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

Breastmilk or formula: what’s behind your choice?

 

I can’t fully describe the experience of becoming a parent. Intensive mixture of images and emotions which I’ve never experienced before came to me within first few days of having a baby and this changed me as a person. One of the most powerful impacts on me was the sudden realisation that from now on I am responsible for another human being’s life. And first of all it means I need to make sure the baby eats well to maintain herself and thrive. This is very basic and primitive experience. Here I am – stripped of all everyday life selves and faces, coping mechanisms and routines – faced with tiny baby who simply needs milk.

At some point, most parents to be are presented with the choice: breastmilk or formula?
Often an earlier decision is exercised and verified by reality – it’s impossible to foresee all circumstances which will influence the way we do things after the baby arrives.

In some circumstances the choice is made by parents – for example in case of some health conditions breastmilk is affected by the condition itself or by the drugs which need to be taken.

The breast versus formula discussion, is fuelled by emotions, judgemental voices and over simplification. It would come close to the top of the list of those things that can evoke parental guilt. 
It’s difficult to discuss this delicate matter; to be broad enough to avoid unhelpful polarisations of opinions, and careful enough not to offend anyone. It’s very important to acknowledge that we are talking about other people’s choices and circumstances, which they face in a very special moment in their lives. It makes them vulnerable and high emotions are aroused. 

What can be helpful in opening up and broadening the discussion is trying to understand various reasons and motives behind our choices. I analyse social media coverage on breast/formula feed and draw on my own experience as a mother, who meets many other mums. I came up with the idea of ‘Scripts’ which describe complex reasons for which we choose to breast or formula feed. 
I invite you to engage in describing the main scripts which stand behind the way we feed our babies. Some of our reasons are conscious – we are fully aware of them and can easily name them (i.e.: ‘I formula feed my child, because I can combine it with my working life’). Other reasons might be unconscious – our behaviours and decisions are guided by our own motives and social forces that we are not always aware of (i.e. ‘I formula feed, because the responsibility for the child overwhelms me, and I want to share it with my partner). Moreover, our choices always have a healthy side and a shadow side, which is present despite our honest positive intentions.

I want to make clear, that I stand for deeper understanding of feeding the babies, not for judging any choices. 

By exploring our scripts that guide our infant feeding choices, we can address some of social pressures, and personal dilemmas that we face, and by doing so be more honest with ourselves and others without feeling guilty or pressurised. This discussion needs to take place free from the judgemental attitudes on both sides that make mothers (and fathers) feel insecure, anxious and very often guilty.  

Therefore I invite you to look at your scripts and especially focus on those hidden, not obvious reasons and motives which stand behind your choices..
The way to identify your script is to complete three following sentences. If you are willing to share your script, please do so in comments below this post:
‘I breastfeed (breastfed)/ I formula feed (fed) because… ‘

The healthy side is this…

The shadow side is this…

When identifying my own script I came up with the following:

I breastfeed because this is the obvious thing to do in my family and my circle of friends – it’s a norm within my social background and I accept this norm and simply believe it’s a right thing to do. 
HEALTHY SIDE: By making a choice acceptable to my social network and family, I get support from them. The baby gets fed from a confident parent who is familiar and supported with the way their child is fed.
SHADOW SIDE: As the baby is exclusively breastfed, it doesn’t allow my husband to engage in baby’s feeding, which ties the baby to me. If he wants to take the baby out, there is a two hour time limit. This makes the baby completely dependent on me, in terms of feeding, so I do get a lot of control which can be difficult to let go when the time is right (when the baby needs that).
Feel free to share your thoughts and discover new ways of looking at your motives and circumstances. Tell us about your scripts. This can be enriching for all of us!
P.S. Publish your answers below the post or to keep your privacy write to me: agatawestern@gmail.com

*photo: http://www.sienceofrelationships.com 

Who is thinking of the children? Marriage Equality

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Ireland is holding a referendum on same sex marriages. I am engaged observer of public debate which is taking place here. As a Polish person, I feel envious that the matter of equality preoccupies politicians and is addressed in the society. Unfortunately, in Poland many minority groups are still silenced and mostly invisible. The blog ‘mammyinwonderland’ gives very down to earth perspective on children’s issue which is risen by ‘no’ campainers. I thought of writing a post in simmilar tone, but I am rebloging a strong and valuable voice, supported by teacher’s experience.

mammyinwonderland

This week, on Friday, Ireland holds a vote. In reality two, but the age of presidential candidates turns out to be pretty uncontroversial. We will vote on whether or not to allow same-sex couples to marry. It is a straightforward question. We will not be asked for ours reasons or thoughts on the matter we will simply tick Yes or No.

