Soothing our children makes them stronger

We know, through research, that when we are nurtured by our mothers we feel more secure and are more willing to venture out into the world.

This is an extremely simplified version of the research but it distils it simply. The child who comes home after school and their parent ignores them or brushes off what they have to say, develops insecure attachment. I like to think about this fancy term in various metaphors that help me to feel its weight.

As an outdoor rock climber, when I am scaling a rock face and the person on the other end of the rope is paying attention to me, I can feel it because the tension on the rope feels responsive. I know that if I am in trouble they are right there and will take up the slack in the rope so that if I do slip I don’t fall. They aren’t climbing the rock face for me, but they are securely attached to me so that I can push myself harder and try the harder moves. I take the risks because we are securely attached.

I imagine the same situation if I was doing a big open water swim. Many years ago, around a big bonfire I was being entertained by a father of a child I taught. He was telling me of his journey to swimming the English Channel and of the swim itself. That tale was a glorious one to listen to but the part that is relevant here is the safety boat. Manned by his wife, who had been with him as he trained and prepared for the swim, her job on the day was to be present. The rules state that he is not allowed any help at all, he isn’t allowed to touch the boat and no one can touch him. He was swimming on his own but he was not alone. His security was in knowing that if things went wrong, someone was there to look after him. They never left him, but they weren’t swimming his swim. They couldn’t physically help him, but they provided a secure ‘island’ he could reach out to if he needed it. That knowledge helped him to finish the incredibly tough swim. He tells of a moment in the swim when he looked up to make sure the safety boat was still with him and instead saw a whale, swimming with him. The boat was still there but out of sight. Even in that moment, when he couldn’t see his safe place, he knew it was there because that was its job. Not to swim with him, not to drag him along, not to rescue him unless he needed it, but to be there so if he needed it he had it.

Secure attachment starts with the boat, not with the swimmer. The swimmer can achieve amazing things because the boat is secure. In the same way that the rock climber is not the one that needs to be secure, it is the belayer that must provide that.

When it comes to good parenting, it is the parent that must be secure. That secure attachment allows your child to climb their mountains and swim their oceans. When that attachment is insecure, the child suffers. They can experience: fear of abandonment, need for validation, lowered sense of worth, fear of rejection, difficulty trusting others, fear of being vulnerable.

Your attachment style as a parent matters. Consider the small ways you interact with your child that could be giving them the message that they are not safe, that boundaries aren’t clear, that your love is perhaps conditional.

In rat studies, the rats that explored the most when placed in new environments where the ones whose mothers had groomed them as rat pups after they had been removed from the cage for short period of time. The rat pups are often picked out of the cages to be weighed and checked up on, when they are placed back in the cage, the mothers had different responses. Some rushed over to groom the pup and be with them, while others ignored their babies. The groomed pups grew up to be rats who could explore while the others fearfully clung to the outskirts of new environments. The grooming relieved any anxiety and allowed the pup to develop resilience and courage and security. Without the grooming, the pups held onto their anxiety.

It turns out, we are very similar. Children, who when they return from school, spend time with their mother or father in a connected way are soothed and become stronger and more capable. It doesn’t have to be straight away, but it happens every day.

Soothing looks like listening. Proper listening without distractions, without judgement or the need to fix anything. Allowing your child to tell you all about their day and their feelings and their thoughts without you jumping to conclusions to rallying the troops to go to battle. Just listening with compassion and love and soothing their big emotions. (Words of affirmation.)

Soothing looks like time spent together. Making dinner together, going for a walk, sitting down to focus on homework, reading at bedtime and connecting over the shared story. (Quality time.)

Soothing looks like consideration. Having the book covers at home so that their school books can be ready for the next day. Mending the bag strap that broke. (Acts of service.)

Soothing looks like a note in their lunch box, or their favourite milk drink in the fridge or some tuckshop money. (Gifts)

Soothing looks like sitting close to each other at the table, cuddling at story time, hugs, pats on the back, scruffing up their hair, holding their hand. (Personal touch.)

Soothing is acts of love. And when we feel soothed and loved and connected we feel like who we are is enough and from that place we can be brave and go into the world and explore. And we know that when it gets too much or too hard we can go back to our secure attachment and be soothed and loved and connected again.

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