written by: Anna Słaboń
I remember when very soon after becoming a mother I bought one of the first available books about the soon to be very popular philosophies of Attachment Parenting and Nonviolent Communication. It was like a revelation to me! The book depicted what I can only describe as a dream come true relationship with my daughter! Empathy, trust, invisibility, following a child, trusting its needs, not violating its boundaries, appealing to its needs and becoming aware of your own.
It was revolutionary news for me, back then it sounded like the promise of parental paradise. I have adopted a lot of information from the book into my life and I feel that it is of great use even today. There were also elements that did not stand the test of time, and despite several approaches, they did not remain a part of the way I communicate with my daughter or think about my relationship with her or children in general. I parted with them painfully, feeling guilt, as if there was something wrong with me because I am unable to force myself to apply some things. After some time, I discovered that it was not only knowledge or values that spoke to me. What was most appealing to me was the way in which different authors understood specific values, what they emphasized, what was for them the most vivid and moving part of any given approach. What remained with me from that first period of my daughter's life are books, conversations and meetings that really touched me.
When working with other parents, however, I discovered that the process of finding yourself in the mix of this new revolutionary knowledge and your personal desires, dreams, as well as your own memories of being a child is not an easy feat. I met parents concerned with the behavior of their child and with themselves, parents who had the knowledge of many important aspects of the relationship and communication with their child and asked the question: "Why doesn’t Attachment Parenting/NVC work for us?”.
They wanted to incorporate into their lives the principles and values contained in many inspirational books, but they ended up reaching some invisible point in their relationship with the child, beyond which there was sadness, powerlessness, frustration and lack of contact.
I would like you to join me in taking a look at what may be behind parental and child frustration and how you can try to understand what happens then. I want to do this because I get the impression that this is not an isolated phenomenon and it affects many parents who want to build beautiful and healthy relationships with their children.
Let me begin with a statement of fact: Attachment Parenting or Nonviolent Communication has no reason to “work” when objectified. Like any other value system or way of communication, it must not be expected to work in a way that fulfills a particular task in your life and brings a concrete effect, because then tension and falsehood are already creeping into this approach. This attitude will turn into an attempt to manipulate, which is completely contrary to the "spirit" of both approaches.
For different parents, "does not work" will mean different difficult home situations. They can be:
_increasingly difficult behavior of the child,
_the inability to control own emotions,
_experiencing helplessness and hopelessness while acting in accordance with a certain pattern of behavior or communication.
When confronting similar experiences, we may feel that what has so far served the family, will lose its impact at some point.
These are the "cold shower" moments that we receive from our children. These are also moments with extraordinary potential, because if we start to look at what happens to us and to our children in these moments, then we may come to really constructive conclusions.
Jesper Juul helped me a lot with understanding this phenomenon. He repeatedly emphasizes in his books the importance of being aware of one's motivation in actions taken towards a child. I would like to explain how I understand this observation of ones motivations as well as share my experience, as to what can result from such observation for us and our children.
When in response to a screaming child whose brother took his toy away, do I say that "he has the right to feel how he feels" because I believe it with all my heart, or do I hope that by saying this I will change his state or that this is what I feel I should say to him?
Am I naming his feelings for him, because I really want to try to let him know that I am close to his emotions, or do I hope that thanks to my words it will be easier for him to calm down or do I believe that this is the right way I should react as a mother?
In other words, in difficult situations do I want to concentrate on the relationship with my child and his relationship himself or do I want to achieve a certain parental effect? Do I do what I do because I want to be close with my child, or do I want to feel that I fulfill my own expectations of myself - as an empathic and understanding mom? To sum up - am I a parent or do I play the role of a parent?
For me, these are very important questions, because on the one hand I have experienced many times and still experience some extraordinary power of empathy. I see what happens to me when I experience someone's empathy, I also watch how children react when someone shows them empathy.
On the other hand, I observe what happens when in a subtle way the focus shifts to the need for self-efficacy or feeding the image of oneself as a good parent.
Why is it so important?
Because our children at this point don’t have much in common with the intellectual experience of the world, but they are in perfect contact with its emotional side. They "feel" our emotions and sense our intentions. Also when we do not quite realize them ourselves.
Here’s another example.
Imagine a situation where a child, in response to your "empathic message" (I deliberately put it in quotation marks, because what looks like empathy does not necessarily have to be it), reacts with aversion towards you, is even more annoyed and screams (meaning "don’t talk to me!”)
What has happened here, so that this dialogue, although it was intended to serve at least one side, could have had such an impact and enrage the child even more?
Some ideas come to mind, which I will briefly discuss below:
- children do not like when we are not honest with them
So their irritation may be a reaction to our lack of authenticity. Perhaps we assume that speaking in way our wise books suggest, we will be close and will settle the conflict. It is, however, worth considering if we really want to show a screaming child empathy, or rather express our own deep frustration or helplessness?
- children need to know what is actually happening to us
Donald Winnicott, an eminent psychologist, once wrote that a mother should be good enough. Not perfect, just a C+ mom. Here’s how I understand this: children are not perfect themselves - they are full of conflicting emotions, they can react explosively, many times during the day they are flooded with different kinds of emotions, and if in response they receive from us a behavior pattern to adopt (one that realizes a certain ideal in our opinion) instead of authentic emotions, they may feel lost and frustrated. If, however, we communicate to them what is happening to us, although it may be difficult for them to accept, it may also help them find their place in the world of their own and other people's emotions.
- children show us what they need
There is no universal method of raising a child. Each child is an individual and applying general principles to a particular individual will not necessarily work to build a common relationship and communication. For example, there are children, who need to cuddle when they are angry. Then there are children who will become even more enraged when being touched. Does this mean that you should not show them closeness? Nothing could be further from the truth - you should be close, but only o conditions specified by the child.
- mothers do not trust what they feel by following what they know
This is unfortunately an increasingly common phenomenon. We are all well-read, even too much! So many books! About parenting, about communication, about building relationships. Armed with knowledge of what is good for our children, we have the impression that we will protect ourselves from mistakes and we stop trusting what we feel. Meanwhile, we forget that we are the most important piece in this puzzle. No book author will live our lives with our children for us. And that means that we should take expert literature with a grain of salt, using our personality and temperament to filter the information and recommendations contained therein, while remembering that in the end our child will verify whether something is useful or not.
It's as though we sometimes forget that we’re the ones exploiting certain ideas, not the other way around. And if we forget about ourselves in all of this, about our predispositions, about what’s easy and hard for us, about our imperfections - a source of discomfort but also what makes us human - and try to replace them with ready solutions - we can do more harm than help.
I remember that during Familylab coaching I was agitated by the fact that I wasn’t learning anything specific, i.e. any methods of building relationships or communication. At the time I had the impression that what I was receiving instantly eluded me - because it required a deeper reflection, examining certain phenomena rather than applying ready-made solutions.
In retrospect, I am very grateful for it, because this approach allowed me to let go. Let go of everything that is artificial, learned, inauthentic, not mine. Discerning what is mine and what is not became and still remains an energy-consuming (and self-serving) process.
I would like to wish you the same. I hope you are able to ask yourself: “Is what I’m doing beneficial to me and my child?", "Do I really say what I feel?”, “Do I really say what I think?”, "If I could, if I gave myself the right to, would I act differently towards my child?" If you dare to take this step and follow your own lead - look carefully. Your children’s and your well-being will tell you whether the direction you have taken is right. They are the most important experts worth listening to