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

What is in your childhood luggage?

We all were once children. Last week I came across very interesting interview (with capturing title: No one annoys me as much as my mother) which addresses relationship with parents from a perspective of grown up children undergoing psychoterapy. The interviewee is a Polish psychotherapist – Danuta Golec. 

I translated a fragment of this interview, which I found very helpful in understanding one of the most crucial parenting skill: containing difficult emotions. 

What are their [adults who talk about their parents] complaints?

It varies, but I can observe one commonality, which I would call: a lack of psychological consciousness.

Some adults think that they weren’t seen in childhood. Their difficulties and needs – emotional in particular – were pushed away. We are not talking about neglected children; they might have had great conditions – being taken to horse riding, swimming lessons, but parents didn’t know what conflicts children were struggling with and what kind of help they needed.
There was a lack of thinking parent, who would understand that child has an inner life. Lack of someone who is able to stand [contain] emotions.
To stand emotions?
Yes, we are talking about parent’s internal space, where we allow our child’s emotions – be it anxiety, sadness, anger. We can take these emotions there, look at them and change them, so as they can become less frightening. We can compare this process to digestion. Child is not able to swallow big chunks of food, we need to break them up. Some adults are not able to do so. Ten year old girl is sharing her difficulties at school and mother is getting anxious, so she sighs: if you won’t stop I am going to get crazy, (…) I’m going to hang myself. In this way mother communicates to the girl that she can harm mother with her problems, so she shouldn’t disclose them anymore, or shouldn’t even have them. Later in life, this grown up girl can hold the unconscious conviction that if she approaches someone and gets very close, she can destroy this person, and this person will lost their mind or die. Obviously, every parent may have a moment of being psychologically unconscious, unavailable, but if this becomes a repetitive pattern it causes trauma to a child.
In some adults’ experience parents were strongly focused on themselves and their own needs. For example they saw the child just in one dimension which was fulfilling their aspirations. They wanted a happy and cheerful child, who amazes everyone. So they did. But if the child tried to show his/her different side, more true version of the self, they went into panic, or just did not accept it. Child was talking to hand – I don’t have friends at school, I am sad. – When you grow up you’ll laugh at this. Go and play.

Anything else?
Sometimes adults feel that something was pushed into them in childhood years. Parents, instead of accepting and taking in child’s emotions, thrown their own unwanted emotions at a child. Psychological maturity means (among other things), that we are able to see ourselves as a range of things, not only as a pure goodness. We can see anger, guilt and envy. If a person is unable to do it, then every unwanted piece of himself/herself needs to be removed or placed in someone else. Am I envious? Never! You are! (…). We call this mechanism projection
If this is parent’s main way of functioning, a child is constantly bombarded by unwanted emotions. He/she catches a lot of content, which parent doesn’t know how to deal with. Child also doesn’t know what to do with this kind of baggage. This emotional situation can be repeated in people’s adult life problems. They constantly deal with someone else’s psychological baggage. They feel obliged to live other people’s lives. I am a luggage filled with objects, something is banging there, but I don’t know who does it belong to.’

 

Full interview by Grzegorz Sroczynski, Wyborcza.pl 20.05.2015

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.

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

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.

Let the children be creative

Being a mother of a 10 month old girl, I pay attention to the messages dedicated to parents and I found myself surrounded by products, services and articles, which are suppose to boost children’s learning skills and creativity. I would say that creativity is on the top of the list of abilities which can be developed through interacting with toys, attending classes, playing specially designed games, and even – eating! I recently bought finger food, which apparently has a number of learning qualities, as the text on the bag stated. I pictured a baby, asking their parents who are looking for the signs of learning processes while the child is having a snack: ‘please, let me eat in peace.’

This obsessive attempt to influence and enhance babies’ experience introduces the pressure of competition in very early stage.
The holy Grail of our society is the underlying promise behind all the products and stream of information that as long as parents stick to the certain strategy, they will be able to develop their children in the ‘right direction’.

Lets focus here on the creativity at the early stage of children’s life. Parents want their children to be creative and they easily find the support in their quest of how to make them be more creative. I would argue that this is tackling the matter from the wrong angle and consequently, setting up wrong parental goals.

The most popular definition of creativity states, that this is the ability to generate novel outcomes that are valued in particular context. The playful way of explaining the subject is the ‘Laconic Definition of Creativity’, which focuses on the three types of spontaneous reactions for the creative outcome. These three are 1) Ah! 2) Aha!, and 3) Hahaha!, which stand for: enchantment, understanding and amusement. If we find ourselves experiencing those three reactions, that means, we are exposed to the creative outcome.

We can now recall any encounter with the toddler, playing freely with the world. Inventing words, games and jokes, making sense of the surrounding, discovering new things and giving them meaning – being endlessly imaginative. If we are just engaged with this kid, we can find ourselves with Ah! Aha! and Hahaha!, coming out of our mouth every second minute.

Creativity is the natural way of being for babies and toddlers. They engage with world creatively simply because they don’t know any other way. They don’t have schematic ways of thinking and cognitive paths which are adults’ shortcuts to solutions and quick answers. They make up the answer each time and they have fun doing it. They repeat their mile stone discoveries and they learn. The most spontaneous and obvious way of engaging with the world is play. And children’s free play is a pure creativity.

