions, I would find myself in bed again making plans to repair it. Five days passed and the day came when I asked if I could apologize.
I retold the story. I said "goodbye shoes" again, but this time with no edge. I told her I knew at the time how hurtful it was and how I've thought about it every night since and kept getting distracted… Until today.
And that I'm sorry. I'm sorry I said that in that way and that I hurt her. She interrupted to forgive me, told me she understood that sometimes I make mistakes too. The longer I talked, the more she seemed to come back to those feelings, the hurt and the confusion and the shame. She cried and let me comfort her. I felt so grateful she didn't have to carry that anymore. I felt grateful for the chance to help make sense of what happened and apologize and do what I could to repair it with her. And I felt relieved I didn't have to carry it any longer too. This moment might seem too small, too human to repair. But moving forward without addressing it is not only confusing, it sacrifices trust. It depletes the energy of love and safety and the very "no matter what-ness" that I aspire for my relationship with my children to be.
I'm grateful for another chance. I'm grateful to be forgiven and to model asking for forgiveness. I'm grateful for time to place my attention on the small moments that feel contracted in my body, when I know I'm operating from fear instead of love. I'm grateful for not waiting for something bigger to apologize for, but to value each time I fall away from love as an opportunity to repair and to heal.
That day and the few days that followed, I noticed extra "joining up." She seemed to have enthusiasm for being part of our team again. I couldn't sense that it was missing from her until it returned. It fortified my resolve to keep paying attention to the feelings in my body, bringing awareness to my interactions and creating space for reconnecting, helping my kids to make sense of what happened, and to do the repair work to find each other again.
This week's invitation: more love, less fear and the courage to prioritize saying "I'm sorry."
Finally, I mustered up my courage and enrolled in a nine month long yoga teacher training program. I didn't think I was ever going to be good enough, but finally was tired of waiting for something that may never arrive. So I stepped in. It was a ton of money to me, and I was scared and excited and nervous and unsure. But I stepped in anyway. Nearly 10 years later, the gifts of that training continue to show up in my life. In fact, that decision changed the trajectory of my life. From owning and responding to that desire to learn more, to grow, to discover… (what, I didn't yet know exactly...) stepping in, I felt the power and the magic of following my own inner compass. I experienced standing in the story of my own heart – which was that I felt fully alive when I practiced yoga, and that a deep knowing pointed me in this direction again and again with more consistency than anything I had yet discovered in my life. I can trace how following that one inner calling has influenced other significant moments of my life: teaching yoga, childbirth, compassionate communication, coaching and sharing my work with others in service of creating more connection, love and ease. Tell me, what was one of your most significant investments?
Something that felt like a true calling about where you were to put your attention, time and energy? Scary but irresistible... Maybe it was an adventure or a person, a philosophy or a training or an experience? Can you remember being drawn to it? Did it feel like a risk? Or like freedom? Or both? Or something else? And can you, too, trace the influence that moment of stepping in and following your heart had on other significant events in your life?
In my experience the perceived risk of stepping in is worth it every time. I'd love to hear from you. And if you're sensing something on your horizon - something that feels scary but irresistible - but you haven't gotten to the place of possibility with it yet, I can help. Wishing you connection with the part of you that always knows.