There can be particular challenges for parents in building healthy relationships with children born after a miscarriage or stillbirth. Parents who experience traumatic birth, post-natal depression or anxiety might also find the process more challenging. Anyone who experienced mental health problems before they got pregnant or since having children might also find it harder. When you think about it, that’s rather a lot of us – particularly during covid-19, when we know parent and child mental health problems are rising. I thought it might be helpful to talk about a few evidence based ways to boost your relationship with your child and increase their chance of developing a secure attachment style since we know secure attachment is associated with better long-term mental health, better educational and occupational success and more rewarding social relationships with others.
Dandelions vs Orchids
It might be helpful to consider whether your child is more like a dandelion or an orchid. Dandelions are able to flourish in rubbish weather without any particular care or support. Orchids are very sensitive to their environment and need particular carefully controlled conditions in order to thrive. Around 85% of children are like dandelions, with around 15% like orchids. The orchids can be particularly receptive to thriving under optimal conditions, but also particularly negatively affected by living arrangements or care that doesn’t match what they need. So for example, an orchid child may thrive in a well matched nursery placement or with a childminder they bond with, but might become anxious or disruptive in a care setting that doesn’t suit them. During covid-19, a dandelion might adapt readily to the new normal. An orchid might either thrive if aspects of it suit their needs (e.g. a shy child might benefit from smaller groups at school or nursery) or struggle emotionally with change, unpredictability or restrictions that limit their opportunity to see friends or go to preferred activities. If you can work out a way to adjust your orchid child’s environment to match their needs they could move closer towards thriving.
Research shows that children carried in baby carriers are more likely to show a secure attachment style later than children transported in a different way (Ainsfield, Capser, Nozyce & Cunningham, 1990). Baby carriers are very useful to me as a second time mum, so I was pleased to read about that study recently. I like that I can put my baby in a carrier and take my 3 year old to climb a hill, and that I can have my hands free to hoist her off a climbing frame if she gets into a pickle.
Emotion coaching is very useful with young children to scaffold emotion regulation. There are five main steps:
- Awareness of emotions in both yourself as a parent and in your child
2. Seeing emotions as a chance for learning and closeness with your child
3. Validating your child’s feelings
4. Labelling your child’s feelings for them
5. Problem solving with your child and setting limits on behaviour
Interestingly, a Randomised Controlled Trial (gold standard in psychology research), found that a meta- emotion based parenting intervention was found to be just as effective as a behavioural intervention for reducing child behavioural problems (Duncombe et al, 2016).
Catch the positive emotions
Research has shown that when parents are depressed, they are more likely to pick up on negative emotions in their children. For the child, this means they might learn not to express positive feelings and to show negative feelings more often. If this sounds familiar, it might be helpful to try to deliberately watch out for moments your child is interested in something, curious, excited or happy and aim to comment on those moments. If you show interest in these feelings, your child will (hopefully!) express them more, which is likely to boost both your and their mood as well as your relationship.
Noticing your own biases
I’m aware that I’m more hyper-vigilant than other parents to the possibility of either of my children getting hurt. This isn’t unusual for parents who have experience of miscarriage or stillbirth – after all, with that experience comes the knowledge that loss and harm are possible. There is also the possibility that children can pick up on their parent’s anxiety and learn to be anxious about getting hurt themselves, and consider the world as an unsafe place. However, my daughter is a climbing monkey, very adventurous and more than happy to engage in positive risk taking. I benefited in her early years from baby classes and toddler groups where I observed that other parents were happy to chat over a cup of tea while their toddler climbed the furniture and bumped their head – and noticed that the head bump wasn’t in fact a catastrophe. I also observed that toddlers shrug off head bumps and bruises pretty easily as long as the parent stays calm and offers comfort if wanted. It takes a village to raise a child, and we can all benefit from other parents as companions on our parenting journey. I’m probably more hyper-vigilant with my son, who was conceived after a miscarriage at 14 weeks. I haven’t been able to have the same experience of taking him to groups as a mobile baby, and feel a gap for positive role models of parental risk taking – other than my husband that is, who is extremely comfortable with that role. As such, my baby has adapted by becoming a daddy’s boy who loves playing with daddy – and has sustained some – non-catastrophic – bumps.
Self-compassion for mum guilt
As a person, I struggle to tolerate guilt and usually try to act to redress the balance. However, as a mum of two it’s tricky to avoid mum guilt in that way. My husband works long hours and during covid-19 I’ve been on maternity leave so childcare has largely been my 24/7 role. Without anyone to delegate to or share care with its impossible for either child to get much 1:1 time. When breastfeeding it’s tricky to save my daughter from all foreseeable skinned knees and head bumps. My son meanwhile can’t get a peaceful feed. I find it helps to notice and name mum guilt related thoughts and feelings. Then, I can choose how to respond. Sometimes it helps to separate what I can do something about from what I can’t. For example, I noticed I was feeling frustrated about the length of time it took my 3 year old to come to the table to have her tea, and that I was finding that this led to her not finishing her tea before I needed to take my baby for a bath. I noticed I felt guilty that this tended to mean she wasn’t offered any fruit or yogurt after her main course, because my husband resumed work after finishing his own food and didn’t offer her these either. To deal with that, I chose to set firmer limits on coming to the table on time and on clearing the table before bath time. I chose to put the fruit in the living room where my husband was working so she could still access it with supervision. On the other hand, it’s trickier to find enough opportunities for 1:1 time for my daughter while caring for a very active one year old who doesn’t like naps. As such, I use my creative problem solving skills to notice and use all opportunities I do get, and choose to hold the left over mum guilt about that lightly. During covid-19 when regular contact with friends is harder, it’s probably more important than ever for our well-being as parents to practice self-care. So when I can, I choose to be kind to myself. For example, I’m a better parent with coffee, homemade cookies to dunk in the coffee and a walk in the woods after to burn off that energy and make more – so I try to carve out time for that, even on rainy days.
If you’re reading this as a professional, I recommend Lisa Coyne and Koa Whittingham’s book “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: the clinician’s guide for supporting parents” for more reading on this topic.
If you’re reading this as a parent, I recommend “The compassionate mind approach to post-natal depression” by Michelle Cree