In my previous blogs I have described a way of mapping out how our children relate to us and the pushes and pulls of life as a parent. In this one I will try to describe how you can use the CAT diagram, to make sense of difficult moments with your child. In CAT, we think about this as developing an “observing eye” and we draw it onto our diagrams like this:
You can read more about CAT here (ACAT website), but one of the key features of this type of therapy is creating a visual map of a problem so that you can learn to recognise patterns. It is really hard to change something if you don’t even notice it until after the event. How many times do we end up making threats or promises to our child in the heat of the moment, and then regretting it later? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a “pause” button or the ability to “rewind” and run the interaction again, to be able to stand back from the situation and think calmly about how we want it to go. This can be much easier to do when someone else, such as your partner, is making a mess of things, we are not so emotionally involved so we can see the pitfalls. We may even be tempted to give them an angry lecture about how they could have handled it better. This is like watching a quiz programme on the TV and being able to answer all the questions in the comfort of your own home. The poor person in the studio is having to cope with the anxiety of the millions watching at home and that makes it much harder to think. When we have powerful emotions stirred up and we cannot think about things, we tend to react according to the emotions. This can make us say or do things which we would not normally say or do in a calmer situation. The idea of using the CAT diagram to think about what happened is a bit like watching a rerun of a quiz programme we were involved in. The anxiety is no longer so high and we can reflect on what happened and what we should have done. It is the next best thing to having a “pause” button. If you try to do it regularly, you may start to recognise typical patterns and eventually be able to spot them as they are happening. Once you can do this, then it is possible to create your own “pause” such as saying to your child something like “hang on, we need to calm down and think this through”. If you can contain your feelings and get back to thinking, you may be able to make a different choice which sits more firmly in the middle ground. Over time, you may start to see the pattern even before it happens and be able to change direction before things get too emotional.
A compassionate inner parental voice
As you are trying to get better at noticing these patterns, try not to judge yourself too harshly, make sure that your “observing eye” is a compassionate one. In this way, you are developing a compassionate inner parental voice for yourself. Even if you didn’t manage to stay in the middle ground with your child, make sure you stay in the middle ground with your self. We tend to judge our parenting, according to how our child reacts. If they seem happy then we must have “got it right” while if they appear distraught and burst into tears, or if they get incredibly angry, we may doubt the decision we have made or the limit we have set. But remember that we are aiming for long term happiness in building their relationship skills, not just the quick fix of them getting what they want right now. A toddler having a tantrum because you would not buy them chocolate is on a learning curve working out what is allowed. However upset they are, it actually means their parent is teaching them about appropriate limits. Using the diagram can help you judge whether the choice you made was good enough, regardless of how your child reacts – remember children are designed to do anything to try to get back up to the top of the diagram in order to get what they want.
Perhaps more important questions to ask ourselves are:
Did I do what a good enough parent does and stay in the middle ground?
Did I keep calm and talk respectfully to them?
Did I listen to their point of view and acknowledge their feelings but still state my opinion or expectations?
Did I set a limit and explain it?
We will think about all of these skills in more detail in later blogposts. However, if something did not go well, don’t beat yourself up, or tell yourself that you are a useless parent. Try to be more comforting and encouraging, say to yourself “Well at least you are trying to improve” and “At least you recognised the problem and that is the first step to changing”. Be a “good enough parent” towards yourself.
Mapping the Moment
If you have a difficult interaction with your child, have a look at the diagram and take some time to map out the way you and your child related to each other. Walk your way around the diagram and see how things played out. What methods did your child use to get their needs met and get up to the top of the diagram? How did that make you feel? How did they react if they did not get what they wanted? What roles did you get into? How skilful were you at staying in the middle? You may want to add some more specific words of your own to describe how you felt or what you did.
Perhaps an example will help. I have one from my relationship with my son, now 17 years old, from just a few weeks ago. It was early morning, and just before setting off for school he asked me “mum, didn’t you wash my rugby kit?” in a somewhat critical tone of voice. This kind of thing puts me right down at the bottom of the diagram every time. Having always been a working mother, I constantly feel that I am not as good as other parents who are at home and more available to bake cakes, make costumes for plays etc. I am always doing things at the last minute in a panic. For a moment, I was critical of myself, thinking “I bet all his friends have a lovely clean kit to take to school, because their mothers are keeping track of when it is needed” – this is me, down at the bottom of the diagram, being critical of myself (self to self). Then, for a moment, I switched roles and thought “wait a minute, I am not a mind reader, he should have told me it needed washing” – this is me, down at the bottom of the diagram, being critical of him (self to other). Somehow, I managed not to say any of that. Instead, I was able to stay calm and find a middle ground type of response, which was “well no, sorry, I did not know it needed washing. I can put it on now but it won’t be ready for a while”. My son met me in the middle with “OK, don’t worry, I can come home and pick it up at lunchtime”. Wow, did you see that? We managed an adult to adult, reasonable compromise, the problem was solved and we both felt pretty good about the way we handled it. This is not always possible of course, but it feels rewarding when it happens.
Later on, my daughter waded in with “I can’t believe you let him get away with that. He is 17 and he should be doing his own washing”. So back down to the bottom of the diagram I go, not having taught my son to do his own washing makes me feel like a bad mother….and the struggle to get back to the middle ground starts again.