Recently, I watched a lovely exchange between two children that seemed somewhat benign on the surface, but really started me thinking about our children’s capacity to think, to feel understood and heard. This young boy and girl were looking through some photos. As they looked at the pictures together, the young boy stopped her and said: “So, what were you thinking about here”. She looked at him, thought about it for a while, and then proceeded to tell him a little about the game she was playing with her friends, and what they were trying to do together.
I wondered how it felt for this young girl to have an experience of thinking about her thoughts, her feelings and to link it to a tangible experience. And, more importantly, to have this exchange with someone else who was interested. We so often miss the importance of stopping and asking the simple questions like; ‘I wonder what you were thinking’, or ‘how did that make you feel’.
As a parent sometimes, life gets so busy that we are often trying to get ourselves and our child through experiences. There is a need to get to school, or to an appointment, or to get the shopping done. This is important, and we do need to show our children that we are in charge and can navigate them through tricky moments. And yet, I wonder if there may be small moments within this where we can engage our child in knowing that they are understood. This is never more important than when we have young children who struggle to put into words their experience.
What our children need?
Therapists and Researchers often talk about this through specific technical concepts which can be interesting to explore but can get confusing. In a less technical sense, what our children need us to do is to see the world through their eyes, consider their feelings, and wonder how this impacts their behaviour. Sometimes doing this allows us to change our perspective on everyday tough moments and to think about the meaning behind our children’s behaviour. What we also know, is that as we do this, our children experience being understood. We may never have all the answers about what they may be thinking or feeling, but it is our capacity to reflect that helps us find a way to connect with our child.
How does this look in a practical sense?
Years ago, I remember struggling through a shopping centre with my screaming toddler. In this moment, I felt the eyes of every person on me. There was a feeling of loneliness, and a sense of no clear escape.
As parents, I am sure you can identify with similar experiences. I had a few choices here. I could give up and never go back to shopping centres again with my child (which sounds tempting). I could talk with my toddler about behaving appropriately in shopping centres. I could bribe them with a toy to help us get through, which could work for a while. I could take them back and say ‘well my child will scream again and that’s the way things will always be between us’.
Life with children presents us with many moments like this one. When things get tough, it is tempting to get into the habit of blaming ourselves and our children, or feeling incredible guilt that makes us lose confidence in ourselves as parents. It takes courage sometimes to give ourselves permission to:
- Wonder about our child’s mind – Did this shopping experience seem too much for you?
- Think about how they may see the world – Do you just need a quiet space for a moment?
- Consider their feelings – Does the noise feel too much when you are tired?
- Respond in a considered way – This is too much for you right now, we can leave and try again soon.
- Not have all the answers – You are having a tough time, it is okay, we will get through this.
What can help?
It is really important to consider a child’s development age, any developmental need or problem, and the context of difficult experiences between the two of you. Talking it through with someone like a parent-child therapist can often give you a way to think about how to navigate tricky situations with your child, hold onto your own confidence, and find a way to move forward for both of you.