What Does it Mean to Have a Soft Heart?

In my classes and parent consulting sessions, I talk about the importance of a child having a “soft heart.” This is an intuitive term often used by my teacher, Dr. Gordon Neufeld as a kind of shorthand meaning a child who is able to feel their vulnerable feelings. 

Why is it important to feel vulnerable feelings?

Vulnerable feelings--especially the feelings of futility, satiation and caring-- are essential for maturation to take place. Futility comes when it sinks in for the child that something has not/will not/cannot work in the way that they wanted. Examples of this might be: not getting invited to a birthday party, the death of a beloved pet or the fact that they are not as fast as their big sister is; in all these cases there is nothing to do to make these things not be true - they just are. The response that ultimately leads towards resilience is to feel the futility in these kinds of situations. 

Satiation is important to feel because the feeling of being filled up is what frees the child from pursuing attachment and releases them to begin to become their own person. When they are released from working at attachment, their mind and heart can turn to other, more luxurious questions, such as: What do I like to do? What do I think about things? And, what ideas are inside me that want to come out? 

Being able to feel their caring feelings is what will eventually enable our kids to be capable of impulse control, patience, empathy the ability to work towards a goal and myriad other traits that we consider “virtues.” If the caring feelings aren’t there, these capacities can’t develop.

Resilience, becoming one’s own person and the capability for caring and considerate behavior are all hallmarks of maturity and they all only develop when vulnerable feelings are present and felt.

Why do children’s hearts harden?

As humans, we are all so vulnerable. Our children’s hearts can harden if they experience too much wounding; this wounding can come in so many different forms-- feeling criticized by their teacher, being teased by a sibling or sensing that grandpa doesn’t like them are just a few. There is no way to live in this world and avoid all wounding, but there is a way to move through the world with a shield that prevents the wounding from going in too deeply. This “magical shield” comes through a deep attachment to a caring adult. If we can be the safe space for our child, we gift them this shield. They may have hurts throughout the day, but the hurts won’t “wound to the quick” and their hearts won’t harden in response to prolonged and daily exposure to wounding that goes in too deeply to bear.

You may wonder: why would a heart harden against something like caring or satiation? These seem like they would “feel good” to experience! The way the heart and brain work is that if they harden, the effects are global; we can’t pick and choose the feelings we want --keeping the “good” ones and discarding the painful ones. If there is wounding too much to bear, the child’s heart hardens and their feelings "go missing."

How can we restore softness?

It takes time, patience, yearning and steadfastness to soften a hardened - or defended - heart.

I often tell parents the Aesop’s fable The North Wind and The Sun when we are talking about how to go about softening defenses. In this fable, the eponymous characters decide to have a contest to see who can succeed in getting a traveler to take off his heavy coats. The North Wind goes first and begins blowing fiercely which leads to the traveler to holding his layers more tightly around his body. The Sun goes next and she simply shines and shines. As time passes (Sun still shining!), the traveler, getting warmer, begins to take off first one layer and then the next until finally, all the layers are off. The traveler then sits down next to a tree and takes a long and peaceful nap.

This fable holds so much wisdom about how defenses work. It clearly illustrates that we cannot "take defenses down" with any sort of force or agenda and that, in fact, this approach will only serve to further entrench them. Instead, the only effective way to approach this task is with steadfast warmth and patience; with these two qualities, defenses can melt.

Providing our children with the warm and, in the words of Dr. Neufeld, “an unconditional invitation to exist in our presence,” no matter their behavior, is one of the keys to softening a hardened heart. Embodying a strong and generous Alpha presence is another--letting our kids feel that we’ve got them, that they’re never too much for us to handle and we’re here to take care of them. All of these, over time, can lead our child back into the vulnerable territory of having a soft heart.

What about our own hearts?

Parenting a defended child can be very difficult -- these kids are often aggressive and impulsive, they don’t follow our directions and seem to always be getting into trouble. If we are going to become the parent that our child needs--patient, caring, generous-- our soft hearts are also necessary...but can sometimes be elusive. 

What are the activities or relationships that soften your heart toward your child? For some of us, it’s looking at our child when they are asleep, for others, it’s a certain baby photo that gets to us every time or it could be writing in our journal or playing the guitar. For most of us, a good cry is a great way to release the hardness... 

While we yearn for our child’s heart to soften, we yearn for our own hearts to remain soft in the process so that we can be the parent they need to grow and mature as nature intended.

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Would you like to better understand how to become the parent your child needs? Schedule a parent consulting session today 

If you have an Alpha child, you most likely have a child whose heart needs softening - The Alpha Child class begins in November!

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