Feeling worried about how to parent effectively through change? In this conversation, child and family therapist Heather Scott shares reassurance and sage advice to help you navigate parenting, even (especially) when you feel like you aren’t getting it right. Heather is accepting new clients online, and you can find her here.
- Practice Emotion Coaching:
- Be aware of your child’s emotion
- Recognize your child’s expression of an emotion as an opportunity for connection and learning
- Be empathetic to your child’s feeling
- Help them connect their feeling to a word
- Provide alternative effective ways for child to express emotion
- Practice 30-second “blasts of love & affection” throughout the day
- Recognize that your child’s brain isn’t fully developed, and consider the role your own emotions and modeling openness and effective repair has on your child
- Attunement, or responding to emotions, is the bedrock of healthy attachment: the emotional safety net of love
Bryn: I almost don’t need to say too much to introduce today’s topic. For most parents right now just saying the words “parenting” and “COVID” in the same sentence is more than enough to bring up lots of emotion. Also, it’s summer… that time that used to involve day camps, playdates, time with grandparents. For many parents, surviving work and kids day by day is an achievement worth recognizing. Today I’m talking to child and family therapist, Heather Scott, about parenting during turbulent times. Heather has a master’s degree in couples and family therapy, and works with both children and adults at the Child, Adolescent and Family Center of Ottawa, also known as CAFCO. I’m Bryn Savage, and this is The Plum-Line, a podcast on mental wellness. Heather, Hi. Thanks for joining me.
Heather: Thanks for having me, Bryn. Such a pleasure to be here.
Bryn: So, Heather, parenting is hard at the best of times, even without a global pandemic. Could you tell me about how parenting was changing even before this situation came up?
Heather: Parenting is so hard. One of the first things I try to remind all parents I work with is that they’re already doing an incredible job as parents. The fact that you as a parent are actively seeking help tells me that. The fact that you listening are taking the time to learn more, tells me that you’re already doing a pretty stellar job with this parenting business. If you’re taking the time to listen to a podcast on parenting in the midst of a global pandemic, my hat is off to you. Having said that my initial response to your question Bryn, is that I don’t think the fundamentals of parenting have changed drastically in the past 50 years. And I say that because the core need for love and attachment for both parents and children remains the same. It’s pretty timeless. However, the landscape in which parents are attempting to meet this core need of their children, of course, is in many ways, unrecognizable. Parents that I regularly work with are facing a myriad of challenges, and they’re attempting to do so in what could be called a goldfish bowl. Through technology and social media parenting is scrutinized and on display in a very obvious way that I don’t think was as prevalent 50 years ago. So parents are able to compare and contrast their own parenting with the parenting of others at the swipe of a screen. There’s an onslaught of information that parents are bombarded with and endless opinions on the quote unquote right way of parenting that they have to sift through. We have an instant access to information, but rather than easing worry and parenting stress, this onslaught of information can, I think sometimes serve to heighten it. And I think this is a key change that we can identify within the past 50 years.
Bryn: And then we add on the global pandemic, right?
Heather: Exactly. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is that every single parent I see walks through my office door out of love for their child and a longing to be the support that their child needs. They may be frustrated. They may be at their wits and they may be angry or sad, but every one of these emotions is motivated by love and attachment to their child. A global pandemic hasn’t changed that, but it has heightened individual and collective stress increased the periods of concentrated time that parents are spending with their kids. And really demanded the seemingly impossible of many parents work full time, parent full time and teach full time.
Bryn: I’m trying to remember; I think it’s Sheryl Sandberg talks about the double-double shifts; specifically, that women are doing and you’re right. There’s working full time, parenting full time, teaching full time. There’s no being yourself full time. I think that makes it onto that list.
Bryn: And I think one of… yeah, I think one of the universals that all parents I’m talking to struggle with is just keeping it together emotionally as a parent, you know, there’s so many of the external resources or distractions that we’re used to aren’t there. And it’s really tough for people to keep it together.
