Nurturing the Nurturer

Do me a favour. Go and get yourself a cup of tea and settle down. This one may take a little while. A caveat- this post is based around a therapeutic technique and, as such, you may read it and find yourself feeling upset or troubled, or that it raises memories or feelings that you’re not comfortable with. What we’re talking about here is digging deeper into what drives your responses – to stressful situations, not necessarily just parenting – and digging deep can feel a bit uncomfortable. You can think about it a bit like emptying out a large, cluttered filing cabinet, having a good root around and tidying it up again. You might find some stuff you weren’t expecting, and it might take a little longer than you thought to tidy it up. You might want to tidy it up a bit differently, and think for a while about how you want to do that. That’s all fine, and normal, a bit of discomfort is what leads to psychological change. But if you find yourself feeling very churned up or troubled, please do speak to someone – a GP, Health Visitor, a counselling service. Sometimes we all need a bit of help to do the tidying.

So. In short, back in November I was writing about facing tantrums with empathy and how to do that when your childhood tantrums were faced with the withdrawal of attention/affection. In long, I was writing about how to calm down your sympathetic nervous response to stress, while trying to tune in to your conscious, rational response to a highly emotional child, while attempting to battle your unconscious response to ghosts in your nursery…. while also probably trying to ignore the glances of passers by and physically hold a slippery toddler whose bones have somehow turned to jelly. Piece. Of. Cake.

So, how do we break the cycle? How do we face our children’s unbridled rage with us, the world, the universe… How do we face that with gentle kindness, thoughtfulness and a wish to resolve instead of clamp down? How do we calm our nerves and find a soothing tone instead of blowing our tops? How do we open up our hearts instead of closing them off? How do we reach out instead of walking away? In that last post, I focused largely on countering the techniques of withdrawal that were so common in our parents’ generation of parenting. But your ghosts may be different. Your memories, conscious or otherwise, may be of your own heightened emotion being faced with uncontrolled anger, not coldness (note ‘uncontrolled’ anger, because there is a place for healthy expressions of anger of COURSE but let’s deal with that another time). The end result is the same, the internalised feeling of shame, of badness and sadness I touched on last. The feeling not just that you really f*cked up this time, but you are a f*ck up. The feeling that can very easily jump out of us and straight into our child, so that instead of seeing the crayon all over the kitchen walls, we see a really “naughty little brat”* who doesn’t deserve our sympathies. And then we treat our child like they’re bad, and they feel they’re bad, and the cycle continues.

*Insert your own phrase here. A few examples – You’re a loser, you’re a failure, you don’t deserve anything nice, you’re out of control, you’re not good enough, you’re nothing, you’re too much, you’re stupid, you’re disgusting, you’re not loved, you’re bad bad bad….

Maybe it’s something your mum shouted at you, maybe it’s something your dad hissed as he walked away, maybe an older sibling whispered it in your ear, maybe a kid at school wrote it on your homework. It could also be something you don’t remember hearing but invented yourself to explain why you were being punished, shouted at or rejected. This phrase might be something that you hear in the back of your mind when you’re tired, down on yourself and unguarded. Whatever pops out at you when you’re let down, sad, disappointed and blaming yourself for everything – that’s your phrase.

When you really stop and tune into that phrase, whose voice is it that you hear? Is there an image that goes with that phrase? A noise?  A smell? Maybe a few memories spring to mind. Stop for a moment and tune into them. Think about how they make you feel. That feeling, that phrase, those memories….that’s what you’re dealing with when your child kicks you, or starts freaking out in the supermarket, or howls blue murder when you’re just desperate to get some rest. In times of high stress, adrenaline pumping, resources run low – all you’re left with is that little girl or boy wondering what on earth has just happened and making the assumption “I’m [insert phrase here]”

And how can a five year old who thinks they’re no good, or a seven year old who just knows they’re stupid – how can they parent a tantrumming toddler? Inevitably, what ensues is as good as about two toddlers fighting each other. Somebody needs to intervene. And that somebody needs to be a grown up.

 

Of course for all of us, the easiest way is just to repeat what was done to us. We take that bad little girl or boy who’s popped up in us, and we don’t want to deal with the unpleasant feelings they bring up in us, so we pop them straight into our own child. Then, we turn into our parents and deal with them the only way we know how. (Can you hear your mother or father’s voice coming straight out your mouth when you’re telling off your kid? Now you know why!)

So, if we don’t question how that made us feel, then we can just keep doing that and doing that, and probably we make a few changes along the way, and our kids end up with the same feelings we had but maybe a little bit watered down. But if we want to do things differently, we do need to think about that little boy or girl who pops up now and again. We need to figure out what he or she needs, and help them become a grown up again. We’ve got to get to know that little kid before we can stop ourselves popping them into our own child.

So, back to that phrase, those noises, smells, sounds. Back to that voice. Let’s think first of all about that phrase, that critical voice. Who does it belong to? Is there a particular memory attached to that voice? How does that voice make you feel? Small, scared, helpless? When you identify whose voice that is, you can start to question whether you still believe it. How much credence are you going to give to that critical voice? Does their opinion matter to you? Really think about it. You know you want to do things differently, so does it matter that this voice doesn’t agree? The grown up in you, the parent, might be able to respond to that critical voice. Might be able to say ‘I’m not listening to you anymore’. That alone can take some of the power out of it.

But what about that bad little girl or boy in you? They’re not able to stand up to that voice, so they might need a bit of help. If you really focus in on that little girl or boy feeling that sits within you, maybe tuning in to a memory, a time you remember feeling so misunderstood, bad, ashamed….Who could have helped you then? Who could have rescued you from that feeling? What did you need?

Let’s get really creative here. You might want to get a piece of paper, and write down or draw your ideas. What we’re aiming to do here is create your idea of a ‘perfect nurturer’, the person, character or image who you can draw upon to soothe that little boy or girl. Instead of criticism, shouting or withdrawal, what would they say to  that little part of you? What would they look like? Would they be wearing clothes? What would they smell like? What would they do to you? Would they hold you, hug you, stroke you, just sit with you? What would their tone of voice be like? What would you feel like when in their presence? Don’t get hung up on the details, what we’re looking for is a general idea of a caring, soothing other – this could be an ideal mother, it could be a strong superhero, it could be a colour, a feeling – whatever springs to mind is what is right for you. When I’ve done this exercise with clients we’ve come up with nurturers as far ranging as a cuddly Irish grandma to Falkor the Luckdragon from the Neverending Story! But when you get a strong image in your mind, fill out the picture. Try and hold that image firmly in your mind, and allow yourself to really feel that soothing and nurturing presence. 

What would happen if you held on to that feeling next time you had to deal with a tantrum? If you modelled yourself on your perfect nurturer, how would you respond to your child? It sounds cheesy I know, but it’s only when we have responded to that little girl or boy feeling bad within us, that we can banish the ghosts in our own nurseries and see the child who is actually standing in front of you (or lying, kicking and screaming on the floor of course). And maybe sometimes we’ll still shout, or walk away, or hiss through gritted teeth. But once we realise the little girl or boy in us wasn’t bad, just a bit misunderstood, we can help them to grow up. And then we can really start to understand the little girl or boy we’re responsible for. Sometimes taking a deep breath just isn’t enough, sometimes you need to wrap yourself up in the ears of a Luckdragon.

[This technique – called the Perfect Nurturer – is a method used in Compassion Focused Therapy. You can read more about it herehere and here]