Category Archives: Parenting

We are made up of our experiences

The knowledge that we are part of something and at the same time separate is critical to our understanding of attachment.

Our child might not have the same experience of the same event that we have. We can give them permission to tell us they are having a different experience of this moment than we are – and not insist that there is a right way to listen to this experience and a wrong way to listen.

We can assure them that their experience has the same value as our experience, and suggest we try and find a common point that we can tell them what our experience of this event is, and so they can tell us what their experience is. Neither one of us being right or wrong, but being respectful of each other’s experience – and using attachment because we care about them.

“I care about your experience and I care about how you experience the world. And I want you to have an experience that is valid. And I want us to have an experience together that is valid.”

That is how we have to listen to each other.

That, to me, is the basis of therapy. That is the basis of what the family’s experience is.

So, if in your family you have a child who is experiencing the world in a different way from your reality, and you experience that child being angry and hostile and feeling misunderstood by you, perhaps you might say to the child, “Can we just back up a little bit and let’s hear again each other’s voice?”

Anxiety trumps cognition

Our feeling state always trumps our cognitive state. That’s partly because developmentally the feeling state arises before the cognitive state comes into play.

 When we excite the feeling state, the feeling state tracks are a more prominent response to automaticity of expression. In other words, the feeling state will be reinforced, and if that state is too intense it is difficult for the cognitive state to have sway and to determine how appropriate the feeling state is.

 There is not time to think about saving yourself from danger when we need to take immediate action. Thus fight, flight, or freeze – our primary responses from the automaticity centre of our organic brain – and stopping to think at that point in time, might not be sensible approaches, especially if the lion is two feet away.

 We can see then, how the feeling state becomes rather fixed. Response to threat is anxiety.

 Depending on how much threat a child perceives in the world from their organic brain will determine their behaviour – rather than the actual experience that is occurring in the now.

For clarity of purpose, at times we have told parents, “So you made a mistake and you yelled at your kid. So what? They know you got mad, but they also know you can be kind.”

 When we parent we will not always be kind, and we don’t want to nurture the expectation that the world will always be kind. Our kids deserve to know they will have to cope sometimes with difficulties, and there are times they will have to cope with not knowing.

Plasticity of brain and thought

In some of us, the track in our brain that says, “This is a dangerous world,” gets balanced with the track that says, “You can cope with it.” We are aware of the danger, but the danger guides our actions rather than determines them.

This balance is evidenced in the plasticity of both the brain and thought.

As an organ, the brain learns to get control of its tracks. It does that in relationship with the people in closest proximity. During the first eight or nine years, the child and the child’s brain are totally dependent on care from others. The child can’t feed itself except in the sense that the child can pick up food and put it in their mouth, but they are unable to source their own food.

Similarly the child can’t house him or herself. It can’t keep itself warm, or provide any basic needs. Everything is dependent on external care and parenting.

Building an internal world in the organic brain occurs during this period. These tracks are laid down in a way that promotes automaticity of thought and of action. That is, they are below the level of consciousness or consideration, for the most part. If we had to think about every action we are about to perform we would be paralyzed and unable to live in the world as we need to.

Parenting then becomes a reactive and proactive process that continues until the child’s brain reaches a stage of maturity where it develops a capacity to examine its own automaticity. The interaction between the thinking brain and the organic brain is an interface that allows for plasticity but is rate-limited. In other words, we can’t change our automaticity just by thought alone – it requires consideration and insight, which underlies critical thinking. Others may call this mindfulness. Thus most of our therapeutic endeavours are based on examination of this interface and rebalancing it towards a more fruitful expression of our needs.

In this way a child learns to balance as they go forward by relationships in their external world, and consideration of his or her past experience.

Words and Meanings and Our Work

It becomes very difficult indeed to use words to get across an idea to another person, because each of us attributes a meaning to each word that is personal to us. Our meanings don’t quite match since we are all different from each other in some ways, though we are the same in other ways. And so it is with the meanings of words.

Although the meanings we are trying to convey to each other don’t quite match we can get close, or at least make an attempt to get close. Transferring our meanings for words is like trying to catch butterflies. We can run around with a net, but the net has to be bigger than the butterfly. That’s what meaning is. It’s bigger than, so we need a whole net full of words surrounding the meaning, to try and catch the meaning.

We can use mindfulness to get away from our automaticity and be present for another person, but there is a dichotomy in this process: we are dependent on our automaticity. We are dependent on the organ that is our brain, and we have to somehow transform that dependency and get outside the limits of that.

Information transfer is relatively easy, but the capture of knowledge is something else. Humans everywhere have developed cultural ways to transfer knowledge. We started transferring information orally. Through stories and personal narrative people shared their life experience but that information had to be worked upon to become part of a lived experience.

