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Focusing With Children In The Home

Reflections on a Fourteen Year Experiment

by Marianne Thompson

So often I hear the anguish in parents' voices as they tell me they are unable to communicate with their teenagers. Comments like, "They never talk to me anymore," "They always want to be alone with their friends, or "We really aren't able to connect anymore" seem to be the rule rather than the exception today.

As a mother with three teenagers, 17, 19, and 21, I no longer feel that it's inevitable for parents to have communication problems with their teenage kids. I taught our children to focus when they were three, five, and seven, a fourteen year experiment for us now. So far, the results seem to point toward a growing freedom that blesses them with an abiding sweetness, openness, and gentleness from early childhood. I've often wondered. how it is that Focusing keeps the bridge of communication open. Paying attention to the pull and excitement behind that question has opened up what I now share with you.

The Focusing process fosters in children an inner climate different from that of dominance and the unresolved anger, frustration and resentment that inevitably grow when things don't go the way they think they should. Several days ago, as I was picking the kids up from school, David tossed his backpack in the rear seat, sat down next to it and sighed, "Whoa". "Whoa?" I reflected back to him. "Yea," he said, "I have tons of homework, have some really good teachers, but boy do they dish out the work". After we talked a bit, I asked if he'd like to sit back and feel what that was like. As I write, I can still see him in the rear view mirror, putting his head back, closing his eyes, and going inside. When we arrived home, I could tell he was more relaxed. He said a sense for how he could better organize his work had come to him. Just knowing (through Focusing) the body process of "owning" how he really felt brought relief, and clearly, some direction as well.

This is light-years away from what most children learn at home, in school, at church or with their peers. Learning to solve problems or to "fix it" when something feels wrong is drummed into them at an early age. They are conditioned to look for answers outside themselves in order to gain power over what hurts, confuses, or frightens them. By contrast, Focusing teaches children to listen in their bodies and wait until the gift of change can be given them from the inside. In this way they develop a body-feel for "it feels better now", and "I didn't make it happen." There is a sense of empowerment--so important for children. When the channels remain open in their bodies, direction comes from inside. This is something for which teenagers hunger and is the exact opposite of the typical message that comes from peer pressure: to get direction and meaning from the group.

When we as parents or teachers learn to trust the Focusing process and our kids know we trust this process, we don't have to dread the time when they ask for more freedom. An ever deeper bond of communication develops when kids know we trust direction coming from them. What a boost to their self­esteem at a time when it can so easily be knocked down. Parents don't have to jettison their responsibilities, nor do honest disagreements need to shut down communication. Kids don't have to lie, play games or sneak around. Honest disagreements or the needs of parents to make decisions aren't felt as "put downs" by the kids. This bond of mutual trust keeps the bridges of communication open between parents and children, as well as teachers and children. There is no need for parents to fear teenage years when adolescents have not only been taught to trust their own emerging spirit, but also feel our respect for that birthing of spirit within them.

When their body sense of "it feels better", and "I didn't do it" occurs, curiosity arises. "If I didn't do it", they ask, "then where did it come from?" The whole life of grace can be opened up to them. With such supportive experience to fall back on, it makes no body sense for kids to close off or become secretive and withdrawn when they have experienced the physical release that comes from letting go into what is real in their body. At a time when adolescents are naturally questioning and rejecting values that are imposed on them by adults, it is a rare opportunity to introduce them to religious traditions and human values from inside their own valued experience. By being true to their own body and allowing it to tell its story, they are discovering God.

When gift and giver connect, a sense of inner openness to a process greater than themselves can begin to unfold. Not only are their channels of communication "to receive" further supported to remain open, but their entire potential for connecting with the values we want to pass on to them broadens.

It is my experience that when a gifted identity has grown in kids from an early age, realness and openness are spontaneous. So far our children continue to feel congruent even into early adulthood. Something in the body-feel of gift invites them to listen, to trust and to remain open and true to themselves. The secretive withdrawal we usually associate with adolescent years doesn't seem inevitable. These years of searching and introspection, so often filled with confusion and identity questions, don't need to lead toward self-alienation or behavioral problems.

