It’s not my fault, but it’s my responsibility.

July 15, 2015

We parent the way we were parented. That’s our instinct. If we want to parent a different way we have to make a conscious effort to change. It’s as simple as that, but it’s not easy. Fighting our instincts never is. Too often I hear myself say things to my child that my parents would have said to me. I recognise where these negative responses are coming from, and I’m not happy with them. Sometimes I feel angry and frustrated that I can’t always be the parent I want to be, and it would be so easy to simply blame my parents for this. However, as one of Dan Siegel’s patients once said to him; it’s not my fault, but it’s my responsibility. For me, this seems to make sense of things so well, and is a phrase I’ve often returned to since I heard Dr Siegel talking about it at a conference some two years ago.

innocenceYou see, these negative responses that are ingrained in me may not be my fault, but it’s my responsibility to recognise where they’re coming from, the effect they can have on my child, and to self-reflect, and try to make changes for the better.

Now, following this logic, one could argue that in a similar way those negative responses that my parents passed down to me were not their fault either, since they inherited them from their own parents. But it was their responsibility. And this is where I’m struggling.

It’s only since becoming a parent myself that I’ve fully understood the profound effect my childhood has had on me. But despite this, and the emotional scars I’m still dealing with, I never really felt I held any of it against them. I’ve always known they never meant any harm.

And perhaps things could have stayed this way, with the past lying dormant. But it’s hard to let the past lie when it gets dragged into the present in the form of my parents’ negative responses to my own child. If not for this, I might have been able to leave it all undisturbed.

But since I have gone to the trouble to break the cycle, to get informed and learn about children’s emotional needs, and to take the business of parenting seriously, their behaviour towards my child is more than a little irritating to me. It really triggers something in me. It opens old wounds and makes me feel furiously protective of my own child.

Exacerbating the situation is their judgement and criticism of the way I choose to parent. No, I’m not doing it the way you did – that’s the point! Their inability to see this illustrates their total lack of self-reflection and refusal to take responsibility for themselves. And given the amount of self-reflection I’ve had to do, I find myself increasingly astonished and out of patience with the total lack of it I observe in other people.

But perhaps they know really, and it’s just too much to face up to. Because if they were to admit that what I’m doing is preferable to what they did, they would have to admit that what they did was wrong, had some ramifications. And that’s big.

Relations are now decidedly strained, for the first time since I was a teenager. And just as when I was a teenager, I seem to be expected to shoulder all the responsibility for this.

But the thing is, after years of victim blaming on their part (I was such a difficult teenager, you see), I’ve come to see that the situation back then, the culmination of everything that was wrong in our relationship, was entirely of their own making. After all these years they still can’t face up to this, nor, it seems, to the part they have played in creating the current situation.

Well I have enough responsibility of my own to deal with now, and I have enough issues from my childhood, thanks very much. I am no longer willing to take on anyone else’s. I know it’s not their fault, but it’s their responsibility.

Coming clean

January 11, 2013

boys with arms round each otherI was at a children’s museum last week. In one section the children were busy collecting pretend rocks in little wheelbarrows, taking them and loading them into boxes that then went up on a pulley system, along some overhead conveyor belts, then were re-delivered to another part of the room where the children awaited eager to start the cycle again. The kids embraced this activity with a sort of serious, business-like enthusiasm. It was like watching busy ants at work. 

My five-year old child waited eagerly for the opportunity to get a turn with a wheelbarrow. He then waited at the point where the next delivery of rocks was expected. They arrived in a shower and the children grabbed at them excitedly. 

I noticed a smaller boy, probably about two years old, was crying and upset. His mother was attempting to remonstrate with him, to move him on, away from what had upset him. She seemed annoyed however, and the boy seemed to be chasing my own son. I asked her if there was a problem. “He,” she said, gesturing towards my child, “took his rocks”, gesturing towards her own child. 

I knelt down next to my child. “Did you take some of that little boy’s rocks?” I asked, as gently as I could. I didn’t want him to feel accused or blamed. I was desperately trying to think of a better way to phrase the question, but couldn’t. He nodded.

“He’s very upset. Do you think you could give him them back?” My child looked at the other child, still crying while his mother tried to persuade him to come away. I felt a sense of urgency to fix this before his mother succeeded and the opportunity would be lost. He lifted a rock out of his wheelbarrow and looked at me.

“How many rocks do you think you took from him?” He held up two fingers. “Perhaps you could give him two back.” He quickly took a rock in each hand and ran over to the crying child, his arms outstretched. The little boy stopped crying immediately, took the rocks, and continued on his mission. 

