Parenting in bad times

It can be easy to parent during good times when you can be the parent you imagined yourself to be with the resources you need to help you do that. Today I talked with a parent who is going through the worst of times and it is often at those times that parents feel they can’t make things better for their children.

Sometimes parents don’t talk about things, or hide their feelings or make up stories about events to make them seem better or feel better. Sometimes parents don’t tell their children about changes that are coming because they don’t want to worry them and want to protect them. Sometimes parents tell their children lies because the truth of things is too unbearable.

If you are having a difficult time and feel yourself starting to make up stories or conceal facts or give complicated analogies with fictitious characters or hide your feelings perhaps ask yourself if you are doing this to protect your child or to protect yourself?

The thing is children don’t do well with untruths of any sort and they don’t do well with things being hidden. Children do well with truth, congruence and transparency. There is a balance to be struck between giving children information they can’t understand and that is harmful for them and giving them enough truth so they can process their lives and make sense of their own feelings, and getting that balance is the tricky part.

Spend time working out how you will talk about it, not how you will tell them, there is a difference. Think about how you will give them the facts in a way they can understand. Tell them as soon as you know, don’t hold secrets in your family because secrets cause problems. For the most part it is ok for children to see their parents cry occasionally as long as they also see their parents recover.

Think about what your child is witnessing, what they are learning from this life experience. If you can show them that sometimes life presents a curve ball, that sometimes there are tragic, sad or unexplained events but they can remain in one piece through it then a valuable lesson for them has taken place. Remember that a child will often blame themselves first so make sure your child knows they are not to blame and make your focus how you can support your child to continue to feel safe and loved in difficult times. And as always talk but most importantly listen.

A photo unpicked with Movement Analysis and Child Development Theory

I had to share this picture with you all this morning because it is a very interesting example of how parents ‘hold’ their children with their bodies. At first look we see a Dad with his son on a children’s ride. The child is screaming and the Dad has had enough. We might read into it and see the Dad has his head turned away while the child has his head reaching up to his dad and we could interpret that as the dad turning away from his son in his moment of distress. We can all identify with the dads feelings of exasperation and unhappiness. But I think there is something much more supportive, holding and guiding going on here.

Lets look at the body shaping and read into it a little more. The child is mid-scream, he is exhaling, his mouth is open and he is letting rip, he is opening his body into his distress with his chest pointed outwards. His head is tilted back where he has let go and allowing himself to really go into his feeling state. His eyes are closed because he is lost in his feelings but also to protect himself from taking in any more information. Interestingly he is still holding onto the rail so he has the capacity to hold himself together while partly lost in very strong emotion. The child is showing through his body shaping that he can lose it and hold it at the same time which demonstrates a good capacity for emotional regulation. He is not slumped down in the chair, he is not thrashing around, he is holding himself in the chair while opening his body out and letting himself feel his distress. He is reaching out to his Dad with his scream, he is giving his Dad his scream to contain, but he is holding onto the ride and himself.

The Dad meanwhile looks as if he is holding his breath or at least his breathing is shallow as his chest is flattened out. He is automatically self-soothing by breathing onto his finger which may help him regulate his breathing. The most interesting part of his body shaping in relationship to his sons is how he has pinched his own lips together. This may be an extension of him self soothing, it may be his way of keeping his own scream in. I am interested in it though for the non-verbal message it sends his son, it says ‘close your lips’. The Dad has his hand on his sons thigh, holding him and letting him know his Dad is there but interestingly the dad also has his arm placed behind the child not across the child’s body and in this way he is leaving most of the child’s body open to the experience rather than blocking it with his arm. In this way the dad seems to be allowing the child to stay with the ride rather than protecting him from it entirely and this communicates he trusts his child to manage his feelings and stay safe.

The Dad is guiding his son in how to regulate his emotions while also sending the strong guiding message that he would prefer if his son stopped screaming with the held lip. The Dad and his son are also mirroring with their bodies with the same head turn, body shaping and movement quality. Mirroring is something that begins in the earliest hours of life between a parent and a child and is the earliest form of communication between babies and their parents/significant people. Mirroring doesn’t just happen from nowhere, it has always been built on over time and demonstrates a healthy attachment.

