It's all about the relationship
One of the earliest and most important lessons I learnt in my career was that to make a lasting difference to a child, you must engage with their parent, caregiver or significant adult. This is because, no matter what is brought to counselling- anger, anxiety, low self-esteem, divorce, bullying or academic performance- the key to good mental health and a greater capacity for resilience lies in a secure relationship.
Tom*, aged 7, was referred to counselling by his mum for his uncontrollable and unpredictable rage. During my first session with mum, Tom was described as ‘difficult’, ‘too much to handle’ and ‘beyond hope’. She believed that Tom had ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (She did a lot of Google research!). It wasn’t hard to picture this mum being at her wit’s end and struggling to care for two other children with Tom needing most of her attention. What struck me the most was that despite how hard the last year had been, there was this strong desire to understand and connect with Tom- she just didn’t know how. During the first few sessions with Tom, we explored the anger, where it came from, what it looked like, what it was telling him and together we discovered, as is often the case, that the anger was a secondary emotion. Tom was in fact, very sad. He had been bullied at the start of the year for the first time. After a week of being called names and ‘accidentally’ being bumped into, he told his mum. His mum who was always caring and otherwise responsive, reacted in a way that confused and upset Tom. She said to Tom, ‘oh, this happens all the time. You’ll get over it’. After months of bullying, Tom had found the courage to tell a teacher who eventually dealt with the bully. Yet, his anger towards mum had only grown and he was finding it very difficult to contain this big emotion, especially when he disagreed with mum or when a sibling was annoying him. I managed to convince Tom’s mum to come in for a couple of sessions on her own. With Tom’s permission, I brought up the day that Tom had opened-up about the bullying. Initially, she was very defensive, remembering the bullying as ‘just a couple of lads being lads’. With careful challenging, we explored not the bullying itself but her response to it, to Tom. Very soon she was in tears and over the next couple of sessions, she recalled her own experience with bullying and her parents’ response which mirrored hers. Hearing Tom’s experience brought up her own sadness and anger towards her parents which she quickly pushed back down (having never processed it before) and instead of ‘feeling with’ Tom she turned to ‘dealing with’ him. It was easier to focus on his behaviour than to identify, accept and validate his sadness, especially as it brought up her own.
A secure relationship forms when we meet our children’s needs. This not only refers to their physical or educational needs but their emotional needs. When a child knows that you are available and accepting of them regardless of what they bring to you, there is safety and trust. More importantly, they are unashamed of their big feelings and this builds their own confidence to be able to get through them. Establishing a secure relationship is hard work, as it requires putting aside your own emotions, timetables and experiences, while being present, kind and understanding to your child’s. Every single day.
If you’re reading this and starting to panic because you may not have ticked all these boxes, rest assured, you are not alone. Because none of us are perfect, there will be days when tiredness, busy school runs, feeding the family and mountains of laundry become so overwhelming that its easier to focus on routines, tasks and getting the kids to bed as quickly as you can so you can finally use the bathroom- on your own! Add to this your own childhood trauma and guilt or feelings of not being good enough, there are bound to be times when it will feel like there simply isn’t enough of you to give. And that’s ok.
A secure relationship is said to be 33% attunement, 33% rupture and 33% repair. Tom’s mum was able to recognise the impact her own expereinces played in being available to Tom. Through counselling, she was able to find the courage to apologise to him, acknowledge the pain of bullying and to repair their relationship. It is not about how many times a relationship is ruptured but how quickly and meaningfully it is repaired.
Here’s my brief summary and questions for reflection-
· What was your own childhood like? How did your parents respond when you were sad, angry or feeling anxious? How do these past experiences shape the way you parent?
· Building a secure relationship- being playful, accepting of your child no matter what emotion they bring to you, listening intently without judgment, being present (not trying to fix)
· Be willing to apologise and learn from your child. Respecting children teaches them that even the smallest, most powerless, most vulnerable person deserves respect.
Recommended Reading- Phillipa Perry (2019). The Book you wish your parents had read (and your children will be glad that you did), Penguin Life.
*To protect my client's confidentiality, their name has been changed.