Children are born with different temperaments (from genes and in-utero environment). There are a range of parenting styles, and life-demands impact on how we can parent our children. Where these three things meet we eventually end up with aspects of our child’s personality: shy or sociable; arrogant, scared or self-assured; sophisticated or mature; depressed, violent or resilient; and so on. How nurture impacts on nature is the key.
There are many, many variables to our parenting and they all impact to a certain extent on our kids. (Most of us are aware of this and try our best to do the best job we can.) Some things have fleeting impact and others could affect our children and their decisions for the rest of their lives and their children’s lives.
As well there are many, many different parenting gurus. At the extremes they fall into two groups: those who are strict disciplinarians and those who are high-nuturers. Often these groups of experts seem to contradict each other – but to a certain extent, both are right.
The problem arises from people (yes, including many experts) not understanding two things. The first thing that many people misunderstand is that children communicate through their actions far more than their words. The implications are:
1. How we deal with tantrums/defiance/violence. If parents cannot identify the underlying cause of these they are bound to deal with them in an unhelpful way. Most meltdowns are NOT about power – but some are.
2. Children will follow our actions first and our words second. The language parts of human brain take years and years to develop. You could think of it like this: an adult’s language pathways are motorways and a child’s are like small, windy, dirt-track back-roads. For a child to be able to pay us attention they have to actively choose to turn off the parts of their brain they are using, choose to turn on the language bits and then understand the full meaning of our message (which often contradicts our body-language – which they will naturally follow first). Even beyond the age of 10 these language bits are still developing.
3. We need to understand that our children are emotional beings first and rational beings in a very distant far away second. If you think of a child’s brain as being like a week – the emotional bits take up six and three-quarter days and the rational bits take up the last quarter of that last day – if that. The younger the child the more likely emotional behaviours will hijack rational behaviours in a stress situation.
This all means that extreme-nurturing is vital. This means as much as possible and a bit more than what we ever thought was possible we: never let the baby cry alone (I’ve done the colicky baby crying skin-to-skin on my chest for four hours a night for months on end - no it isn’t easy); bed-share; baby-wear; be physically present until they’re 18 months old or older – or ensuring that the carer they are with is as loving as possible; loads of touch – as much as they can stand; being their advocate in situations where they might feel overwhelmed; Boring Cuddles when they’re stressed; and so on.
The second thing that many parents and parenting experts misunderstand is that unconditional love does not mean accepting every behaviour. Our children can do wrong and it is our job to do something about those moments. These are the times when we must mind fully choose to disconnect from our children. (More about how to in a helpful way later.)
The problem with understanding disconnection arises because many of us think of discipline in terms of ferocious behaviours like spanking or roaring at children – perhaps that’s what we experienced ourselves and we would never want to go down that route with our own children. Time-Outs can seem as bad, when our child is obviously distressed at the enforced separation and wants to reconnect before the timer says they can. But setting boundaries and being the calm authority in our children’s life is an essential part of raising resilient children.
If we are constantly attuned and nurturing we are setting our children up to fail in life.
I discussed this with my friend Odette Hoffman (the psycho-therapist) and she put it like this: (paraphrasing) children are going to leave home, when they do - no relationship is going to be 100% attuned or even close, times when parents are Mindfully Disconnected (my term, quite good don’t you think?) cause stress in the child, if they don’t have these moments of disconnection and stress when they are at home in a safe and warm environment they are unable to cope with later disconnection in their relationships. They can’t grow-up to be resilient. They are going to fall apart at some level and at some stage.
The difference between unhelpful disconnection and Mindful Disconnection is in one of those subtleties of emotions. Humiliation vs guilt. When the parental disapproval is sustained and/or there is no point of reconnection after the disconnection – the child experiences humiliation. None of us want this for our children. When parental disconnection is mindful and there is a sense of reconnection (on the child’s part) afterwards they experience guilt – which means they want to make amends. Like all big emotions (fear, sorrow, excitement etc), guilt is not to be avoided but children do need help learning to manage it.
So, with Mindful Disconnection the child learns to manage disconnections in a healthy relationship as well they develop their rational brain.
When we are generally/mostly emotionally attuned to our children and we Mindfully Disconnect it’s as if we have applied the brakes, and as long as we reconnect afterwards (eye-contact and light touch are the best ways) our children learn that while we always love them, we do not always like what they do.
A child with parents who are not mindful with their disconnections, especially those who try to discipline situations based in emotion (wanting to be with us at night; crying when they are hurt; not understanding Distress Tantrums) it is as if the parents are always applying the brake. They think all tantrums are Power Tantrums. These parents usually have had no help regulating their own emotions and experience emotional flooding when their children show their emotions. They just want the child’s emotions to go away – because they (the parent) cannot handle them.
A child for whom disconnections are rare (if there are any at all) where the parents never use the word ‘No’ and/or where the parent does not act like the calm authority (it is bedtime; you will not throw food; chocolate is not a breakfast food; wear your woollen clothing; I am not buying you a toy every time we enter a shop) then it is as if the child is experiencing the accelerator being constantly on. These parents won’t say ‘No’ or they give in to their children because they don’t like whining and crying. They might not ever make a direct request. They think that all tantrums are Distress Tantrums. They might think it’s unreasonable to set boundaries, and/or feel embarrassed about setting firm boundaries possibly because they have yet to process their own emotional flooding. (Which was built into their brain when their own parents used approaches which induced humiliation – in some cases, they experience unrelated overwhelming flash-backs when their children need to have a boundary set.)
Neither of these extreme approaches is healthy for the development or the ongoing function of the developing brain.
So what’s going on with Mindful Disconnection?
Children are not born considerate. They are not born socialised. They are born with the capacity to learn these things. Yes, a certain amount develops through attunement, nurturing and mimicry. But not all. If our child has the repeated experience of Mindful Disconnections they learn that it’s not OK to bully or control people to get what they want in life. If however they charm, negotiate, demand and/or rage and we don’t disconnect, the experience of controlling others becomes part of their personality. They are likely to become power-seeking bullies. If we chose to negotiate or reason with a child when we should be Mindfully Disconnecting, or making an age-appropriate, quiet and firm request, then we are rewarding them with attention. They are learning manipulation techniques.
It is frightening to a child to not have an adult firmly (calmly/lovingly) in control. A child who rarely experiences the word ‘No’ ends up feeling more powerful than their parents, and subsequently becomes disrespectful and sometimes violent (either physically or socially).
In my work, not being a University based academic, I always look for the real outcomes of parenting information. I look at playgrounds and in supermarkets. I listen to how parents interact with their children. I look for long-term consequences of what is happening now. Here’s some real-life links to support what I’ve said: here and here. This one here is aimed at teachers but the first section is relevant for parents.
Optimal Parenting is the parenting which our children’s biology responds to with the best of health, the best of relationships, the greatest resilience, the greatest calm, the best stress management and the most contentment. It is extraordinarily hard to provide in a modern world, but luckily their brains have a slop-range (for want of a better phrase!) which means we don’t have to provide an Optimal Environment. Good enough is good enough. As long as we really understand our children, have good information available and have practical ideas about how to put it all into practise.
With high-nurturing and a few calm but matter-of-fact well-enforced boundaries and you’re more than half way to raising your children in the optimal environment.
Practical Applications and Age Appropriate Mindful Disconnection start with this post here: Mindful Disconnection: Practical Ideas Pt One. This just got too long.
The Developing Mind, Daniel Seigel
The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland
Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. )