New mum joins the club – getting support from the group

  
BBC Radio4 broadcasted an interesting interview with sociologist Dr Jennie Bristow and editor-in-chief of Netmums Anne-Marie O’Leary about supportive role of friendship during early stages of motherhood. (Woman’s hour on BBC4 podcast, interview starts at app.33 min of the program http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06z255x). They spoke of early parenthood as one of these times in life when we need friends the most. This brought also questions of what is friendship, to what extent we can expect friends to be answering our needs and what kind of friends do we look for, over the course of life. The toddlers groups were mentioned as very valuable source of social support from people who are going through similar challenges.
In my experience as a stay-at-home mother, the various toddlers’ groups me and my children attend are indeed a great way to socialise and meet new interesting people. It helps me to remain active (and sane). It’s very rewarding to see my children playing with others. Going to groups makes me feel part of a wider community.
On the other hand, I find that groups can be sometimes a bit overwhelming and that they do have an unspoken, more difficult side which can make this group experience somehow stressful. This can be a reason for some mums who are feeling vulnerable, for whatever reason, to stay at home, rather than reach out for help and face the Group. 

Unfortunately, when we need the groups support most, we may find it most difficult to attend.  

Why is a toddler group a challenge?
As a group facilitator, I work with people who come to my classes with specific expectations. They want to be part of learning experience which will help them better understand themselves as parents and resolve their issues. This is the first, visible and spoken reason for joining the group. 
But when we form groups of any type, group dynamics are unleashed that we have to cope with. * These processes are powerful and not always easy to deal with, especially when we are not fully aware of them. When becoming part of a group, we tend to take up certain roles; sometimes we benefit from them, at other times, they make our experience very difficult. Common group dynamics evoke our competitiveness, our defence mechanisms, and trigger our deep emotional issues. .

Competition
Some of us have strong desire to compete with others and perceive competition as a fight for the badge “I’m the best”. This can provoke tensions between group members, make some people feel inferior or excluded. Sometimes the competition becomes a main figure of the meeting and dominant group feelings are that of tension and hostility; in these cases group no longer serves as a support group or safe haven. 

Defence Mechanisms
To understand the way we relate to the group, we need to go back to our own-early-childhood experience. The first group we are born into is the family group, and we learn about the world from relating to others: initially from our first care givers and our siblings. In relation to others we define who we are and what is important to us. We need others to see ourselves in their eyes, to figure out who we are from the way they react to us. What is more, we often need them to deal with our emotions. Early in life, we develop mechanisms which help us avoid emotions, which are too overwhelming. For example, children split the world into good and bad, and in this way they don’t have to deal with ambivalence and mixed feelings e.g. Mummy is all good, or all bad, pending on the mood the infant is in. Over the course of life we are expected to learn more mature ways of dealing with emotions. We as grown ups, should be able to face and process the fact that our parents can be right at some points, and completely wrong at others. Mature people should be able to accept the fact that sometimes they get angry, they experience envy and that is part of who they are. But even if we are capable of this kind of ‘mature’ emotional processes, we sometimes still turn to our defence mechanisms and use them to avoid some feelings. We might for instance project our feeling of sadness onto someone else. When we do this, we really can see evidences of the person being very sad and we intensely focus on this other person’s sadness. While doing this, we don’t acknowledge our own sadness. These mechanisms operate in groups. They can become very powerful, when group as a whole starts using them and prevents its members from embracing what they feel and who they are. Projections often hit the most vulnerable people in the room. Single parents for example can easily become ‘objects’ for projecting our own feelings of vulnerability, loneliness, dislocation. Group may be focusing on expressing pity and sorrow over one person, who starts feeling overwhelmed by the emotions, which belong to other people.  

Roles
In this way people play different roles in the group. Our life situation and personality are main contributors to the way we appear in the group. We might realise, that we often take up similar role in different groups we attend.  