We are voting because in our constitution a family consists of a married man and woman. To change our constitution requires a vote. If there is a Yes vote we will now refer to the family as a married couple regardless of sex.

I didn’t write any posts on this so far because I felt I had nothing to contribute. I have shared posts where people have outlined their own personal stories, the people who this vote will directly affect. I am privileged. Nobody had any say in whether I got married…

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Apple Watch and the Neurotic Age

Fantastic read by Simon Western, my thoughtful husband. It evokes reflection on our relationship with machines – subject which growingly concerns parents. How do we manage technology surrounding our children? How do we balance its benefits and side effects? What does technology and machines do to our children on a longer go? The text gives a deep understanding of what is the influence of sophisticated new technology products on our society and – indeed – on a constitution of humans today.

leadership & coaching polemic

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I joined millions of viewers online to see Apple CEO Tim Cook launch the new Apple Watch, and I admired both the extraordinary technology and the ‘classic’ Apple design aesthetic. I reflected on how we become so blasé about new technology, when only a decade or two ago this product would have seemed like science fiction. A watch that you can ask questions and it answers you! A watch that is also a phone, and an email device, and that can automatically pay your grocery bills without using a credit card. It also opens up new possibilities for health research and individual health and well-being monitoring, which I will return to. This watch is marketed by Apple as their most intimate product yet. To cite Tim Cook ‘ “It’s a revolutionary way to connect” “Apple Watch is the most personal device we have ever created. It’s not just with you…

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Confident parents – How to resist social pressures

from: i.telegraph.co.uk

from: i.telegraph.co.uk

My cousin’s daughter Hania started primary school this year. In bundle with schooling experience came an enormous offer of additional classes. Considering Hania’s interests, time to dispose and financial situation her parents choose three after school activities. One day, when picking up Hania from school, Ewa was stopped by another mother and asked whether Hania is going to also attend robotics. When Ewa said no, explaining that Hania was spending too much time at school, the woman gave her a look of disapproval and said that there is no harm for a child to have a day filled with valuable activities.

All parents face such questions from school, alongside many other forms of social pressure.
One fear is that our child will feel excluded from the successful group of children, who are doing great in such and such subject. Another fear is we don’t want our children to miss out or become outsiders.

As parents we are also aware that our children speak for ourselves – if they don’t attend the classes, it raises questions among other parents and teachers: is it because they can’t afford it? is it because of neglect and ignorance? don’t they care about their child’s development? don’t they want to be part of our elite group?
These might be common experiences about the way other parents perceive our choices, especially in the era of parenting becoming the competitive and anxiety provoking venture. Our culture plays on parental insecurities instead of supporting confident and independent choices.

As Frank Furedi points out in his book Paranoid Parenting: ‘You can’t do too much for your kids’ – this sentence became an unquestionable rule, standing behind the pressure which parents put on themselves and each other. (This of course is a middle and upper class phenomena, which drives a huge gap between parents and schools from lower social class areas who for complex reasons don’t engage in this social pressure.)

But just because something becomes a social norm, doesn’t mean it’s true or more accurate than our own different judgement. The sad fact though still remains: far too often the social wins, even over reasonable arguments.

Social research on conformity
One of the most famous and well documented psychological experiments shows the power of conforming to the norm. In short, Solomon Ash (experiment first conducted in 1950′) was asking participants to complete a very simple ‘perceptive task’ – that is – they needed to asses the length of three stripes B, C, D and point the one which has the same length as stripe A. One stripe was obviously of the same length and the other two clearly differed. Apparently, in the presence of the group of people who were pointing at the wrong answer, most of participants answered against common sense, against what they saw and what they initially thought was right, conforming to the voice of majority.

This experiment gives us a clue about the nature of conformity to the social norm, but also reveals that social knowledge is not always about what’s true, valuable, really good, realistic, etc. and it ignores diversity; some children will thrive in competitive and busy cultures, others will not.

The other clue which adds emotional dimension to this cognitive distortion which happens between people is a term used by Frank Furedi to describe the social phenomenon standing behind extra classes, and other issues involving contemporary parenting. It’s hyper-parenting –
the conglomerate of anxiety, competitiveness and a desire to be a good parent, with our own needs to make a statement about ourselves through parenting role. This is a powerful emotional trigger to join the queue to gymnastic classes, to drag our children to extra maths and violin and spending money which we don’t have on activities which supposed to proof how good we are.

