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 

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

Parental Authority – out of fashion?

Authority needs to be imaginative, If you become authoritarian, you loose your authority’, Simon Western.

The dirty word

There is a problem with word ‘authority’. As said in a previous post, Authority is very often associated with the Authoritarian Parenting, characterised by little warmth, huge control, and harsh, punitive discipline*. In this light authority seems to be the tool of devil and many parents would be inclined to claim authority free parenting, and set up standards for Permissive Parenting – a warm and highly accepting style, employing reason rather than force, and indifferent about applying parental discipline.

The Parental Authority figure

Whether we like it or not, a child sees their parents as an authority figure, as this is part of developmental process. Usually parents are the main point of reference for infants, the first significant ‘others’ in children’s life, their first role-model of how the world is organised. Children carry parents in their minds and use those images when engaging in all further relationships and decision-making. In this sense, our way of caring, our values and beliefs are consciously and unconsciously the strongest of influences on our children. It is not to say that we have a full control on what we pass onto our children, other social factors also occur. Yet parents are always an authority figure to the child, as the child is always influenced by the parent… they carry parental authority whether they choose it or not. The question is how do they use this authority?

The need of authority

What is also missing in the polarised picture, represented by authoritarian and permissive parenting is the notion that children need authority to feel safe when learning and exploring the world. Applying parental authority with confidence, clarity and love provides firm, safe and consistent environment, which is the basis for children to develop.
Children are their carers’ dependant, which is not an equal relationship. It involves the use of power to make things happen. This is parent’s task to make children do or not do something, draw clear boundaries, lead actions and use their power – for children’s own safety and benefit. Put in practical context of basic needs – it is parents’ responsibility to feed children, keep them safe, warm, offer emotional security and encouraging conditions for learning.
Big part of children’s learning happens through testing, pushing boundaries, through challenging parents’ power. The hope is that through this process children learn to understand the sense of boundaries, and learn to create their own boundaries, for their own safety and benefit.
For example, it is expected from the very early stage of life, that children will be trying to break the rules, do the things which they want to, regardless parents prohibition. But provided with very clear and consistent message from parents – regarding what is right and not right – they are also expected to recognise their own benefit in moving within the boundary, and be able to take care for themselves.

Authoritative Parenting

Drawing boundaries and providing a consistent discipline is part of the safe and pro-developmental environment. The other part, equally important is emotional warmth and support. There is no right and wrong way, no absolute rules, the challenge is that as parents we must find our own way, taking account of each child’s individual needs and personality. Each parent has their unique styles of applying parental authority, and different children have unique responses and needs. The task for parents is to navigate the child’s needs whilst not avoiding their parental responsibilities.

According to the Baumrind’s model of parenting styles* these are the characteristics of Authoritative Parenting, which is claimed to be the most beneficial for children. The following lists presents the main elements of the style:

  • is accepting of child; displays frequent expressions of affection
  • sets high standards for behaviour
  • maintains consistent discipline and limit setting
  • employs reason rather than force
  • listens to child’s points of view

What is your baggage?

We all differ in a way we speak from the position of power. The way we enact authority is deeply rooted in our history of relating to important others. This why, when learning to take up the authoritative role as a parents, it is important to explore some of those topics below:

    1. what emotional reactions do you notice in yourself
      when trying to set boundaries for your children or telling them to do something?
    2. how do you look and sound like when speaking from your authority as a parent (for example talking about crossed boundaries)?</
    3. who was your first or most important authority figure?
    4. what emotional reactions did this important person evoke in you when speaking from the position of power (i.e. telling you what to do, telling you off)?
    5. what similarities can you point between you and your first authority?
    6. what differences can you point between you and the authority?

*from the model of parenting styles by Baumrind, described in: Child Psychology. Development in changing society

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).