Containing emotions – the key to healthy relationships


Emotions can be contagious, especially those experienced and expressed vividly by our loved ones. When it comes to difficult emotions, like anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety, this infectious nature of them, makes things more challenging. Thinking, making good judgments and decisions can be overridden by two (or more) people caught in the emotional circle.
If the first person, experiencing difficult emotions is a young child, it can be very hard to understand what is going on for her/him, and help accordingly.

The obvious complication is, that young children can’t explain what is going on, they themselves don’t have capacity to understand it. Their bodily reactions and emotional life are much more interdependent, than in adults. For example, bodily discomfort can cause huge emotional distress, and because the baby doesn’t have mechanisms to deal with it other than very dynamic, powerful expression, this in turn causes the discomfort getting worse.

We can distinguish three ways of dealing with child’s difficult emotions. We all use them from time to time, depending on the circumstances and our capacity to work out the situation.

Let’s imagine the child crying inconsolably, being perhaps angry or frustrated. There are three typical responses to how the parent or main carer deals with the child’s distress.

1. Blocking emotions

The mother or the father for various reasons might not be able to connect with this distressful emotional experience, and blocks their child’s emotions off. They might pick up the baby and rock him/her, circulating the room, but at an emotional and psychological level, they are absent and protect themselves from hearing or seeing what’s going on with the child because it’s too painful or too much to deal with at this particular moment.

2. Giving back emotions

The parent ‘takes in’ the child’s emotions, soaking them like a sponge, and gets upset and overwhelmed. She/he gets affected by the child’s emotional experience (gets sad or angry) and throughs back these emotions at the child in a raw and unprocessed way, adding some of his/her own feelings; for example, she gets very angry – and also anxious and guilty of becoming angry in the first place.

In two cases above, thinking gets overpowered by emotional experience and it’s impossible to figure out what is really happening and what actions should be undertaken to help the child.

3. Containing emotions

The mother/father/carer who in the particular situation has strength and ability, connects with the child and helps her/him go though difficult moment, containing the emotional experience. The parent does get affected by child’s emotion – feels and acknowledges them at a deep emotional level and at a thinking level. The containing parent tries to stay calm in the face of difficult situation. They talk to the baby calmly, rock the baby, and think for the baby, what might be the cause of the upset. This means, that they let the emotion go through their system: not trying to desperately get rid of it, but attempting to experience it without anxiety. With this process, the emotion usually fades away, the baby or child calms enough to eat or sleep, but if the baby doesn’t calm the parent knows it’s more serious – perhaps teething or something else – so the process of containment goes on until the problem is sorted out. This containing approach works at three levels – one to sort out the practical issues; two – to create an understanding within the infant of how to manage their own emotions – learning from the parent; three – the parent develops a greater capacity to care and to find their inner strength and peace.

The ability to contain our own emotions, as well as emotions of our children is in my view the most helpful of all parental ‘tools’. In fact it’s a basis for healthy, mature and caring relationships with all people who are important to us.

Writing this piece, I remembered the moment in my life, when I was held and contained by other person. It was just over a year ago when I was giving birth to my second child. The midwife who assisted me through all long process had a wonderful ability to help me dealing with my emotional experience of labour. She was there, as a gentle touch of reality, in these moments when I was loosing clear judgment. She patiently provided every possible comfort when I thought the pain was never going to end. She stayed composed and calm, what allowed her to make right decisions regarding the process (recommending movement, change of the position, listening to the child’s heartbeat, etc.). I felt emotionally connected to her and I believed, that whatever I experience, I’m in a safe place to feel it and I am going to be supported.

I think this is exactly what small baby, who understands very little of what is going on for him/her, needs when going through difficult time.

 

First published on herfamily.ie

Photo from: http://www.brushtouch.wordpress.com

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 Why parents’ help is not always helpful? Managing our protective instincts


Welcoming a new baby to this world means becoming responsible for every aspect of someone else’s life. This experience brings a variety of emotions into play. From now on, parenting means operating in these highly emotional circumstances, and we need to learn how to manage our reactions to what is happening with our child. 
Our parenting strategies might be partially a conscious choice, but they are strongly influenced by who we are, what is our history and the context in which we are bringing up the children. For example: if we find ourselves overprotecting our children, we might realise that we just can’t help ourselves. We do it because it’s our emotional reaction to an anticipated threat. To see our children struggling seems unbearable. The obvious reason for trying to clear all the obstacles from our children’s path is that we want the best for them. The underlying dynamic might be more complex though. We might also be over protective in areas where we ourselves had hard times as children, or we might have strong need for controlling the world around us (and the children within it) to manage our anxiety and make life as predictable as possible.

