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Holding Space

The Background

Often when a child comes to us with something that is causing suffering, it’s natural to want to help. If they are upset that the teacher gave them a B, we want to tell them how to study better or perhaps calm them with, ‘it’s ok, don’t worry about it”.

Whenever we look for a solution or try to placate, it’s usually coming from one of two places. The first is from our own fear and discomfort which have been aroused, and we want those feelings to go away. Or, we assume that such a response shows them that we care.

But sometimes, offering a container for their emotions and thinking is all they need.

What is it?

The term ‘container’ has been used in psychotherapy since Freud’s early writings and means a “holding environment,” with an emphasis on safety. Sometimes it’s referred to as holding space. We show our presence by offering a hug or a figurative shoulder to lean on.

As importantly, this non-judgemental presence allows what is happening just to happen - without jumping in to repair or solve. We don’t intrude into their space; we hold it. It may not feel constructive, but it creates a safety net for children to emote and explore their own autonomy.

Letting our children figure out what they want to do with gives them confidence and allows them to take responsibility for their decisions.

Won’t my children feel hurt if I ignore their problems? Absolutely. But between the extremes of ignoring completely or rushing in with our infinite wisdom, there are tools that allow you to assist while holding space. (Also, just remember that sitting in silence with someone while they cry or are angry is not ignoring; that, too, is holding space.)

Here’s why we talk about holding space: more often than not, all they really want from us is listening and acceptance and love. The message you are sending is: I believe you can handle this upset, this situation or this emotion; I’m here if you need me.

Your Script in Action

Your daughter is invited to a birthday party but doesn’t like some of the other kids being invited. They always “whisper and say mean things” about her.

If you feel it is important that Julie doesn't hurt her friend’s feelings, you might want to simply tell her, “I think you need to go to support your friend. It wouldn’t be right to back out now.” Can you see how you’ve bulldozed her feelings or thoughts with your solution?


(a) Help her untangle her thoughts and feelings:

“From what you’ve been telling me, Julie, you seem to have two feelings about that party. You want to be with your friend on her birthday, but you don’t want to have to contend with the girls you don’t like.”

(b) Restate the problem as a question:

“So, the question seems to be, ‘How do you find a way to be at the party and deal with the name-calling of some of the girls?’”

(c) After she’s had time to mull over and become more clear on her own thoughts and feelings, you can introduce your own ideas, values or convictions in a way that shows respect for her autonomy:

“How would you feel about…?”

“Would you consider…?”

And bite your tongue after any of your input! Your silence and presence are the container in which she can safely explore her own solutions. You are holding space.


Look for a situation where your child shares something - anything - with you. If you’re lucky enough to have a child who shares that his friend was mean or that she’s sad not be picked for the musical, don’t lose the moment by rushing in with advice or placation. Bite your tongue and practice holding space.

You don't have to do it alone. I've been there, and I can help. Reply to this email or call for a free consult - let's see if we're a fit.

Mary Smith Parent Coach is passionate about sharing practical, powerful habits that take one minute with parents to simply and quickly sow the roots of connection and engagement with their children while creating calm in the household.

I've Been There! Sincerely, Mary


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