Want to know the one secret to parenting?

Want to know the one secret to parenting?

 There’s a fine line between a passionate post, and a rant. I may just be about to cross it. I have visions of trying to invoke the inspirational lilt of a southern Central American pastor, with my congregation giving me several AMENs to encourage me. Not the vision of myself when someone takes the last parent and baby space outside of (insert name of large supermarket) when they blatantly don’t have children!

I’ve been a mother for nearly 14 years, a Psychologist for just one more. Whilst I am sure I have not seen and heard it all, I think I’ve heard enough.

I’ve heard enough parenting advice; enough parenting by an associated method; enough parents describing themselves as said associated parenting method mother or father. It’s a label. And, whilst a label helps others garner a sense of understanding, at the worst labels are divisive: They segregate, and isolate.

I’ve heard enough of parent guilt. Of parents criticising other parents because they make a judgment of that parent based on a snapshot of time, an isolated incident, and without true awareness of context. I’ve heard enough opinions about whether or not parents should work or stay at home, or whether one is preferable over the other.

So, today, I want to make a stand. I want to start to take away the labels, to empower parents to feel more confident about their ability to respond sensitively to their child, and act in their best interests with sensitivity – without the manual. Because the secret is, the best thing that you can do for your relationship with your child, is to understand yourself. It may sound glib, but it’s based on sound clinical research, personal, and clinical, experience.

We bring to any close relationship – friend, partner, or our child – all of our previous experiences of close relationships – unconsciously. Our brains lay neural pathways from an early age about relationships. These pathways are like blueprints for relationships: They teach us what they look like, how to act, what to expect, and how to communicate. Most importantly, they teach us about whether or not communicating our emotions is helpful or unhelpful.

As babies, we are born completely dependent on our caregiver for survival. We are hardwired to develop a relationship with our caregiver to maximise our chances of survival. We have to learn very quickly how to get the best out of our parent, in their particular environment, at that time. Babies learn communication strategies to help with this.

In an ideal world, a baby is born into an environment where the parent is not endangered, is well nourished, and supported. Our parent would be physically and emotionally available for us, responding in a timely and sensitive manner to our communications of need. If we are fortunate enough to experience this, our blueprint will tell us that relationships are supportive, enjoyable, and that they can be relied upon to respond to us whenever we need. We learn that our emotions can be tolerated by others; that they are a helpful compass to understand our situation, and for others to know how best to support us

However, if our own parents’ experience of relationships has taught them that relationships cannot be relied upon for support, they may have come to experience relationships as stressful, and difficult to understand. As a result, our parents’ experiences of emotions may be overwhelming, because they have served little use for them within their relationships. In this environment, parents may find our communications as babies difficult to understand, and overwhelming to hear.

If parents are able to understand and sensitively respond on some occasions but not others, babies learn to maximize their communication of distress because, let’s face it, the law of averages means that if we ask more often, the parent will respond more often. If, on the other hand, our parent finds it impossible to understand our communications and overwhelming to hear our distress, so that they rarely respond sensitively, we learn as babies to reduce our requests, and shut down our emotional responses. We learn that the way to get the best out of our parent is to be ‘good’: undemanding, quiet, and cute.

Now I realize that whilst reading this, you may all be feeling that perhaps ignorance is bliss right? Five minutes ago, before you knew this, you may not even have considered that your experience of previous relationships could influence your parenting.

This runs the danger of being like a potentially red bank balance that you feel helpless to do anything about, so why even bother to open the statement, right? Well, no.

There is one thing that you can do that could improve all your relationships, especially the relationship with yourself as a parent: Understand yourself.

Clinical research tells us that without a significant environment change (and following a set behavioural parenting method does not constitute environmental change) our relationship or ‘attachment’ style stays globally stable. However, our brains remain flexible right the way through our adult life. There are two ways in which we can modify our expectations of relationships:

  • Experience being in a relationship with someone who is consistently available for you, and is sensitive to your emotions in times of stress
  • Explore how your own experiences of relationships have impacted on yourself, your values, your choices, the way you deal with things for better and for worse – you’ll find a great exercise to help you with this in our toolkit here

Being able to create a coherent story of your relationship experiences and the value and impact they have had on your life, for better and worse, can help you to remain more mindful and empathic about other people’s potential experiences, including your baby’s.

This is the secret to parenting: Whether big or small, tiny or tall, tantrum or teenager (or both) being able to put yourself in their shoes, understand what their experience might be, and help to digest, contain, and surround it in a way that makes it easier for them. This is the only thing you’ll ever need to know.