The obvious part which can be lost in all this madness is children’s well being. Is it really that good for them to have all the time occupied and no space for unsupervised play? It’s not only the voice of common sense but also of the specialists in childhood development: the best way to develop creativity and to learn social skills is play among peers and time free of any tasks – time which give children chance to feel bored and discover how to then manage it through imagination and creativity, to make some fun in an empty space.

There is more important source of making decisions about our children, than social pressure and this is a good faith and a sincerely asked question: what is the best for my child?

In the experiment with stripes, there was a small percentage of people who resisted social pressure. They were very confident people. It might be easy to figure out but in the parenting matter this is the key to the problem: trusting yourself and being confident in your judgement is the only way to resist and to reshape hyper-parenting culture into the direction which is good both for parents and children’s wellbeing.

How to disempower negative emotions

 

Travelling emotions: Kicking the cat

Displacement is a powerful defence mechanism which can be often observed in family relations. The most common example used in literature to explain displacement is the situation where a person comes back angry from work and displaces this anger onto family members. The real object of anger stayed unaffected at work, as it wasn’t ‘safe’ or ‘acceptable’ enough to express emotions directly onto him/her, whereas back in home there is a battle over some unrelated subject.

Displacement happens unconsciously. The example above is so popular, probably because it is relatively easy to bring the unconscious content on surface. We can imagine that the person who was attacked at home intervenes saying something like: ‘What’s wrong with you today? You came back so agitated, has something happened?’ The agitated person might carry on displacing their anger, or might get in contact with the real source of emotions: “Yes, I’m sorry, it’s not you, I had a horrible day at work, my boss is a bully..”.
The mechanism operates in more subversive way between parents and very small children, who can’t quite yet understand complex emotional situations or express their concerns regarding parents’ behaviour. Children then become an object of displaced emotions and the only source of rescuing the child is parent. By becoming aware of the dynamic of our own emotional experience, we can limit the negative impact from displaced emotions.

Channel for anxiety

Displacement allows our emotions to be expressed and acted out, but in ways which seems to be the easiest to bear and are socially acceptable. It means that difficult emotions are channelled unconsciously into an area which is not the primary cause. This misleading mechanism might bring us to the point when we are focusing all our effort on resolving some issue which isn’t the real problem or which is magnified by our emotions.
An example is an anxious mother of a newborn, suffering from a lack of support from family and friends. She displaces her anxiety of being a ‘good mother’ onto the baby, for example becoming over pre-occupied with a small nappy rash. The small matter of a mild skin irritation are then magnified through these displaced emotions. The mother starts observing the baby with a growing worry for the rash getting worse and bringing the child more pain. She tries all available remedies, which give her a false sense of control over the situation. As a result the baby’s rash becomes more irritated, from the mixture of excessive use of different substances and the growing anxiety from the mum. The baby is strongly influenced, by the physical over-treatment, and more importantly, by the displaced emotions the mum puts into the baby. Infants pick up the emotions of parents and act them out, so the mum’s anxiety and worry make the baby feel anxious and unsafe, and a vicious circle begins.

How to deal with displacement

It comes naturally to observe our children and learn how to detect early signs of any discomfort or danger. It is less obvious to observe ourselves and look at the signs of possible impact our actions and emotions have on our kids.
Self awareness plays crucial role in the process of disempowering difficult emotions.
When we are realising that one particular issue is preoccupying us more and more it is worth to step back and check various aspects of the situation:
– What symptoms am I observing in my child? What I can see? What others see? What does the doctor/partner/friend say? Do our versions differ significantly?
– Is it possible that something else is preoccupying me? What am I thinking of now? What is my worry?
– What are mine and what are the child’s emotions and needs?

To summarise, what we need when dealing with difficult emotions is: network support, self awareness, courage to face what’s under the surface.

These are difficult questions and nobody gets this 100% right – we all displace emotions at times, it’s part of being human. The challenge is not to do so consistently or in a way that has a negative impact on the baby

Parenting Styles – how should we parent?

playing children

This is the first part of the blog reflecting on the way we parent our children. It presents the wider context in which our ideas of parenting develop. It aims to help us understand what shapes and influences us as parents.

How we act as parents, depends on our beliefs and values. These are formed partly by our personality and partly by society i.e. the cultural and historical background we come from, and of course our own experience of being children.

Two major issues regarding parenting styles are: 1) parenting control; the degree to which the child is monitored, controlled and disciplined and 2) parenting warmth; the amount of emotional support and encouragement the parent gives the child.
How to combine those two ingredients in a way which is beneficial to our children? Isn’t discipline contradictory to the warmth and encouragement? Those questions bring us to the roots of our idea of parenting. It wasn’t so long ago, when the firm discipline and control were the accepted way to rear the children. Parenting then went through major cultural transformation, which brought benefits, but also new challenges. Where are we all now? Where could you situate yourself on the scales of controlling and respecting your child?

