In the previous blog, I explained how your child is learning about relationship roles and starting to be able to play both roles. In this one we will see how they start to relate to themselves using these same roles. As they are learning the healthy middle ground roles, then in some situations, such as at school, they will feel cared for and accept that teachers will set limits on their behaviour. At other times, with peers, they may take on the caring role, but hopefully be able to assert their own limits so that they do not get taken advantage of, giving everything but getting nothing back. In our CAT diagram, they are managing to stay most of the time in the middle ground roles which can be seen in the centre of the circle:
You can learn more about CAT here (ACAT website), but being able to recognise these healthy middle ground roles as familiar, and choosing to spend time with people that also relate like this, will help our child and adolescent to develop a good group of friends. They are less likely to try and create “perfect” friendships where everything is exactly how they want it, and less likely to stay in bullying or abusive relationships. They are also more likely to have mates to turn to if they are upset or worried about something. This is all good for their mental health.
However, there is one more important piece of the puzzle that comes from the young person starting to relate to themselves using these same middle ground roles. This can seem like a strange idea at first, the idea of having a parental relationship with ourselves, but it is present in many of the ways we talk about ourselves. For example we might say:
“I was so angry with myself for making that mistake”
“I felt really proud of myself once I had finished the job”
“I managed to calm myself down”
In these statements, it is clear that there is a more grown up “I” who is relating to a more childlike “me” as if I am my own parent. I think of this as a gradual process that happens as we grow up and internalise the way we are treated. Children have to start to “parent themselves” whenever there is no adult around to do it for them, and they are likely to use the kind of relationships that they have been experiencing. If the main relationships in their lives are characterised by patterns such as “caring to feeling loved”, “understanding to feeling understood” and “setting limits to feeling able to accept limits”, then they are likely to develop a reasonably good relationship with themselves. They will value themselves and have good self esteem, wanting to keep clean and brush their teeth. They will try to understand themselves and be interested in their reactions, perhaps wanting to talk things over with us. Importantly, they will be able to set limits on their behaviour, for example how much they eat, whether they drink alcohol to excess or take drugs. Being a good parent to themselves means that they will be reasonably protected in the world outside their family and we can gradually do less for them as parents because they will be taking more responsibility for themselves.
These roles do not just come from parents, of course, but also from our child’s peers and the wider culture they are growing up in. For example, bullying from other children can be incredibly toxic to a young person’s self esteem, and we worry about those interactions with others. We will probably try and help young people stand up for themselves against the bullies, or move away from those situations. However, the bullying role gets internalised and I have lost count of the times I have said to a young person in therapy that “even though you are not being bullied by anyone else anymore, you have got really skilful at bullying yourself”. These young people are constantly negative about the way they look or the way they behave, even hating themselves. Having a bully inside your head for 24 hours a day is a powerful thing. If the young person starts to realise that they are being horrible to themselves, based on the way they have been treated in the past, it can become possible for them to make a choice to be a bit kinder to themselves. In CAT we might draw it out like this, with the role initially played out between other and self, then being internalised so that it is played out self to self between the “I” part and the “me” part:
Learning to Regulate Emotions
As parents of very young children, we are often in the business of trying to soothe or calm our baby. When the baby has repeated experiences of you being physically present, staying calm and caring, and trying to work out what they need, then they learn what it feels like to be soothed. They will also be learning, from your example, how to do the soothing. and this is how they will eventually learn to care for, and comfort, themselves as they grow. The hope is that they become a kind, compassionate type of “parent” towards themselves, one who can use soothing and comforting as a response to difficult emotions.
If we, as parents, did not have this sort of soothing from those caring for us when we were growing up, we may find it difficult to know how to comfort our child emotionally without actually doing something to solve the problem. Our child being upset or angry may be so distressing that it takes us straight down to the bottom of the diagram, feeling that we must have done something wrong and not been good enough as a parent. In fact, often all we need to do is stay calm and validate our child’s feelings. Validation means acknowledging how they feel and saying that it makes sense. For example, a child not being invited to a birthday party of someone in their class is really upsetting, even if they don’t really like the child and didn’t invite them to their party! Our instinct may be to say “don’t be silly, you don’t even like them” or “well what did you to make them not invite you?”. We are desperately trying to cheer our child up and work out how to correct the situation so it doesn’t happen again, but the message they are likely to hear is “stop feeling upset – it is your own fault”. You can perhaps see how this might be internalised over time, so that they start to call themselves “silly” and blame themselves when they feel left out. A really good book about this kind of validating response is “How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen and Listen so Your Kids Will Talk” (Website for resources).
There is a lot of concern about young people using self harm as a way to cope with difficult feelings at the moment, and in CAT, we would see this as a way of punishing or attacking the self for having feelings that are seen as wrong or dangerous. Although it feels to the young person at the time that it is a useful way to change their mood and feel better, in the long term they are damaging their relationship with themselves. Knowing that your child is harming themselves when they feel bad can cause a parent to panic even more, and again desperately try to make them stop, perhaps getting angry because it “does not make sense”. There are lots of resources available to try and understand self harm and manage it, for example from Young Minds (Young Minds website), but it is also worth trying to think of it as a symptom of the way your child is relating to themselves in that moment. For example, if your child is acting out “punishing to punished” by self harming, then you getting angry is likely to make things even worse. You have both ended up at the bottom of the diagram together. You might want to focus hard on acting out the middle ground roles of comforting and trying to understand (while also setting some limits if you can). In order to do this, you will need to develop an “observing eye” so that you can notice where you are on the diagram, more on this next time…