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

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 and 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 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 needs 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 some 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. Make sure you 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 us 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 on 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 honest advice, not only about the issue, but who can also help you manage your anxiety. 
  6. Be aware of external influences. We have a 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 a family which wants best for us an 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

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

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

For the peace of mind – baby products tricky marketing

The power of knowledge

Last may, exactly a year ago, my partner and I participated in the antenatal classes at the local hospital. Most of parents at the group were expecting the first child. We were absorbing every bit of information, coming from midwifes, physiotherapists, nutritionists and anaesthetists. It felt like
the right source of knowledge and professional information are the anchor which are going to help us through the process of welcoming the baby to this world and going through the life change.

This is a given that the set up of the antenatal classes gives the power and authority to all those who speak in front of the expecting parents. It is both not welcomed and difficult to imagine, that audience disagrees or discusses with the speakers. They have years of experience in the matter which most of parents to be, are debuting in. They are also talking to people in very vulnerable state, when excitement of awaiting for the baby mixes with the rainbow of other emotions – be it anxiety linked to birth, baby’s wellbeing, mother’s well being, stress provoked by all sorts of life challenges, financial pressure for providing for the growing family, etc.

Being in the process of huge transition, parents are prone to suggestions and it often happens that they are comforted by someone else giving clear and simple instructions: saying what exactly should happen and what steps parents should take. I am sure that intentions of those, who provide information for parents to be, are genuine. There are obviously important bits of knowledge parents need to get and comprehend (e.g. recognising signs of labour).

But some of those messages floating to parents add on to their anxiety and make them feel inadequate and confused.
This is particularly the case with commercial information which often takes a form of persuasion.
Marketing for baby products leaves parents with the impression as if stocking up with expensive and advanced products is the must for all responsible parents.

Anxiety based marketing

The antenatal classes we attended, hosted a sales representative from car seats shop. He gave a presentation on types of car seats; he brought the most expensive brand as an example, and was discussing the difference between basic and upgraded version. He said that the basic version is safe and meets the standards but the upgraded one (no need to mention about the upgraded price) is better for ‘our peace of mind’.
He didn’t say that, but the obvious consequence of his rationale is: if you can’t afford, or chose not to buy more expensive version, you can forget about the peace of mind.
The example from the shop with baby beds and mattresses is even worse. The basic version doesn’t meet the standards for protection against suffocation. If you can’t afford the better version of the mattress – we are sorry to say this – but you are putting your baby at risk. Deal with it now!
Searching through offers, articles, magazines for parents I am coming back to time when I was expecting the first baby and wondering about what we really need before the birth and trying to get get it right. In the hospital I was supplied with the plastic envelope containing the leaflets on birth plan, pelvis exercises, breastfeeding, postnatal depression, etc., and much bigger pile of adverts of cosmetic products for babies. I later on received also a small rucksack with plenty of samples. Marketing baby products is omnipresent and mostly unquestionable. The danger is that this commercial way of thinking becomes a fixed mindset, shaping our reality.

Information about product choices are based on number of assumptions which may or may not be true for expecting parents. The blurring between selling something useful and marketing a product for profit has become profound. Greater pressure is put on parents, and much of the marketing is based on raising parental anxieties…. “If you don’t buy this you are not being a good parent” is the subliminal message….The question is how do we protect ourselves from this barrage of advertising, and make the choices that are right for us, and for our babies?

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photo: http://www.redheadbabyled.com