It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek or cannot count on group support when feeling vulnerable. It’s just important to be aware that this deep emotional processes are circulating in the room and when we feel that something is put to us and we are perceived as more outside the group or more sad that we actually feel ourselves, we don’t have to consent to it. We can try and do something differently, engage with someone else that we usually do, change anything which we are able to change and see how it impacts our emotions and the way other people see us.
Getting group support which we need, often demands being proactive and as conscious as possible.

*my work on group dynamics is informed by relational psychoanalysis, concepts of defence mechanisms and group as a whole come from Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion

Photo: http://www.kcmetromoms.com

First published on xpose.ie

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Full time parents: Re-connecting with the world 

  
Being a full time-stay at home parent for many people means disconnection from professional career. The distance from what we used to do before becoming a parent vary and we also take a break for a different period of time.
There are some circumstances in which come back to work can be particularly difficult.

Sometimes the break from work is very long and detachment from a job market is total. Some people left or lost their careers before becoming parents. Many families move to new cites or countries to have a fresh start. Without a network, with language barrier, differences in qualification system, building a career in foreign place is a huge task in itself. It becomes bigger when for a period of time we were preoccupied with the inner world of our family life and most importantly – with the youngest family members (some call this effect a ‘baby brain’).
In any case, planning to come back to work often triggers many emotions and brings to life questions regarding our identity, self esteem, skill set, belonging.

Coming back to professional work after a long break means reinventing ourselves and face all the challenges we faced when getting a job for the first time.
Re-connecting with the outside world of people who are get paid money for the work they do, is an emotional and strategic exercise. It is also an interesting phenomena in our culture. Our society tends to assign more value and importance to all the jobs happening outside the family home. It can make parents (in most countries – in majority – mothers) feel as if they are contributing less to the community or indeed to the family (not providing any financial income). It can also feel as if all the outside world was moving forward and learning new things, when in the meantime, home makers were just a home makers, doing all the things which all the generations have done before.
The value of staying at home parents is for me unquestionable. They not only dedicate themselves to offer care and support to those they love. They also rise people, who are the future of our communities. They do have a connection with previous generations, by committing to the same task which our grand and great grandmothers did. They learn – everyday of their lives – about relationships, emotions, themselves, their loved ones. They reach their limits and they learn to overcome their weaknesses. They manage family life and they care for the quality of it – food, aesthetics, warmth. They work and learn a lot and they do not have ‘baby brains’.
I am picturing this heroic image of staying at home parents and I am not mentioning the other part – those who make this arrangement possible, by earning money and contributing in many different ways. I will dedicate them a different post.
It’s because I sometimes hear when mothers who are planning to go back to work express their feelings of dislocation, inadequacy, low self-esteem, lack of clear direction and confidence. I also share some of these feelings.

And I think they need a strong encouragement and appreciation. They should remind themselves, that when staying at home, they are not disappearing in a vacuum. They are important part of the world ‘out there’ and that they can come back to work or do whatever they plan to do, reacher for the experience of being a home makers. Yes, it requires focus, commitment and strategic planning. Yes, it’s challenging and can be intimidating. Yes, they need a reality check and see what short term and long term goals are within their reach (considering support, actual opportunities, financial situation, further childcare).

But experience of being a full time parent is a great starting point and strong asset. Even if it is not being portrayed like this often enough.

Parents: children will be impressed with your new careers! Good luck.
First published on xpose.ie

Photo: http://www.scarymommy.com

Is Christmas a challenge for you?

Christmas is a mirror in which families see themselves

  
In many homes Christmas is a non religious event these days. Nevertheless for most of us it still carries the important message linked to the Biblical story: it’s about family. An excluded (holy) family searching for home is a symbol of hope, despair, love and trust. Symbol of sadness and happiness, care and carelessness – all lying side by side. All residing in each of us and reflecting the reality of life. Life is diverse and complex, life is contradictory. Life is about good and bad things happening at the same time. Life is not all happy and all perfect, and it will at some point end (and only some of us believe that it won’t be the end of everything), which is itself a daunting thought. 
During Christmas period families get on well or just opposite, are present or absent, united or separated. We carry our families in our minds and we spend this time of the year in relation to our parents, siblings, grandparents, and importantly: in relation to the tradition that we know. We can contest it, go along with it or look for some middle ground. 
This reflection can be difficult to bare. Our culture indulges in just opposite association: Christmas equals festive, happy, great time for everyone. Christmas is about shiny lights, reindeers, presents, food and drink and spending a lot of money: all in excess.

I understand this excess as a collective run away from a powerful impact, that Christmas can have on our emotional life. 

 Of course Christmas Markets can be enjoyable and well known songs on radio can bring us a warm glow giving us an impression that we are part of safe and familiar universe. There are many beautiful reasons to celebrate Christmas, share joy with our loved ones and be happy. But because it is such an intense period, it inevitably brings some challenging situations, memories and reflections to the table. And for some people the difficult part of Christmas will be more present than the other one – those who recently experienced bereavement, or who are separated from the family, or are having health problems – this season simply won’t be that festive for them.

So there is an important aspect of Christmas which should not be lost in the flashiness of decorations:

To be authentic and honest with ourselves and our families. We should try and embrace the complexity of our emotional experience. We should let ourselves to feel all range of emotions and learn how to deal with them. Not only homeless people need our charity and are vulnerable during this time of the year. We might feel fragile too and it is how it is – we need to see it and stay with it. To be authentic is also the best way to share these moments with our children and I think this is what they expect us to do. What I mean in practical sense – if we are experiencing difficult time, The ‘abundance’ of Christmas offers us an easy escape from our feelings – the excess which I mentioned above. Our task is to refrain from this route, step aside and think how can we take better care of ourselves and our families. Christmas is a time for giving; but presents are only symbolic of what giving really means. What we really need to ourselves, friends and families at Christmas are love, care, sensitivity and comfort. Happy Christmas to all of you.

Photo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com

Is there a problem?How to know that you should seek advice


A few weeks ago I published a post about falling into a trap of following developmental charts and how they can provoke unnecessary anxiety or rivalry. The post focused on external pressures which may prompt parents to seek advice or get worried without any clear reason from the child’s side.

I keep thinking about this matter and recall real stories when parents had a dilemma whether to seek an advice or not. They were realising that their child develops a bit slower then other children in certain area and each family was taking different position on this fact.

It is a very complex and delicate matter and it surely engages a lot of emotions, some of them might be not that visible at first.

There is no advice which would apply to all of these families. Each parent and each family need to do their homework and try to understand their particular case, then act to their children’s best interest. Sometimes parents don’t realise how anxious they are and this anxiety determines their action. And it can go both ways: they might become overwhelmed by it and won’t seek any advice or further diagnosis – being too afraid that something wrong is going on. Or just opposite – they might be running from specialist to specialist, searching for an answer which in fact lays just in front of their eyes. I witnessed the situation in which parents were preoccupied with their daughter being much smaller than other children. They were performing complicated tests looking for  hidden abnormalities (including very expensive genetic analysis). All turned out to be fine and the daughter lives a happy life, despite being very petite (exactly like her grandmother used to be).
Let’s imagine we have a dilemma whether to seek advice or not. We have the knowledge available to us – from books, magazines and online publications. We observe our children with our caring and loving eyes. We do seek evidences that all is going well. Then we spot some signal that might worry us – child’s motor or sensory development doesn’t seem to be as fast as other children. How can we know whether it is just the child’s nature and her own path of development or there is something we should have a closer look at?

What can help manage our own emotions to allow us to make the right decision?

