Containing emotions – the key to healthy relationships


Emotions can be contagious, especially those experienced and expressed vividly by our loved ones. When it comes to difficult emotions, like anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety, this infectious nature of them, makes things more challenging. Thinking, making good judgments and decisions can be overridden by two (or more) people caught in the emotional circle.
If the first person, experiencing difficult emotions is a young child, it can be very hard to understand what is going on for her/him, and help accordingly.

The obvious complication is, that young children can’t explain what is going on, they themselves don’t have capacity to understand it. Their bodily reactions and emotional life are much more interdependent, than in adults. For example, bodily discomfort can cause huge emotional distress, and because the baby doesn’t have mechanisms to deal with it other than very dynamic, powerful expression, this in turn causes the discomfort getting worse.

We can distinguish three ways of dealing with child’s difficult emotions. We all use them from time to time, depending on the circumstances and our capacity to work out the situation.

Let’s imagine the child crying inconsolably, being perhaps angry or frustrated. There are three typical responses to how the parent or main carer deals with the child’s distress.

1. Blocking emotions

The mother or the father for various reasons might not be able to connect with this distressful emotional experience, and blocks their child’s emotions off. They might pick up the baby and rock him/her, circulating the room, but at an emotional and psychological level, they are absent and protect themselves from hearing or seeing what’s going on with the child because it’s too painful or too much to deal with at this particular moment.

2. Giving back emotions

The parent ‘takes in’ the child’s emotions, soaking them like a sponge, and gets upset and overwhelmed. She/he gets affected by the child’s emotional experience (gets sad or angry) and throughs back these emotions at the child in a raw and unprocessed way, adding some of his/her own feelings; for example, she gets very angry – and also anxious and guilty of becoming angry in the first place.

In two cases above, thinking gets overpowered by emotional experience and it’s impossible to figure out what is really happening and what actions should be undertaken to help the child.

3. Containing emotions

The mother/father/carer who in the particular situation has strength and ability, connects with the child and helps her/him go though difficult moment, containing the emotional experience. The parent does get affected by child’s emotion – feels and acknowledges them at a deep emotional level and at a thinking level. The containing parent tries to stay calm in the face of difficult situation. They talk to the baby calmly, rock the baby, and think for the baby, what might be the cause of the upset. This means, that they let the emotion go through their system: not trying to desperately get rid of it, but attempting to experience it without anxiety. With this process, the emotion usually fades away, the baby or child calms enough to eat or sleep, but if the baby doesn’t calm the parent knows it’s more serious – perhaps teething or something else – so the process of containment goes on until the problem is sorted out. This containing approach works at three levels – one to sort out the practical issues; two – to create an understanding within the infant of how to manage their own emotions – learning from the parent; three – the parent develops a greater capacity to care and to find their inner strength and peace.

The ability to contain our own emotions, as well as emotions of our children is in my view the most helpful of all parental ‘tools’. In fact it’s a basis for healthy, mature and caring relationships with all people who are important to us.

Writing this piece, I remembered the moment in my life, when I was held and contained by other person. It was just over a year ago when I was giving birth to my second child. The midwife who assisted me through all long process had a wonderful ability to help me dealing with my emotional experience of labour. She was there, as a gentle touch of reality, in these moments when I was loosing clear judgment. She patiently provided every possible comfort when I thought the pain was never going to end. She stayed composed and calm, what allowed her to make right decisions regarding the process (recommending movement, change of the position, listening to the child’s heartbeat, etc.). I felt emotionally connected to her and I believed, that whatever I experience, I’m in a safe place to feel it and I am going to be supported.

I think this is exactly what small baby, who understands very little of what is going on for him/her, needs when going through difficult time.

 

First published on herfamily.ie

Photo from: http://www.brushtouch.wordpress.com

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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

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