Heather: Talk about difficult. As a parent you know, you’re supposed to have the patience and regulation that your developing child doesn’t. But hey, you’re also human. You need supports and breaks from parenting. And during this time in particular, you’re suddenly getting a less of these necessary things. For example, I’ve had parents say to me, “my child is a mini version of my partner. I’m able to stay calm, but then my child will say something that pushes my buttons. Or that I know I’ve heard my partner say, and then I lose it.” We can call this losing it experience, flipping our lid. You’ll know it when it’s happening. Psychiatrist, Daniel Siegel has researched and written extensively on this concept. And he identifies that when kids get upset, they respond from a more instinctual, emotional and reactive part of their brain that fight or flight part. And during this time, the more developed, rational cognitive part of the brain has flipped off. Meaning that not only are kids not responding with their developed, logical brain, but that they actually cannot access it at all. So when your kid turns into a mini version of your partner and pushes your buttons, your own brain will go through a similar process. And you may notice yourself starting to respond from the instinctual fight or flight part of your brain. The difference for as a parent is that you have greater capacity and brain development and can notice this happening and choose to pull on your more advanced cognitive functions. So parenting well starts with emotional attunement, knowing what your child is activating or triggering internally for you and taking care of that part first. So that you can respond to your child appropriately rather than from the part that has been triggered. And this may look as simple as realizing that you’re about to flip your lid and stepping out of the room, so that you can take a few deep breaths or getting a cold glass of water or going into the backyard for a few beats. I could talk about this all day long. I find it a fascinating concept, but Google Daniel Siegel and the hand brain model, and you’ll find some great resources that may be helpful, not only for you as a parent, but also for your kids. Most kids that I work with grasp this concept of flipping their lid right away, especially during this period of time, your internal resources as a parent are going to be lower. You don’t have the same routines, the same childcare supports or easy access to breaks, distractions or things that maybe you love to do for yourself. So, you’re going to be flipping your lid more and that’s natural. But knowing this process is happening in your brain can help give you options on how to respond.
Bryn: I remember when I was pregnant with my daughter, my uncle said to me — my uncle who has twins — said to me, you’re going to have moments where you just need to put the child down and go for a walk. And at the time, of course, I didn’t recognize that or I… you know, hadn’t experienced that, but I get it now.
Heather: Wise uncle.
Bryn: Yes, exactly. So you mentioned attunement, Heather. Could you could you define that?
Heather: Attunement. It’s such a popular word these days. In this context, I’m talking about emotional attunement. Which simply means recognizing, engaging with and understanding the emotional state of another person. We actually do it constantly as human beings often quite unconsciously. So for example, think about when you can tell your partner is mad and you try to avoid a conflict by talking about other things. Or maybe when you anticipate your child is going to burst into tears because they lost their favorite stuffy and you rush in to distract them. You’re already operating at a level of emotional attunement.
Bryn: And in a practical sense, what does that actually mean for how we operate with each other?
Heather: So, as I was saying, as human beings, we’re already acting in a way that is motivated by how emotionally attuned we are to the people that matter to us. Be it your spouse, your boss, or your child. But when we’re talking about emotional attunement that is aimed at connectedness, something really beautiful can start to happen. So you remember the brain model and the flipping the lid that we were talking about before. As parents, when we attune and respond to our child’s emotions first and later, respond to their behavior, three incredible things start to happen. So first the instinctual primitive part of your child’s brain starts to calm down because it’s being soothed. And then second, your child feels connected to you and deeply heard, which strengthens your relationship with them as well as their sense of self thereby increasing their self-esteem and their confidence. And then thirdly, your child calmed brain can now access logic and reason found in that more developed part of the brain. Opening the way for problem solving and for an understanding of consequences. And bonus, you’ve just coached your child by your own modeling on how to cope with big feelings. This is mind blowing stuff. This is an incredible boost to your child’s development and identity. John Gottman has done some amazing research around this. And his team’s tools on emotion coaching are really invaluable in learning how to integrate this kind of response to your child. So emotional attunement, pardon me, when your child is yelling, looks like identifying and validating the emotion first, by saying something like, wow, it seems like you are so angry. And that must be so hard because feeling angry can be such a big feeling. Now, I have so many parents tell me that they’re worried that doing this will send the message to their kid, that it’s okay to yell and act angry. So, I always clarify by telling them that validating your child’s emotion does not mean condoning their behavior. It’s just that we can’t problem solve and impose consequences when your kid’s so dysregulated that their brain has flipped because those consequences won’t register any way and your child is going to end up feeling unheard and missed. And like what they feel doesn’t matter to you. So start by validating those big feelings first. And as your child comes down, you can then switch into a discussion on why it’s not okay to yell and scream and throw things. And then problem solve together on how to do it differently next time.
Bryn: And I think one of the things that is so common then too, is that a child who’s feeling missed then only gets louder and more irritating.
Heather: Exactly. There’s that protest.
Bryn: Yeah. And I think in some ways that also, I mean, that happens in adult relationships as well. And so the power of modeling this to kids is really significant. It’s a really big factor in their wellbeing. And in their ability to cope with the world as it is right now. Right?
Heather: Yes. Absolutely.