I refrained from saying “Well done” or “Good boy”, or in any way passing my own judgement or gushing forth with my approval, but later I casually commented to my child on how pleased the little boy had looked and how he had stopped crying.

It doesn’t always work out this well. Sometimes my child won’t take my cues, or appears unconcerned about the distress of the other child. This nearly always turns out to be when there’s another underlying issue, or some disconnection between us. It’s not always plain sailing. But the reason I reflected on this incident so much that night was not so much that I was pleased my child had done the right thing, but because he had admitted his wrong doing to me without hesitation, and this was not the first instance of this in the past few weeks. 

Now if, I wonder, I was in the habit of punishing him, would he have come clean so readily? Maybe. But don’t kids who fear punishment tend to try to talk their way out of things? 

If I had angrily accused him, and ordered him to “give back the rocks right now”, would he have done so so readily? Maybe. But would he have been more likely to learn anything from this? Would he have come out of the situation feeling he’d done the right thing, feeling good about himself? Or would he feel resentful, ashamed, determined not to get caught next time? Of course many parents would not just stop at ordering the rocks to be returned. There would have been further retribution to follow. 

Ah, but would a child brought up by a parent who uses punishment have been less likely to take the rocks from another child in the first place? Again, I think not. Every child is subject to the same impulses and temptations, and lapses in self-control. In one of her many excellent articles about children and punishment, Dr Laura Markham writes, 

“….most of us have the high-functioning frontal cortex that develops fully by about age 25, so we can rein in the anger, greed, and the other emotions that get us into trouble. But children don’t have a fully developed frontal cortex. It isn’t that they don’t know what’s right…’s that they can’t stop themselves from doing what’s wrong. That’s true even if there’s a consequence.  If punishment worked, you would never have to do it again! Instead, kids who are punished actually behave WORSE over time than kids who aren’t punished.” 

My unpunished child is not perfect. But I’m not going to punish him for that. And I’m confident that with gentle guidance, instead of punishment, he will be better able to learn all the lessons I wish to teach him, and will have no reason to conceal his mistakes from me, secure in his own inner self and in his relationship with me.

Attacking the minority

May 21, 2012

There have been a lot of annoying articles written about attachment parenting recently as part of the buzz created by TIME’s recent stunt.
But probably the most annoying article I’ve read is one published by the Guardian last Friday, written by Katha Pollitt. Her sub-heading claims that,

“The latest fashion in child-rearing is about regulating the behaviour of women, not benefiting children.”

That’s possibly the most twisted take on attachment parenting I’ve heard so far. Attachment parenting not about benefiting children? How did she arrive at that conclusion?

And clearly it is inconceivable that women could genuinely act out of love for their child, love of being a mother, and through natural instinct and informed choice. There must be some ulterior motive. Or they’re just fashion victims.

She accuses attachment parents of projecting their guilt ‘outward onto more relaxed mothers’. Strange. I’m not sure how I project something that I don’t feel, but if I make other mothers around me feel guilty then I’m very sorry, but I would gently suggest that the problem originates with their own perceptions and insecurities, none of which are within my control.

The article goes on to suggest that instead of practising attachment parenting our efforts would be better put into tackling child poverty, as this ‘affects children’s well-being more directly’ – a clear failure to grasp the whole concept of attachment parenting as a long term goal.

Sure, we need to tackle child poverty, but make no mistake, no matter how much we reduce poverty, social problems will not go away if we continue to fail to understand and take seriously the emotional needs of our children. And I’m not saying everyone must practise attachment parenting, but a little open-mindedness might help, a little more willingness to consider new ideas and information.

Ms Pollitt’s ignorant remarks are insulting, to say the least, and on more than one level. They are insulting to women who make this parenting choice, not just by dismissing the parenting style itself, but by suggesting that they are merely following a fad, are victims of some sort of social conspiracy to ‘regulate’ their behaviour, and furthermore, do not actually have the best interests of their children at heart.

As usual, the minority are an easy target for ridicule and attack. A typical social problem, and perhaps another example of our failure to raise human beings who are able to be respectful and empathetic towards each other.

Connection is the key.

May 2, 2012

Connection is about maintaining that close, loving, attuned relationship in which a child will feel secure and loved, and will thrive. This alone gives us something to constantly strive for. But there are also practical day-to-day benefits. Connection is the key to preventing and reducing unwanted behaviours, and to gaining cooperation. If my child is disconnected, this is when unwanted behaviour is likely to occur. We need to reconnect. This is why punitive responses to behaviour don’t work. They only widen that feeling of disconnection.

But what does connection mean exactly?