For complex emotional reasons our good intentions to help our children, sometimes become the source of control and turns out to be not so helpful.   
 Experiment and protection

Finding the balance between providing enough space for our children to explore, take risks, learn and develop and to offer the appropriate protection of our children isn’t an easy task. It means that we need to sometimes act against our own anxieties and instincts. A simple example is learning how to climb stairs that involves the risk of falling down and we need to find a right moment and safe way to let our children practice this skill. If we overprotect our children and they don’t learn, they will be at a greater risk later in childhood, when they attempt this feat without any of the skills necessary. They will also internalise their parents anxiety about risk taking with many other consequences. 

Frustration

This also applies to letting our children to experience frustration and defeat, so they can learn how to deal with life challenges in the future and find their own solutions to overcoming problems. It’s a very empowering experience which builds child’s confidence in the world. 

Boundaries 

Finally, it’s also about the boundaries within which children can explore the world, test new things and draw their own lessons and conclusions. There are some things which are clearly too dangerous to try or explore, or learn from making mistakes. There are some things which are not socially accepted or experiments which go beyond our limits.The example from adolescent age might be the use of hard drugs – we don’t want our children to experiment with such a risk and we expect them to use their reasoning instead of practically testing dangerous things. In these cases children need to hear our strong and firm voice which allows both parents and children stay in touch with the reality principle and remain safe.  

There are three key questions we can ask ourselves that may help deal with these difficult issues: 
Is it age appropriate? 
Knowing your child, and the context in which he/she is growing up – you can asses what does it mean age appropriate frustration. Does it mean let the 2 year old try and put their shoes on? Is it allowing 13 year old to go to school unprepared and face consequences? Is it expecting 4 year old to wait when it is needed?

Is your initial reaction and judgement more about the child’s welfare or about your own emotions? 
 When seeing your child struggling with something: what is your emotional experience? Does it bring any memories of you as a child in similar circumstances? What was your parents reaction to you experiencing frustration and trying new things?

If you were observing another parent behaves towards their child as you do towards yours, would you think they are:

a) overprotective, b) taking too many risks, c) acting with care and thoughtfulness in the child’s best interest? 
This third person perspective may help you to decide what would you like to do differently.

Photo: http://www.hubpages.com

First published on: herfamily.ie 

Helpful Graphic: How to Keep an Eye on Your Kids’ Social Media Accounts

I was asked to promote an infographic on chidlren’s presence online, including social media. Have a look – I hope it will be of a help for you, when talking to your children and helping them stay safe.

‘You monitor your tweens and teens in all sorts of ways—checking in on grades and friends, knowing where they are and what they’re doing. But how much time do you spend thinking about how your children use smart devices? It’s something that parents should think about: Nearly all teens go online every day and about three-fourths can access smart devices. But that near constant use means that they often find themselves accessing inappropriate sites, or being harassed by peers or strangers. That risk can increase when teens are on social media sites, too. Parents don’t have to remove smart devices from use by teens. But what they can do is to talk to their children about the uncertainty. You can also put in place some restrictions, including placement of internet-accessible devices and filters, too.

Use this graphic to help guide you through any of these difficulties.’


Source: Fix.com Blog

Do emotions live in brain? Brain development and self soothing


I recently had a fascinating conversation with my good friend, who is a Cognitive Neuroscientist – she knows a lot about brain and she can explain it to someone like me, who doesn’t know much. I will now share with you what she told me, as it is one of these things, we do want to get right as parents.It’s about this part of children’s brain which is responsible for understanding and managing emotions.

We don’t come to this world equipped with brain which can manage emotions. To learn how to deal with our emotions, our brain has to develop many connections between the neurones. The connections develop through repetition – we are exposed to certain situations many times and our brain learns, what does it mean to be in situation A and how to deal with it. With time our brain is physically getting bigger – more connections – bigger brain. This process is the fastest early in life, between 1 and 3 years of age. 