But just because our kids know how to Focus doesn't mean they therefore, have it "easy." The difficulties of school work, peer pressure, and personal identity still remain. But along with feelings that arise from those situations, freedom continues to blossom within as they discover and learn to trust their own answers.


A. What Parents (Adults) Need Most to Know in Helping Children to Grow

I. We do not have to be experts

To begin working with children we do not have to be experts in Focusing ourselves. The care we take of ourselves becomes our own teacher. What is necessary is to have a sense for the process. This includes being able to stay with a felt sense of an issue, having a felt sense for knowing how to care for yourself when something feels hurt, scary, sad, and finally have a sense for the felt shift. This develops a deep respect for whatever is real in you, and you learn not to push an issue, but wait until it is ready in its own time to unfold. An inner freedom develops in you that allows the child to be with whatever is real in herself/himself.

The key attitude when Focusing with children is one of allowing, and not trying to change them. "We have to teach children to believe in and know there is a special place inside each of them that has the answers they are looking for," says play therapist Gloria Bruinix. "This is where our adult teaching must be centered. There is a special place inside each child, inside each one of us, where we can listen and receive answers - answers that are very different from the ones we normally get from outside. These answers fit each of us just right. They are our very own personal answers."

When you begin to trust the process in yourself the children feel it and they in turn feel safe with their own scary hurting places. I learned early on that I could easily have placed my catastrophic expectations on my children. And they were just that, my script. They taught me that their own stories rarely if ever fit my expectations! All the guess work and often erroneous interpretation in trying to understand their behavior is an effort that can be so off the mark. Moreover, even if we do guess correctly it never really changes anything for them, because they don't stay with their own feelings, allowing the meanings in there to speak and then experiencing the shift inside. Without this shift in meaning one behavior or another remains stuck. When we learn to give our children their own space we gift them and ourselves with their own developing personalities.

2. The Care We Take of Ourselves is Our Teacher.

So often it's the barriers we carry inside ourselves, barriers we have not yet learned to be gentle with that most get in the way of effective Focusing with children. Learning how to take care of our own feelings is our best teacher when working with children. Then our "barriers" become our doorways! Over the years have come to see that the incredible harshness we have toward ourselves is our biggest stumbling block. As Gerald May says in his new book Simply Sane, "In all my experience we jerk ourselves around, berate ourselves, drive ourselves and confine ourselves in ways we would never subject an animal to. We are willing subjects of our own abuse. The most religious of us are so terrified of appearing selfish that we subject ourselves to unnameable internal cruelties. And those of us who are more selfish stuff ourselves with poisons and whip ourselves into self-destructive highs. Some of us are meaner than others, but I have yet to meet a person in modern Western culture who was not in some way cruelly self-abusive." This attitude toward ourselves often gets in the way of our own Focusing journey, stopping us dead in our tracks.

Chapter 7 in Ed McMahon's book Beyond the Myth of Dominance, An Alternative to a Violent Society, entitled "How Can We Risk Owning What is Real in Our Bodies" gives, I believe, the best and most extensive explanation and examples that I have ever read on how to turn this destructive pathology completely on its head. Learning to care for our own feelings by taking time to listen and wait until they are ready to tell their stories, without constantly trying to understand what they mean or where they come from, or even trying to make them go away is, I have found, the most effective way to grow beyond this gnawing trap.

Such an attitude gradually develops a feeling kinship toward whatever is real in us. And then we can begin to "teach" our children. I firmly believe unless we take time to teach our children another way we will inevitably pass on this destructive behavior that can only continue to result in violence to ourselves, others, and the world.

What we are calling Caring Feeling Presence is the most important element when children Focus. As we allow this process to become our teacher a gentleness and patience with ourselves begins to grow. We can then let go of needing to control everything with our minds. This inner freedom in us is our children's precious teacher and they too learn the attitude "I can be with anything and not be destroyed." This gentle, open, respectful listening to whatever is real in them provides a sure guide for the rest of their lives.

