You only have to be a good parent half the time

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Photo: James Di Lella

This is not another blog about parenting techniques. I feel many middle class Australians panic too much about parenting and use it as yet another guilt trip on women. This is more a blog about ‘good enough parenting’.  About stepping back from the overwhelming worry and reaching into to the core of caring.  And considering it’s Mental Health Week, it’s a blog about the future mental health of our children.

Here’s the headline. The most important thing you can do as a parent is obvious, relatively easy and only has to be done half the time for it to be powerful and effective.

Simply put it just means being emotionally available.

Fiona Carr manages a ‘Brighter Futures Program’ for the Benevolent Society which works with families at risk due to problems such as mental illness, poverty, domestic violence or drug abuse.  The parenting programs given to these families don’t focus on flash cards or whole brain stimulation, they don’t even focus on private versus public schools, discipline strategies or time out. They focus on time in.  Time spent emotionally connected in the parent-child relationship.  

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The ‘Circle of Security’ program teaches parents how to connect emotionally with their child.  

It teaches parents how to be available - if need be even showing them how to get down on the floor with their toddler. The only rule in connecting with kids is this – the parent is the bigger, stronger, kinder and wiser one in relationship. For those like me who rarely feel wise, don’t worry about that last bit.  We don’t have to be completely all knowing, we just have to try to understand.

Fiona Carr says kids are often overwhelmed by emotions – mostly the feelings of anger, sadness, fear, curiosity and shame.  Parents don’t have to always have the solution to overcoming these feelings but just being there and learning and understanding the struggle speaks volumes.  “We talk about good enough parenting it means you don’t have to be perfect ideal whizz bang masters qualified parent you just need to be in their world and be emotionally available”. 

The Benevolent Society has found that helping vulnerable families connect with their kids has improved children’s social emotional development and parent’s self esteem and life satisfaction. Fiona Carr says this has great meaning for all parents, especially in this era of high distraction, contracting out of some responsibilities, shared care and intense lives.  She says we all need to take some time to connect with our kids and not to be nervous or fearful of entering a child’s emotional world. 

If you are rolling your eyes or feeling you need to find even more time out of your day to be constantly being tethered to your child’s each and every emotional state fear not.   The theorists behind the program say you only need to be available half the time to make it highly effective.

The idea of a ‘circle of security’ has come out of attachment theory.  The theory states that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver. Such a caregiver becomes a safe base from which to explore the world and research with families has found even the most sensitive caregivers only get it right 50% of the time.  It’s known that secure children exhibit increased empathy, greater self-esteem, better relationships with parents and peers, enhanced school readiness, and an increased capacity to handle emotions more effectively when compared with children who are not secure. 

The originators of the rather obvious yet somehow rarely articulated concept are Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper and Bert Powell. Between them they have worked in homeless shelters, preschools, prisons, protective services and as foster parents, teachers, therapists for sexually abused children and for high-risk families. All aspects of their work showed them the importance of secure attachment. They spent 30 years translating research into family training. Their ‘Circle of Security’ Program is now used around the world by the Benevolent Society and other similar organisations.

Nearly all parents will use time out, threats, bribes, books, super nannies, confiscating computers and whatever they can to wrangle their kids. But at the end of the day, the most important thing they can and should do is to ensure their children feel safe and secure. Parents need to become a secure base from which they can explore the world and a safe haven to return to (until they are thirty and have well and truly worn out their welcome).

All families have different vulnerabilities.  But all need to develop their kid’s capacity to learn about intimacy, and to share emotions.  In an age where we are under enormous   pressure to get everything right, when parents feel they need skills, strategies, concepts and a PHD in parenting, Fiona Carr says it’s vital to just “relax and be in the moment”. 

Yet a warning - this does involve dealing with our own issues.  Research says the most emotionally available parent is the one who is attuned to their own emotional state. If we develop self-acceptance it is easier to provide a base for the emotional development of others. 

But, hey, I promised an easier parenting principle not total ease.