In blogposts 1 to 5, I describe how our children arrive with extreme roles and reactions and how, as parents, we have to try to develop their healthier, middle ground roles through the way we relate to them. It is not easy to stay in these middle ground roles and it is useful to have an “observing eye” on your own parenting, so that you can notice if you start to play out the more extreme roles with them. This is likely to make things worse. In CAT, we try and draw out relationship patterns in a diagram like this:
You can learn more about cognitive analytic therapy here (ACAT website), but I have been thinking this weekend about how we encourage our children to gradually separate from us and become independent. OK, it is probably no surprise that I am thinking about this subject, as I am suffering from “Empty Nest Syndrome” right now. This is the first New Year’s Eve when both my children have gone off to parties elsewhere without us and they don’t even need a lift home. Of course, this is what we are all working towards as parents, and we celebrate every small move towards independence when our children are tiny – their first word, their first steps, but it can feel more difficult when the development means that we are no longer needed. I remember the sudden shift from my son wanting me to walk into school with him, to him wanting to go on his own. This became painfully obvious when he turned to me and said “why are you following me?” as if I was a stranger stalking him into school. Part of being a good parent is to help our children start to do things more independently, not needing us so much, but we also need to be able to cope with these developments without feeling hurt and rejected. If them moving on and becoming independent makes us feel unwanted and rejected, we are likely to end up down at the bottom of the CAT diagram. We may instinctively react with anger and rejection ourselves, for example I might have said to my son something like “right, that’s it then if you think you are so grown up, you can get yourself to school on your own in future.” This may be an appropriate development for him, but I would have made it sound like a punishment, as if he should not be trying to be more independent. The message would have been that I cannot cope with the upset feelings that he is growing up and does not need me anymore. The healthy middle ground includes encouraging your child to develop independence and being able to continue to celebrate as your child gains the confidence to move away and explore the world without you. We could add these roles to the middle ground place like this:
Learning to Encourage independence, building confidence
Encouragement is one of the things that can keep us going when the going gets tough, and the ability to encourage ourselves gives us the confidence to take risks and try something new. None of us need encouragement to do the things that we are familiar with and that we love doing, those things come naturally. I would much rather be sitting reading a book than trying to write this blog but I have said to myself “just do an hour of writing then you can read, you’ll enjoy it once you get started”. In CAT we would see this ability to encourage ourselves as something we have learnt from repeated experiences of being encouraged by adults while we were growing up. Remember how experiences are internalised and become the way we parent ourselves? Being told calmly and kindly that “You can do it, have a go, make a start and you can ask for help you if you need it” will form part of the way your child talks to themselves when they are learning something new. It helps to make sure that the task your child is going to try is about the right level for them to do on their own. For example, showing them how to make a cake and then telling them to try and do it all on their own will not work, it is too big a jump. You need to be aiming at the next small step from what they have already managed to do with you, so you might be making the cake together, but they will be in charge of adding the ingredients once you have weighed them out. Next time, you might give them the responsibility of weighing out the flour, or cracking the eggs. Gradually, they will be able to put the steps together and do their own baking. It is also important not to get too critical when things are not done perfectly. If you lose your temper when half the flour ends up on the worktop, or the cake mix contains more shell than egg, then you and your child will be down near the bottom of the CAT diagram in the roles of “angry and critical to not good enough”. This is likely to be upsetting for both of you and to give your child the message that they are just no good at baking. Over time, they will stop wanting to help and may develop a firm belief that they cannot cook. In the long run, you will miss out on having cakes made for you, and they will struggle once they leave home and have to think about cooking for themselves. Try to stay in the middle ground encouraging role and say something like “well done for trying, but I think we need to practice that step a few more times”.
Validating the Fear of Trying New Things
One of the key things about encouraging others to do something new is to acknowledge the feelings they have that the task feels scary, too difficult, or too unpleasant, for them to want to do it. We are often tempted to say “Don’t be silly, it’s easy, don’t make such a fuss”, but this is not really very encouraging – it tends to feel more like criticism. We need to acknowledge that the new task, for your child, really is tough, difficult, and scary, but you have confidence that they can manage it. Through your confidence in them, they will start to have confidence in themselves, they will be able to say to themselves “OK that looks tough, but I will have a go”.
Setting an Example
Encouraging independence and separation will be difficult if we ourselves are fearful of the outside world or scared to try anything new. Most people want their children to be confident and independent, saying all the right things but not always modelling it themselves. Try to notice how you react to change or new situations and what message you are giving your children. Setting a good example does not mean pretending that you are not scared of anything, that might set your child up with a hard act to follow – feeling that they must never show feelings of fear. You might be passing on the message that feeling anxious about something is weak. Try to show them that you can acknowledge the fear and yet do it anyway, perhaps saying out loud the kind of things that you are using to encourage yourself so that your children can see you deliberately encouraging yourself to take a risk. Hearing you say something like “I am a bit worried about this new job but I am sure that it will be fine once I have got used to it” is giving them the message that it is OK to feel anxious, but that it can be managed. There is a famous quote from Nelson Mandela who said that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not the one who does not feel afraid, but the one who conquers that fear.”