We do all still need support though. But the support should be a listening ear. Someone who will share your ups and downs, and empathise because they did a similar thing last Tuesday. Not give you advice that leaves you feeling guilty because you didn’t follow it ‘that night when it was all too much’ (you’ll find a great community here)

There’s two small words that most of the parent-coaching world seems to have forgotten to say very loudly and repeatedly: ‘Good enough’. It means that parenting is not about avoiding the pitfalls and protecting your children from the slightest distress or frustration. It’s about recognizing that sometimes things go wrong, and that’s ok too. Helping our children experience and cope with distress is actually what makes them more resilient for the future.

I realise in the course of writing this blog, my tone has become less of a rant and a more contained quieter demonstration. Less of the Pastor, and more of the speaker at the WI meeting. I could frame this as my emotional regulation kicking in and getting down from my high horse. But, I’d also like to think that I’ve recognized that my congregation may be the friends I haven’t yet met. The community of parents that is now more possible, since we abandoned labels five minutes ago, and that maybe I don’t need to shout anymore to get my point across.

Perhaps you could help to share to get the point across!

What is maternal instinct, anyway?

 Maternal instinct. It’s a term that I hear a lot. It’s something that ‘kicks in’ apparently. Which to me suggests that it lies dormant at other times in our life, waiting only for the moment when we have a child in our arms. Even the term “instinct” suggests a genetic trait: something already programmed and predetermined before birth.

Apologies to the dads reading this; It is a shame that there is not an equally popular ‘paternal instinct’ phrase, but it does exist, so read on!

Maternal instinct is intended to refer to the sense of gravitational pull a mother feels to her child, and her child’s welfare. It is often relied upon to ensure the safety and security of a child: because the maternal ‘instinct’ will immutably drive the mother to respond to their child’s needs.

However, i’m not convinced there is a Gene for maternal instinct. Our ‘instinct’ to respond to our baby’s needs is essentially shaped by a number of factors: It comes from the interaction between our temperament, our experiences of early relationships with caregivers, and our neurochemical environment in that moment.

I won’t go into significant detail here, but the interplay between early experiences and brain development, actually impacts on our neurotransmitters. In an ideal environment, labour, birth, and ensuing milk production is associated with increased levels of Oxytocin release. This feel-good chemical helps to establish maternal and paternal bonding behaviour (As dad’s spend more time with their babies, they too release increased levels of oxytocin, and become better at understanding their baby’s communications –  see here). However, difficult experiences of early relationships can result in unusually altered responses to stress and cortisol, and this could impact on how effective Oxytocin can be in producing the right levels of homeostasis needed to promote parental bonding.

So what happens if you are a parent who has had difficult experiences of early relationships? or you feel depressed or anxious after your baby is born?  you may have the experience that it becomes hard to trust your instincts.

Does that mean your only option is to rely on other people’s advice to raise your child?

I don’t believe so, and neither does the research.

Overwhelming research reports that It isn’t what happens to us that determines how we will feel as a parent, it’s how we make sense of and understand what happens to us that it is most important. Understanding our own experiences can really help us to understand – and empathise – with other people’s experiences, including our baby’s.  Being able to integrate and make sense of our experiences provides us with a greater awareness and understanding of our feelings in situations. This increased awareness allows us to be more conscious in how we respond, and this can actually help to build new neural pathways. Read more on this here

So perhaps with all this increased awareness, we might also start to recognise the many strengths that we have developed throughout all of life’s up and downs. Couldn’t they also be useful?

it is important to recognise not only the things we find challenging, but also the strengths that we have developed throughout our life, in coping with difficult challenges. Unfortunately, it seems our parenting culture has developed a discourse that maternal ‘instinct’ is a natural and immutable thing. Therefore, an instinct that does not necessarily improve our parental behaviour is seen as unnatural.  As a result, i think parents find it hard to seek support, and harder still to recognise and use the strengths that they have in order to help with parenting.

I am a strong advocate for what could be called ‘instinctive parenting’: The idea that you follow the feelings and drives that your baby’s communications and needs raise in you, in order to parent effectively and build a good relationship with your child. I’m also a strong believer that even if your own experiences and feelings seem to produce confusion in your ‘instinct’, it is possible to build that good relationship through understanding, awareness, playing to your strengths and having support.

The transition to parenthood is one of the biggest transitions we make in our adult lives. It is thought that significant transitions are times when significant change and development can occur. Perhaps if we were all a little more aware of what our ‘instinct’ actually looked like, we would have greater opportunity to also increase our understanding and awareness of how our ‘instinct’ developed, what our likely challenges could be, and – most importantly – what our strengths are.

