A parent asked me the other day, “If our goal is to create teenagers and adults that can manage their own feelings, shouldn’t we be teaching them to ‘self-soothe’ as little ones? Shouldn’t they learn to stop their own crying?” The implication here is that we grown-ups ‘manage’ our feelings all by ourselves. That just isn’t true.
Human beings are social animals through and through. From before we are born, we are built to live in contingent communication with others who care about us. We are finely tuned to the emotional states of all those we are close to. Our brains take in and balance our emotional states in accord with those around us as part of a system. Just like they told us in A General Theory of Love, there really is no such thing as an individual human mind. Think about it: in prison, what’s the worst punishment they can dish out? Solitary confinement. Why? Because being isolated from the society of other human beings is the worst thing that can happen to a person. Look at Tom Hanks in the movie, “Cast Away.” Marooned on an island, he made a volleyball into a companion to talk to, and, in the end, chose to risk his life rather than continue living without other human beings.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that none of our kids will end up needing the skills necessary to live behind bars or on deserted islands. And yet, adults don’t deal with emotions in isolation. We share our feelings in obvious and also very subtle ways. In stressful moments, we communicate through rude gestures to that inconsiderate driver on the highway. On better days, we call a good friend when we’re feeling down. When facing major stressors, we turn to loved ones and social workers and therapists and religious leaders. We band together in communities of support in every format from sewing circles, to Dallas Cowboy fans, to AA meetings. Strong social connections have been shown to improve everything from overall life satisfaction to heart attack survival rates.
One of the most essential components of healthy adult relationships is good communication. That’s a skill that children are learning from us as we take the time to Staylisten when they have strong feelings to share. Every time you gather the warmth to keep on loving your child through their storms of anger, sadness, frustration or despair, you are communicating a deep acceptance of them. You are increasing their ability to understand and work with emotion in themselves and others.
For example, if your son is able to fully experience whatever desperation may come over him when he faces a night alone in the darkness (in the safety of his own room), and your warm and encouraging presence allows him to scream and feel terrified until he gets to the other side, that’s a wonderful self-esteem-building experience. Rather than clinging for dear life to a well-worn stuffed animal, trying to keep his fears at bay night after night, he learns that intense feelings come and go, and he is still here, still lovable, still cared for, and still whole. He need not fear emotions in himself or others. He need not hide his feelings away in his room in shame.
This process prepares children to be aware of who has warm attention for them and to share their feelings naturally as part of their daily experience, instead of bottling things up behind walls of isolation. Feelings that are tended to every day, at a natural pace, are dealt with before they can interfere with learning, health, or positive social relationships. Children raised this way can learn readily, take appropriate risks, make good choices for themselves, and be compassionate with others.
So, instead of ‘self-soothing’, maybe the real goal is raising children who are good at sharing their feelings and maintaining their connections.
All the way home from the hospital I was sure my baby daughter’s head would wobble straight off her pudgy neck and I would find it bouncing around the back of the car. I was in shock that they had let me leave the hospital with this tiny, helpless creature. Already thirty-five when my daughter was born, I had been looking forward to parenthood for many years. I had worked with children. I had watched carefully as my friends and relatives sailed into family life. And I had read all the ‘right’ books about child development and what to expect. In other words, I was as clueless and unprepared for the reality of life with an infant as your average parent.
My daughter just needed me to love her, right? And pay attention to her, and feed her, (How hard could breastfeeding be?) and take care of her, and get us both back and forth to the pediatrician’s office, and get dinner made, and find time to do the laundry, and wash us both now and then, and remember to make the mortgage payment and make sure her car seat straps were properly adjusted and tend to her developmental milestones and start saving for college and…
Sleep deprived, begrudgingly recovering from the 100+ stitches of an unwanted C-section and terrified that I was doing a ‘bad job’ because my new ‘boss’ cried even when I thought I was parenting by the book, I gradually became fearful I was coming unhinged. I probably looked slightly milk-stained but otherwise fine on the outside. I went to playgroup and Gymboree and baby music lessons. I showered and brushed my hair and dressed my daughter in matching Baby Gap outfits. I compared growth chart percentages and teething tales with other moms in the park. Yet, at odd moments, I found myself irrationally furious over bits of my own childhood I hadn’t considered in decades. Why was I plagued by thoughts of my less-than-ideal childhood when I should have been enjoying my daughter’s happy one?
On a fundamental level, deep in the folds of our brain, we learn to parent as we are being parented. The parts of your memory that were intimately engaged in those early peek-a-boo experiences with your parents are actually stimulated in your adult brain as you peek at your own bright-eyed infant. Dr. Lewis et al explains this process beautifully in A General Theory of Love. As you build those essential and hopefully warm and loving connections with your baby, you also get a chance to revisit how that experience felt for you a generation ago. If it felt basically good and your parents were well resourced, relaxed and happy to have you joining the clan, your attachment process with your own child is an easier one. If you were a preemie born to a frightened couple in a war-torn part of the world, you might feel a lot more stress as you are trying to enjoy your new family member.
No childhood is perfect. Nor does any child require one that is. But in order for the attachments to develop smoothly in a new family, there is one key element that predicts relative success—the parent’s understanding of their own relationship history, especially the relationships of their childhood. Using a process called the Adult Attachment Interview, researchers have demonstrated that parents who were born into less than ideal circumstances don’t necessarily have trouble building good relationships with their own children, as long as they have come to terms with their own formative relationships. When a parent is able to relate what researchers call a “coherent narrative” of their early life experience, it’s possible to predict that their own children will form normal, healthy attachments in relationship to them. No matter how imperfect their past may have been.
So, there it was. As Patty Wipfler says in her much-loved Listening to Children, “We discover that loving and nourishing a child is complex work that challenges the hardiest grownups.” My early relationship with my daughter was challenging not because anything was wrong with either of us, but simply because I had yet to make peace with my own early experiences.
Dr. Dan Siegel talks about his experience at this same impasse with his young son in his moving and thoughtful book Parenting from the Inside Out. It was hard enough for me as a new parent just to get out the door in the morning wearing matching socks and minimal rice cereal stains. The last thing I had time for was navel-gazing contemplation of the emotional impact of my grandmother ruining the pin-the-tale-on-the-donkey game at my 4th birthday party. Luckily for me, there were people around me who knew how to really listen. Not the usual conversational sandwich-building “Oh that happened to my cousin Eleanor too!” back and forth kind of listening. But the “I am really here with you. I won’t interrupt or advise. Go ahead and let me know how your experience feels,” kind of listening. And the more they listened, the more I healed.
The focused attention of another caring human being is what allows each of us to bring out the things in our emotional experience we haven’t really made sense of yet and repackage them into something more digestible, something easier to live with. It’s not a nice, neat, logical, thinking process. It’s a messy laughing, crying, trembling maze of emotions waiting to tumble out into shared emotional space. But the more I was able to soak in this sort of gentle attention, the easier it was for me to relax and be available to my daughter and her in-the-moment emotional experience. That feeling of hanging on by my fingernails receded. Slowly I was able to take a deep breath and laugh and play and connect.
For more insight into how this narrative sharing process actually works to rewire the brain, listen to the inspiring conversation between Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Daniel Goleman called Better Parents, Better Spouses, Better People. Or for brief, practical instruction on the practice, read Listening Partnerships for Parents from Hand in Hand.
Juli will be teaching an online class on the Science of Parenting in January.
This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.