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

The Fathers as we see them (through the lens of our culture) 

  
Lego started to recognise the changing role of fathers in our culture. We have now Lego figurines with happy fathers pushing buggies and staying at home with the children. And it’s great, the message sent by main players on the market is heard by many families and it does have an impact on our perception of social norms. Role playing toys are powerful medium through which our children receive hints on what are the accepted ways of doing things in our society. 

But do we really know what we expect from fathers these days?
I think fathers have several reasons to feel confused about their role in the family.

Stupid jokes

The thing which strikes me each time I come across it in social media, is circulation of insensitive jokes about fathers. Fathers are patronised, pictured as incompetent, silly people, who seek woman’s help in all the tasks concerning children. I recently saw a joke-chart on FB saying mummy is the one answering all sorts of questions children might have and father who is presented with the only single question: where is mummy? Other example is an image of a family bed, where father sleeps uninterrupted on ‘his half’ of the bed, while mother is awake on her side, having have to accommodate the children (and the dog and the cat) there; and obviously – doesn’t get any sleep at all. It might put a smile on someone’s tired face when after many sleepless nights. It can be viewed as a sort of acting out-frustrations joke. But in fact this enhances the false picture of fathers as those uninvolved and disinterested parents. Whereas in every single family I know, fathers take a big part in minding small babies at night (even when they have to get up the earliest and go to work).
I understand these jokes as displacement of anger and frustration onto fathers (husbands, partners). These difficult emotions are completely normal and understandable, but dealing with these feelings through partners and leaving them look incompetent and selfish is not fair.

Segregation

Fathers face contradictory expectations regarding their participation in bringing up children. The question I often heard when our first child was born, was: “Is your partner helping?”. I didn’t feel word ‘helping’ was accurate description of our arrangement. It wasn’t him helping with the child, it was us bringing up the new baby together; each of us bonding with our daughter in our ways. It wasn’t me giving him access to the child for the time of ‘helping’ or him thinking: ‘I’d better help out a bit here’.
But the most vivid example of fathers being expected to get involved but in some special, father-like way is a gender segregated parenting. Parent-toddlers groups are mainly attended by mothers from obvious reason – they are still main care givers – staying at home parents, who seek for social support and company for their children; it’s mainly mother-toddlers group we are speaking about. 

Nevertheless, there are stay-at-home-fathers and single fathers, who would also benefit from attending toddler groups. It is much more difficult for fathers to make an appearance in such groups. When fathers enter a toddler group it’s like they invade the space reserved for mothers. It seems to be uncomfortable for both mothers and fathers. A few times I experienced weekend meet ups, where few fathers turned up. They usually ended up half hidden, in the corner of the room, or squeezed between two mothers turned back, chatting with someone else. Latter on, those fathers, who made it to the meeting was labelled as ‘brave’. There was also a suggestion, that fathers should have their own, fathers’ meeting set up. 

Why is it brave to attend a meeting, which should be a joint pleasure – an occasion to see a child interacting with other children? Why isn’t it ‘normal’ to meet and talk about parenting (or something else, for that matter), in a mixed – mothers and fathers group?
The reason might be our deeply rooted traditional way of thinking about parenting. It is not necessarily helpful these days, but it’s there, as an artefact of the old order.

On the other hand, it preserves the importance of mothers’ role and gives them power to lead and dictate the conditions in the world of bringing up children. 
All parties: children, mothers and fathers are benefiting from shifting power relations and more engagement of fathers and mothers in family life. Change isn’t easy and some fathers might need more encouragement in taking up the roles which traditionally belonged to women, and mothers might need to find ways to be more open to change too.

What Fathers definitely don’t need is a prejudice attitude that comes from the past and is often unconscious, that pushes them to the sidelines. This isn’t good for fathers or mothers, but most importantly it isn’t good for our children.
Photo source

New Year’s resolutions – guilt and two other risks of planning changes

  
Christmas is behind us, New Year is here: the protocol of our culture is expecting us to make some New Year’s resolutions. Time for making promises! 

“I am going to exercise more.’ 

‘I’m going to be more patient with my ageing mother.’

‘I’m going to cut down sugar/cigarettes/wine.’ 

‘I am going to take more time off.’

The beggining of new year encourages us to make summaries and gives hope for the fresh start. 

We live in the age of therapeutic discourse, where people are expected to work on themselves, redefine and reimagine their lives. Life coaches are speaking on the morning radio programs about making positive changes, introducing plans, and exercising daily. 

These days none of us is free from the expectation to grow and become better in whatever we do or whoever we are. It’s not only about us as individuals but also us fulfilling certain roles which matter to others. Speaking about parents: we as parents are always observed by the community and we are expected to do right and do better as mothers and fathers.

On one hand this feels right and encourages positive changes in the society. Many people change their habits: they eat and live healthier, they think more about the environment, their prejudices weaken.

On the other hand, this drive for becoming a New Version of Ourselves can cause some confusion, especially for parents.

Guilt

It’s okay to be good enough. To be a perfect parent is a phantasy and following it isn’t serving anyone. Our task is to be good enough parents and this means providing a loving and safe environment for children to grow and explore the world. We won’t get everything 100% right and what we really should learn is to accept this fact. Of course we want to grow as parents and do better on many fields, but this expectation often causes a strong sense of guilt, every time we do something ‘wrong’. This creates a viscous circle and a tension which definitely won’t help with getting things better next time. 

Goals

Setting the right goals can be tricky. There are many advisors who focus on altering behaviour. They encourage us to set the clear goal, make a strong commitment to some behavioural change, and they offer techniques to stay motivated and achieve this change. It can all work well, under the condition, that we are focusing on the right goal. Sometimes emotional issues are so difficult to deal with, that we replace them with some other tasks which stay at the level of behaviour and don’t reach the deeper, emotional issues. For example one of the partners in a relationship decides to run a marathon which is going to be very absorbing – cost a lot of time and commitment. This can be a genuine sportive activity but it might also be taken up to run away from the difficulties in relationship which won’t be addressed.

Personality

There are some things in ourselves which are unlikely to change, because they are part of who we are, of how we define ourselves. They might be causing problems in our relationships and they might be these very things which we want to get rid of when interacting with our children. Some of us would find themselves too controlling, too angry, too anxious, too authoritative – put here your own characteristic which makes you worried when relating to others. This might be an important part of your emotional life, which developed early in the childhood and it manifested itself throughout the life in many different ways. Don’t expect from yourself that you are going to make it disappear. Find a healthier way of expressing it. You might even make use of it! Being aware of this dynamic you can also help your children dealing with their emotional challenges. A great example of dealing with aggression is using it in sport activities. 

There is an event on Facebook, where people commit to read 52 books in 2016. Over 70,000 people signed up. My first thought when I saw it was, that they can’t be parents to small children, but then I realised I’m speaking for myself. There are parents out there having great reading plans and fair play to them.

I wish them enjoyable reading and a very good New Year to all of you.
Photo: http://www.theodesseyonline.com

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