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 

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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

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

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

What does it mean to be a confident parent

 
I have a confession to make.
I don’t think parents need much guidance and advice on the matter of their parenting skills. What they really need is reassurance and support in becoming more confident in their parenting.

Children need confident parents, because this sets an example for them and helps them go through life, making their own judgements and grow into emotionally mature adults.

Here is what’s worth remembering when practicing confident parenting:
1. The majority is not always right. 
Parents face immense social pressure to do things the way it’s perceived best by ‘general opinion’, fashion, major media. The fear of being rejected by the group and facing our child being not accepted pushes us into the arms of group thinking, which is unfortunately far from rational reasoning and even further away from caring, what’s best for our children. 

Don’t worry about others so much – think what is best for you and your family and act accordingly. If it happens to be against the mainstream, then well, so be it. People who you care about will respect you for being honest and authentic. Being outside the norm can be uncomfortable but often in years ahead, these people have shown us the way. For example I have a friend who brought his child up as a vegetarian many years ago, when it was very unusual. Today, many people realise the benefits of a much healthier non-meat diet, and you can get vegetarian food everywhere. Todays outsiders are often tomorrows leaders! 

2. Experts are not always right

It’s important to listen to experts – especially when they talk interestingly. But we have to apply their advice with caution, you need to think critically about what they say. Does it apply to your context? Does it fit with your system of values? Does it make you feel incompetent and uncertain (because the experts seem to have answer for every question which even didn’t come to your mind?). If so, stop listening and summarise what you know from your experience. Remember that you know your child and you are capable of making decisions and the most important judgement: what’s the best for your child. Also experts argue – there is often one expert proving this by research and another proving the opposite by different research. So we have to find a way through the mass data presented to us. At the centre of this should be our own common sense and thoughtful reflections.   

3. Reach out for Support

Social and family support are very important aspects of being a parent. Don’t fell guilty or inadequate when not knowing what to do. You have right to feel vulnerable and to seek help. In every crisis there is a potential for finding better, more creative ways of doing things (it is often through crisis that our children achieve next stages of development). Just think, who can help you to figure it out. Having a trusted person outside the immediate family who will give you helpful feedback – that can challenge your thinking without blaming you is really important. Can you be a like this for your friends too? 

4. Let your children be themselves

Children can be great teachers of authenticity if only we let them express themselves the way they feel like, rather than expect that they’ll perform the image of the perfect child we or others carry in their heads. This particularly applies to gender – we often try to get boys to perform like boys should and girls to perform like girls should – what about letting them just play as they want to play?

5. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Vast majority of parents are doing fantastic work, taking care of their children. When things get tough don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t judge yourself too much. Parenting is demanding and joyful at the same time. No parent is perfect, we all do the best to our ability. The best we can do is keep giving love, providing emotional containment (link to post about containment) and staying in touch with reality, prioritising what is best for your children, and observe your confidence growing!

First published on herfamily.ie

Parenting Anxiety can be contagious: how not to pass it on to your children

  
It’s very understandable to feel anxious about the arrival of a new baby. The life is going to change drastically, we might worry if the baby will be healthy and is the birth going to go well. It’s different and personal experience for everyone, but we can say in general, that around this special moment in life, very strong feelings come to play, and possibly anxiety is among the strongest..

Some emotions are more difficult to deal with then others. Sometimes we even don’t know that we feel something. The emotion is experienced unconsciously and dealt with through defence mechanisms – the various ways in which we protect ourselves from confronting the emotion and the reason for which it appeared. For example, we sometimes displace unwanted emotion onto some other object (something else than the thing which made us feel sad, angry, anxious, etc) hence the expression, ‘kicking the cat’ .We place our attention on some peripheral issue, which becomes our main concern and we are so preoccupied with it, that we loose ability to look around and see what is really important and what else is going on for us and within ourselves.

Anxiety Driven Shopping

The example of displacing anxiety is when parents fixate on buying expensive baby gear and they focus all their efforts and attention on getting “bits and pieces” ready. The extensive baby market is riding on parental anxiety and makes enormous profit on it. So many of us bought so much equipment, which has never been used. Parents to be are surrounded by carefully crafted messages, which say that we need all these things, for the sake of our children’s safety, our peace of mind, etc. In short: when we feel anxious, it’s very easy to fall into trap of excessive shopping for the baby and forget to check with ourselves, if the emotion isn’t also about something else, than only about ‘nesting’.

As a result, some parents don’t talk about their emotions in different areas (changes in their relationship, reality of caring for the child, division of tasks, work-life balance, etc.); they are focused on getting the right buggy and a cot bed and a car seat. Their anxiety speaks through the issue of shopping for the baby.

Our Anxiety and Our Children 
Unfortunately we sometimes displace emotions when relating to our children. We might be over-preoccupied about some aspect of our child’s well being and not noticing that underneath something else worries us. 

It’s not to say, that we all should strive to eliminate our ‘issues’, and be always aware of deeper dynamics of what’s going on inside of us. This wouldn’t be a realistic or desirable goal. We are who we are and our issues or special ways of dealing with difficult emotions are what constitutes our personality. From time to time we all use defence mechanisms to deal with emotions. What we need as parents is to have some psychological awareness around these issues, in order to be able to awake and realise, when our emotions influence our children too much, and when we project onto children our own difficulties and emotions. Dealing constantly with a parents’ emotions is too heavy baggage for our children to carry through their lives.

Reflection into practice approach
It’s not an easy task – to be aware of our deeper emotions, when displacement develops and we are in the realm of our substitute concerns. We are talking about subtle matter of communication between our rational thinking and our emotional life. These two worlds aren’t separate and emotions influence our thinking even if we are convinced they don’t. 

Part of a challenge is getting the right balance between self reflection (which is needed to bring unconscious emotions on surface) and action (which has to happen in order to start doing things differently). 

Stay in Touch with Yourself and Use a Social Mirror

The first step, when learning to deal differently with tough emotions, is to spot our own ‘suspicious’ behaviour. Are you very preoccupied about some issue, concerning your child? Did you notice that similar ‘theme’ usually appears to be a big problem, when you are under stress? 
What people around you say about this issue? Are you getting signals from anyone, that your worry might be disproportionate? 

Is something else, ‘bigger” happening in your life at the moment? 

Who could you talk to about your emotions and help you understand what is going on for yourself?

***

When under big pressure financial or relational perhaps, or going through difficult transitions, moving house, splitting up or having concerns about your relatives, experiencing loss, it is important to ask yourself these questions:

– How do I feel about it?  

– Am I acknowledging difficult feelings such as sadness or fear? 

– How do I manage and cope with these feelings?

– How do my feelings affect my children? 

– What do my children need to know about this situation and how do I tell them?  

– Who can I trust to help me?

Children pick up emotions quickly, and it is not a good thing to try and protect our children from all emotions we feel. 
Our task as parents is to share what is important for the child’s welfare, and to manage our own emotions that overburden them and are not theirs to deal with. Finally, we should all remember that none of us manage this perfectly – we are all learning and trying to do our best! 

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

The Fathers as we see them (through the lens of our culture) 

  
Lego started to recognise the changing role of fathers in our culture. We have now Lego figurines with happy fathers pushing buggies and staying at home with the children. And it’s great, the message sent by main players on the market is heard by many families and it does have an impact on our perception of social norms. Role playing toys are powerful medium through which our children receive hints on what are the accepted ways of doing things in our society. 

But do we really know what we expect from fathers these days?
I think fathers have several reasons to feel confused about their role in the family.

Stupid jokes

The thing which strikes me each time I come across it in social media, is circulation of insensitive jokes about fathers. Fathers are patronised, pictured as incompetent, silly people, who seek woman’s help in all the tasks concerning children. I recently saw a joke-chart on FB saying mummy is the one answering all sorts of questions children might have and father who is presented with the only single question: where is mummy? Other example is an image of a family bed, where father sleeps uninterrupted on ‘his half’ of the bed, while mother is awake on her side, having have to accommodate the children (and the dog and the cat) there; and obviously – doesn’t get any sleep at all. It might put a smile on someone’s tired face when after many sleepless nights. It can be viewed as a sort of acting out-frustrations joke. But in fact this enhances the false picture of fathers as those uninvolved and disinterested parents. Whereas in every single family I know, fathers take a big part in minding small babies at night (even when they have to get up the earliest and go to work).
I understand these jokes as displacement of anger and frustration onto fathers (husbands, partners). These difficult emotions are completely normal and understandable, but dealing with these feelings through partners and leaving them look incompetent and selfish is not fair.

Segregation

Fathers face contradictory expectations regarding their participation in bringing up children. The question I often heard when our first child was born, was: “Is your partner helping?”. I didn’t feel word ‘helping’ was accurate description of our arrangement. It wasn’t him helping with the child, it was us bringing up the new baby together; each of us bonding with our daughter in our ways. It wasn’t me giving him access to the child for the time of ‘helping’ or him thinking: ‘I’d better help out a bit here’.
But the most vivid example of fathers being expected to get involved but in some special, father-like way is a gender segregated parenting. Parent-toddlers groups are mainly attended by mothers from obvious reason – they are still main care givers – staying at home parents, who seek for social support and company for their children; it’s mainly mother-toddlers group we are speaking about. 

Nevertheless, there are stay-at-home-fathers and single fathers, who would also benefit from attending toddler groups. It is much more difficult for fathers to make an appearance in such groups. When fathers enter a toddler group it’s like they invade the space reserved for mothers. It seems to be uncomfortable for both mothers and fathers. A few times I experienced weekend meet ups, where few fathers turned up. They usually ended up half hidden, in the corner of the room, or squeezed between two mothers turned back, chatting with someone else. Latter on, those fathers, who made it to the meeting was labelled as ‘brave’. There was also a suggestion, that fathers should have their own, fathers’ meeting set up. 

Why is it brave to attend a meeting, which should be a joint pleasure – an occasion to see a child interacting with other children? Why isn’t it ‘normal’ to meet and talk about parenting (or something else, for that matter), in a mixed – mothers and fathers group?
The reason might be our deeply rooted traditional way of thinking about parenting. It is not necessarily helpful these days, but it’s there, as an artefact of the old order.

On the other hand, it preserves the importance of mothers’ role and gives them power to lead and dictate the conditions in the world of bringing up children. 
All parties: children, mothers and fathers are benefiting from shifting power relations and more engagement of fathers and mothers in family life. Change isn’t easy and some fathers might need more encouragement in taking up the roles which traditionally belonged to women, and mothers might need to find ways to be more open to change too.

What Fathers definitely don’t need is a prejudice attitude that comes from the past and is often unconscious, that pushes them to the sidelines. This isn’t good for fathers or mothers, but most importantly it isn’t good for our children.
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