by Bettina Hohnen & Clare Gates
An unforeseen consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown is that many families are being forced into close proximity, working, playing and learning all at home. Parents may feel burned out after weeks of having to be everything for their kids. A neuroscientist might argue that the stress of lockdown is having a greater impact on our children than us as their brain circuits are undergoing dramatic change. The young brain is more vulnerable to negative experiences – while also being more receptive to learning and growth. There are many things we can’t change in this Covid-19 adjusted world, but we can think about how to put our relationship with our children to best use as lockdown stretches out before us. Through our relationship, we have the power to reduce the negative impact of this disconcerting situation on our kids, as well as teach them invaluable skills they can draw on for the rest of their lives. We can turn to the idea of attachment, one of the oldest psychological theories, to help.
Parent as an emotional battery charger
Attachment theory, first proposed by John Bowlby in the 1950s, tells us that a child needs at least one attuned caregiver to consistently read and respond to the child’s emotional needs. This is not a luxury, but an essential requirement in order for normal development to take place. The attuned caregiver helps the child to understand what they are feeling and what they need; they teach the child over time that any difficult emotion they are feeling is tolerable and will end. It’s helpful to think of the primary caregiver in this role as a kind of emotional battery charger for the child, whose caring, attuned presence is the currency for that charge. The child is able to explore and learn with greater confidence, knowing they can turn to their caregiver for support and soothing when they need it.
A brilliant visual ‘map’ of this attachment system is provided by the Circle of Security programme. This can help parents and caregivers to reflect on their role as the ‘secure base’ and ‘safe haven’ for their children – represented by the hands in the visual above.
The concept of ‘being with’
One of the lynchpin concepts of the Circle of Security programme is the notion of Being With. This is a deceptively simple term – it refers to the capacity to share and affirm another person’s emotions and experiences. It is how we can help to recharge our children’s emotional batteries.
Being with is the state of mind where we commit to accept and validate whatever our child is feeling, good or bad, painful or pleasurable, exciting or scary. Having a caring adult simply accept everything a child is expressing teaches the child that whatever they are feeling can be managed. They do not need to hide or to feel ashamed.
Being with might look like this; child: I don’t want to finish playing on the PlayStation. Adult: You love playing that game so much! OR Child: I feel so sad about not being able to go to the end of school party. Adult: That is really tough. I know how much you were looking forward to that.
To have another human being simply accept all our feelings unconditionally is a fundamental human longing. When we are hurt or angry, we all want our partner to say “that’s so tough”, rather than give us a solution or tell us where we went wrong. All of us want to be related to and not fixed.
However, research shows us that there are stages in our lives when being with is particularly critical. Being with is essential for babies and toddlers as they are learning to recognise and regulate their emotions. It is also essential for teenagers as they are often overwhelmed by new and intense feelings that they are unable to manage alone.
By not having to hide their emotions from their parents, children learn to tolerate these feelings in themselves and in time, they can get through any situation because they have internalised that ability to self-regulate.
The point is that it’s not the trips to the cinema, the holidays or the shopping, all of which we can’t give to our children right now, that will make them happy and resilient in life. You have the greatest gift of all in the palm of your hands, which is your attention and willingness to be with them in all their feelings in this lockdown.
‘Being with’ in action
Things you can do to be with your children right now:
- Expand their emotional literacy while at home by naming emotions: yours, theirs and others (e.g. on the TV) and help them identify what they are feeling.
- Honour their bids for attention when they approach you, try to give your full attention. If you can’t at that moment, identify a time when you will be able to later and ensure you stick to that.
- When they are crying and missing their friends and their teachers, give them a hug and tell them that it is really tough while assuring them that they will feel better later.
- When they are angry or rude, tell them that is not ok but also let them know you are interested in what is bothering them and want to talk it through with them to see if you can help when they are ready.
What gets in the way
Being with can be really hard and even feel counter-intuitive for different reasons, such as:
- We want to fix things. Being with can be quite passive. It does not necessarily involve talking or action. In fact, just sitting next to your child when they are crying, with your arm around them is being with. As a parent we want to fix things and solve the problem. But before we can help our children to address the issue, they need us to acknowledge and be with their pain.
- We want our children to be happy. This is at the root of our desire to fix things when our children are upset – it can be hard for us to see them in pain. But difficult feelings are a part of life. Having the experience of a caring adult who is not overwhelmed by their ‘big feelings’ helps children to feel safe. So resist trying to minimise their sadness (“your end of school party wouldn’t have been that great anyway”), and take this valuable opportunity to teach them that there is a safe place for their difficult feelings.
- We focus on the behaviour. When children are rude or misbehave we can struggle to be with them, because we feel we need to correct the behaviour. However, by just focusing on the behaviour we miss the opportunity to find out what they are feeling underneath and indeed, teach them what is driving their behaviour. Despite evidence to the contrary, children don’t want to be naughty. They need help separating out feelings from behaviour, and they need someone to accept their feelings, be it jealousy or anger, so they can process them. It is possible to be with an emotion while at the same time holding a boundary, for example, “it’s okay to feel angry but it’s not okay to be rude to me”.
- We don’t want to indulge negative or ‘attention-seeking’ behaviour. Many parents unconsciously think that by ‘indulging’ their child’s emotions they will make things worse and by telling them not to feel that way, the feeling will go away. But research shows us that when children’s feelings are blocked from expression, they are more likely to feel overwhelmed and misbehave or internalise that feeling. By being with emotions can be more quickly worked through. They (and we) may not like their feeling or their behaviour, but even the hardest feelings and behaviours are there for good reason. As the adult in the room, we must hold onto the fact that it is only a feeling. It can be overcome and this will happen more quickly and effectively with us at our child’s side.
Being with emotions in lockdown
With the pervasive message that we are not safe in the age of coronavirus, children’s ‘attachment’ systems are triggered. At the same time, right now parents are also juggling running a house, working and being a teacher. When on a work call a parent can’t respond to a child’s emotions and the more the child sees her parents attention elsewhere, the more they crave it. Instead of “I can’t deal with it now”, try this; reframe your child’s need for attention as a need for connection – children need to know they can always come in to ‘recharge’. Then take a moment to tell them you see they are struggling and while you are on a work call now, you want to hear all about it later. If you do this and see through on your promise over and over again, they will learn to trust that later you can be with them in whatever they are going through.
The tricky thing is that we all struggle to be with different emotions in our children, depending on our experience and what emotions our parents could tolerate in us. An insightful parent will take the time to work out what emotions they find hardest in their child and therefore which ones they struggle with the most. The more we understand ourselves as adults, the better able we are to be with our children in whatever they bring to us.
We find ourselves now in a natural experiment of enforced family time where our relationships with our children are more important than ever. As the originators of the Circle of Security say, the gift of being with our children in all their feelings is the greatest gift we can give them, one that will serve them well for many years to come. Lockdown is an opportunity to do just that. If you get it right now, the future will be brighter not only for your relationship with them but for all future relationships in their lives.