Bryn: And coming back to the shortened fuse piece. Sometimes we get that attunement wrong. So what, then?
Heather: We’re going to get it wrong. Quote, unquote, wrong. Probably the majority of the time. And that’s okay. For example, research indicates that new moms are going to be miss attuned to their babies the majority of the time. At least initially. But this initial misattunement actually research shows us isn’t what determines secure and healthy attachment. Rather it’s those new moms who realized after the fact that they miss something and adjusted how they were caring for their new newborns, that actually ended up fostering, secure and healthy attachments with their children. John Gottman, again, talks about the good enough parent and his research identifies that if parents can emotionally attune 40 percent of the time, they’re doing pretty well. 40 percent of the time. That’s less than half of the time. There’s also something so invaluable about showing your child that parents make mistakes, too. Modeling how to apologize and repair things when you’ve gotten it wrong, it can be such a powerful time of connection and learning for your child.
Bryn: And that’s just… I mean, it’s just such a relief for me to hear as a mom.
Heather: Absolutely. As parents, we need to hear that we’re doing a good job. That we aren’t messing up. Getting it right once or twice a week is actually doing pretty well. And remembering that at the end of the day, children are by nature resilient. These can be such helpful truths to hold onto.
Bryn: I want to come back to something that you mentioned a few minutes ago, which is attachment. It’s a really big word that I think is really important to understand. Could you talk about that?
Heather: Attachment is… it’s a concept born out of research that looks at how humans seek out connection and then maintain contact with significant people in our lives. We see this connection and contact most often with our earliest caregivers and then later with our partners. Attachment to a significant person like a caregiver or a partner provides a safe haven. Kind of like a safety net when life gets unpredictable, as well as a secure base. So kind of like a strong, safe house or home from which we can go out from and explore the world, knowing we can always come back to the safety and security of that base of that haven. As adults, we feel this attachment in our romantic relationships. We know our partner is our person. And we can experience loss when we’re separated from them, as well as that tug to seek them out and maintain contact. So, that can sound pretty abstract and theoretical. So what does that actually mean for kids and parents? Simply put a strong, secure attachment to your child does not mean helicopter parenting and following your child’s every single breath and movement. Instead, it means being responsive to your child when they seek you out. Providing comfort for them when they’re upset or scared, and then giving them encouragement to go out from you to try new things with the reassurance that there is that safe haven that you are that safe Haven and secure base, that safety net for them to come back to. And most parents are doing this already. So secure attachment doesn’t mean that your child never leaves your side. But rather that your child is confident that in leaving you, they know with certainty that they can always come back and you’ll be there. And we’re not just talking physically, but emotionally too. There’s a back and forth dynamic here. There’s this give and take, a push and a pull. Dr. Sue Johnson, who employs attachment theory to explain the coupler relationship talks a lot about this. And I’ve taken the Liberty of adapting one of her brilliant and insightful phrases to capture the essence of attachment with the phrase, “hold me tight. And then let me go.” And I think we see that a lot with children,
Bryn: And it’s also — that’s a bit different from the pop psychology version of attachment that we hear a lot about. And I think gets kind of twisted into something of an anxious or a preoccupied experience for someone parents.
Heather: Very much. So, I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what a secure attachment for your child actually means. I love thinking about it using those phrases of secure base and safe Haven that we were talking about before. The circle of security theory, check it out. It’s great. Uses the image of a tree and talks about how the more secure your child’s attachment in you as their safe base is, the more that they’re going to feel able to go climb a tree or take a risk or learn something new or grow. Because they know they have you as their safe Haven, that safety net to come back to, if they fall from that tree, scrape their knee and get scared. You can foster secure attachment with your responsiveness and your emotional accessibility to your child. When they come running from falling from a tree, you get to say, wow, that must have hurt so much that you fell. It sounds like it was scary. I’m here. Would you like a hug? What do you think you can do differently next time? So, you don’t fall from the tree. I know trying again is scary. And I also know you can do it. I’ll be here waiting for you.
Bryn: And that makes the tree seems so much less scary as well.
Bryn: And by extension the world is less scary when you have that safety net.
Heather: A hundred percent. That’s the link.
Bryn: Can we talk about how hard it is to work from home while parenting full time?
