Since starting Parenting for Wholeness in 2013, even though I’d already been a mother for 20 years and helping mothers for 18, I’ve continued to learn more about parenting, children and humans in general.
I’m loving that I’m frequently gaining new knowledge that allows me to better and better support the families I work with, through my work with moms and continually looking for helpful articles and resources to share on my Facebook page and in my programs.
There are two main concepts that are new to me and I’ve found invaluable in my work with families and have become an integral part of my Clean Parenting program.
One of them is that of the Window of Tolerance. Though I understood this general idea intuitively and it informed my parenting, I never had words for it. And I’ve found that those words make a world of difference when it comes to understanding our children as well as ourselves, and as a lens through which to view our experiences and behaviors. You can read about and watch a video about this important concept in my article Understanding the Window of Tolerance - Yours and Your Children's.
The other important concept I’ve become aware of in recent years, wish I’d known about 26 years ago when I first became a mom and would have made a significant difference in my life with my children is that of the importance of feeling feelings of futility. An idea discussed by, and I believe coined by Gordon Neufeld, author, along with the incomparable Gabor Maté (my celebrity crush) of the wonderful book Hold On to Your Kids.
In looking for articles on this topic to include as readings in my Clean Parenting program a few years ago, I realized I couldn’t find a single one online!!
This felt to me like such a tragic lack in the important library of online articles that I contacted the Neufeld Institute to request their permission to publish the portions of the book that speak to it.
And they granted it to me!!
So you can find below the two portions of the book that explain the importance of allowing children and guiding them to experience feelings of futility, along with links to some of my articles that provide additional support or clarification to some of the ideas described in the texts.
I've also provided toward the end of this article an anecdote from a mom who applied this approach after reading about it in my Clean Parenting program.
I hope you find this information as illuminating and useful as I have!
One thought struck me last night as I was typing out the portions of the book I wanted to share, which might also speak to you.
The feeling the futility, as described by the authors, is pretty much synonymous with acceptance and mourning, which are topics I address and guide mothers through regularly in my work with them. And work on extensively in my own inner work journey.
Maybe this insight will make the concept more relatable to your own life as well, if you too have worked with the incredible power of acceptance and mourning as I have. (I’ve written about this important topic and provided some guidance on ways to mourn in my article The Importance of Acceptance and Mourning in Parenting.)
From pages 134-135 of Hold On to Your Kids
“Frustration that comes up against impassable obstacles is meant to dissolve into feelings of futility. In this way frustration engenders adaptation, causing us to change ourselves when we are unable to change the circumstances that thwart us. A child moved to adapt does not attack: adaptation and aggression, both potential outcomes of frustration, are incompatible.
This frustration-to-futility dynamic is most transparent in toddlers. A toddler makes demands that the parent, usually for valid reasons, is unwilling or unable to meet. After some unsuccessful attempts at changing things, the toddler should be moved to tears of futility. That response is a very good thing. The energy is being transformed from trying to change things to letting go. If some of the frustration had already erupted into attack, those feelings, too, change from mad to sad. Once the transformation to feelings of futility occurs, the child comes to rest. When frustration is not converted by this process, the child will not quit trying to get his way. Unless distracted or indulged, the toddler is likely to keep struggling against the futility and erupt in attack until exhaustion sets in. Only feelings of futility can enable someone to quit a course of action that does not work and dissolve the frustration involved.
The brain must register that something doesn’t work. It’s not enough to think something does not work – it must be felt. We have all had the experience of knowing something isn’t working but continuing to repeat the same action over and over. For example, many of us as parents have said to a child: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times…” If, instead, we allowed our own sense of futility to sink in, we would not persist in parenting behaviors that we know don’t work and will not work, no matter how many times we repeat them.
Adaptation is a deeply unconscious and emotional process orchestrated not by the thinking parts of the cerebral cortex but by the limbic system, the brain’s emotional apparatus. For example, when we have lost a loved one, whether due to death or simply to the ending of a relationship, it is not enough that we know they are absent for adaptation to occur. We must come to terms with this emotionally, through waves and waves of felt futility. Only when the futility sinks in and we apprehend on the deepest emotional level the impossibility of preserving physical and emotional contact with someone forever gone from our lives do the tears come and adaptation begins. This process may take years. When, for a young child, the wall of futility is erected to a snack before supper, adaptation should take only a few moments – that is, mad should move to sad very quickly. In the case of having to share mommy with a sibling, such adaptation may take a bit longer. But if tears of futility never come, adaptation will not occur. Whether our eyes water or not, the most common feelings of futility are sadness, disappointment, and grief. Fortunately, even when we have learned to suppress our tears, sadness and disappointment can still do their work in facilitating adaptation if we are able to experience futility inwardly.”
From pages 221 to 223 of Hold On to Your Kids
“When Things Aren’t Working for the Child, Draw Out the Tears Instead of Trying to Teach a Lesson
A child has much to learn: to share mommy, to make room for a sibling, to handle frustration and disappointment, to live with imperfection, to let go of demands, to forgo having to be the center of attention, to take a no. Remember, one of the root meanings of discipline is “to teach.” A large part of our job as parents is therefore to teach our children what they need to know. But how?
These life lessons are much less a result of correct thinking than of adaptation. The key to adaptation is for futility to sink in whenever we are up against something that won’t work and we can’t change. When the adaptive process is unfolding as it should, the lessons are learned spontaneously. Parents are not working alone.
The adaptive process accomplishes its task of “disciplining” our children in a number of natural ways: by bringing to an end a course if action that does not work; by enabling the child to accept limitations and restrictions; by facilitating the letting-go of futile demands. Only through such adaptation can a child adjust to circumstances that cannot be changed. Through this process a child also discovers that she can live with unfulfilled desires. Adaptation enables a child to recover from trauma and transcend loss. These lessons cannot be taught directly either through reason or through consequences. They are truly teachings of the heart, leaned only as futility sinks in.