So rather than me having to use the term ‘instinct’ (in annoying inverted commas) perhaps we could start to call it understanding parenting? now suddenly it’s a descriptor rather than a diagnosis or method, and maybe this could help us all to move away from the idea that there is any set way of parenting. If you want to learn more about what your own ‘instinct’ (sorry) or understanding is, click here

Why Attachment Theory is not Attachment Parenting…

Ok so you may be wondering what all the fuss is about Attachment Theory?

If you’ve heard anything about attachment, it may be the controversial arguments about attachment as a parenting practice. Well, the theory is much broader: There is really good clinical evidence to demonstrate how pivotal Attachment Theory is in explaining the neuropsychological development of social and emotional intelligence in our children.

Social and emotional intelligence is fundamentally what underpins our happiness. We live in a culture defined and understood by our relationships with other people. Our ability to trust and rely on these relationships, and have the emotional intelligence to understand other people’s feelings, impacts on our mood, self-esteem, and how we cope with challenges. Ask any business  leader and they will probably agree, our ability to communicate is also fundamental to the achievement of traditional success.

Now ask yourself: If you could choose anything for your child to experience, what would it be?

Health? wealth? happiness? all three? Well i would go so far as to say that Attachment Theory could explain how all three could be considered linked.

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Babies are born into the world completely dependent on their caregiver. They cannot independently find food or shelter. Their only chance of survival is to gain maximal care and proximity from their caregiver.

As a result babies’ brains are tuned into developing relationships with their caregivers: Research shows that babies demonstrate a preference for images of faces, over any other image.

As caregivers, our own neurotransmitter systems are also set up to release and receive chemical messages that promote feelings of affection and bonding behaviour with our babies. Together, the expectation is that a caregiver will feel love and affection for their baby and work hard to protect and nurture them in the best way.

Sometimes, environmental – and neurochemical – factors interrupt this process, and caregivers can find themselves struggling to feel an affectional bond developing between themselves and their baby. As a result, babies develop strategies (referred to as insecure attachment strategies) to either minimise their distress and communications, or intensify their distress and communication, to try and improve the opportunities for the caregiver to sensitively respond.

This is the important bit: ‘Insecure’ attachment strategies are not ‘wrong’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘pathological’: They are adaptive. They represent the communication style that exists between that parent-infant duo. It’s this ‘style’ that helps them to maintain a relationship with each other.

The pathways or ‘roads’ of experience that develop in our babies’ brains come to represent a kind of template or understanding and expectation of other relationships. In this sense, early sensitive caregiving is likely to lead a baby to expect that all relationships with adults can be trusted to be reliable and available when needed. As a result, these babies are more likely to develop into children who are more able to explore with confidence, and not need the physical closeness of their caregiver as much. This confident exploration gives children abundant opportunities for new experiences. New experiences lead to new pathways, and a wider network of cognitive connections.

Although insecure attachment is adaptive, the effort that goes into maintaining a relationship under difficult environmental and neurochemical circumstances, means that these infants can often develop into children who are either more concerned with the physical closeness of their caregiver, or who have dampened their outward need for connection and caregiving in order to maintain their relationship.  Both of these styles are likely to lead to less interested exploration in what the outside world has to offer, and therefore less value for new experiences, and ultimately less developed cognitive connections.

Without any change in environmental circumstances, our attachment style remains stable into our adult life, and also predicts what we come to expect from our relationship with a romantic partner. If you struggle to trust in the availability of this relationship, it is more likely that you will find it difficult to communicate your feelings in a way that can be easily responded to. It is also likely that your attachment style will continue to impact on your relationship with your baby. This is often how attachment styles can be continued across the generations.

The good news?

No matter what your attachment style (or PP badge), overwhelming research evidence has found that it is not the experiences that have happened in someone’s life that predicts their attachment style, but how they have made sense of them.

There is good evidence to believe that there are different types of secure attachment: Secure attachment that has resulted from sensitive and responsive caregiving; and ‘earned’ security, which has resulted from someone who has been able to create meaning in their experience: They can understand the impact that it has had on their development, and hold a balanced (good and bad) viewpoint about it. This understanding actually encourages the brain to hold greater connections across both brain hemispheres. It is thought that greater connections between the two sides, helps to aid the processing of new situations and relationships, and foster a greater sense of empathy and understanding for how others may be thinking and feeling. In turn we find greater emotional connection with others, including our own children.

Narrative research (research about how people story their lives) has been developing these ideas into many therapeutic techniques that focus on helping adults and children tell stories about their experiences. In turn, they are able to make sense of these experiences in their wider understanding of themselves and others.

If there was only one thing that you could do to try and safeguard your child’s future happiness, then i would suggest that you spend some time reflecting on how your own life experiences have impacted on who you are today – with both strengths and challenges – and how this impacts on your expression of feelings and needs, and your sense of connection with others around you.

If you’d like to find some extra support with this, come and explore here