Authoritarian or Permissive Parenting?

The era of a saying ‘the child should be seen not heard’ is long time behind us. Western society went long way from one extreme idea of parenting to another. In the Victorian era attitudes formed an idea that children had to learn to be obedient, to control their emotions and their behaviour. They were to obey the unquestionable authority of parents, their matrons or carers and all adults. This fitted with wider ideas of how society was organised: in the workplace society was stratified, and authority was layered, the lower class didn’t question the higher class, and a worker obeyed the boss. Also this was the era of the ‘stiff upper lip’ – children had to learn to suppress their emotions, as in adulthood showing emotions wasn’t frowned upon. In terms of ‘parenting styles’ researched and described by psychologists*, this way of bringing up children would be called ‘Authoritarian Parenting’.
In the post-war period, and particularly following the 1960’s counter cultural revolution, we moved to the opposite extreme, which was personified by Carl Rogers Person Centred Approach to parenting. This approach drew upon Humanistic Psychology, the Human Potential Movement and the growing ideology of individualism. Rejection of discipline and focus on children’s individuality brought new challenges for parents, and adults more generally, who lost the capacity to draw boundaries and speak from a position of authority. Parenting derived from this period of social changes, can be characterised as liberal attitudes, following the child and encouraging their expression. We could call this style ‘Permissive Parenting’.
On one side we have a child deprived of expressing their feelings, and learning to control their emotions and behaviour. On the other side, a child learns to express themselves, to focus on him/herself, and who is listened and respected.

The difference between Control and Boundaries

Yet many permissive parents mixed up the issue of being controlling and setting clear boundaries. When this happens, we see children who are not happy, not nurtured but who develop narcissistic tendencies, become demanding, and most of all literally ‘cry out’ for parental boundaries which would make them feel safe and cared for.

Humanistic psychology was created as an antithesis to what was before, and the old world of institutional hierarchy and authoritarian society was rejected as a whole. We are learning today, that being completely child centred, deprives the child of the parenting it needs; it abdicates the responsibility of the parent to be a parent.
It seems we need to respond to children as individuals, yet we also need to be parents and it involves clear boundaries.

How is this synthesis happening in our homes? How do we set consistent, clear and safe boundaries, and also respond to children’s individuality?

The parenting style which addresses these issues is called ‘Authoritative Parenting’, and we will have a closer look at it in the next post.

*Diana Baumrid’s model of parenting styles, described in: Child Psychology. Development in a Changing Society, Harwood, Miller, Vasta (2008).

Bonding with your child – The Attachment Theory

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The use of theory

Child psychology and development studies contribute, and in many ways shape the way we bring up or children today. However, we cannot see scientific theory separately from the social context in which it was written. Knowledge can have a beneficial influence on parenting, if it is located in its cultural context, and used with attention to an individuals’ specific circumstances and considered with thought to its critique.

Taking those warnings on board, it is helpful to look at some basic concepts of child development, which can serve as a point of reference in prioritising our learning as parents.

Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment

Attachment theory, first discussed by John Bowlby become one of the best known theories in child psychology. It is widely accepted that an infants secure attachment to others, is one of the most important ‘lessons’ which parents can give to their children, and which influences how we relate to others throughout the life.

We all need a trusted base from which we can build healthy relationships with others.

Attachment is described as a unique emotional bond, between carer and child, which enables an exchange of comfort, care and pleasure. The secure attachment is characterised by four signs, which are exemplified below by the babies’ behaviour toward their primary carer:

  • Proximity Maintenance – a baby expresses a desire to stay close to the carer, reaching to him/her and preferring the carer above others
  • Secure Base – an attachment figure is a base from which child can explore the world and always comes back to carer, to assure his/her assistance in those free explorations
  • Safe Haven – a carer always offers a comfort in the face of thread – baby facing distress turns to the attachment figure for the solace

  • Separation Distress – a baby experiences anxiety in the absence of an attachment figure.

Attachment can be fully observed between 12 and 18 month of child’s life. This ability to bond with important others in a trusted way stays with us for life and becomes a crucial skill in developing supportive social network and intimate relationships.

Three other non-secure ‘styles’ of attachment are not discussed here, but can be explored from other sources

Critique

Bowlby’s theory was criticised from two main perspectives.

Feminists critiqued Bowlby’s theory saying it idolises motherhood and traditional families (as Bowlby underlined the importance of having the single first attachment figure). This was also discussed in the political context when the theory served the government in UK to persuade women to come back to their domestic roles, after working on some ‘male’ positions during the World War II.

