When I first became a parent I recall feeling enormous pressure to get it right and not damage my children. I also felt niggling uncertainties about whether I was up to this job. Over the years, I’ve discovered that a key to this is working together as parents.
Many parents, to varying degrees, struggle to get balanced about the amount of attention they give their children. With all the best intentions, we conscientious parents have a tendency to shift our focus from our own responsibilities and to attending to our children’s happiness.
Here’s a nutshell description of what can happen with an increase in worry focus directed towards a child. See if you can follow this common cycle for conscientious, caring parents:
- In response to a parent’s concerned attentions, the child becomes attuned to being nervously monitored and reacts with increasing self-consciousness.
- The child’s anxious response can be in the form of increased neediness or agitated behaviour. An aroused child usually increases their impulsive and demanding behaviour, while a needy child increases their dependence.
- The parents, in turn, may inadvertently increase their focus on fixing things for the child by either increasing their corrections or their support. In this concern-driven cycle, the parent partly gives up being a separate person from the child and the child grows up borrowing some of their self from the reactions they elicit from their parent.
- The aroused child is restricted in their capacity to find ways to calm themself and contain their impulsiveness; and the needy child is compromised in learning to manage their own worries.
When a child’s behaviour is anxious or unsettled it gets tricky to see the bigger picture of the parent–child circular dance. It’s all too easy to think that the problem is in the child who is, after all, showing symptoms.
On the other hand, the parent can be blamed for being too lenient or too harsh. What is harder to see is that the problem is mostly being generated by the reactions between people, not simply from within one individual. Both parents and children are triggering certain behaviours in the other.
For example, when a child is whinging and clingy, it’s all too easy to see the problem residing in the individual rather than in the system of interactions. The grown-up challenge is for the parent to look at how their efforts to assist the child may be stirring up an increase in the child’s anxiety-driven reactions.
When parents start getting over-involved in either negative or positive ways with their children, this is often an overflow of tension from another relationship. Tensions that have not been figured out with parents or spouses get so easily redirected into trying to make everything work for the next generation.
In the process we adults stop being direct with each other about our own concerns and insecurities and one of our children can step into the connection gaps that have been unknowingly left open for them.
Children so easily fill a breach in their parents’ marriage. The solution is to be found in one or both parents shifting their focus off their child and back onto their own issues and responsibilities. Responsible, mature parents, with clear inner convictions, will in turn allow more scope for the development of responsible self-directed children.
Working together as parents for a healthy connection with your children
You may be thinking that all this emphasis on getting the focus away from our children and back onto our own responsibilities ignores the important relationship bond that is required for a child to grow up securely.
Attachment between parent and child is wired into our biology and even begins in the uterus as a foetus is able to discriminate its mother’s voice from the voices of others. The challenge of healthy attachment with our children is to keep our attentiveness in proportion.
The worst forms of neglect and rejection of children grow out of an idealised parent–child bond where the first signs of lack of compliance by the child are experienced by the parent as an intolerable threat to the perfect harmony they imagined.
An over-idealised bond with a child can conversely take the form of too much smothering, where the child is slowed from developing as a separate person.
How parenting revealed my own immaturity
After four years of marriage, my husband David and I excitedly welcomed our first child, Jacqueline. She was the first grandchild, which meant a significant new chapter for every member of the extended family.
It is not surprising that Jacqueline, like other eldest children and first grandchildren, has grown up under a spotlight. It’s not easy for such children to learn to tolerate being part of a crowd without standing out.
We doted on our daughter and relished the attention she received from the wider family. As Jacqueline showed signs of evening colic, I struggled to settle her to sleep at night and became anxious about the detrimental effect of a baby crying for extended periods with her parents unable to soothe her. Like many first-time parents, I feared that she might be somehow scarred for life.
I admit I was completely unprepared for the extent of the changes that came with becoming a parent. My marriage had felt solid during the pregnancy but the job of raising a child meant lots of new things had to be negotiated.
How were we going to share the load of caring for our child, dealing with domestic order and a change in our financial circumstances? No advice could adequately have prepared me for the sleep deprivation and increase in demands that I felt. Time to just chill out as a married couple had been suctioned away by the intensity of our new roles.
Rather than recognise and soothe my own anxieties about my transition to parenting, I readily focused on Jacqueline. This detouring of my uncertainties meant that I became sensitive to any sign of insecurity in Jacqueline. I responded with doting attention and stimulation.
Not surprisingly, Jacqueline did develop quite distressing tantrums around age three and displayed significant jealousy of her sister Katie when she was born. This was demonstrated through aggressive behaviour such as pushing her baby sister’s head into the ground and an episode of using her new safety scissors to give her sister a ‘back to the scalp’ haircut.
While the punk hairstyle episode is retold two decades later with much humour, I can now look back and understand that it was more than quaint playfulness. My intense investment in my first child was not helping her to be able to tolerate sharing my attention with her sister.
David and I stumbled our way through the maze of early family life with times of joyfulness intertwined with chaos. My focus on giving our children the attention I thought they required, and seeking to meet what I perceived to be the expectations of doting grandparents, meant that my ‘inner adult’ got a bit lost.
In order to grow up in this stage of my life I needed to step back from the focus on keeping children and extended family pleased in order to get my individual act together.
A Healthy, Mature Connection
Rather than an over the top connection with your children, together with your partner focus on building a healthy, mature relationship where you all:
- enjoys both time together and time apart;
- treats each other with warmth and respect;
- displays acts of kindness and affection;
- tolerates the other being upset with them;
- is able to have disagreements without breaking the relationship;
- takes responsibility for their actions;
- responds thoughtfully.
The bedrock of a good relationship with your child is working together with your partner and allowing yourself to grow also.