3. How to Listen to Children

Gloria Bruinix has written what she does before she begins to Focus with children...."I believe each person who does Focusing with a child should spend some time with how they would have wanted to be listened to as a child. If they know that and can feel what it is like not to have been heard that way, then they will be able to Focus with children. Until they really know what they wanted for themselves, they will not be able to hear a child when that child wants what they wanted. Perhaps they will be able hear quite a number of other things in a child, just as I have. But if the child's pain is around something that you missed as a child, then you won't be able to hear any of that until you can listen to what is unfinished and left over of this in yourself right now as an adult."

4. Importance of Timing

Any serious desire to teach children to be true to their own spirit involves time and the right timing. I remember two incidents in our children's early Focusing that illustrate this value. As I was getting dinner ready David was sort of just hanging around the kitchen with a look on his face that told something wasn't quite right with him. I asked if something had happened at school that he would like to tell me about. He said, "No." Then, after a few moments said, "Yes." I was quiet and then he told me how his friend, Raphael had been mean to him at school and said he didn't like David anymore. I responded with something like, "It hurts to have your friend do that to you, doesn't it?" Then I asked him if he would like to stay with this feeling inside for awhile, if he wanted to be with how Raphael's remark made him feel inside. He just nodded, was still for awhile, and then some tears came and the words, "1 didn't think friends were supposed to do that... be your friends and then not be your friend."

We were both quiet as I observed the change in him. Then, after a few moments I helped him notice how different it now felt compared to when he first came into the kitchen. He said he felt a lot better and quickly announced that he was going outside to play. At that time, David was seven years old.

When John was nine I was going over some questions with him one afternoon after he had studied his homework, and as he missed several questions I could see him getting more and more agitated and frustrated. Then he started to cry. I asked if it would be OK to put the homework aside for the time being and instead stay with the frustrated feelings inside to see if they wanted to tell him something. He sat quietly for awhile, tears stopped and then he said "I think I need to study some more." I then asked him to check inside and see if there was anything more left to that frustrated feeling. He was quiet again and then said, "I don't like to study and not get it." He opened his eyes and said, 'Yea!" I noticed he seemed much more at ease then and wanted to get on with his homework.

We have to be prepared to stop at a moment's notice when our children come to us in excitement, fear, hurt, etc. These fleeting precious moments are all invitations to be present at the ongoing birth of their spirit. Bio-Spiritual Focusing helps our children grow beyond centuries-old inherited body patterns of rejecting and neglecting negative feelings. With this simple, clear direct process we can prepare the next generation to be with themselves and their world in a way that I believe will directly impact the dominance that has been passed on from generation to generation within the very air we all breathe.

5. Importance of Privacy and Trust

In families where there are few secrets and where a general atmosphere of openness is present I feel it is very important to let children know right from the start that anything they share with us in Focusing will remain private, unless they tell us otherwise. I remember my daughter, Elizabeth, making me promise not to tell anybody, "not even Daddy, what I Focused on." My first instinct after the children Focused used to be to want to share my own feelings of gratitude and excitement, and that would inevitably lead to the details. I have learned gently to hold these feelings in myself in order not to violate that promise. Over the years this has been a gift that has allowed me to grow in deep respect for their privacy, a respect for them that they can sense growing in me.


B. How Do Parents (Adults) Learn to Focus Themselves?

In the booklet "Focusing Companions" New Model for Relationships, Ed McMahon writes: "It makes a big difference who first introduces you to Focusing as well as with whom you continue to Focus if you are going to develop a body-feel for the intrinsic spirituality in this process. Focusing that will uncover this potential as well as strengthen its growth should be experienced with a guide (as a beginner or later as a Focusing Companion) who:

a) Is free enough to journey empathically with you and not direct, manipulate or control your process from their perspective or needs;

b) Doesn't need to have you succeed in Focusing in order to feel good about him/herself;

c) Knows the process from the inside as gift, i.e. has a body-feel for the grace dimension of this process;

d) Regularly Focuses him/herself.

