What is your gut reaction when you hear your child cry and you cannot see them? Perhaps you panic thinking that they are in danger and something is seriously wrong with them? You get annoyed thinking “not again, I just want a bit of peace and quiet!”? You experience concern and curiosity what might be the underlying reason for your child´s distress? Your reaction might vary, for example, according to what is going on for you at the time, your own parenting history and experience, child`s age, and your parental experience and attachment adaptation.
Parenting is stressful and exhausting at times. No one told you how hard it can be. Parenting can be even more demanding and difficult if you experienced childhood emotional neglect, childhood trauma such as an attachment trauma – a mother wound or a father wound. As your child grows and requires more emotionally from you not just in terms of affection but now also setting boundaries and limitations whilst some of the aspects of physical care may lessen, the challenge for you is forever changing. You may carry a lot of shame and parenting may bring that up easily which can lead you to react in a way that may cause you further shame.
This post has been in the making for many months as I have been doing a lot of reading. I want to bring up some books that could be helpful in you finding your own style of parenting. However, first let’s look at how your unresolved or a hidden trauma or emotional neglect may impact your behaviour.
Possible reactions to parenting situations when your own emotional neglect or childhood trauma is triggered:
If you grew up with emotionally responsive, “good enough” parents, parenting is hard but you have some tools for knowing how to respond to your child. If you did not grow up with emotionally responsive parents, you may feel totally lost as you don´t know how to respond to your child/children and may react in a way that you deeply within yourself know that you wouldn’t like to respond.
Perhaps your parents used the old hierarchical and often quite shaming parenting style when your parents always told you whether you were either “naughty or nice”. You may have felt that love had to be earned and you needed to be “nice” all the time. You may continue this practice yourself and in the moments of your child’s behaviour (often a result of disconnection with the parent) triggering you and you ending up shaming your child in some ways. You may then continue to shame yourself as you regret your own reaction and feel ashamed.
On the other hand, as a result of your history, you may feel stuck in shame and try to avoid any conflict with your child and wanting to be his/her friend which may deprive your child of opportunities to learn about healthy boundaries and relationships. If you struggle to set boundaries, you may feel exhausted.
You may feel that you do not wish to continue the parenting practices of your parents but you do not know of an alternative. It may feel exhausting for you as you try your best and end up saying and doing what your own parents did (e.g. shouting at your kids, making threats and so on) because it was what you learnt from your parents. You may then feel ashamed and angry with yourself as you promised to yourself that you would not follow the same path but you have heard yourself saying the same phrases.
Please remember that you can only be “good enough”. All parents make mistakes. The key to parenting is that when disruptions in the relationship occur, we learn to repair the relationship.
Book suggestions on “good enough parenting”
Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive by Dr Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell
“When parents don’t take responsibility for their own unfinished business, they miss an opportunity not only to become better parents but also to continue their own development. People who remain in the dark about the origins of their behaviors and intense emotional responses are unaware of their unresolved issues and the parental ambivalence they create.”
― Dr Daniel J Siegel
To become an emotionally responsive parent is to know your own story and heal from your own past wounds. This book is essential reading for any parent who has experienced childhood trauma and/or emotional neglect. It is so jampacked with golden nuggets of information that it is very difficult to give it justice in a short blog post.
The book helps you to understanding how your past wounds get triggered by parenting moments whether it is the intensity of the continuous contact e.g. by a newborn baby that can trigger the part of you that was perhaps neglected and uncared for as a child or having to deal with the intense emotional outbursts of a toddler that is overwhelmed with his/her experience and requires a soothing & calming adult presence to bring down the overwhelmed nervous system but you have personally had a very anxious parent who was not able to soothe you.
This book explains the neuroscience behind your childhood experiences and how those might have shaped you. It helps you to understand your emotional responses when difficult emotions arise during parenting moments. It also talked about attachment – the bond between a child and their care giver and different attachment adaptations that influence how we experience relationships all the way to our adult relationships.
The authors explain that as children try to make sense of their everyday experiences and particularly difficult experiences, you as a parent can help these to be integrated into their sense of self by explaining difficult events as part of the story. Having a sense that a supportive adult takes time to make sense of the experience helps to take the emotional load off.