It can be inhibited though, by stress, emotional and psychological discomfort. This can have many different sources, child is affected by the difficult life events, as any other human being (even if is not able to fully comprehend the situation).
Melanie Klein, child psychoanalyst, discovered that stressed and troubled children played with toys in a very particular way, which was unimaginative, repetitive, and tense. When she named what was going on for a child (offered them her interpretation), the children came back to themselves and they were able to play more freely. We can assume what were the ‘curing’ factors, which allowed children to come back to their creative selves. It was an adult, being able to:
help them make sense of the difficult situation which affect them,
contain overwhelming emotions,
provide safety and trust.

I would draw an analogy between this difficult situation and parents’ goals in supporting children’s creativity. Parents’s objective is to provide comfort, safety, freedom and trust, which are basics for a spontaneous exploration of the world. Our task is also to help the children understanding their emotions and going through emotionally difficult times. This is how we can participate in our children’s development of creativity.

I therefore argue for changing perspective from trying to be an active agent, who provides children with tools for more efficient development, to being a good companion, ready to follow children in their creative endeavours and step in when it is needed.

I would like to make this point stronger by recalling one famous person, who was a genius student of creativity and wisely choose his teachers. Pablo Picasso was fascinated by children’s creativity and he learnt how to truly come back to this purely creative state of mind, which gets lost with time. He achieved a mastery in freeing his imagination from constrains and schemata, which force most of us to think, feel and see things in a right, acceptable by the majority way.
If we could reverse the situation and learn from children, rather then instantly attempting to teach them, both children and parents would benefit. Perhaps we resist this because we have an underlying fear, that as a side effect of creativity, we would become less conformist…. and that would force us to face ourselves in new ways…. Creativity is much sought after, but so is conformity!

20140511-113014.jpg

Pablo Picasso, Female Acrobat, 1930. http://www.studyblue.com

Reel Parents…Unreal Babies

This post was written by the guest blogger – Simon Western. Thank you Simon for your thoughtful contribution!

Reel Parents…… unreal babies 

Parent baby cinema groups – what they tell us about societies view of babies

Reel parents is one of the names given to the parent and baby screenings now showing at cinemas. This is an interesting idea, parents can take babies under 1 year, and watch a movie together with other parents and babies. A good business idea for the cinema and a good for parents who often can’t get out in the evenings. However, I was shocked to see 12 Years A Slave as a Parent And Baby Screening, and realised other films with loud and violent scenes were being shown. I wondered what this says about our social attitude towards babies? What it says to me is that babies are considered as some sort of pre-human object, rather than being treated as human subjects in their own right.
I have seen no social comment on this practice, except something in Poland which I will return to. Do we imagine babies are unable to engage with the sounds of screaming men and women being whipped, or affected by brutal images on large screens in front of them, or too the emotions stirred in the mothers and fathers watching? The IMD film company warns parents of older children that this film shows “A naked woman is shown being savagely whipped. At one point, 12 Years A Slave is a very brutal, cruel film. It is extremely emotional and some viewers may find it hard to watch. Lots of torture, violence and abuse is shown realistically.

 Some people may be disturbed by the sexual abuse of one of the female slaves. A mother is also sold and separated from her children.” And they mark it 9/10 for being disturbing.
I don’t claim to be an expert on what babies can see on big screens, but I do know that my 9 month year old converses with me on Skype when I am working away from home, and enjoys watching the Jungle Book on You Tube. I therefore imagine young babies can see something of what is happening on huge screens and I am certain babies take in the sounds of screams and violence. One thing is for certain, that babies are completely in touch and sensitive to a parents emotional reactions (hence attachment theory). So parents watching images or rape and whippings, and reacting to disturbing narratives on screen will be passed onto the infant is some form.
The question this raises for me is are babies emotionally neutral objects who are numb to the emotional lives of their parents and their environment, or are they human subjects from birth, with deeply sensitive emotional lives? One place where there was protests against such films being shown was in Poland where I heard that the Catholic conservative right, prevented a showing Nymphomaniac at a parent and baby screening. Of course this fits with their conservative political agenda (sex is sinful, films like this destroy family values etc etc). What I found interesting is that ‘progressive mothers’ argued that it was their cultural right to see any film they chose, and they shouldn’t be prevented from this liberty. This so-called progressive voice is in fact the opposite. It was the Victorians who treated children as emotionally neutral objects ‘who should be seen and not heard’ and packed them off to prep-boarding schools and outsourced them to nannies as quick as possible (not unlike the Royal family today). Zizek speaking to radical protesters said “Don’t be afraid of words like work, discipline, community and so on. We should take all this from the right wingers. Don’t allow enemy to take from you to determine the terrain of the struggle.” (Zizek 2011) This is true of progressive parents who should not take a self-righteous narcissistic view ‘I have the right to see the film whatever it is’ as this is a reactionary and conservative position. The progressive position is to stand up to social norms that demean the humanity of a baby.

The issue of parent and baby screenings of violent films, highlights two disturbing social trends. Firstly, it’s the parents that matter not the babies, reflecting our increasingly narcissistic society. Secondly how babies are increasingly becoming commodities, passive objects of desire, a nice thing to have a push around in a designer pushchair.
Both trends seem to forget that babies are deeply emotional human subjects and need to be engaged with as such, by parents and by wider society.