If the body-feel for this process, as well as its gift dimension, is not maturing in the person who companions you, especially in the beginning, then Focusing can easily turn into just one more self-help gimmick, even if the person does not become manipulative. The last thing any of us need is to be taught more techniques of control.

(If you choose to continue with Focusing, there are very important guidelines included in the booklet, Focusing Companions, which is part of this series. Information for ordering this booklet may be obtained from the Institute for BioSpiritual Research.)


C. Introducing Focusing to Children

The practical steps of how I proceeded are as follows:

l.  I began to introduce my children to Focusing when they were very young. Because they were so young I talked to them about stories and how they felt when they were totally involved with a story. Prior to sitting down with them in any sort of Focusing way, I told all three of them one night just before bedtime about stories, and we talked about what makes stories exciting to them. They loved to have stories read to them and to hear "made up" stories. So we talked about how they feel when all of their attention is "in" a story. Their comments ranged from, "It's exciting and fun to hear what's going to happen," to "It doesn't feel right when you stop and don't finish the story." They seemed to catch the motion of on-going movement in stories and how they love to stay with that story as it unfolds.

Then, when we were together several evenings later I referred back to the previous discussion and went a step further. This time I told them that behind all their feelings is a story that is waiting to be heard, too. They listened intently, and that was as far as I took the explanation.

2.  Whenever I sensed an uncomfortableness around a situation or noticed some negative behavior I asked if they would like to listen to the story underneath their feelings.

3.  I would then put everything I was doing on hold and go into their bedroom and we would both sit on the floor. It is important that we both feel comfortable, natural and relaxed.

4.  Because of the immediacy of their feeling there was no need to do anything except ask them to check inside and ask that scared, mad, etc. place if it feels okay to be with it. It is very important to the whole process for children to learn respect for how they feel inside. The need to know we respect that too, and to understand that sometimes it may be too frightening to be with what they are feeling. If it is, I always ask them to see if it would be okay to stay with how scary it feels? This often gives just the needed distance in order for them to continue. Frequently we ride roughshod over our children's feelings just as we learned to do to ourselves as children. This step teaches them to trust their feelings and to feel how important they are!

5.  When they were very young it always seemed OK to be with anything. Later we needed to spend more time with learning to create a safe place inside. I helped them learn how to care for this inside place so that when it began to feel safe it could tell them more of its story. We often Focused just before bedtime so that as we sat close they felt safe and warm inside. Or, I asked them to notice how it felt inside when they held a stuffed animal. Cozy, warm, sleepy were words they used. All these felt experiences prepared them to let go into whatever was real.

Soon they came up with images of their own. Elizabeth asked the feeling if it would stay and play with her. She also loved stuffed animals and often would hold one of them as she listened to a particularly hard place. John knew how it felt in his body to be friendly with a new boy at school. The new student felt lost and unsure in his new school setting. Being friendly and giving him a guided tour felt good to John. He could then transfer this experience and be the same way with himself. Taking time to be friendly, open, soft, safe was the most important aspect of Focusing with my children.

6.  Before we stop I always ask the children to notice if there is any difference between how their body felt when they first began and how they feel now. Invariably when they were young and still today, they say it feels so much better now. I ask them specifically to notice "where in your body does it feel better?" Phrases like, my stomach feels softer, my headache is gone, I feel light or I feel like I'm floating, gives them a physical feel for how gift feels from inside. I then allow a considerable amount of time for this step so they can actually assimilate the difference in how it feels inside. This gives them a physical experience for journeying into the Body life of Spirit.

The simple words, "It feels better," teaches them there isn't anything too overwhelming for them to listen to in this special way. When they have an experience that it can change and feel better and they didn't do it, hope begins to grow in their body. When, on occasion, their stories do not unfold, they take time to promise that inside place that they will check in from time to time in order to listen further. They know that when this place is cared for over a long enough period of time, when it finally learns to trust them, then it will tell them more.


D. How a Body Spirituality Begins to Grow

Years ago, when Elizabeth was only 9 years old, she asked me, "Mommy, where did that scary feeling go?" Her question began what has become for our children a journey into God's life within them. I knew that intrinsic to the Focusing process itself was the opportunity I'd been waiting for, to pass on to our children a body feel for the Life of Spirit. Somehow right within the scary unknown, an important step into God-consciousness can happen. The amazement and wonder of "It feels much better and I didn't make it better," is a concrete experience for kids or for any of us to learn how grace feels in our bodies. The physiological change, whether it be in relaxed muscles or easier breathing, and the amazement that follows is so real that kids immediately wonder how that happens.

A faith slowly begins to develop and we all begin to learn there is more to ourselves than our ability to control and fix ourselves and others. For me this is the heart of what is spiritual about Focusing. We surrender and allow God to bless us. When gift and giver connect, a sense of inner openness to a process greater than ourselves can begin to unfold.

It has always been important for me to pass on what the Christian tradition of Incarnation feels like from inside the body. But at the same time, I have been aware of not wanting to pass on canned answers or theological concepts about God. For me the spiritual life is intimately connected to the unfolding story in my body. So I didn't introduce any spiritual connections to the kids until long after they had experienced over and over again how something changed in their feelings and body over which they had absolutely no control.

Ed's words, written years ago after talking to me about my own children and Focusing, still summarize for me what I have attempted to share with you here. He wrote:

"Our families represent our hopes and hunger for long-term loving and caring relationships. It is here that the next generation either learns or doesn't learn how human wholeness happens. Painful things can happen during those childhood years in the family, at school, etc., but such experiences need not block the development of wholeness. Rather, what seems to be the key factor is whether whatever the child feels about life has an opportunity to tell its story.

"'That is as true for beautiful and exciting things as it is for those that are painful. It all depends upon whether the child has been encouraged to listen gracefully to whatever is real right now during those formative years. When that kind of processing happens in childhood, then we grow to feel good about ourselves and our story, even when there have been painful experiences. When that hasn't been encouraged, even in families where there is love, the seeds of low self-esteem are planted, because the child's personal story is blocked. Day after day as a child grows older, feelings that need to be heard are neglected or actually pushed away in fear. Thus, a process of self-alienation, not self possession is fueled by ordinary living."

We have a marvelous avenue opening before us. If we choose, the power is ours to pass on to our children a living map that points out a direction toward human wholeness. Such a gift has the potential to change the course of human and planetary evolution.


About the Author

Marianne Thompson is a former Co-Director of the Institute for BioSpiritual Research. Before that, she was Coordinator of Regionally for the Institute, and from the beginning of her involvement with BioSpiritual Focusing has been committed to bringing this process to parents and children. Upon assuming her role as Co-Director she wrote: "My hope is that we will be able to experiment with ways to bring BioSpiritual Focusing to more diverse groups of people. In doing this my dream would be to reach out to the young, so our efforts might have a lasting impact. I feel a deep sense of privilege in being able to serve the Institute and its members in this capacity. I am humbled when I think that I am a part of the vast possibilities that lie before us." She can be reached at [email protected]

What is the Institute for BioSpiritual Research

The Institute is an international network of several thousand people--parents, counselors, health care providers, hospice volunteers, clergy and sisters, teachers, therapists, retreat house staffs and spiritual guides--in fact, anyone dedicated to peacemaking through human wholeness. We believe this involves taking the actual body-steps that invite the gift dimension of life (grace) to unfold within ourselves and in our relationships with others. Through BioSpiritual Focusing we take time to open our body's awareness (not just our mental processes), so that we may experience a "body-feel" for the giftedness of life and the deep inner connection of all things. This is what we mean by a body or "BioSpirituality."

Through workshops, publications, and videotapes, we share very practical, teachable skills and attitudes that help us live a peace-making process in our daily lives. We invite you to join us.

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