At my age I can talk about the information that has come my way in my life, and at this stage I have a lot more memories and stored information than someone who is twenty. Condensing my lived experience into words, though, and then saying, “Now you know what I know” is at best only an attempt at sharing my knowledge.

Although I encounter many challenges when I attempt to share what I’ve learned with people who want to find another way to raise their kids, sometimes I am able to reach them and they are able to understand what raising kids actually means. Then we both triumph; I get to share the meaning of my work, and their capacity to raise their kids in a mindful way expands.

Alienation and our work

Many of us have been doing the work of helping others for most of our lives. It often goes back to childhood – the whole sense of wanting to have a place, wanting to belong, to make a contribution, and wanting to be a member of a group. Some of us have very early feelings of being an alien, a stranger in a strange world – all of the feelings in childhood of wanting to belong. Perhaps we have come to this work from that place, where we have a sense of alienation, either as children, as adolescents, or even as adults. We may have a sense of not belonging, and a sense of not being successful.

The tenuousness of attachment is always part of it. Trusting other people often comes with the knowledge of betrayal, that someone can tell us one day they care about us and that we matter, and then the next day say, “I’m moving on. I have something else to do”. This message can come from a group of friends, or can be acted upon a child pre-puberty, where some people are picked for a team and others are not. We may be good at one sport and not another, or we might struggle with learning.

The sense of alienation we have, the sense of not belonging, is actually one part of belonging, but because of our alienation we aren’t able to merge with other people.

Each of us has parents who have somehow come to be together. Often we don’t come to understand our parents’ psychological reality until much later in our own life when we have developed a level of maturity. In order to really see our parents and their reality, we must see them as separate from, rather than as part of us. Then we can see that they had a life. Perhaps they had a separation. In that case we arrive at our own alienation without even knowing it.

If our parents are alienated from each other, their alienation affects their parenting style, because their attachment to their children is wrought, and we children might even have held our parents together, especially in the old days.

As children we have no words for the alienation we experience, but we grow into our brain so the alienation becomes part of our brain, and the idea of being connected or belonging somewhere is stressed. We grow up with an ability to be separate that is better than our ability to be attached. Trusting in another human being is always in question.

Many therapists, childcare workers, social workers, and other professional caregivers have a capacity for seeing the alienation in others. When we meet certain kids we may have an instant resonance, even though we have a determination to be separate – to not be dependant – because that’s what separation allows us to be.

While the connection part of attachment is important, the separation part of attachment is just as important. That’s what makes for a full personality. It makes for a person who is capable of taking care of others, because we can be separate. What we offer then is a true offer. We don’t have to act out our lives through the other. That is a gift. But as with every gift, we have to be aware that there is always a hook in the gift.

The lack of ability to be in relationship in a trusting way means that our relationships are always strained in the sense that we are ready to go any day. There is a part of us that says, “Okay, if you don’t want to be part of this relationship, you don’t want to be my friend, you don’t want to be around me, I’ll survive. I’ll go on.”

But whether we see it as a gift, or whether we see it as a flaw comes from our brain. Some of us are decimated by this: our relationships fail or we fail in relationship – it depends which side of the fence we are on and how we perceive it. If we go too far in that, or we don’t come to terms with that separation, then we are going to be alone and we are going to be immensely aware of our own aloneness, and that’s going to make us unhappy.

So, what do we learn about our work? We can come to every relationship with the knowledge that the other person is going to go about their business and at some point they will be ready to leave.

Their life is their own.

This distance is tolerable.

When we first meet the other person, if we are mindful of our own alienation we can consciously make a relationship with them, marked by a kind of intimacy and also distance, knowing that their life belongs to them.

Thus at the core of our work, we are illuminated by the separation in attachment.

Beginnings and Endings

The big concept in therapy is how do we do endings? How do we say to an individual or a family with whom we have been working, “You’re done”?

Our work is about completion, satisfaction, and separation.

At the inception we have to accept that the work will be done, so we decide our work together is done on the day we decide to start.

In the same way, we might ask, “When are we done with parenting our kids?’ We experience completion on the day they make a decision that we have no say in. Their decision is often marked by some ritual – getting married, moving out of the family home, or graduating from university. It is a psychological event when we suddenly realize our children can manage their own lives, though we might observe their decision-making and perhaps think, “I wouldn’t do it that way but it’s okay that they’re doing it the way they want to.”

Some programs don’t actually think about separation – they think about establishing the relationship, and that comes naturally because we are meeting someone we haven’t met before, and we spend time with them because they come to see us. But how do we do the final part of the therapy, and what does that amount to?

I think we have to do the ending part when we meet the person because what we inform our self with at that point in time is that their life belongs to them. We never actually take over their life in a way that we are going to be accountable and responsible for what they do.