An important message of the book is learning about “Mindsight” which means that we are able to monitor and alter our own internal world as well as being able to understand the internal experience of the other.
Adults can learn this for example in therapy and they can process and learn to ingrate painful experiences into our understanding of ourselves. The book gives examples of the author’s clients and how they have been helped to access emotions.
High and low road – Parenting from a place of calm confidence versus being parenting when being stuck in emotional turmoil
One of the key messages of the book is that we can choose how we parent. We can choose to parent from a place of calm when we are able to respond to the child’s emotional needs. On the other hand, if we are not aware of our own trigger points, we make parenting decision when in a place of emotional turmoil and our thread system being triggered (possibly due to our own childhood difficulty or emotional neglect). If we respond to a child when we are triggered, we may end up shouting, calling names even smacking a child (which is illegal in the UK). This can lead to our child being scared of us and his/her sense of self being impacted by an experience of having a deeply disapproving parent. You may yourself have experienced this as a child.
The message of the book is that children are the most receptive to the moments of teaching and correction (discipline) when their nervous system is calm. This applies to all of us adults too. When we feel safe, we are open to changing our behaviours. When a significant rupture in the parent-child relationship takes place, the most important thing is that things don’t get brushed under the carpet because it feels easier in that particular moment, but children are taught to approach difficult topics, talk about it and this way relationships are repaired. This is a valuable lesson for future relationships too.
Communicating with kids can be really hard as it challenges you to find your calm place but at the same time, it can be so rewarding when a child learns to express themselves openly. One of the messages of the book is Integrative communication which has seven key qualities:
1.Awareness – Applying Mindsight
2.Attunement – Being emotionally responsive to the child and what s/he needs
3.Empathy – Opening our heart to the other’s experience
4.Expression – Communicating our internal experience honestly
5. Joining – Sharing openly in the give-and-take of communication, both verbally and nonverbally.
6.Clarification – Helping our child to make sense of their internal experience (emotions)
7.Sovereignty – Acknowledging and respecting that our child has a mind of their own
“To clearly communicate with our children and others we need to receive, process, and respond to the message that was sent.”
The gifts of imperfection – Parenting by Brene Brown, PhD
This is another fantastic book by Brene. She talks about her research evidence on how to live wholeheartedly and parent your children wholeheartedly. Brene talks about shame vs guilt in parenting. Shame-based parenting does not separate the person from their behaviour. For example, popular phrases used to evaluate a child and their behaviour are “good girl/boy or naughty girl/boy”. Shame-based parenting also includes making a child feel ashamed of themselves as “there is something wrong with me” and this feeling remains until adulthood. In fact, that phrase is often shared by people with anxiety and depression.
When addressing unwanted behaviour if a parent separates a child’s behaviour from themselves as a person, “you are a lovable person, but your choice of behaviour is not appropriate”, this helps the child to continue developing healthy self-esteem whilst understanding that their behaviour is not acceptable. Brene also talks about teaching children about having choices e.g. “you have two choices: you can choose not to eat breakfast and soon your tummy will be hungry and you have little energy to play or you can eat breakfast and have a full tummy and lots of energy to play outside”.
Similarly, Brene talks about the importance of emotional engagement with your child regardless of how they are feeling. She also highlights how parents should engage in being “silly” in the house as this sends a message that one can relax and be their authentic self at home. She states that regardless of how you would like to teach your children about being confident in being themselves as you are in fact your own behaviour and attitudes send a stronger message. So this is an invitation for “dad dancing” and kitchen karaoke together with the family.
The two books mentioned above are one of my favourite parenting books as they both emphasise that we as parents need to make our own work in order to be able to teach our children. I love the work of both Dr Brene Brown and Dr Dan Siegel have done in their own fields. Brene’s work on shame is amazing and you can find her youtube videos and even now a Netflix talk. Similarly, Dr Dan Siegel has written many other books on parenting and talks about Mindsight and how regular practice of Mindfulness can rewire our brain.
If you are looking to have further support in addressing anxiety, low mood, relationship difficulties or perhaps how to understand your parenting trigger points, please take a look at my Services page here.