Life is full of challenges – complex relations, inevitable disappointments, and uncertainty. Our children have to be prepared for the best and the worst in life. It is the responsibility of parents and caregivers to ensure that they are prepared for it. They need to know how to cope and adjust to these myriad experiences.
It’s not an easy job, especially since most parents did not receive this when they were young. How can parents then, help their children to be secure, confident, resilient, and learn to build formidable relationships as they grow?
The Power Of Showing Up (2020) by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, show parents how to be there for their children – in more ways than just physically, how to build a stronger relationship with them, and how to prepare children to face hurdles, and build their confidence as they step out into the world.
1. Bonds Of Attachment – Secure and Insecure
In 1960, psychologist Mary Ainsworth conducted an experiment known as the “Infant Stranger Association Test’, that observed the effect of babies being left alone in a room or with strangers.
The experiment showed that children of parents who expressed concern and sensitivity were more confident when their parents left the room and continued to play with the toys. Once back, the babies happily greeted their parents. These babies were more secure when left alone and showed secure attachment.
On the other hand, babies with inconsistent care and attachment, or extreme disconnect from parents’ attachment developed an insecure attachment, showing signs of fright and anxiety. Such children tend to suppress emotions and needs as they grow and are unable to move beyond negative experiences that influence their behavior and relationships in the future. They feel unsafe and unable to develop healthy relationships with their own children.
No parent intends to raise their children in a bad manner; however, parents can make efforts towards developing secure bonds with their children by analyzing their own childhood experiences and acknowledging the negativity they experienced.
2. Physical and Emotional Safety
Kaiser Permanente, a healthcare company, along with the CDCP (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), conducted a study from 1995 to 1997 called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. 15000 participants were interviewed about their childhood negative experiences such as emotional and physical abuse, especially in dysfunctional homes. These participants were found to face challenges in coping, have a lesser capability of relating to others, had more health problems, and shorter life spans than those who had a happy childhood.
The experiment showed that a child needs a positive mental, emotional, and physical environment, and need to be protected not only for their immediate well-being but also for their future. Threatening and harmful experiences in childhood can affect a child’s physical, mental, social, and emotional development. It also showed that any form of aggression – physical, emotional, verbal, as well as nonverbal (body language and expressions) can make children feel unsafe and afraid.
Parenting is not an easy task and even the most loving parents can experience bouts of frustration. However, it is imperative that parents avoid aggressive behavior in any form towards children. This can be done by communicating calmly with them, even in times of frustration. Simple breathing exercises to calm down when angry, or even apologizing to children when parents display anger and aggression can go a long way. It will make children feel safer and also teach them that relationships can be repaired by a simple sorry.
3. The Importance of Understanding Children
Consider an example of a parent who constantly berates their child for securing low grades and attributes it to the child being lazy. The parent constantly reprimands the child and calls her lazy and disobedient.
In this case, while the parent intends to derive a good outcome from their child, they are actually doing more damage, not only to the relationship but also to the child’s own perception of herself. The child could internalize the parent’s perception and develop a negative view of her own personality, resulting in a timid personality with a negative inferior complex.
Parents need to know and have the ability to understand their children as well as accept who they are. Reflecting and observing on why the child behaves in a particular manner, without making preconceived judgments will help parents in truly understanding their children and get valuable insights.
Another way is to communicate with them and let them express their thoughts and views about the issues they are facing. Setting a separate time daily to talk to them will help in getting to know them better, to understand what goes on in their minds, and subsequently understand their needs.
4. Handling Distressed Children by Soothing
While working with a school in a Texas district, the author noted the teachers’ observations, of using soothing behavior rather than time-outs and punishments for unmanageable tantrums of children. They found that the children responded better, calmed down faster, and had less long, less intense, and less frequent outbursts.
They inferred that children learn to calm down and soothe themselves by replicating the behaviors they see in their parents. Moreover, they are able to manage their internal distress and become more resilient.
Parents can use certain tools to get their children to learn to soothe themselves.
- Setting a designated comforting space (unlike a time-out corner) in the house for children to go to when they feel distressed.
- Parents should identify a calming song/playlist that their child likes to hear in times of distress.
- Identify the child’s favorite physical activity like playing on a swing, dribbling a basketball, or even running around. Movement often works in emotional therapy.
- Parents should create a code or a signal with their children so that they can identify when their child is stressed.
5. Showing Up, Every Time
Parents should work towards creating strong bonds with their children and try to understand how their child feels when they are experiencing stress or are misbehaving. Making them feel physically and mentally safe and responding to them in a soothing and calming manner repeatedly amounts to truly being there for children.
Such security not only impacts children mentally but also has an effect on them physically. The sense of security children feel makes their brain stronger, helping to create a resilient nervous system that helps them to nurture strong relationships in the future, as well as overcome distress.
Parents who focus on understanding their children provide them with a loving, nurturing, and empathetic environment through active listening and affection. They help children communicate their feelings in distress and promote strong parent-child relationships. Every time a parent is physically and emotionally present to support them, the child’s sense of security is enhanced, and in turn, they know that they have the support of their parents. They carry this feeling of support through their lives and grow up as confident and empowered adults who can in turn be there for their children in the future.