I think rather than show a dad who is turning away from his son in distress I think this picture demonstrates a moment of good parental function. To support your child where they are (the hand on the thigh) to allow your child to take risks and be in the world (the arm behind the body not infront), to look after yourself while you manage your child’s strong feelings (the breathing on the finger, the head turned to take time out and the flattened chest to momentarily suppress emotion). To teach your child to hold themselves while they are having strong feelings (the hand on the railing and the staying in the seat), to remind your child that you have always been there and will continue to be, that your attachment can always be relied on (the mirroring).

This picture is of course just a moment in time and we don’t know what happened before or after it but what it does tell us is how this Dad and son relate. The body shaping tells us they have always related in this way because the body shows how things have always been, it is the way we most congruently communicate our histories and our present, our relationship to ourselves and how we have been related to in the past from our very earliest relationship moments with our parent/s.

Do we talk enough about children’s mental health?

It seems we are all getting more comfortable talking about adult mental health and of course this is great. However, do we talk enough about children’s mental health?  It seems we often talk about children being resilient. bouncing back, things being just a phase, in other words we don’t always seem to take children’s emotional pain and distress as seriously as we do adults. When children have experienced a trauma or a loss we often expect them to recover quicker than we would expect for ourselves.

Perhaps part of the difficulty with talking about children’s mental health is shame. As adults we can just about bear it if we are not good at our jobs, or if we make difficult partners, or if we struggle socially or financially, but to ‘fail’ as a parent is unbearable. The truth is children’s emotional or mental health is always determined by a range of factors the same as with adults, and no parent is failing or succeeding. The parent/child relationship is the same as any other relationship, it is a dynamic and sometimes it is comfortable and other times it feels challenging. There is great pressure on parents to provide endless exciting experiences for their children while at the same time being continually emotionally available and often these two expectations are at odds. We expect ourselves to be perfect parents, to get it ‘right’ all the time when really the best anyone can really aim for is to be good enough  and there are times we all fall short of that too.  A child does not need a ‘perfect’ parent, that doesn’t set up anything terribly useful either inside the child or in their expectations about the world around them.

When a child is suffering emotionally parents often blame themselves and this sometimes prevents parents from seeking help and advocating for their child’s needs. Parents often fear being judged because they are judging themselves enough as it is and it is a painful place to be. The first step in seeking help for your child is to be kind to yourself and then gain more objectivity. So we need to use the same parameters when we think about our children’s emotional and mental health as we do for our own. Are the difficulties getting in the way of your child’s normal every day life? Are the difficulties impacting on their self-image and feelings of self-worth? Is your child’s education being affected? Can your child still maintain their friendships? Is your child having difficulty sleeping or eating or both? Does your child complain of tummy aches and headaches with no real cause? Is your child withdrawing from the things they worry about? These are the signifiers we would look for in adults and when thinking about our children’s emotional needs, we need to think in similar terms.

Feelings of shame and self-blame can prevent us from talking and seeking help and children rely on adults to communicate all their health needs for them. Children aren’t always good at articulating how they feel with words so they rely on their important adults to speak for them and that is why we need to keep talking about children’s emotional and mental health.

How will the 6 Week Child Change help my baby to sleep?

How will the 6 Week Child Change help your baby to sleep? Over the 6 weeks you and your baby will have a 50 minute appointment with me once a week at my peaceful consulting room in the center of Bradford on Avon. Consulting space

During the 6 weeks, using infant observation, movement analysis, developmental theories, what you tell me, and 10 years clinical experience working with babies, children and families, I will get to know your baby. Your baby will tell me how they feel and their life experiences up to now through the way he or she moves, how they feel in their body, how they feed, how they sleep, how they interact with you and how they play. Working with you I will get to know your hopes for your baby’s sleep and we will follow your instinct. There will be a reason why your baby is having trouble sleeping and over the 6 weeks I will get to what that problem is, this usually happens within the first 2 weeks and the following weeks are about resolving things and finding ways of approaching sleep that work well for your baby.