Lawrence Cohen, as usual, does a great job of describing this concept in “Playful Parenting”. He starts by describing that deep connection between babies and their parent, sometimes referred to as eye-love (we all remember those long periods of eye contact with our babies) then goes on;

“If all goes well, the eye-love between infants and parents is replaced by a less blissful, but still solid, connection. You and your child are able to talk or play or hang out easily together, enjoying each other, relatively in tune. These moments can be quiet times, like just before falling asleep, or active playtimes. The next level is a more casual connection, an unspoken bond that may be noticed only when it’s gone, replaced by conflict or distance. At the extreme are the most alienated types of disconnection. Disconnection can be a nightmare of painful isolation, withdrawal, and lashing out…….even normal, healthy children have moments when they lose that thread of connection. They retreat into towers of isolation when they feel lonely, afraid, or overwhelmed.”

How do I know when my child’s disconnected? It’s hard to describe exactly as it’s sometimes a subtle change like avoidance of eye contact, feigned lack of interest in my offers of closeness, an extra jumper or a snack. But often it’s obvious; loud, out of control, slightly crazy behaviour, and at worst, lashing out, either physically, verbally, or just by doing things calculated to enrage.

The more I observe these behaviours, the more likely I am to be able to predict when they might happen, and so take steps to prevent it happening in the first place. So, often I’ll make a point of reconnecting before any difficult behaviour starts, like at school pick up time, or any other time we may have been separated, not just by school, but maybe because he’s just been busy playing outside with his friends all morning.

Sometimes we just need a ‘quick connect’, like a quick high-five, or a joke and a giggle together, or a special something that only the two of us know about. Anything that involves giggling and/or eye contact nearly always works.  Giving a quick passing hug or a kiss usually doesn’t – he needs to be engaged with it, accepting of it.

Sometimes we need to have a longer period of one to one time together, usually playing, especially rough and tumble play that involves lots of physical contact, but also imaginary play that will often bring out things that might be troubling him.

Sometimes, I’ll need to insist on reconnection – in other words, I don’t accept rejection. Children need to know we’re always there for them and that we love them no matter what. Whilst there might be times when they really do need to be alone for a while, and I actually find these are rare, shouts of ‘Go away’ are often a test to see if we really will go, or if we love them enough to stay even when they’re behaving horribly towards us.

Many little things throughout the day can cause that connection to be strained or broken – failing to empathise with something he got upset about, a few harsh words or a betrayal of annoyance and impatience, a disagreement about whether he’s allowed to do or have such and such. Having a handful of ways to reconnect and incorporating these into our day-to-day interactions can help stop things getting out of hand.

One connection technique I sometimes use with my child is challenging him to look constantly into my eyes while we both count to ten. It’s become a bit of a game, and usually gets a bit of a giggle, as well as some eye contact. I’ve always thought the success of it was somewhat varied until the other day. He did something that really annoyed me (I won’t bore you with the details of what it was, it was a silly thing really in hindsight) and I made my annoyance very clear. He said sorry, then put both arms round me and said “Mummy, we need to connect, let’s look into each other’s eyes.”

So we looked into each other’s eyes and counted to ten.



April 18, 2012

I don’t punish my child for his behaviour. I haven’t done for a few years now. Before I made this shift in my approach and attitude I would have thought these statements sounded extreme. But now I often find myself reflecting on how I actually never feel the need to punish. My child presents his fair share of challenging behaviour, yet strangely I never find myself wishing I could dish out a punishment, or having to remind myself not to. The less you punish, the less you need to punish. Punishment only makes behaviour worse.  I was commenting on this to my husband last night, then suddenly remembered that earlier that evening my child had hit out at me. Surely this would be considered by many to be punishable behaviour. Yet it never occurred to me at the time, and reflecting on it afterwards, I’m still quite certain that it was right not to punish.

My child had been at school all day. When he came home, after a snack, he said he wanted to play ‘rugby on the bed’ with me. This is his name for playing rough and tumble, and one of our main ways of reconnecting with each other. We had a lovely play and a giggle together for a few minutes, then he heard voices, looked out of the window and saw his friends from next door playing outside. He immediately announced that he wanted to go outside and play with them, but with a hint of regret at ending the time we were having together. I commented that we could always have another play later, and off he went.

There was never an opportunity to resume our rough and tumble play that evening for one reason or another. When I announced it was bath-time my child started bouncing on the bed – a clear and common indication of his intention to be uncooperative. Being accustomed to these tactics, and having various means of dealing with them, I was unphased until he started hitting out at me. His hits were more like swipes, reminiscent of the warning swipe a cat might give with her claws retracted. There was no intention to hurt, but there clearly was the  intention to communicate something.

