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!