In previous blogs, I have described the way we map out relationship patterns in Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT), noting that babies and toddlers come with extreme roles, with things either being perfect or terrible. Our task as parents is to try and fill in the gap with less extreme roles, as shown on the CAT diagram here:
You can learn more about CAT here (ACAT website) but in this blog I am going to write about the process of developing the roles in the middle. If filling in the middle is so important, how does it happen? How do we work out what to do, or not do, with our children? Well, in a way, it is not so much the “doing with” which is important, it is more the “being with” or “being in relationship with”. For example, even when you appear to be doing nothing, just sitting on a bus together, you could be creating several different relationship roles. You might be listening carefully to what your child would like to buy with their pocket money and commenting on their ideas – practising the roles of “listening and listened to”. You might be sitting in a calm, companionable silence – practising “accepting to accepted”. You might be sitting there producing a running commentary of criticism, such as “I don’t know why you put those awful jeans on, I’m embarrassed to be sitting with you, and don’t think I’m going to buy you any new clothes today either…” in which case you will be developing the roles of “criticising to criticised”. Through every contact with your child, every activity that you do together and every conversation you have with them, you are creating new relationship roles. Think hard about which ones you want to strengthen and practise them a lot. Also, start noticing the ones which are not so healthy, and try and reduce them. I remember when I had my first baby and became aware of my own “critical voice”. I only noticed it through listening to my friend, who was a clinical psychologist and had a baby at the same time as I did. When her baby made a loud noise while she was changing him, instead of saying “be quiet, don’t make such a fuss” which was what I would have said, she said “wow, you’re making a lot of noise today” in a lovely positive voice. I started to try and imitate her, say the kind of things that she would have said, and realised the benefits of responding positively. If you are feeling negatively towards your baby, stressed and irritable, then they are likely to be more irritable and difficult to soothe, this makes you feel even more stressed and it can become a vicious circle. If you can stay calm and be positive, even if they are twitchy, it tends to be easier to settle them and so you start to feel more positive and capable as a parent – a virtuous circle instead.
As your child experiences these relationship patterns they start to internalise them. That means that they are learning the roles as general rules for how relationships are in this family/society/tribe that they have been born into. Since we can learn by example, they are not just learning the child end of the role – being listened to – they are learning at the same time how to listen, what it feels like, what it looks like, the kind of thing that a person says and does when they are truly listening to you. Having had this experience with you, they will know in the future when they are with someone who is truly interested in them and is listening to them. They will seek out those kinds of people to have relationships with and they will not feel so comfortable with people who don’t listen to them. As they grow up into adulthood, they will have the skills to listen to their own thoughts and feelings and use them as useful information when they have to make choices. A child who has not been listened to in this way will never quite know what that feels like, they may be attracted to anyone who seems to give them attention – even if it is not a good kind of attention. They won’t necessarily expect people to listen to them, or feel that they deserve it. They won’t learn to listen to you when you have something important to say!
As you will be realising, this means spending some time with your child, being available at some point in the day to listen and share what has been going on for them. Remember it doesn’t have to be like this all the time, no parent is perfect and we all lead busy lives, but the more quality time that you spend with your child, the better your relationship will be in the longer time. If you cannot be available in this way, because of illness, other demands, work etc, then try to make sure that the person you are leaving your child with has the kind of relationship skills that you want your child to develop. I remember when I was interviewing for a nanny for my children when I was going back to work after my second child. At interview, all the young women I interviewed said all the right things but, since one was going to be a nanny share, I actually spent some informal time with this nanny and the two other children she looked after, so that we could see if the children got on and if it would work. In that informal setting, I realised that she was quite critical of the little boy she was looking after, constantly finding fault with him and teasing him about his unusual interests. I decided to choose a different nanny for my children. This kind of thing may not always be possible, but at least be aware of the relationship style you want, not just who has the best qualifications, the most experience, or says the right things in an interview situation. You could ask them how they get on with their family members, that may give you some better understanding of their relationship patterns.
Learning the relationship skills of being a parent is hard when you have not grown up with repeated experiences of being parented in a healthy, skilful way yourself. In CAT we believe that the roles we learn in childhood are very powerful and they tend to be the roles that we will act out with our own children automatically. The only way we know how to be a parent is by doing what was done with us. On the other hand, some parents deliberately do the opposite. I have had several people in therapy who have had difficult experiences of abuse or neglect as children, but have managed to care for their children in a completely different way. When I asked how they managed that, they often say that they just thought “what would my mum do in that situation” and did the exact opposite. These parents were so worried about being the same kind of parent as their own parent was, that they went to the other extreme. Unfortunately, this can also cause problems, as we shall see later, because the children are still missing out on the middle ground. However, we can learn these skills as adults, in the same way that I learned from my friend to be a less critical parent, by paying attention to the relationships we are building. Once we notice patterns that are unhealthy, or not working well, we can choose a different style of relating. We can start to use our “observing eye” to recognise those patterns for what they are, as they arise – old patterns from the past that are no longer useful. We can watch our friends, or other people who seem to have good relationships with their children. Notice what they do and how their children react. Try to describe this in terms of relationship patterns. For example, if I had to put into words what my friend was in when she spoke so positively to her baby, I would have said something like “enjoying interacting to enjoyed and valued”. If you notice some of these positive relationship roles around you, then write them down in a notebook to practice later.
Over the next few blogposts I will explore the kinds of things that make it so hard to stay in the healthy, middle ground place with your child. If these ideas make sense to you and you are starting to think about what makes it hard for you to stay in the middle, then do get in touch and maybe write a guest blog for me?