So we can look at brain as a tool to deal with emotions. Until we are 3 years old, this tool isn’t big enough to handle difficult emotional situation. There is not enough connections in small children’s brains to calm themselves down when they become angry, very anxious, very upset. These are the situations when children need help: 1. To calm the immediate storm, 2. To learn how to do it in the future.

This why the crucial role of parents (guardians) in early years of children’s lives is to assist them when they experience strong emotions. Assisting means:

  • repeatedly and as calmly as possible (in a given situation) explaining to children what is going on with them, 
  • talking to them, 
  • being emotionally available to them 
  • offering comfort and patience
  • containing theirs and our own emotions (I explained the process of containment here.

Of course nobody gets it always right and it’s very natural, that sometimes we loose patience or don’t have enough capacity to be available to our children. But this knowledge about brain developing the capacity to deal with emotions, helps us make judgements about emotional situation. With this information we now don’t have to consider wether we should let the baby cry a bit, to learn self-soothing – we now know that being alone with strong emotions doesn’t teach to deal with them. The baby needs us to hear what is going on and learn from this. We might not be able to be there for the child every single time, but at least we know the direction.
For me this finding is also very important, because it supports my belief, that containment is a main skill which parents should practice to help their children in healthy development. 
First published on xpose.ie
Photo: http://www.blog.yogaonbeach.com

How to nurture children’s healthy self-esteem


Back in February I was asked by the local newspaper to share my thoughts about coping with defeat  (Page 76).
I addressed our personality as being big part of how we deal with setbacks, and being parenting author, I inevitably referred to childhood experience. 

This part of my reflections wasn’t published though, so I’m presenting it now.

Probably this article on how famous and successful people deal with rejection prompted me to do so: 

The crucial aspect of our parenting efforts to support children in learning from defeat is to help them develop healthy self esteem.
The best chance for the children to become well balanced people with stable self esteem is to experience ‘good enough care’. Good enough parents, as Manfred Kets de Vries points out in his book “The Leader on The Couch” give their children three things: support, age-appropriate frustration, and proper holding environment for their emotional reactions.

Good enough parents are also realistic about their children’s talents and abilities. It’s a common knowledge that children will grow into insecure adults with low self-esteem, when in childhood they experienced neglect. But it is not that obvious, that constant and unrealistic positive feedback might also be problematic. Excessive praise of the child might be an expression of exaggerated expectations. It nurtures grandiosity and superiority on the surface, but underneath the person becomes self doubting and very vulnerable to criticism. We cannot expect from our children to be perfect; by telling them constantly how perfect they are, we are making them anxious when they struggle or encounter challenges. They perceive defeats as major disappointment caused to their parents. 

It’s great and important when we are supportive to our children, offer them positive feedback, show our delight and admiration. But at the same time, we need to make sure that we do it with respect to their own uniqueness, to the reality of their skills and talents, and without a hidden expectation for them to be always the best.

To provide proper holding environment for emotions means helping children express, understand and process their own emotions. Children know and feel that in face of the defeat, they can turn to us and will be listened to, contained and we will help them to make sense of their experience.
To be able to stay calm and provide this safe space for the child, we need to be in touch with our own emotional reactions to child’s defeat and separate it from child’s feelings.
Separating our own relationship to defeat and allowing children to discover their own experience and coping mechanisms is important – when we see our children lose out, face a defeat – we can quickly impose our reactions without waiting for theirs – making space for them to decide how they face it, we might even learn from them.

First published on: xpose.ie

Photo: http://www.psyche-care.com

Family traits and our parenting

  
How we parent our children is strongly influenced by our childhood experience and our parents become role models (for good and bad) for our own parenting. 
Some of us might hate the way our parents treated us in certain situations, or we may even have really bad memories of the childhood in general. We will then promise ourselves that we won’t be doing this to our children. We will be different! However we all find ourselves resembling our parents in some way. We might hear critical voice or angry voice of our father or mother, pouring out of our mouth when we are stressed. If we stop and think we know precisely where is it coming from: ‘this is exactly what I used to hear from him/her’. 
Our first relationships influence our life in the sense that we learn from them about relationships in general. We gather experience and we learn: what happens when someone’s gets angry, what happens if I do something wrong? how does it look like in the eyes of my mother when I am sad? How does it feel to be loved? How does my father show warmth towards me?

The way our parents deal with their own emotions and our emotions as children is the very thing which shapes our future relationships – among others – relationship with our own children. Some of these patterns are available to us and we can easily see them – for example: ‘I get angry when my child disobeys me. I remember my parents getting angry in the same way’. Some of them are unconscious hence more difficult to deal with; it’s then a matter of self reflection to discover them – for example: ‘I realised that I can’t say ‘no’ to my child even if I know I should – I feel hopeless in the same way I do with my mother. I can’t say ‘no’ to her either’.  

But we are not condemned to our past. Moreover, our task as parents is to learn from what we experienced as children and adapt differently. For example – talking about boundaries – it might be the case that someone used to be a teenager ‘crying out’ for boundaries and not getting them from parents, no matter what he/she was doing (extreme risk behaviour, abusing alcohol, breaking any rules, abandoning school, etc.). Later on when a parent, this person might find him/herself in the same position as his/her parents – using similar methods, maybe even resembling parents’ tone of voice or repeating the same set of sentences and messages, while speaking to own children: the feelings of hopelessness and worrying for the child overpower the parent and he/she is not able to be firm and strict with the child; sends mixed massages about rules and expectations, etc. 

How can we stop these repetitions and start doing things our own way?

The major task here is to recognise two things.

Needs 

Firstly, we need to recognise our needs, which weren’t met when we were children, and how this pattern repeats itself in our present behaviour. These might be the very needs which we now have to meet when relating to our children (for example by creating boundaries and providing sense of safety). 

This is the place from which we can develop our own way of doing things, make changes and go beyond the generational cycle. 

Priorities 

Secondly we need to prioritise our parenting. We can laugh at some patterns of our parenting. It may be frustrating to us, that we behave like our parents, but this is not harmful to our children’s development. Whereas other patterns can have big consequences. We need to make sure we don’t focus on the small things and ignore the big ones, because dealing with them seems much more difficult. 
We become who we are through relations with others, it is the nature of our development. It’s good to remember that in parent-child relationship it is mutual – children influence their parents too. We don’t have a full control over this process and accepting it gives us the opportunity to learn from the experience.

First published on herfamily.ie
Photo: http://www.welearntoday.com

‘Down to Earth’ toddlers group: on nature and connectedness

  

Last month we went to the Brigit’s Garden in Pollagh in Galway for the open day of a Toddler group. It was a bright spring day that brought the forest to life. The sun was peeking through the trees and was catching the children’s faces. It is at moments like this that I understand why it is so important to bring children to nature.
I was brought straight back to my childhood. My happiest memories are from being outdoors and around nature. The Swiss knife as treasure tool, old clothes to get dirty, the endless space in my aunt’s cottage yard, granddad’s mountain enclave and the surrounding forest. Today I saw a pencil made from wood and my heart felt warm remembering that I once owned one too. I shared baked potatoes with my children and I was taken back to sitting with my cousins by the bonfire, cutting through a hot spud and crushing salt onto the melted butter.
My children had a lovely time, playing with all the precious things that were made by the leaders of the group. Beautiful, natural, handmade objects. Swings made of knotted ropes, wooden jewellery and instruments. The children used leaves, mud and water to cook in their imaginary kitchen.

Nature exposes us to the concepts of continuity and connectedness. In today’s fast changing and fragmented world, it is difficult to feel it on day to day basis. It’s difficult to capture our experience and keep it safe – photos in the cloud, letters lost in the mailbox, luggage with childhood memories left behind after moving house again. We are just going with the flow, the years passing by. We wear new clothes, because the old ones remind us that we too are getting old.

We live half of our lives online. We travel, change places, learn languages and fly far away from our childhood homes to build a new ones and sometimes never return. The world is transforming and with that comes great developments and fantastic new inventions, but we as humans inherently desire those feelings of connectedness and continuity. We still need to understand our roots, to know where we came from and what needs to be respected.
Experiencing nature can help us with remembering what’s important and who we are. It helps us to get in touch with ourselves and appreciate all the gifts of the earth. Encouraging our children to interact with nature is an important part of their long term development and helps to teach them to nurture what’s already theirs.