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

Advertisements

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

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

Ordinary Parents

Royal Mother
Kate Middleton – The Duchess of Cambridge – gave birth to her second baby. It’s not this fact itself, what brought me to write this post, but another blog which in a humorous way commented on Kate’s perfect look during child’s presentation just few hours after giving birth.

The author very accurately picks up ridiculousness of a situation when woman being inevitably damaged and exhausted after enormous effort of labour, appears in front of the world ‘done up’ and ‘dressed up’, wearing high hills.
photo from Kate Middleton facebook page

Yes, the videos and photographs of Kate Middleton reminds me that I don’t belong to royal family and after I gave birth, no wider audience cared wether I had my hair brushed or nails done (and more: if I’d like to dress up straight after labour, someone would bring me on earth and told me to just lay down). It’s fortunately not part of my task as a mother to look perfect. But is it that obvious that the whole parenting venture isn’t about being perfect in any aspect? Isn’t the underlying message from Duchess to other parents: ‘perfect’ is what we all want?

‘Perfect’ is what the photograph captured but what was left behind?
Looking at the photo of Kate Middleton I’m reflecting on big picture of parenting. I am trying to capture what really matters in being a parent and what being a good parent means. I believe that in our era of parenting, where the pressure on parents coming from many angles is very high, we tend to forget what our priorities are and we might find ourselves in a place where we never feel good enough.
Experts and Ideal Parents
In fact, these dangers were present and spoken of in early 60′ of 20th century. Dr Donald H. Winnicot, English psychoanalyst, was particularly concerned about two issues (both of them become even stronger over the years and our culture is investing in turning them into the signatures of contemporary parenting).
One of the issue is a growing role of parenting experts. The market of education and advice for parents is really massive. Parents constantly hear what they should be doing and what is best for their children. I recently saw the post on facebook, written by child psychologist, inviting parents to write their concerns on the psychologist’s facebook wall and she promised to answer each of them in few sentences. This is very vivid example of the wider issue: the ‘expert’ badge, the voice of specialist, is in our culture very powerful. The experts sound so convincing that we are inclined to trust their voice more than our own judgements. This undermines parents’ confidence and makes them feel worried that they constantly miss some skill or important bit of information. Somewhere in experts’ minds exists a perfect and right way of doing things and we, ordinary parents will never be able to fully reach that. We then sip drops of wisdom from specialists’ mouth, hoping that this will be at least good enough.
The second issue is idealisation of parents. To illustrate what it means, I recall today’s radio program, where some caller criticised mothers for returning to work instead of staying at home with children. It was a judgemental speech, claiming that most mothers do have a choice and they still prefer career than the best start in life for their children. That lady simplified the dilemma and ignored complexity of the situation. She divided the world into two: good mothers staying with children and bad ones, returning to work. Her reasoning was fuelled by emotions: she split* them into two and assigned all the good ones to good – stay at home mums and all the bad ones to the other group. This is a process which we all sometimes go through, usually not being aware of this. Black and white world with simple divisions  is a product of our phantasy and it prevents us from seeing shades of the real world. How we as a society perceive parents seems to be influenced by this mechanism of splitting. They are good or bad objects – in minds of others and in their own minds. They experience emotional pressure, the necessity to be ideal and to fulfil unreal expectations.

To be ordinary

Parenting isn’t about trying to be perfect and fulfilling unrealistic expectations.  Parenting is about ‘ordinary’. Ordinary parents are good enough to provide right care for their children. And to be clear: vast majority of parents is doing great job of loving, caring and nurturing their children.
*original concepts of splitting and good enough parents come from works of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott.