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

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).

Bonding with your child – The Attachment Theory

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The use of theory

Child psychology and development studies contribute, and in many ways shape the way we bring up or children today. However, we cannot see scientific theory separately from the social context in which it was written. Knowledge can have a beneficial influence on parenting, if it is located in its cultural context, and used with attention to an individuals’ specific circumstances and considered with thought to its critique.

Taking those warnings on board, it is helpful to look at some basic concepts of child development, which can serve as a point of reference in prioritising our learning as parents.

Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment

Attachment theory, first discussed by John Bowlby become one of the best known theories in child psychology. It is widely accepted that an infants secure attachment to others, is one of the most important ‘lessons’ which parents can give to their children, and which influences how we relate to others throughout the life.

We all need a trusted base from which we can build healthy relationships with others.

Attachment is described as a unique emotional bond, between carer and child, which enables an exchange of comfort, care and pleasure. The secure attachment is characterised by four signs, which are exemplified below by the babies’ behaviour toward their primary carer:

  • Proximity Maintenance – a baby expresses a desire to stay close to the carer, reaching to him/her and preferring the carer above others
  • Secure Base – an attachment figure is a base from which child can explore the world and always comes back to carer, to assure his/her assistance in those free explorations
  • Safe Haven – a carer always offers a comfort in the face of thread – baby facing distress turns to the attachment figure for the solace

  • Separation Distress – a baby experiences anxiety in the absence of an attachment figure.

Attachment can be fully observed between 12 and 18 month of child’s life. This ability to bond with important others in a trusted way stays with us for life and becomes a crucial skill in developing supportive social network and intimate relationships.

Three other non-secure ‘styles’ of attachment are not discussed here, but can be explored from other sources

Critique

Bowlby’s theory was criticised from two main perspectives.

Feminists critiqued Bowlby’s theory saying it idolises motherhood and traditional families (as Bowlby underlined the importance of having the single first attachment figure). This was also discussed in the political context when the theory served the government in UK to persuade women to come back to their domestic roles, after working on some ‘male’ positions during the World War II.

Prof Sir Michael Rutter, called ‘the father of child psychology’, backed the feminists’ view, with his studies and stressed that it is desirable to have multiple meaningful relationships. He also criticised Bowlby for generalised and simplified position, which didn’t distinguish between consequences of not being able to develop attachment and developing one that is later lost. Rutter differentiated those two situations, claiming that it is always better to have a history of attachment, even if the attachment figure has been lost.

Application

There is one important message deriving from the attachment theory:

As a mother/father or a main carer, to facilitate your child in developing a secure attachment, respond appropriately, promptly and consistently to the child’s needs.

This is how the child will be able to feel safe enough to explore the world, knowing that she or he can always return to you as to the safe haven.
Coming back to the beginning of the post: the former theories of parenting (prominent before Bowlby’s) were recommending exactly the opposite. Parental guides were advising for example not to pick up babies between feeds, because ‘they will become fussy and needy’. This is where the science luckily stepped in and ‘proved’ the damaging effects of those strategies.

Questions

To bring the application of the attachment theory further, lets ask ourselves some questions regarding the way we bond with our children:

    1. Who else, except you, does your child have a chance to develop meaningful relationship with?

    2. What is your experience of attachment? What is your style of bonding with others?

    3. What do you need (to learn/to get support at) to be able to provide safe and trusted environment for your child?

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!

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