  1. Use the right source of knowledge – child development studies are very advanced nowadays and we have access to knowledge which helps us to understand our children’s developmental issues. If looking at the growth or development charts or statistics of any kind: read them properly: take all range of results into account (see my post) rather than only average result which is inadequate in assessing our children’s’ progress.
  2. Avoid posting real worries on large forums for parents – as you get all sorts of contradicting information which will only make you more confused.
  3. Observe your child – learn to know and accept her/his own phase of development. Think about environment you provide for our child to grow. What skills development are you supporting the most? Don’t judge, just look at your lifestyle as your children’s world and try to understand how it impacts them.
  4. Sit with your emotions – what is it that you feel about the possible issue? Are you worried? Are you avoiding this feeling by pushing all bad thoughts away and not even considering any further actions? Are you criticising yourselves for being too cautious? What is really going on within and for yourself?
  5. Decide who you can trust, a friend, a partner, an experienced relative? Who can you talk to about this, who will give you an honest advice, not only about the issue, but who can also help you manage your anxiety.
  6. Be aware of external influences. We have some knowledge which might be helpful but might be intimidating at the same time. We have a social network which can be precious but can put unnecessary pressure on us – fuelling rivalry or anxieties. We have family which wants best for us and our child but can also pass on expectations which we are not comfortable with. It’s important to know these possible influences and learn to protect against them.

photo: http://www.child-development-guide.com

Quote

Children and Grief | Psych Central

I recently came across a photograph of my father as a small boy (around 3 year old), standing in a crowd of family surrounding an open coffin of his dead grandma. Back then, death rituals were passed down like a shape of nose – from generation to generation, varying across the country and depending on things like family status. What was happening to children during the rituals depended on the tradition in a particular family.

Most of families today need to make a personal choice about children’s role in death rituals – wether they are going to participate in funeral and wake, what information are they going to receive, who and how is going to talk to them.
Does any general rule apply? Is there a one answer for frequently asked questions?
In search for a sensible voices on the subject of death from chidren’s perspective, I came across the article below, which gives straightforward answers to some of the questions. We obviously don’t have to agree, but the article undoubtly give us material to think and to relate to.

Source: Children and Grief | Psych Central

Sweets Banned From Schools Why people resist reasonable changes 

  
There are some obvious facts about human health, which are being ignored by many people, for many generations. We all know that sugar causes teeth decay and is a major factor in growing obesity. Yet, we are surrounded by sweets, organised in a way which tempts us to buy them on every step. Cheap fat and tons of sugar wrapped in an expensive brand, waiting for us, lined up next to checking points – always handy.
Many of us know that eating habits are developing in early childhood and are difficult to change later on. This why we all – as a society – should be interested in doing something about those millions of products, directed to children and being packed with fat and sugar even more than products directed to the rest of our population.

I’ve been always fascinated by the subject of individuals and societies making conscious changes about themselves. How does it happen? Is it possible? What are the ingredients of a real change? Why on Earth it is so difficult, even when the reason for change seems obvious?
This latest case from Polish schools is an example of powerful unconscious forces, which work collectively against the change. 
 Starting from September, Polish government banned unhealthy food from school shops and canteens. I can’t see more reasonable decision and I am pleased, that authorities are able to take an ethical stance and take a lead in changing school environment into a healthier place. The message is clear: ‘We are responsible for what happens at schools. We know that unhealthy food is bad for our children, so we can’t allow it on our ground. We do what we believe it’s right and we expect other adults to do the same’.

It’s perfectly understandable that policy makers don’t want to collude with the system which doesn’t care about children’s health and wants more profit from selling unhealthy food.
Resistance to change came from many angles:
– Polish Employees Association takes it as an attack on small businesses 
– Social media circulate the jokes about chocolate bars dealers in schools. These posts are presented by people working in education sector and by parents

– Shops surrounding schools are packed with children during breaks. Shelves with unhealthy food get empty

– Children bring their own salt and sugar to the canteens.