Heather: Yes. Talk about a Herculean effort. Seriously, sometimes I think parents truly are the real superheroes particularly during this pandemic, I’m struck by how extraordinary the parents I work with are. They’re exhausted. They’re overworked. And frequently they tell me they feel like they’re, pardon my language, half-assing everything in their lives. Their jobs, their parenting, their relationship with their partner, their health. And still, they get themselves into my office virtually right now and say, I want to do better. Something I cannot stress enough to parents is that you’re already doing an exceptional job. Truly, if a parent feels remorse that they’re not doing enough as a parent, that tells me right away that they’re doing a good job because they’re attuned enough to their child to feel bad about misattunement. And they’re seeking help and doing that adjustment and repair piece that we talked about earlier that ultimately cultivates attachment connection and growth. I often tell parents, you do not have to get it right all the time. Aim for a moment of connection with your child in a week. One practical tool, I stole from Sue Bratton and Gary Landreth, who’ve done lots of wonderful work in the area of children and play is the concept of 30 second bursts of attention. Most parents, no matter how busy have 30 seconds to spare. And all this tool really means is that you take 30 seconds to out of the blue, shower attention on your child. Maybe you’re passing through a room they’re in, stop to hug them and engage, really engage with them. And then leave them wondering where the heck that came from? There’s this neurological and physiological power to your presence. And 30 seconds, trust me is enough time to activate it.
Bryn: I remember reading research that stated it was originally done in 1965 and moms spent six and a half hours of quality time with their kids per week, while dads spent one and a half hours. And then in 2016, that number had nearly doubled for moms. So, we’re talking 13 hours per week for moms and quadrupled for dads.
Heather: Wow. That’s a huge jump. And I hear in that again, that most parents are doing the very best they can and that their very best is more than enough. I’m not familiar with that specific research, but you’re identifying an increase not only of time spent together, but quality time. That kind of time is so important to your child. And again, I want to express how extraordinary your parenting already is.
Bryn: But a lot of parents are feeling so guilty about the amount of screen time their kids are getting.
Heather: Absolutely. Particularly during COVID. I know a lot of parents are resorting to the iPad babysitter. And being buried under a mountain of guilt because of it. Again, I can’t stress enough that you’re doing the best you can as a parent, during an unpredictable and extremely destabilizing period. And you’re not irreparably damaging your child by doing this. Having said that it’s something important to highlight. I know the refrain from almost every child I’m working with lately is, “I’m bored.” And something I explore with them and their parents is that boredom is not necessarily a bad thing. Creativity, invention, and self-regulation can all actually be born out of boredom. I think it’s a natural response to restrict technology use as punishment, or desperately out of guilt for how much your kid is being on it. However, where possible try to explore alternatives to technology with your child, maybe instead of a flat, no, you can’t use my phone. Try that validation piece. I know you’re bored and miss your friends. I can imagine that this is a hard and lonely time, and I’m not as available too because I’m working. Let’s think of some things you can do instead and set a time and time limit for using the iPad later. Essentially, what we’re trying to avoid is kids using technology as a self-regulation tool. And you may notice we do this as adults as well. Just consider how often you reach for your own phone when you’re upset or you’re anxious, or you need a distraction. Having boundaries on technology is healthy. But the most effective boundaries are those that are established ahead of time with the collaboration and the input from your child. So rather than a reactionary, you can’t have the iPad for the rest of the week. Because you as a parent are feeling angry or feeling guilty or know it’s the only way to get your child to behave, or maybe just to listen to you. Especially right now, your child, just like you is likely feeling disconnected from their friends and the world. And technology is a way that they get linked up again. So, don’t be too fast to remove that from them without replacing it with an alternative source of comfort and connection first.
Bryn: The thread that runs through everything that you’re saying is both that kids are resilient, but then also that you are experienced as a person translates into the type of parent that you’re able to be.
Heather: That’s beautifully put Bryn. I think that is the golden thread that runs through my work with children and families. A lot of the therapy work I do involve supporting parents in recognizing the importance of their own internal world and emotional state. It’s hard to give a child something you didn’t receive growing up. And it’s hard to parent in a way that you weren’t parented. There’s real importance in taking care of yourself and in taking care of your relationships. Children are resilient and we’re quick to recognize their vast potential. It’s my joy and my privilege in working with parents to identify with them their own vast potential and value, and to gently remind them of what an extraordinary, an exceptional job they’re already doing. If I could speak one phrase to any parent listening, it would simply be, you are such a good, good mom. You are such a good, good dad. Please take good care of you.
Bryn: You’re bringing tears to my eyes.
Heather: It’s so true.
Bryn: Heather, it was such a pleasure talking to you today.
Heather: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you as well, Bryn. Such a joy.
Bryn: Heather Scott is a child and family psychotherapist practicing in Ottawa. You can find out more about her practice as well as podcasts on other topics on our website from plumtherapy.com. I’m Bryn Savage, and this is The Plum-Line, a podcast on mental wellness.