“No hitting”.

He continued.

“No hitting” – this time gently taking hold of his hands. I knew there was something wrong, and I had a pretty good idea what it was.

When he was calm we talked.

“Are you sad that it’s bath-time?”

“Yeeeees”, came the sad cry.

“Do you feel like we haven’t had enough time to play together?”


“Tomorrow I’m picking you up from school early so we’ll have all afternoon”, then realising this was trying to fix things and not validating the feelings he was experiencing right now in that moment, “We were playing rugby on the bed then you went outside to play with your friends, and we never got a chance to play again”.  A cuddle.  “Let’s get ready for your bath really quick so we’ll have time for some extra books tonight”.

A minute later he was playing happily in the bath.

Did he ‘get away’ with hitting? Was a punishment required to ‘teach’ him that hitting is wrong?  I think not. He knows hitting is wrong. That’s why he was doing it. He was doing wrong because he was feeling wrong inside and couldn’t quite find the words to tell me about these feelings.  He may not even have been sure exactly what those feelings were or what gave rise to them. He may have felt angry at me when he realised the day was nearly over and we had not had enough one to one time together.

I reminded him “No hitting” and gently enforced that limit. I then helped him process the feelings that had given rise to the behaviour. That is all that was needed. If I had responded by putting him in a timeout, or saying ‘no books tonight’, giving him a ‘sad face’ sticker on a chart, or come up with some other parent imposed ‘consequence’ would this make him less likely to hit again? Absolutely not. If anything it would make his behaviour worse. He would feel bad about himself, angrier with me, and more disconnected from me (the very issue that caused the behaviour in the first place), and the opportunity for me to help him process those feelings would have been lost.

He lost control. He did wrong. He’s a kid and he’s not perfect. I’m not going to punish him for that. I will, however, be more mindful of incorporating one to one time into our days. My child is not the only one with lessons to learn here.

Punishment does not teach. Empathy, understanding, and love teaches volumes and equips children emotionally to deal with their feelings and problems in a more mature way.

Theraplay activities – Nurture

March 27, 2012

Following on from my post about Theraplay, this post looks in more detail at one of the four different dimensions of Theraplay – Nurture. 

The purpose of the nurture activities are to reinforce the message that the child is worthy of care, and will receive care without having to ask.  So it’s very much about building self-esteem, as well as your attachment relationship, and helping to make your child feel safe and loved.  If you feel your child’s self esteem needs a boost (and they can never get too much in my opinion), that they seem particularly needy, or you just feel you need to reconnect in a loving and caring way, these types of activities could be helpful. If your child is rejecting your attentions and care, these activities can help re-establish your role as caregiver if you take small steps at a time. Remember, also, that connection is the key to eliminating challenging behaviour.

There are many nurture activities. For some of them you’ll want to set aside some uninterrupted time, but others are so simple that it’s more a case of making them a natural part of your daily interactions with your child. 

The activities below are just a small selection of some of my favourites. 


Wash your child’s hands or feet in a basin of warm soapy water. Gently dry them and massage them with lotion, then paint their nails. You can keep it simple, or do lots of different colours – your child can choose them.  My son is very pleased with his multi-coloured toe nails. He also enjoyed choosing the colours at the market stall where we bought the nail polish. 

This activity required him to sit still for some time, which brings in an element of challenge for some children. Keep talking to your child as you paint, and finish off by reading books together while the nails dry. 

Caring for hurts

Check your child’s hands, arms, legs etc for scratches or bruises. Give them magic kisses. Rub magic cream, lotion or powder on or around hurts. If your child won’t let you, try just gently touching hurts with a cotton ball, or blowing or giving elephant kisses. (kiss your fist, make an elephant trunk shaped gesture, then plant the fist on your child). You can follow up by checking for healing next time. 

Face painting

Paint flowers and hearts on cheeks or make the child up like a princess. Moustaches and beards are fun for boys. If you’re short of time or just can’t face the mess today, use a small paint brush, wet or dry, or your finger, to pretend, describing their wonderful cheeks, lovely eyebrows and so on. Make your child feel special! 

Twinkle song

Adapt the words of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to be about your child. “…what a special boy you are. Dark brown hair and soft, soft cheeks, big blue eyes from which you peek…” Try to make eye contact, or cradle in your arms like a baby. If there are two adults present you can spread a blanket on the floor, lie your child down on it, then lift up the corners and swing them in it like a hammock.  If you really think your child needs, and will accept, some ‘babying’, you can finish by swaddling them in the blanket and giving them a drink from a bottle or lidded cup.