Prof Sir Michael Rutter, called ‘the father of child psychology’, backed the feminists’ view, with his studies and stressed that it is desirable to have multiple meaningful relationships. He also criticised Bowlby for generalised and simplified position, which didn’t distinguish between consequences of not being able to develop attachment and developing one that is later lost. Rutter differentiated those two situations, claiming that it is always better to have a history of attachment, even if the attachment figure has been lost.

Application

There is one important message deriving from the attachment theory:

As a mother/father or a main carer, to facilitate your child in developing a secure attachment, respond appropriately, promptly and consistently to the child’s needs.

This is how the child will be able to feel safe enough to explore the world, knowing that she or he can always return to you as to the safe haven.
Coming back to the beginning of the post: the former theories of parenting (prominent before Bowlby’s) were recommending exactly the opposite. Parental guides were advising for example not to pick up babies between feeds, because ‘they will become fussy and needy’. This is where the science luckily stepped in and ‘proved’ the damaging effects of those strategies.

Questions

To bring the application of the attachment theory further, lets ask ourselves some questions regarding the way we bond with our children:

    1. Who else, except you, does your child have a chance to develop meaningful relationship with?

    2. What is your experience of attachment? What is your style of bonding with others?

    3. What do you need (to learn/to get support at) to be able to provide safe and trusted environment for your child?

Charted Baby – what the chart really tells you

20140530-175918-64758423.jpghttp://www.mommyish.com

Children in numbers

There are many tools provided for you to check and measure your baby. You can for example: ‘Create a growth chart to see how your child measures up against other children in height, weight, and head size.’

You can also buy an application for your smartphone, which gives you updates on milestones reached by your baby in certain age of her/his life.
You can use charts to compare and check your baby’s motor development, cognitive skills, emotional development, etc.
You can do those home-check ups for your little one and gain evidence to praise about or to worry about – pending on what pattern your baby develops on his/her path of progress.

Following your baby’s development with your own loving eyes seems to be not enough in today’s ‘scientified’ world of parenting. We need the hard science to prove everything is normal and well. We check the charts, hoping for above-the-average performance in at least some areas. We are encouraged to do so by the mainstream materials and tools designed to guide and educate parents.

But do we ask ourselves how this constant measuring and checking influence our children? We tend not to question the charted information itself, taking it as a source of knowledge written in stone. Let us not forget, today’s scientific fact is often tomorrows failed knowledge. Questioning can actually restore our confidence which is often undermined by all the specialised knowledge.

What is wrong with the chart

First of all, lets look closer at most of those charts, which are available online. They are showing average figures for children’s progress. If we would like to take any chart seriously, we would have to look at an age range of results and in doing so, we could also see how misleading the average number is. For example: The average age for a baby to reach the skill of walking up stairs with help is 16 months. But the range in which 90% of infants achieve this skill is 12-23 months! We won’t see those numbers in most of the charts, so if our baby walks up the stairs at the age of 22 months and we compare it with 16 months number, it will raise some concerns and actions, i.e. asking for a professional advice or search through internet again. Whereas there is nothing to be worry or disappointed about.

Parental Expectations

The word ‘disappointment’ tells us a lot about the nature of those numeric tests taken on our babies. The focus on falling into the category of ‘normal child’ reflects the underlying message we give to our children, which is: ‘I expect you to be good and normal’. Allowing for difference and diversity seems to be obliterated in a world of normalising expectations.

Labelling the child

There is only one step from checking babies against the chart to labelling them. You won’t have to wait long, until you hear your own internal voice – maybe raised by anxiety – labelling your baby: slow, stubborn, fussy – referring to some of the charted dimensions. Labelling very often becomes self – fulfilling prophecy: kids who were not fussy at all, will become like that if they constantly hear this adjective from their parents. I recently heard very vivid example of this phenomena. The preoccupied mother was claiming that the baby at the age of 15 months is not able to walk. It was indeed a fact, that the baby didn’t walk when the mother was watching. She seemed very worried and even obsessed about this ‘issue’. One day, the mother and the baby were seen at the playground and the baby was walking freely when the mother wasn’t watching! We can imagine the intensity of emotions the baby was picking up from the mother and had to deal with.

Remembering the right order

Essentially, our babies don’t develop to please their parents, nor they have any influence on how they grow and progress. They are human beings living their lives and facing very intense developmental challenges on the way. This is natural that we are fascinated about their progress and we love seeing them taking the next and the next step. But we shall not reverse the order. Our baby as a person comes first, our appreciation and respect can follow.