Parenting & Grief: Like the ocean tide

A tide
The conference room at the REI Flagship store in Seattle was filled with leaders and senior staff that guide our company's strategic direction and operational implementation plans. The meeting was part of PEMCO Insurance's Interactive Leadership Series and the guest speaker for the day was Dr. John Medina - the best selling author of "Brain Rules" and one of the country's leading authorities on how the mind reacts to and organizes information.  This was the groups second engagement with Dr. Medina and the expectation was that we would be getting deeper into the information around how the human brain can best influence accountability and trust as components of leadership.  And we did.

Dr. Medina used humor, empathy, tone and volume to keep his audience engaged. 

When he talked about the functions of the "lizard brain" he referred to the four F's - Fighting, Fleeing, Feeding, and Mating. (Yes, he said he wanted to keep his talk rated PG-13). 

He mixed in examples of "games you can't lose" like bobbing for water, and connect the dot. And along the way, sprinkled in through the course of our time together, there were some valuable non-business anecdotes and stories.  Those who listened carefully and paid attention to what was said between Medina's major points, may have come away with even greater value. I know I did.

How to make a happy child

But perhaps the anecdote that meant the most to me was a story he told about parenting. He shared the following story which was centered around the death of a 3-year-old childs pet goldfish. 

The child was weeping and distraught over the loss of her dear goldfish. It was her first experience with death in any way.  After sharing examples of how most people might deal with the child, Dr. Medina offered an alternative approach. He talked about helping the child know that it is okay to be sad and that it is okay to cry.

"There are four responses people in the U.S. make to their child's feelings," said Medina. 

"The first might be something like this: 'This is no big deal, dear. We'll go to Petco and get you another goldfish. Stop your crying and go out and play." If it's the kid's first experience, it IS a big deal. This is dismissing behavior -- you're not giving them any tools.

The second: "You know, son, life is tough. Death is a part of it. Buck up and be a man." Now you're throwing rocks at the grief. The child thinks, "But I do feel bad. Dad is saying that's wrong. There must be something wrong with me." Again, no tools have been given.
Third is to ignore the feelings.

There's only one behavior that is the secret sauce: a robust, sophisticated form of empathy. 'Your fish has died. I'll bet you feel awful. Whenever something like that happens to me, I feel awful. I'm so sorry. I just want to hug you and help you cry. 

Medina said that once you have acknowledged this big feeling and you have given a tool - you have given them yourself. This gives the child something to hold onto while the wave of pain occurs. 

When you do something like that to a kid, while their feelings are intense, you get the happiest children, the most reduced rate of pediatric anxiety, fewer infectious diseases, the best grades, they create the best friends and exhibit the most loyalty to you as a parent when they grow up. 

Medina's description of grief as being like the tide of an ocean rang true to me.  At first, the tide seems to overwhelm us and we can be deeply in grief. It's at those moments - while underwater - that it seems as if no one can see or hear us. Then, in a relatively short time, the tide of grief goes out. We are aware that we are feeling better for awhile. We have our feet under us again. Until, just when we least expect it, the tide of grief comes back in. 

In and out the tide will go. When it's in, it's the parents job to be available to the child and to help them cry, help them cope, help them know that they are not alone.

Dr. Medina has a wealth of knowledge about the brain. Apparently he knows a little something about our hearts too.

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The Fine Print

Rod Brooks (that's me) is VP & CMO of PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and serves as Immediate Past Chair of the Board of Directors for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).  It's important to disclose both of those relationships and to be clear that this is my personal blog where I share thoughts and opinions that are solely my own.  Contact me!

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