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Some Useful Tips for Surviving the First 5 years of Parenthood: Part 2

Do you ever feel like you are going crazy as a parent? Do you ever think your child is going crazy, and something is wrong with them? Well you sort of are going crazy and so is your child, and its normal! However, as a family therapist I would say that this is a “crazy time”, in which there is no other time in life in which there is such rapid change and growth occurring in our children, and ourselves. We are flying by the seat of our pants and we can’t (literally) stay still for long before we experience another new challenge and changing circumstances.

It can feel crazy when your child is in their limbic system (the emotional brain) and acting like they are in a war zone in which they need to fight it out. The fight/flight reaction (which stems from the limbic system) can be triggered in ourselves as parents as well, in which we can resort to fighting back and/or giving up and feeling like we lost the war. What do you notice is your most common reaction in emotionally intense times with your kids?

What is interesting about this phase of family life is that most of the growing and communication is done non-verbally (or pre-verbally), as children have not yet developed their language skills enough to express themselves directly. We are figuring things out as parents on an experiential level, in which we read our child’s cues and make guesses as to what they are “saying” and what they need. Similar to communicating with our pets and animals, it can be on a deeper level as we communicate often by our emotional states and behavioural actions.

Two helpful concepts that complement the brain developmental research are Projection and Splitting (which originate back in the days of Freud and Psychoanalysis). Projection is one method of communication, usually out of our conscious awareness, that means that children will make us feel what they cannot yet express with words. Developmentally, children at times need to experience and express their emotions in BIG ways in order to understand themselves and the variety of emotions in their inner world. Their feelings can feel scary when extreme, and feel like they have the power to destroy themselves and others. It is so important that we as parents don’t feel scared or threatened by these feelings, and provide the support and containment they need so they can learn to feel their feelings in safer and more manageable ways (further ideas will be written in a future blog on how to be firm but fare in our approach to parenting children while going through strong emotionally reactions). As children ‘communicate’ or ‘spew’ BIG emotions to us as parents, we literally feel them with our kids through the process of projection. This allows us to share our child’s experience and through co-regulation (the process of helping kids regulate their emotions through managing our own emotions), we respond to our kids in a calmer more ‘digested’ manner.

Because young kids go through so many extreme emotions, we discover as parents some very dark places in ourselves and have very strong feelings (intense love and connection, as well as intense anger, sometimes even hatred, dread, disgust, etc) as we feel the extreme feelings of our kids. Projection is a useful way of understanding that our strong feelings are not just our feelings, but we are also picking up on the feelings in our kids. When we personally have had such experiences in other areas of our life, this can be a dangerous time as we are vulnerable to act out our strong emotions onto our kids. As we learn to support our kids to learn more about how to manage their own feelings, it can be a time when we as parents need to identify and learn more about our own strong emotional reactions in order to bring our best self to our parenting. Sometimes, accessing the support of a professional can help you do this.

Another useful concept to remember when witnessing our child’s emotional development is Splitting. It is developmentally normal that young children do not have a mature understanding of emotions, and often categorise things into good and bad. They have good emotions sometimes, and bad emotions other times. This can also be projected onto others, such as when kids say in anger “Bad Mum” or “Best Mum in the world”. Sometimes parents can have turns at being the most or least favourite parent as well (which can activate a feeling of rejection in parents). This is all very normal as children grow in their brain regions and develop more complex understandings of emotions, and form an appreciation that everyone has good/bad parts of themselves, and that’s OK. By understanding the concept of Splitting, our job is NOT to reinforce the Splitting by having a strong reaction to them. For example, it is not helpful to say “I love good Johnny, not mean Johnny”, “how dare you call me Bad Mum”, or directly or passively reject your child when they are feeling more closely connected to the other parent. Instead, it could be more helpful to say "I know your angry right now Johnny because I had to take your toy, but I still love you" for example.

The emotional time of early family life can be at times a confronting place of intense emotions, as well as an opportunity to grow in emotional maturity and be awe-inspired by what it means to be alive and in close relationships.

Stay tuned in as I will be posting Part 3 soon which will talk more about anger and aggression in this early phase of family life.

Be kind to yourself...

Dr Mark

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