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 difficult. Thinking, making good judgments and decisions can be override 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 father for various reasons might not be able to connect with this distressful emotional experience, and blocks the 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 protec themselves from hearing or seeing what’s going on with the child because it’s too painful or too much to deal with.   

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 we undertake for the child. 

3. Containing emotions

The mother/father who 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 emotions. 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 or change of nappy, 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 relations 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 is never going to end. She stayed composed and calm, what allowed her to make right decisions regarding the process. 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                                       

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?