What worries me is that adults, who should be representing voice of reason, collude with this behaviour and support it. The cause of making government look stupid is much more important for them than the real chance to make a healthy change in their children’s lifestyle.
The change isn’t going to happen if all parties don’t engage with it. Children have their right to oppose the change and laugh at it, but the role of parents and teachers is to distance from this reactive laughter and set an example for positive outcomes which will be attractive enough to follow.
It’s important to realise that our resistance to change has it’s unconscious side. 

Consciously, people bring to the table various ‘rational’ reasons for not wanting to obey new rules: they would be saying it’s bad for small businesses, it’s a violation of freedom of choice, it’s pointless in a world where you can buy sweets around the corner anyway, it’s badly implemented.

But what brings these arguments to live is an unconscious dynamic of our emotions. To really engage with change we would have to become aware that:

– we are in denial: we emotionally cut off ourselves from health warnings. Simply speaking, we don’t want to hear it and act accordingly

– we regress: we employ our ‘child within’ to fight a reasonable ‘adult voice’.

Introducing healthy eating habits is a task for policy makers, local businesses, people working with children, parents and of course children themselves.

Each of us can start by reviewing our attitude towards change itself. We need to focus on what’s positive in the idea, even if it is implemented by a government we don’t particularly like.      
   

photo: sqworl.com

Coming back to school – why it is an emotional experience

  
Children are soon going to go back to school after two months of holiday. For some it was time filled with pleasures, alarm free waking up, visits to families and exciting adventures. For others it was bitter – sweet mixture of school and task free time, but also time spent alone, while friends left town and parents were mostly working. There are also children who had a horrible time being off school, because it meant for them time of no care, no break from stressful family dynamics, no structure to hold on to. It’s certain that children coming back to school have very different experience of holiday and very diverse expectations about what is to come. This can create emotionally difficult situations and it gets more challenging when it soon becomes clear that there is no time for proper adjustment. A demand to get to work kicks on very quickly. Structure of classes, every day routines, homework – this all comes together as a reality so different to what most children experienced during the summer. 

While some children will be excited about seeing friends and buying new school equipment, others might feel anxious about coming back to peers who create challenging pressure to fit in, or about being embarrassed to see their parents struggling to get money for necessities.    
At school, among other children and observed by adults – parents and teachers, students are exposed and there is nowhere to hide.
For the above reasons, and many others, end of holiday and beginning of school is emotionally challenging situation. Even if children mostly look forward to starting the learning, it is still an important transition and this always creates some level of anxiety.
What is our adult and parents role in this process? 

1. Understanding our children 

We need to help the children to understand what is going on for them. Our role is to provide a safe environment for our child to express emotions and to find a space within ourselves to contain the difficult ones. This means being careful observers. If we see our child acting out and not being themselves, it’s worth to try and find the meaning of it.

2. Knowing ourselves 

We should know how we feel about starting a new school year. If we get anxious about getting back to school routine, we should be aware of it and accept our not so positive feelings. If we are afraid of how our child is going to deal with difficulties this year, we have to separate our feelings from child’s feelings and make sure we deal with our own emotions, instead of projecting them onto the child.  

3. Being sensitive to other children’s issues.

As I mentioned before, some children are coming back to school with very heavy emotional baggage. They most likely aren’t able to maturely express and verbalise difficult emotions. They instead might be acting them out, getting rid of tensions by getting into fights, rebelling against teachers, etc. They might also have difficulty with focusing on tasks and conforming to the school’s norms.Trying to understand these children and not just reacting to their behaviour is an important task for all of us – parents and teachers. We are part of a wider community and there is a risk that instead of dealing with our own problems, we will see the troubled children as the only ones who have problems and they will soon become scape goats.

Teachers and parents should be sensitive to diversity of experience and acknowledge that for some, coming back to school might be a real struggle and for some a rescue – when the structure provides a safety net that may be missing at home.  
In short, it’s time to be awake and ready to take in and work through children’s emotions. 
I wish you all that it comes together with real joy of starting something new and exciting.  
* photo from https://familymattersmallorca.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/primary_school_children_540x299.jpg