Over the 6 weeks I will create a dynamic plan for you and your baby that you will follow at home in between sessions. It will be specifically made just for you and your baby and we will review and update it during sessions to respond to your baby’s changes over the 6 weeks. After every weekly session you will receive a written summary of what has happened and will be given advice to follow during the week to keep supporting your baby to sleep well.

Importantly, your weekly sessions will provide your baby a space to begin to resolve what the problem is and I will work with you and your baby in doing that. During the sessions we will talk, play, perhaps use props, maybe music and sound. It doesn’t matter if your baby needs to feed during the session and it doesn’t matter if your baby sleeps during the session, this all provides me with rich information about how your baby feels and what they want. So during the weekly sessions we will be working together on what the problem is while following and creating a plan to put the learning into practice.

Then there is the support for you. You can add on support packages for any transitional nights or additional support if you feel you need it. I will work with you to follow your instinct and encourage you to know that you can give your baby exactly what they need to help them find sleep easier.

With the 6 Week Child Change you are working with a professional with a wide range of expertise and this matters because sometimes there are surrounding issues that need unpicking too. For example, you may realise your baby started having difficulty with sleeping after a disruption in feeding and so you need a professional who will work with you on feeding too. Or perhaps you may wonder if a traumatic birth has impacted on your baby and so you need a therapist who can work with trauma as well as sleep.

Sometimes parents worry about what I will think about the routines and methods they have developed with their baby in a bid to get them to sleep. Over 10 years I have heard pretty much everything and I know how desperate parents get when they are sleep deprived. By the time parents come to me they have had many miserable weeks, months or sometimes years. So don’t let what has already happened get in the way of what can happen next, everyone can have a fresh start in life, even a small baby!

If you are interested in finding out more and are worried about your baby’s sleep please get in touch for a free consultation. If you don’t live anywhere near Bradford on Avon, don’t worry there are ways around this so please do still get in touch.

Is creative play a tick box exercise?

I have noticed a flood of new products on the market which offer packaged creative projects for parents and children. Have you noticed these? They are complete projects with the crafts and materials all included in the pack. Sounds like a good idea? Everything you need in one place? An easy to get hold of activity to do with your child that ticks the box of creative play? I saw a workbook advertised today to ‘calm the chaos’ it offers a place to work through your child’s worries with them in a methodical format, all written down together, and it offers a place to ‘observe your child’.

To be frank these products make me want to weep, no child would ever have designed these, they rob creativity rather than encourage it. Children think, communicate and process feelings through play. These products offer your child no flexibility in seeking out materials, resources, themes or ways of relating while you do them together. These products are the adult equivalent of two people in a relationship sitting down to talk and one whipping out a format of pre-planned conversation topics, available routes of where that conversation can go and a choice of conversation outcomes. Would you feel met, seen and understood? Why are we talking about communication and play together? Because play for children is a conversation, an important one, the one that feels the most satisfying for them. Play is one of the few places where a child can truly control their environment, where thy can be the master of objects inside of them and outside of them, where they can communicate with adults on their terms, where they can feel omnipotent again, powerful and free.

So, back to creative play packs. Your child can’t really direct the play because there are limited options available. They can’t really explore their whole environment because you have a play pack and we are using that right? They can’t gain mastery over their relationship with you and be the one in total control because the theme doesn’t offer that. They can’t explore their current emotional landscape because the pack doesn’t offer the complex feelings they have.

These creative packs are designed for parents not children. You can buy a stack of them and give them to your child while you are trying to work from home, you can sit and do them with your child knowing that you have done creative play today, you can tick that job off. The packs are appealing, you don’t have to think too much about what you’re going to do together and they keep the mess to a minimum because you haven’t got time to clean up paints. All of that makes perfect sense, it really does, we are all tired and busy. But this isn’t how play works for children and after all you are playing for your child, you probably wouldn’t be playing if it were just you.

