As parents, we do the most important and rewarding job we will ever do, but also the hardest. Whether baby, school age, or teenage, our children come with no instruction manual and no off-switch. The job of parenting spans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, over many years with no time off and no pay. Some of us are lucky enough to have an informal support network of friends and family, but many have to struggle through on their own. Either way the job of parenting can be demanding and unrelenting at times, and an instruction manual would be very useful. There is lots of advice about parenting which offers practical advice about breast feeding, potty training and discipline, but not many that discuss parenting as a relationship skill. This blog is based on the idea that we can start to create our own ‘instruction manual’ for bringing up our children. This can be done by thinking about the future relationships we want our children to have with us, with the other people in their lives, and with themselves.
In this blog I am using the term ‘parent’ as a short hand for anyone intimately involved in taking care of a child, whether that be a biological parent, step-parent, foster carer or nanny. These ideas apply to all carers, not just biological parents.
In our time growing up we will have learned our relationship skills from our parents. We may have thought our parents were always right and so unconsciously modelled the way we parent on the way they did it (even if we are bringing our children up in a totally different culture where the old style may not work so well). On the other hand, we may be angry and disappointed in the way our parents behaved towards us and be determined to do things differently. We perhaps do the exact opposite of our parents (maybe missing out some of their positive behaviours and throwing the baby out with the bath water).
If we remember that being a parent is about using our relationship skills then we can stand back a little bit and observe the kinds of relationships we are having with our children at the moment. Are we controlling aspects of their behaviour to the point where they may not feel able to make decisions for themselves? Are we trying so hard to be a ‘perfect parent’ that we struggle to say ‘no’ or set limits? Using this perspective we are able to think about the kind of relationships which our children see us engaging in day after day. What kind of example are we setting? Do we encourage our children to stand up for themselves while simultaneously saying nothing about our needs in our own relationships? Do we tell our child that they can push themselves to achieve whatever they want, without striving to achieve our own goals? This process can be described as modelling – where we influence our child’s outlook and behaviour by our own actions, rather than by what we say to them.
This way of looking at how we develop our relationships forms around the central idea that the kind of relationships we experience growing up (with our family, teachers and peers) becomes the template for how we expect relationships to be and shapes our personality and relationship style. The therapy this blog is based on is called Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT for short) which was developed in the 1980’s (ACAT website) . The model is based on early child development which provides an easy way to think about how we as parents may be shaping our children’s personality. I have used CAT therapy with many people who are struggling with their parenting, and have found it a useful tool to help them reflect on the problem patterns and to start to make changes.
The aim of this blog is to encourage you to think about the relationship styles you experienced while you were growing up and how that may be shaping the way you parent. We internalise those early relationship patterns automatically through the relationships we see and experience in our family over many years. That is how people related to each other then and so that is how you expect relationships to be now. Understanding this and becoming observant of our patterns of relating can be enriching, freeing us to see our relationship with our children more objectively. We can then make small changes that result in improved family life. First, let us think about how our children come into the world.
Baby and Toddler States of Mind
I remember when my son was 4 years old. I had told him off about something and he shouted at the top of his voice ‘I am going to destroy this whole house!’ Wow, I thought, where did that come from? Just because things weren’t going exactly how he wanted them to, he was going to destroy everything? Neither I, nor his father had ever said anything like that so he didn’t seem to be copying it from us. Four year olds certainly have some pretty powerful feelings. Several years and many tantrums later, my son is much more mellow. However in working with parents of troubled school age children and teenagers I started to hear similar things:
- ‘She told me that if that girl is not her best friend anymore, then she doesn’t want to play with her ever again’
- ‘Just because I refused to take him out to the pub, he threatened to kill himself’
- ‘When I said she couldn’t go to the concert, she smashed up her TV’
I asked myself if there was something that these parents had not managed to teach their child which meant they were still having extreme reactions like an angry four year old when they got to their teenage years? If so, what was it?
I looked to my therapy training to find an explanation. I came across a way of thinking about a child’s development from day one that seemed to offer some suggestions as to why older children and teenagers might still be responding in this way, and may be stuck at an earlier type of relationship with their parents. If we think about how a baby comes into the world, it is completely dependent on its’ parent. It cannot feed itself, move about or even keep itself at the right temperature without an adult who is constantly checking in to see how things are. The baby also has no way of making sense of the world, talking about exactly what is wrong or comforting itself when the parent doesn’t get it right. To the baby, things are simply right or wrong and wrong is unbearable because the baby is powerless to do anything about it. We could think about babies coming into the world with just two extreme states of mind. For them, things are either ‘perfect-everything as I want it’ or ‘unbearable- the end of the world’. Like all of us, they are trying to ensure their needs are met and doing anything in their power to get back to the state of ‘perfect – everything I want’. They have no middle ground where things can be ‘good enough’.
At first, the only way a baby can get back to the ‘perfect place’ is by crying. The baby will discover that if they scream and cry enough, then eventually their parent or carer will figure out what is wrong and put it right. They will probably get picked up, jiggled around, talked to in a comforting voice, given milk and have their nappy changed. One of these parental behaviours is likely to hit the spot and the baby will be back up in the perfect place. It cannot last though, and eventually something will go wrong and the baby will be thrown back into the ‘unbearable’ place.
Parents tuning in
As a parent, the ability to be in tune with your baby, really engage with them and get to know how they are feeling will be helpful in working out what you need to do to soothe them and get them back up to the top of the diagram (see below). If as a parent, you don’t ‘do feelings’ or have never paid much attention to emotions (perhaps because your parents didn’t value them) this may be very difficult for you. You may keep trying to work out in a logical, rational sense what this baby needs and start to feel angry and frustrated when they do not respond in the way you think they should.
Having a new baby for whom you are totally responsible is a scary thing. I remember gazing at my tiny daughter in the hospital struggling to believe that she could possibly be my responsibility. How could they just send me home with her, what did I know about looking after a baby? Once you get home and you are on your own, the distress that babies express when they are uncomfortable or unhappy can feel extreme and unbearable. As parents we have to try to remind ourselves that whatever the baby is upset about is not the end of the world. Something is just not quite how they want it to be.
If you are someone who is used to being totally in control in your life, becoming a parent means that you suddenly have a little creature who is totally dependent on you, but who does not respond in a logical, rational way to your attempts at control. Sometimes when you have tried everything, and you know that your baby is warm, fed, dry and does not seem ill, you just have to tolerate the crying and say to yourself ‘well I’ve done everything I can think of’. At these times you may have to walk away and just leave your baby to cry, or you may walk around with them in a sling or take them out in the car, hoping they will fall asleep. There will be times throughout your child’s life when the best thing to do may be to walk away and leave them to calm down, but it will never be easy. I think of this as the art of ‘staying in the middle’ of the extreme baby states, a place where you can feel that you have done a good enough job, even if your child is not perfectly happy. In this middle place you are caring and interested in your child’s feelings and state of mind, but you have limits and cannot give them everything they want to keep them in that ‘perfect’ place all the time. As you hold yourself in the middle, they will be starting to learn that there are not just two extreme states and that they can tolerate things being imperfect. More of that next time…
In CAT we like to draw out patterns of relationships so that you can recognise what is happening and choose how to react. We could draw the ways a baby relates and a parent following the the middle way, like this: