We’re in the middle of a sea change in parenting culture. Slowly we’re seeing a growth in child-centred practices and increasing criticism of parent driven, punitive and behavioural parenting techniques (I’m looking at you Supernanny).

We know now, or at least there is increasing evidence to suggest, that ignoring unwanted behaviour can leave our children with feelings they can’t manage, that not responding to crying can increase our children’s stress, and that conditional praise can lead to shame.

Wow. That’s a big shift from the days of babies sleeping in prams at the bottom of the garden, from time out and the naughty step, from children should be seen and not heard. 

Increasingly parents are finding that tuning in to their children can be rewarding for both parties, that empathising with a tantrumming toddler can tame their tension, and that reasoning instead of punishing can have a more positive outcome.

But man, is it HARD.

When you’re faced with a screaming child, with all their red faced, sweaty, snotty RAGE of course there is a part of you that wants to shut the door, walk away and sit down somewhere dark and quiet. It’s the fight or flight response in us, and there’s something that feels pretty threatening to our primal nervous system when it’s faced with a furious infant, a frustrated baby, or the classic toddler kicking up a storm in the supermarket. You have to draw on all your resources to quiet the alarm going off in your brain and find some empathy.

There’s also a bit more to it. I’ve talked before about ghosts in the nursery , a theory which feels relevant to me daily as a parent and as a psychologist. In short, this suggests that our parenting is highly influenced by how we were parented. It makes perfect sense, that what we were taught as children becomes the glasses through which we view the world. It becomes our very reality. And even if we question the methods our parents’ generation commonly used, we’ve still got those glasses on. 

So what are we dealing with as a generation who were left on the naughty step? When we were left to cry as babies, when our tantrums were ignored, when our mistakes were shamed, then our truth became ‘that is not acceptable’. Or worse, ‘you are not acceptable’. What we might now rationally see as a child’s natural curiosity and urge to explore, was labelled as intolerable behaviour for us as children. And thus becomes intolerable to us as adults. 

So when our child throws a tantrum in the supermarket, even though we might know they are tired, hungry and annoyed, that ghost can reach up telling us ‘this is unacceptable’ and even ‘your child is unacceptable’, because that’s what we felt we were being taught all those years ago. And then not only do we have to quell our automatic response to do what was done to us, we also have to find a way to respond differently. 

So. It’s not just that we have to dampen our natural reaction to feel alarmed, it’s not just that we have to recognise and respond to voices from our past, it’s also that we might not even have a model for reaching out to our children in times of high emotion. All that and a screaming child to boot.

Let’s just pause a moment to really think about what we’re dealing with here. What happens to you, your emotions, when faced with that red faced fury. Let’s talk about love. 

Because what all these things – time out, the naughty step, ignoring unwanted behaviour – have in common is the withdrawal of the greatest reward your child can have – your attention. The idea, based on behavioural theory (which I’ve already mentioned here), is that behaviour which is not rewarded will be “extinguished”. It works great with animals. Don’t feed a dog at the table and it’ll stop asking. But for humans, with their complex emotional worlds? And tiny humans, constantly developing their sense of self? In their case, they equate withdrawing attention with withdrawing affection. 

Because what does that feel like, when someone walks away from you, when your behaviour is enough to shut down any engagement at all? Like you’re just too much, you’re un-dealable-with. And, to a small child who is completely certain that they are the cause of everything that happens around them, perhaps it feels, in that moment, that you just can’t be with them, you can’t care for them – you don’t love them.

We mustn’t forget how black and white the world is for children, how good and bad, love and hate, heroes and villains can permeate their understanding of everything. So when a parent walks away from a misdemeanour, a ‘bad’ action, there is always the question for a child ‘am I bad now?’

As children, we internalise that sense of badness, that idea that ‘bad’ behaviour cannot be tolerated, that in that instance maybe you went too far, you managed to make your parents’ love switch off for a while. So then as adults, when we mess up at work we feel a sense of total failure and wait to be found out. We have an argument with a partner and fear that this time they’ll walk away for good. Of course we can’t find the empathy for ourselves when we make mistakes, as it wasn’t there for us. So how can we find empathy for our children? 

If we’re not aware of these ghosts, and our responses to them, our temptation is to push them away. And often we push them straight into our tantrumming child. He or she becomes the child you still have in you, that bad and unacceptable child who must be sent away. It’s a relief to be away from those feelings, to have dealt with a problem in the way that feels natural to you. And, I’m going to say it, in that split second maybe your child does feel unacceptable to you, unloveable. So we continue the cycle, and our children learn, as our generation did, that they’re only loved when they’re on their best behaviour. And, as they grow up and make mistakes at work, and have arguments with their partners, they feel unacceptable too. 

How do we break the cycle? How do we learn to truly love unconditionally when we never experienced that ourselves? I’ll save that one for the next time.