So, you want to do creative play with your child? Set aside the time you have available, no matter how short that is, it is amazing what you can make happen in 3 minutes with a child! Put your phone away. Tell them, right now we have 3 minutes to play or right now we have an hour to play, and then you wait…and wait and wait and wait. You have to resist the urge to come with an idea, you have to try to not to make sense of their messy world and sometimes messy minds, let it unfold, be prepared to use the entire house in bringing it to life, forget the rules. Let your child lead and go with them into their world.

If you think you haven’t got time to do free creative play just imagine how it will feel stuck halfway through that boring pack knowing you have to complete it because your child knows it’s not finished yet, they can’t do the fiddly bits themselves and are getting frustrated because after all it didn’t meet their needs and they’re getting cross, and you have disconnected so you reach for your phone to distract you and it all falls apart. You don’t need to buy a pack, you don’t need to buy into that guilt based advertising that make you feel that you, just you is not enough when you is all your child wants. In play of all sorts your child just needs you, available and committed to their creative process and you never know what you may find out about yourself along the way!

Trauma, flooding and thinking straight

When a child is recovering from emotional trauma, their thinking, emotional processing and embodied sense of themselves will be fractured, split up and split off. They will be in a fight or flight state where there is no rational thinking or capacity for self reflection. Their behavior will be erratic, explosive, scary, uncontrolled and seemingly uncontrollable. In a best attempt to make sense of the child’s behavior, schools and parents often try to teach children how to behave, how to recover, how to communicate their needs. They go about this by reiterating the rules, providing punishments and incentives, being consistent. However, these interventions need a child to think straight to access them.

A child in trauma can’t learn how to behave because they can’t think straight while they are feeling uncontained and unsafe. A child in trauma needs to feel safe enough to trust the world and the adults around them to put them back together not to teach them how to behave. However, trauma is like water and it floods into everything and everyone around it. Parents and schools sometimes find themselves unable to think straight too while their minds are holding the child’s trauma. Trauma derails, it freezes, it incapacitates children, their adults around them and sometimes whole systems.

So the next time your child who is recovering from trauma has the tantrum of all tantrums see if you can find any space inside yourself that hasn’t been flooded by their trauma in that moment. Find that space and try to expand it, find a name for the safe space, a colour, a sound, give it an identity, make it a place you can return to and then invite your child to join you there. If that sounds a bit dippy think about it, the biggest injury of trauma is that your child feels they are not safe inside and they need you to show them how to reach and grow safe spaces inside themselves, not teach them how, but to know it yourself and embody it. Recovery from trauma starts with safe minds, safe bodies, safe spaces and finally after all that feels better, there is more capacity for safe behaviour from the child.   

Rod For Your Own Back

Making a Rod for your own back is probably one of the most limiting parenting phrases. Intrinsically it means that you can’t do anything as a temporary measure and get away with it, that what your baby wants today they will always want. That somehow your baby or child is inflexible and so routine led that they won’t be able to adjust to new ways of being. Happily the opposite is true. Good parenting is about trial and error, it’s about working in the dynamic relationship between you and your child to get to know them and let them get to know you. What worked last week might not work this week. You might have ideas about how you want to parent, only to discover that your child has different ideas about how they wish to be parented. So what do we do? Do we keep on doing what we always did? Do we stick to a philosophy or a way of being with our child that we feel invested in? Or can we be prepared to keep starting afresh?

If we see children’s behaviour as a communication then we can come to get a deep understanding about them as a whole person and see beyond their changing needs. Sometimes as parents we can put our ideas, our judgments, the advice, the books and our own childhoods to one side to be really curious about this new person in front of us. We can try out lots of different ways of being with our child, they are not polite, they will let us know if it works for them. It’s obvious that a child’s needs are always changing because they are always developing, but that fact is easy to forget especially when they do something you hadn’t planned for or didn’t see coming or if you have become comfortable with the way things are. So let’s celebrate change and meeting children’s needs as they arise because the only rod for any parents back is holding onto how things have been when their child communicates that they need things to change.