In my last blog, I described how the way your baby, or older child reacts to an event, has an impact on your own feelings. It can feel as if we only have two emotional states as a parent. Either we are a “perfect parent” with a good, happy baby, or we are a “rubbish parent” if our baby is angry or unhappy. In this way, we are being pulled from one extreme position of the diagram to the other, with not much middle ground. In CAT therapy, we draw out the patterns like this:
You can read more about CAT here (ACAT website) and find out how this pressure to respond with the role that matches your child’s role, is sometimes called the pressure to “join the dance”. If you think about it, every interaction we have with another person, has an expected response. If I come up to you and put out my arms for a hug, there is a strong social pressure for you to hug me back. This can be uncomfortable for those of us that do not like hugging virtual strangers! We are being invited into the “greeting with a hug” dance. If we do not hug back, if we keep our distance and our arms firmly crossed, the other person will have a moment of discomfort and feel a bit confused, perhaps a bit rejected. Something odd has happened, and they will be pushed to think about it, as you have not “joined the dance”. One powerful dance that we are invited to join as parents is the dance of “Giving everything without limits” to “getting everything I want”. If we set a limit or say no to our child, we are not joining the dance that they expect and there will be a difficult moment. They might try harder, begging, asking again and again until they wear you down and give in. They might try asking their other parent, if they know that they are less likely to hold the line, and this can lead to parents arguing or feeling undermined. Often, the limit setting will lead to a switch into a different dance, the one of “Rejecting” to “rejected”.
In CAT we believe that children are not just learning how it feels to be the child in these relationship experiences with their parent, they are also learning from us how to play the parent role. This can be seen most obviously when they are playing at “schools” or “families”. Very early on, my children were able to play a pretty convincing parent with their friends or toys as the children. If you think about it, this gives us immediate feedback about the kind of relationship roles that our children are learning and taking in to themselves as part of their personality. They are developing a kind of toolbox of relationship roles. This will give them ways of responding to all kinds of new people they meet in the future. If someone is kind to them, they will enjoy that familiar feeling and will know how to be kind and caring back. If someone is mean to them, they will recognise that role and may well be mean back. Take a moment to notice which roles are being acted out in your child’s play – you may want to join in the game and introduce some kinder, more middle ground roles if things get too heated.
Perhaps the most difficult experience as a parent, is when negative roles are played back to us. Thinking about the toddler who says “I hate you” when his parent does not let him have a biscuit just before lunch, for example, that toddler has switched roles and taken on the “rejecting parent role” as if you are now in the child role. On a bad day, if you are tired or stressed, it can be tempting to say “well I hate you too” and so the two of you can end up stuck down at the bottom of the diagram. Rather than giving the middle ground message that “people can be angry if they don’t get what they want, but they can still love each other”, you are giving the message that “we hate each other”. This can be a really scary message for a child, as his whole sense of safety and security depends on you. He needs to know that he can get angry with you, but you can survive it and stick to the limits that you have set. As the saying goes “it takes two to Tango” and if you calmly refuse to join your child in the extremes of the diagram, as time goes on, they are likely to change their behaviour and join you in the middle.
It is fairly easy to say to yourself that a toddler “doesn’t really mean it” when he says “I hate you” or tries to hit or bite you. We know that toddlers don’t really understand the consequences of what they say, or know that it is not OK to hurt people. We are usually bigger and stronger than them and we can hold them safely or put them into a time out corner. It gets much harder when an older child or teenager does it. If we haven’t helped them to fill in the middle ground by holding ourselves there most of the time, then we can end up with a very big “toddler” who is angry and wants to reject and punish us for not giving in to them. This can be scary for us as parents if the child is now bigger or stronger than we are. Ending up down in the bottom of the diagram together repeatedly, starts to destroy the good will in your relationship with your child. You may start to believe that they really do hate you and that makes it hard to forgive them when they are being nice later and trying to repair the relationship with you. You might need help from a parent support worker or therapist if you are finding yourself stuck down at the bottom of the diagram too much of the time.
Turning things around
The good news is that all the positive roles from the middle ground that your child experiences with you will be available to be played right back at you too. I was surprised when I first noticed my son comforting me, when he was around 8 years old. A friend had invited two other friends over for a sleepover, but left my son out – I was upset and angry on his behalf but he was able to say “don’t worry mum, I’ve been to his house for sleepovers loads of times and the other two haven’t”. At that moment, he was able to be more grown up and more “in the middle ground” than I was – able to reassure me that this was not such a terrible tragedy, just a part of life. Pretty embarrassing when your 8 year old is more mature than you are, although I took pride in the fact that he must have learned that ability to comfort and reassure from me! All this switching of roles means that the diagram doesn’t have to be labelled with parent roles or child roles anymore, we can all play all of the roles so it can look more like this: