Raising kids’ emotional security with alchemy, empathy

I ask Karen what is the nexus for her life’s work. What is the point of inspiration? She says she wants to alchemize her own experiences from childhood.

Alchemize? I know what she means, but somehow I never knew the word “alchemy” had a verb form. So I went home and looked it up. She’s right. There’s a verb “to alchemize.”

Hmmm. OK, then.

Alchemy begins in Greco-Roman antiquity as both a science and a philosophy. Can the mundane be purified and transmuted into something noble and valuable? Can I, in a laboratory, turn base metals into gold?

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1971) embraced alchemy as metaphor. Can I, in the laboratory of my soul, turn injustice, tragedy and suffering into a noble and valuable gold?

Karen already has my full attention.

Karen Purves, M.A., is piloting part of a new parent education program aptly titled “Secure Parenting.” It’s an eight-week course, two hours each week, with two locations in Henderson and one in Las Vegas. The course will focus on parents of toddlers (2- to 3-year-olds).

She says, “If I could reduce this work to one word, the word would be ‘empathy.’ ”

I think of how often I say there really is only one parental mistake: the failure of empathy.

Karen has designed a course of study explaining to parents exactly how that happens — on a neurological level. How undigested, often denied emotional memories are triggered in parents of toddlers when toddlers are just being exactly who they are — innocent, bright and beautiful toddlers. How the triggered emotional memories in turn trigger the perception of danger in the amygdala — the “fight or flight” part of the brain.

Odd, yes? That a 3-year-old can give your brain the idea that there exists sufficient danger for you to fight or flee. Weirdly embarrassing but in a liberating way.

Like when my kids’ mom would walk behind me and say under her breath, simply, “You’re arguing with a toddler.”

Yep. In that moment I needed to “be right” in a discussion with a toddler. No wonder Karen calls her work “Secure Parent.” How insecure was I, in that moment, to need to win an argument with the beautiful, innocent, nonetheless hamster-brained bundle of instincts that is a 3-year-old. You’ve gotta laugh or cry.

Karen will help you laugh. And learn. And be a better mother or father.

Better? She educates me with a research datum I didn’t know.

“Of course parents get tired, get triggered. Lose it, sometimes,” she says. “But research shows that if one-third of the time we can notice and overcome the triggers, then respond to our children with warmth and empathy, those children emerge from childhood with secure attachments.”

One-third? Turns out that, both in baseball and in child-rearing, .333 is an all-star average.

Children are innocent. Toddlers don’t calculate to ruin our day. Or our night. If parents can practice warmth and empathy toward a child’s innocence, maybe they can find empathy for the innocence they, too, had as children.

An innocence likely damaged or lost in their own childhood.

I tell Karen she makes me think of Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931):

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.

They come through you, but not from you.

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may house their bodies, but not souls.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

“That quote is in my curriculum, too,” she says.

Oh, this woman is way ahead of me.

Are you a new mother/father? Euphoric with love, but stretched, strained, often exhausted?

Surprised by the power of your own reactions? Especially the negative reactions?

“Secure Parenting” invites you to dig in and learn. Classes start this coming week, and space is limited. Call 702-724-4912. Or email karen@secureparenting.org.

The cost? Zero dollars. It’s free. Participants are asked only to complete a number of questionnaires.

In the meantime, alchemy. Life contains injustice, tragedy and suffering. We can take these experiences and forge bitterness, denial, despair, addiction and other victimhoods. Or we can alchemize. We can forge something meaningful, noble and beautiful, which we can then give back to the world.

This is what Karen is doing. I wonder if she can know how much I admire that.

Well, she knows now.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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