For children who, for a number of possible reasons, may have had a difficult time during infancy, these activities are intended to help fill the gaps and provide the experiences they may have missed out on when they were younger.  But for all children, self-esteem and a strong connection with their parents is of such importance that I really don’t think you can over-do it!  So give your child some extra nurturing today!


February 7, 2012

I have just completed a very interesting course that, amongst other things, taught me about the Theraplay method, and I would like to share what I have learnt.

Theraplay is a therapeutic technique developed in the States in the 60s by clinical psychologist Anne Jernberg. It was aimed at that time at disadvantaged pre-school children, but as the knowledge of attachment theory has developed, the usefulness of Theraplay in strengthening parent-child relationships and encouraging secure attachment has become more recognised. As such, Theraplay is often used with children who have had difficult or disrupted early life experiences, and can also be useful for children with developmental disorders such as autism and ADHD.

There are many Theraplay activities, all of them very simple. Some of them seem a bit strange at first, some of them are probably things many parents already do with their children.  The activities are grouped into four different categories, each with a different purpose and focus.

Structure.  To relieve the child of the burden of maintaining control of interactions. The adult sets the limits and rules, defines boundaries and helps to complete a sequence of activities. The idea is that these activities are reassuring to the child in that they reinforce that the adult is in charge and so keeping them safe.  The structure can also help the child with being in control of themselves.

Some examples of structured activities are games like Follow the Leader, Simon Says, holding traffic lights up to start and stop a named activity (like jumping, hopping, moving arms), or lying on the floor blowing cotton wool balls around!

Engagement. To establish and maintain a connection with the child, focussing on them intensely and showing them that surprises and new experiences can be fun.  Some of the examples are as simple as things like doing ‘Peek-a-boo’, ‘This Little Piggy went to Market’ with your child’s toes,  and ‘Row the Boat’, changing the words at the end to use your child’s name; ‘Sarah’s such a dream’.

Nurture. To reinforce the message that the child is worthy of care, is loveable and valued, and reassure the child that the adult provides comfort and stability. Here’s a separate post on this category. This one’s all about self-esteem and has lots of touchy, physical activities. There’s rubbing of baby lotion, swinging in a blanket, singing. I’ve tried some of these out on my child and he loves them, but he’s only 5 so he’s very receptive to cuddles and physical contact. As children get older they can get harder to connect with via physical closeness, so many of the Theraplay activities are useful in finding ways to get that physical contact with an older child in a way they will accept.  For example, doing a ‘weather report’ (a sort of themed massage) or making a pizza on a child’s back, or pretending to make a sandwich on them while they lie on the floor, turns physical contact into a game and faces your child away from you so they can avoid eye contact if they wish. There are also things like elephant kisses – ‘hold both fists in front of your mouth (like a trumpet), keep one fist by your mouth as you make a kissing noise. Move your outer fist towards the child’s cheek, completing the kissing noise with a flourish as you touch the child’s cheek.’ – A great way to give a kiss, show affection and connect with a less receptive child without invading their personal boundaries.

Challenge. To promote feelings of competence and confidence by helping the child take a slight risk using a fun activity that is cooperative rather than competitive.  These include activities like balancing on towers of pillows or keeping balloons in the air with certain body parts.

The area I struggled with the most was that of taking control of the play. I have always let my child lead the play as much as possible.  This is a key difference between Theraplay and child centred play therapies.  The Theraplay website explains this in more detail:

” In Theraplay the adult is in charge–structuring the treatment, attuning and adjusting to the needs of the child, providing nurture and challenge. In this way, the child who is accustomed to being bossy and controlling has her familiar defense mechanisms challenged. An oppositional child usually believes that the world is an unsafe place, and he cannot count on anyone to take care of him. Theraplay’s directive model challenges these assumptions. The therapist maintains control, gently but assertively using Theraplay activities to change the child’s view of himself and the world.”

It’s also interesting that some of the activities are ones that parents have been doing with their children for many years and have been passed down through generations – we are all engaging in some Theraplay without knowing it.  Whilst some activities seem like baby games, the idea is to re-nurture children who may have missed out on these things as a baby. Also, it’s surprising how much older children will enjoy what we perceive to be baby games – I think every child can benefit from being ‘babied’ every now and then, especially in a society where there’s so much pressure on children to grow up so quickly.  There are many activities to choose from, and many of them can be adapted to suit a particular age.

Whilst most children are lucky enough to have had a great start in life, I think all children need a little nurture, confidence building, and connection from time to time, and Theraplay seems like a great idea. So watch this space – I may decide to do a series of posts giving more examples of Theraplay activities.