For instance, when we introduce young people to work experience at the start of their vocational process, we want them to have the experience of separation as well as the experience of connecting. If a particular placement doesn’t work for them, it’s just as important as if it was successful because they have had the experience of being there and doing both connecting and separating.

Modelling self-awareness for our kids

If we parents and teachers are mindful, we will take care to fit what we say into a pedagogical moment so there is a connection between new information and what is already in place.

When we share our experience of the world with children and have them share theirs, the structure we construct supports their narrative.

It is important that our information provides a narrative and follow-through, that it fits with something the child already knows, and provides relevance to the child. In this way we help kids build self-awareness and learn to recognize the relationships they have with others. As children build awareness they honour their curiosity.

Our kids may have the freedom to be curious but in order for their budding awareness to become their reality, that awareness must be used. 

Through their social interactions they become aware of the otherness of others, and come away with the understanding that others have different experiences. As they become more able to access their curiosity, and follow the interactive nature of relationship, the steps they take lead them towards  empathy.

This process, for children, is the beginning of mindfulness. 

The brain/skin connection

When you ask an adolescent why he or she cuts, or you talk to them about cutting, you need to be able to put it into a context so they can understand what it is they are doing.

It is more complex, and simpler than the mysterious action it seems.

Our skin is our largest sensory organ. Stimulating the skin can be a form of self-soothing that can be achieved by touching, rubbing, massaging, and piercing. Some of our children have discovered that scratching and cutting are stimulating.

This stimulation creates an external and an internal response. The internal response can be mediated by endorphins, and have a physical representation in the brain.

The rush of endorphins from the physical side is what people tend to focus on, but often we don’t take the next step, which is “Why is it necessary for a child to seek that response in order to change their mood?”

Typifying self-stimulation as an act of self-harm can cause us to miss the underlying meaning and purpose of the behaviour.

Whether the behaviour is in the context of the child themselves without any reference to the outside world, or whether the behaviour is an action that causes a response from the outside world are two separate things.

There is an internal psychological response to a physical action that affects the child’s mood, and an external response in relationship to how other people respond to the child’s action. The action was done in private, and the later observation of the effect of that action results in the response.

Often the person who is self-soothing in that way will be at pains to demonstrate that they have done it.

The internal soothing behaviour then becomes an external attempt to have others notice us and attend to us.

We can see this as part of the attachment configuration, both attachment to self and attachment to others.

A context for self-harm

When we discover our child is engaged in self-harming behaviour – whether burning, cutting, or otherwise interfering with their body – our automatic response as a parent is to be fearful. We fear because we don’t understand why our loved ones are doing this, and we intuitively know it relates to their attachment to themselves.

The child’s relationship to their harming behaviour is a private one. It provides him or her with a physical and emotional form of stimulation.

Our skin is our body’s largest organ, and we use it in many ways to soothe ourselves and to present ourselves to others. We manipulate our skin through dying and styling our hair; getting a tattoo; piercing a body part; tanning our skin; reshaping our body; or adjusting, and changing our appearance. This is a widespread phenomenon, and when taken to the extreme, it can result in what we refer to as self-harm.

When we take a step back from our concerns about the child’s behaviour, we can see the behaviour in attachment terms.

When we try and take choices away from our adolescents, we change the meaning of the behaviour and it becomes an interactive rather than a private one.

We relate to the behaviour as it appears to us. It becomes something we see as harmful, and we want them to stop. Therefore it has a different meaning. The behaviour moves into the relationship, and we begin to say, “I want to control you. I am determined to control you.”

When we intervene, the cutting becomes involved in the context of our relationship with the child.

The child has a personal and individual reason for the behaviour, and in order for them to stop they will have to meet that reason for doing it in another way.

By stepping back and offering proximity and conversation, we begin to understand the reason for the behaviour, and thus we are able to offer them substitute alternatives.

When we are triggered in this way by our adolescent’s behaviour, mindfulness helps us get past our automaticity and move into the present moment. Then we are more able to have a conversation in which we might ask, “How does that behaviour help you?” rather than, “How does it hurt you?” Our curiosity can be interactively mindful, non-judging, and intended for the benefit of the child.

In my practice I try to see behaviour, including self-harm, in the context of choice. I see the person separate from the behaviour. The harming is what they do, not who they are.

“I’ll do it myself”

Your three-year-old won’t be reciprocal. She says, “I’ll do it myself,” and pushes your hand away.

What goes into separation is appreciation for the other person’s ability to be separate. Do we let the three-year-old tie her own shoes when we see that she is struggling? Or do we do it for them?

The parent who is really attached to the child lets the child button her shoes by herself, because the parent is not anxious about their attachment.

Some of us can’t do that – can’t establish a bedtime for our children, or let the children go to bed by themselves.

These are building blocks.

At each developmental stage there is a new building block everyone has to engage in.

We can take joy in watching our children separate from us, and take pain as we watch their separation.