After four years on the road, we still tend not to linger for long when we’re visiting friends. I’m well aware of the adage “fish and guests smell after three days”, and I know that my four extra children tend to add a stress to most households. Even when we’re in a group dedicated to living in community, I’m aware that we all need time to learn to navigate through the many different relationship combinations, and so I like to remove our family in our bus and explore other local parts for a while.

Brioni playing with digger toys, July 2014
The diggers have already moved in to begin construction on an extension for the community house on a property in southeast Queensland.

I don’t always have to set an arbitrary date for driving on. Sometimes external pressures such as shopping or appointments create a pressure to be somewhere else. Other times I make arrangements to do something fun or visit another set of friends so that the girls are leaving one fun household for another. Usually we like to retreat somewhere to regroup as a family — often a national park where the girls can play outside freely.

As the girls mature, I share with them the true concerns of relating within a community. They understand that other children may not be used to sharing their spaces, they know the value of carving a quiet retreat for themselves and they recognise when they need time away from their friends.

At the community where we’ve been parked for almost a week, Brioni is expressing a strong desire to leave. Although she blames her clashes with one other child for her unhappiness, the other parent and I know that she’s simply missing her close friendship with Aisha. At one point I was able to explain calmly to the other child that although Brioni’s outbursts seemed to be directed at him, he shouldn’t take them personally as they were rooted in Brioni’s own feelings of loss. When Brioni returns to a better emotional space, I know that she, too, will be able to recognise the truth of this and in time, she’ll learn to look within herself for the cause of her unhappiness rather than seeking to blame someone else.

A key to conscious parenting is learning to separate myself from my children’s emotional outbursts so that I can continue to provide empathy, compassion and support without spiralling down into a bad mood that is generated by insecurity or low energy. Our children learn that they can remain unaffected by others’ negativity if they see us modelling a calm, safe refuge (even if inside we’re cringing!).

Last week, four-year-old Delaney asked me for a drink of milk at the end of an uneventful day of playing with friends. She’d happily gone along with whatever was happening and now because I sipped at the milk before handing her the cup, she rejected my offering with a huge emotional display. We were in a “safe” household — one that is not judgemental or noise-sensitive — so I sat with Delaney and let her thrash on the bed. She cried and kicked out at everything that touched her, and I had to remove some objects for their own safety and her own, but otherwise I just sat and casually reached out to Lana to remind her of my presence. Finally she calmed down enough for a cuddle and soon fell into an exhausted sleep. I believe that her outburst had nothing to do with the drink of milk but was simply a manifestation of the emotions she had been controlling all day. Until she was with a safe person (me), she had kept herself under control — always behaving appropriately — and at four years old she had done very well! While I was talking about the outburst with my friend, she remarked wryly that this was similar to what she experienced at the end of every school day while she was sending her children to school.

I believe that if I had stifled Lana’s outburst she would have hidden her emotions away to explode another day. My other option was to remove myself from her so that her negative energy didn’t affect me, and sometimes — honestly — I don’t have the energy to deal with a horrible temper tantrum. However, on this occasion, I was buoyed by my friend’s supportive presence and — especially knowing that I wasn’t being judged on my 4yo’s outburst — I found the serenity and compassion to remain with Delaney until she was back to being her usual cheerful self.

Every time I am able to remain present with my children — without letting their negative energy pull me into their dramas — I demonstrate the conscious relating that I want to see in them. I strongly desire that my girls to learn to see others’ pain without feeling responsible, to analyse themselves for the core issues that create their unhappiness and to live harmoniously with those who are may be less emotionally intelligent. Compassion is best learned through demonstration — compassion for those who are horrible, compassion for those who say mean things, compassion for those who don’t understand that another’s journey can take different turns — and so I must first live that principle in real-time.