1. What can I say to my child when they are emotionally distressed?
Watching your child cry uncontrollably, or have a panic attack due to some irrational fear, is always painful. Wanting to protect our children from this is a primal instinct. What I have learnt in my work, and through parenthood, is that this evolutionary journey has made our brains very complex when it comes to managing emotions.
Compassion-Focussed Therapy is one form of therapy that helpfully talks about this primal instinct in terms of “old brain” versus “new brain”.
The “old brain” is our “caveman” brain, driven by basic motives, such as protection, food, shelter and sex. However, what is important to remember is that our ancestors only had to protect their children from real, tangible and physical threats. Once the sabre-toothed tiger had been scared off, everyone would just calmly carry on with their lives. Our “new brain” has the power to plan, imagine, reflect, and ruminate, so our desire to protect has been made more complicated.
This knowledge was a “light bulb moment” for me. The realisation that we all have a primitive drive to protect ourselves and our children, but it has evolved in a way that threats to our safety are no longer just physical. We fear rejection, loss, and abandonment, and our imagination can make this overwhelming and unbearable.
This is why managing our child’s distress can feel equally unbearable. As harsh as that may sound, I have seen that when parents accept that it is not possible to completely protect your child from pain, it creates clarity and a slight reduction in the guilt and inadequacy that we can carry as parents.
This clarity, in essence, is the parent managing their own emotional distress, before addressing what their child is going through. I often use the airline oxygen mask analogy. We are always instructed to put our own mask on before helping our children, because how can we expect to keep them alive if we are struggling to breathe?
I remember one parent describing how, during her son’s panic attack, she had tried to explain to him why he had nothing to be scared of, and told him all the reasons that everything would be OK. This is a good conversation to have with your child, but not during a full blown panic attack. I explained to his mother that in that moment the thinking and rational part of his brain would have been offline. In that moment children just need love.
2. Why is my child so good at school, but challenging when they are home?
I see many children who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) due to a presentation of impulsiveness across multiple settings. These parents obviously describe how stressful this can be, but they also talk about a reassuring “stability” that comes from their child’s behaviour remaining constant.
Alternatively, I have worked with many parents who really struggle with seeing a “Jekyll and Hyde” contrast in their child’s behaviour. When they finally reach breaking point and look to school for support, many get very little back. Instead they are made to feel like they just described “an alien from another planet”, as the school goes on to describe a well behaved child that doesn’t meet the criteria for the school’s support services.
Although this might sound counterintuitive, I find that this is often a sign of good parenting. John Bowlby’s theory of attachment talks about the concept of a ‘”secure base.” Put simply, this is provided through a relationship with one or more sensitive and responsive attachment figures who meet the child’s needs and to whom the child can turn to as a safe haven, when upset or anxious. In other words, whatever your child is going through emotionally, school can feel a very “dangerous” place to be emotionally vulnerable and uncontained. So these feelings are simply contained until they return to safety.
3. Can you help my child develop a better understanding of how their behaviour affects me?
Through my work I often find myself helping parents understand that children are not mini-adults. Whilst our children should not be free to act as they please, our expectations need to be developmentally appropriate.
I was once completely taken back by a parent who was adamant that the goal of therapy should be for her 13-year-old son to develop the ability to see the impact his troubling behaviour was having on her. “If he understands that he is hurting me, surely he will stop?” she told me. If only it was that simple.
In teaching and therapy I always take time to explain the delicate ecosystem that is teenagers. My pitch is that whatever your belief about God and creation, it is hard not to believe that something went wrong in the design of adolescence. At the beginning of this developmental stage children start to process information through multiple emotions, but they don’t fully develop the ability to rationalise these feelings until their early 20s!
What this basically means is that our children are predominantly processing information through the emotional part of the brain. So I explain to parents that it is important to understand that our children are not always being spiteful by showing a lack of rational thought or empathy, it is just that part of their brain is not fully developed.
4. Is there a right way to parent?
As a father and a child psychologist, I am aware that parenthood often involves an intense feeling of “imposter syndrome”; daily feelings of guilt and inadequacy, and a fear of not being good enough. A side effect of this is often an irrational belief that there is a right way to parent, and this is where a lot of us get stuck.
All the psychology training in the world will not prevent the onset of inadequate feelings. With my first child I certainly remember watching countless interactions between parents and their children. I would tell myself I was just looking for different approaches, but deep down I knew I was experiencing a fear of failure.
President Theodore Roosevelt said: “comparison is the thief of joy.” For parents this plays out in the constant observation of other families and their approach to parenting, at the expense of remembering that every child is different.
What I have come to realise is that thanks to outside influences like social media and the multi-billion dollar parenting industry, we have become very hung up on the right parenting practices. I describe this as being lost in the noise, and I ask all the parents I work with to “put the noise aside”. Once we remove these sources of comparison, our focus automatically returns to our child, our attachment and our love.
Not only is it likely to make parents feel less pressured, it is also the most important foundation for child development and emotional-wellbeing.
Dr Oliver Sindall is a HCPC registered Clinical Psychologist, and Professional Lead for a London based Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). He has been Chair of the London Youth Justice CAMHS Forum and a committee member of the British Psychological Society’s Faculty for Children, Young People and Families. For more information visit www.sindallpsychology.com
All views expressed in this piece are the writer’s own.