The parent needs to be both an agent of futility and an angel of comfort. It is human counterpoint at its finest and most challenging. To facilitate adaptation, a parent much dance the child to his tears, to letting go, and to the sense of rest that comes in the wake of letting go.
The first part of this dance of adaptation is to represent to the child a "wall of futility.” Sometimes this will be of our making, but most often it is made of the realities and limitations of everyday life: “Your sister said no,” “This won’t work,” “I can’t let you do that,” “There isn’t enough,” “That’s all for today,” “He didn’t invite you,” “She wasn’t interested in listening to you,” “Sally won the game,” “Grandma can’t come.” These realities need to be presented firmly so they do not become the issue. To equivocate – to reason, to explain, to justify – is to fail to give the child something to adapt to. If there is any chance for the situation to be changed, there will be no priming adaptation. It’s a matter of getting the child adjusted to exactly how things are, not as he – or even you – would wish them to be.
The failure to stand firm when something is immutable provokes the child to seek escape routes from reality, and this foils the adaptive process. There will be plenty of time to convey your reasons, but only after the futility of changing things has been accepted.
The second part of the adaptation dance is to come alongside the child’s experience of frustration and to provide comfort. Once the wall of futility has been established – in a way that is firm without being harsh – it is time to help the child find the tears beneath the frustration. The agenda should not be to teach a lesson but move frustration to sadness. The lesson will be learned spontaneously once this task is accomplished. We can say things like “It’s so hard when things don’t work,” “I know you really wanted this to happen,” “You were hoping I’d have a different answer,” “This isn’t what you expected,” “I wish things could have been different.” Again, much more important than our words is the child’s sense that we are with her, not against her. When the time is right, putting some sadness in our voice can prime the movement to tears and disappointment. It might take some practice to feel this point; to go too quickly or to be too wordy can backfire. This dance cannot be choreographed; the parent has to feel his way along. Here, too, we learn by trial and error.
At times the parent can make all the right moves and still fail miserably in priming the adaptive process. The problem might be that the child does not perceive the parent as a safe source of attachment comfort. More often, the tears do not flow because the adaptive process is stuck: a casualty of the child’s having become too defended against vulnerability. Futility does not sink in.
Adaptation works both ways. Sometimes we parents may need to adapt to our children’s lack of adaptiveness. When the process that promotes natural discipline is not active in our child, we need to retreat from our attempts to press forward. At such times we need to find our own sadness and let go of our futile expectations. Letting go of what doesn’t work, we are more likely to stumble upon what does. It the telltale signs of adaptation are lacking – if the child’s eyes don’t water when agendas are foiled, if loss does not evoke sadness, if mad does not move to sad – the parents will need to find another way to create order out of chaos. Fortunately, other ways do exist.“
After reading this article in one of the modules in my Clean Parenting program, one mom shared in our group that she was sad that in order to thrive, her son was going to have to face such painful feelings.
But then 2 days later, she shared the following in our Facebook group:
"I just wanted to say that the "Wall of Futility" concept has helped me so much in the past couple days with Milo! Yesterday, we ordered a fun play rug from Amazon with roads on it so he can drive his cars and sit on the rug and play. He saw the rug picture and LOVED it. So he wanted it RIGHT AWAY. When we told him it would arrive in a few days, he started to cry! A lot. "I want my racetrack!!" I saw this so differently than before and saw the opportunity to help him.
I took him into the bath and as he was crying I just looked at him in the eyes and told him really calmly, "I need to tell you something. Your racetrack isn't coming for another few days." And he cried! And we sat down on the bed, and I hugged him. I had the urge to try to distract him but I resisted. All of a sudden he stopped crying and said happily, "Tell me about my racetrack."
And we told stories of how the guy was driving in the truck all the way to our house, to bring Milo his package.. and we told it over and over again and he had the best time. It turned into anticipation and enjoyment of what was actually happening."
I love this story as it clearly illustrates the life giving value of supporting children in hitting that wall of futility and processing the feelings that are in the way of becoming aligned with reality.
I really hope you've found this information as valuable as I and the many families I’ve worked with have, and that you'll work on integrating its wisdom in your family.
For some support in doing so, purchase the book through the links above, read the related articles below and for my step-by-step support in integrating this as well as every other element of Clean Parenting™, check out my program below.
I'd LOVE to work with you if you found it to be a fit for you! ♥
Lots of love,
For guidance in effectively setting the needed boundaries that lead to adaptation and to best support children in moving through the feelings of futility, read the following articles:
"Months after completing the course, I am still in awe over how my life has changed since participating in Eliane’s Clean Parenting program. It’s amazing, because I’m not *doing* much differently! *I* am different, and that’s what has shifted. When signing up for this program, I wasn’t sure I actually needed it. I knew I was stuck and needed support. I’ve been practicing conscious parenting and doing deep work for years, though - how could an online course change much for me? Well, I’m very glad I listened to my intuition and took the leap to commit to Eliane’s work. The clarity of the material, the masterful way it’s organized and presented, and the deep inquiry involved helped the pieces I’d gathered throughout the years click into a working whole. I can finally *feel* what it’s like to be in that magical, harmonious place of true benevolent leadership and relationship with my kids, and I have the confidence, clarity, and steadiness to navigate conflict with ease and grace. I highly recommend this course for all parents, no matter what season or skill level they’re parenting in, because it’s about self-exploration and digging deep into whatever it is you’re currently experiencing.
Kate Davis, Asheville USA
Star Place Photography