There are many good people in this world trying to parent their children the best they possibly can. The trouble is, their best is generally not enough and the consequences are felt by the child as it develops. Nobody needs to be perfect when parenting but they need to be in tune with the different stages of growth. As parents, we may have not had this as children but we have a capacity to learn and not repeat the mistakes of previous generations. It brings the question up of whether a program to teach new parents about this key issue should be made available.
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In my daily work, I see constantly the effects of ineffective parenting that has led to troubled adults trying to parent their own children. Ineffective parenting is generational and without intervention, will continue unabated. Parenting is difficult, anyone can have a child but not everyone can parent. Lack of parental awareness is, in my opinion, the basis for many issues we face as adults such as codependency. I look here at the main issues as I see it, based on learnings from clients over a number of years.
Lack of interpersonal bond: The first six months of a child‘s life is possibly the most important developmental phase of a child‘s life. It establishes a bond of trust and security that make the following phases easier. This bond is established by meeting the needs of a child consistently. This is done by recognizing the need cycle of the child. For a baby, it is theoretically simple in that a baby sleeps, wakes and cries for its needs to be met. This need will likely not be more than feeding, changing or comforting, followed by more sleep. Meeting this need consistently will form the interpersonal bond between the mother and child and is the first step to feeling comfortable with relationships. Sometimes, there are good reasons why this bond cannot be formed. The mother might be overwhelmed or suffering from depression and needs help herself. Sometimes it is not easy for the father to step in and people outside of the family often take over. Lack of bonding with the mother is the abuse of many of the issues felt by the child in later life.
Counterdependent Phase Misunderstood: From about 18 months to four or five, a child takes its first step on the long road to independence. It initially starts with a sense of autonomy as a child starts to develop language and motor skills. Being a toddler is all about exploration and movement. Running, touching, tasting are all integral parts of age appropriate toddler behaviour. Additionally, they will naturally push boundaries, primarily to test the interpersonal bond formed earlier. The mother is still important in this process and needs to have back up from the father of the child. However, this crucial stage is often misunderstood. Busy, overwhelmed parents are more interesting in curbing child behaviour at this age rather than setting healthy, safe boundaries and providing help with emotional regulation and self soothing. If we look at the example of the so-called ‘Terrible Twos’, we an see a classic example of this. This is a time where children are greatly misunderstood, are punished, sometimes medicated but mostly controlled by shame based parenting and a need to conform to strict parenting ideals. A child at this age is looking to separate from the parents and take its first step to autonomy. It is only a first step and it not true autonomy but a sense of. Part of this process is to test the interpersonal bond that was hopefully formed earlier. Children look for their parents to accept them in this torrid time and not physically or emotionally withdraw. Some advice seen on websites is truly unhelpful and anything that suggests a child should work this out for themselves or be punished is simply not true. Children need to have the bond with their parents strengthened at this time through careful, compassionate boundaries, helping them to regulate extreme, scary emotions and to deal with a new world. Parents can only due this if they are present and aware.
The Awareness of Healthy Shame: In the English language, their is only one word and meaning for shame and its not positive. We all carry shame from our childhood due to the imperfect nature of parenting but the role of healthy shame is often overlooked and misunderstood. Healthy shame experienced during childhood leads to an internal conscience and shows us our limits as humans. Children without limits come into adult life with a God-like attitude that no-one can tell them what to do. Healthy shame is consolidated when parents help children through such natural developmental issues such as awkwardness about interacting with peers and body development, embarrassment, shyness and curiosity around sexuality. These issues are not often dealt with effectively or the child is left to deal with them on their own. If they are not shown that these emotions are normal, they can be replaced by toxic shame.
Family System: Like all systems, balance is needed to maintain the framework of the system. All members of the family either take on or are assigned a role within the system. This keeps the balance needed for the group to move forward. However, when the family system loses a role, other members have to take up the slack or take on more than one role. This is especially true when parents emotionally or physically distant themselves or suffer from illness or addiction. In these cases, the children often take over a parental role for the parents and siblings. Some children will also become the system scapegoat where the issues of all are centered on one individual. The family system is extremely important in child development but this importance is often overlooked.
Shame Based Parenting: Children will feel shame naturally as they develop and as I have stated earlier, it is not always negative. However, many parents will use shame as a way of controlling behaviour that is, in their opinion, not wanted. These parents fail to make the distinction between behaviour and the child itself. Shame based parenting is verbal in terms of shouting, yelling and blaming but also non-verbal in terms of facial gestures and distancing. Children are extremely sensitive and will curb their view of the world based on how they interact with their caregivers.
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Thank you for your work in these vital areas.
I don’t know if you were aware of Kate Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge) now is looking into this very subject of early parenting years… and just how vital they are…