If you asked a pregnant couple (before they actually become parents) what kind of parent they would like to be, most of them would say they want to be fair and kind, loving and responsive and raise their children with awareness. I do believe that this is the intent we all start with.
However, you know that once that baby arrives, it often becomes all about survival and doing whatever works. As that baby becomes a fabulous toddler with a strong will and ideas of its own, our democratic ideas on parenting can often be pushed aside as we are confronted with feeling out of control and before we know it, we are no longer parenting in the way we had ideally hoped for.
In my years working as a parenting educator, I have seen that the parenting paradigm seems to cover both ends of the spectrum. We have Authoritarian parenting which is often about very firm boundaries, punishments and rewards and using our power over children to get them to behave. This can often result in children feeling controlled, which leads to disconnection and consequently fear can run the relationship. On the other side of the parenting landscape, we have Permissive parenting which can be seen as letting the child call the shots, meeting every need of the child and never letting them get upset. This can play out in the later years with the child feeling entitled and the parents often feeling controlled.
Now there are often issues with both these styles of parenting and ideally, we like to sit somewhere in the middle, and work with what we call Democratic parenting.
A combination of loving limits and boundaries along with gentleness, close attachment, love and connection.
Over my 19 years of raising my 3 children, I instinctively looked for this middle ground when it came to raising my kids and it wasn’t until I discovered the work of Dr. Aletha Solter, who created Aware Parenting, that I felt I had found my guide to raising my kids with respect, empathy and connection.
Aware Parenting is a child-rearing approach, based on research in the fields of attachment, child development, psychotherapy, cross-cultural studies, and the neurobiology of trauma.
It’s founder, Dr. Aletha Solter, is a Swiss-American developmental psychologist who studied with Dr. Jean Piaget in Switzerland, before earning her Ph.D. at the University of California. She is the author of five books and is recognised internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline.
Aware Parenting is a form of attachment parenting and highly recommends breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing and prompt responsiveness to crying. However, Aware Parenting adds another element by recognising the stress-release function of crying in addition to its communication function.
The core message of Aware Parenting is respectful listening and tenderly nurturing the full spectrum of our children’s emotions and feelings. Not shutting them down when they are mad or angry, but helping them process their big feelings by staying close, keeping calm and connected and modeling empathy as their emotions move through them.
It also supports the mechanisms of play and laughter to help children process stress and traumas as well as build strong connections between child and adult.
The foundation of Aware Parenting is based on connection. Attuning to our children’s needs, never isolating them or leaving them alone to cry or tantrum and always looking behind the surface issue to see what is happening for the child.
Aware Parenting also focuses on teaching parents how to maintain loving limits and boundaries and looks to solve behavior problems by addressing the underlying needs and feelings. It recognises disconnection, unmet needs, lack of information, stress, and unhealed trauma as primary causes of behavior problems. It also supports Non-Punitive Discipline, not using bribes, rewards or punishments to obtain certain behaviors.
So how does this look in practical terms? In my workshops, I like to explain that children are either In balance or out of balance. When a child is ‘In Balance’ they are usually chatty, happy with whatever they are doing, being kind and gentle with others, lots of eye contact and usually a pleasure to be around. When kids are ‘out of balance’ we see all the other types of confronting behaviors. Hitting, biting, throwing things, yelling, being mean to other children or their siblings and often very defiant in nature.
In making sense of why children act out, it helps to understand why children can be ‘Out of Balance’. According to Dr. Aletha Solter:
“Children cry spontaneously after having experienced any kind of stress or trauma. The more stress there is in a child’s life, the greater will be the need to cry. There are many sources of stress in children’s lives. Illnesses, injuries, and hospitalization are cause for pain, confusion, and anxiety. Quarreling, separation, or divorce of a child’s parents can be confusing and terrifying, as can the presence of a parent’s new partner or a stepparent. Stress can result from a move to a new home, starting a new school, or the birth of a sibling.
Added to these major life stresses are all the daily separations, accidents, frustrations, disappointments, and anxieties. In a single morning at nursery school, a child can have a toy grabbed from him by another child, fall from a swing, be served a snack that he dislikes, spill paint on his new shoes, and have to wait for a late parent after all the other children have left. Even happy occasions can be stressful if they are overstimulating. It is not uncommon for young children to burst into tears during their own birthday party, for example. As if this wasn’t enough stress in a young person’s life, many children also carry the burden of very early experiences of stress or trauma, that was caused prenatally or during the birth process.”
The day to day life of a toddler can often bring about feelings of powerlessness and stress and all those feelings accumulate in their little bodies. Toddlers will often hold on to those hurts and when a safe time and place presents itself, all the build-up tension explodes, all at once. So when your little one is angry and raging because you gave them the blue cup instead of the red cup or you were giving their little sister some attention, it is their body and the nervous system trying to reset.
What is great to understand is that tears contain cortisol, the stress hormone. When we cry, we are literally releasing stress from our bodies. Tears have also been found to lower blood pressure and improve emotional well-being, provided there’s a loved one close by for support.
When children have a build-up of feelings and are on the brink of a tantrum, you may notice that nothing is right. No matter what you do, it isn’t enough and they continue to whine or be frustrated.
The amazing natural healing aspect of the human body is to help the child come back into balance. You may have noticed that after the storm has passed, (once they have released all those big feelings ) they are in a much better mood. It helps if we let our kids tantrum without trying to interrupt the process, so they get to the end of their feelings.
From an Aware Parenting perspective, the goal, when our little ones are upset, is to welcome the emotions instead of shutting them down. When a child feels safe enough to offload all those feelings of frustration, fear, anger, etc, they are able to move past them quickly. The other bonus of staying calm and holding the space for these big feelings is that it teaches our children what empathy looks like. It also creates new pathways in their brain that says I can feel these feelings and let them go. Children develop emotional intelligence when we teach them that all their feelings are okay. As they grow and develop, understanding that feelings are welcomed and held, they develop skills to speak and process what they are feeling, instead of shutting down or numbing themselves out, or acting out using violence and aggression.
In an ideal world, we meet our children’s big explosions and meltdowns with calm and empathy. However, it is often easier said than done. When our child rages or tantrums it can trigger our own fight or flight mechanism. This is especially true if we grew up in an environment where there was yelling or violence. It can tap into our own nervous system, reminding us that we can still feel those danger signals going off inside. This can lead to a need to stop the feelings quickly, for both the parent and the child. That is why we move into yelling or wanting to punish our children when they get upset. We are often in our own state of panic.
An important aspect of Aware Parenting is recognising our own traumas and hurts from our childhood. Often our own unresolved stories will surface as we parent our children. It helps if we can look at our own reactions and work through them, which will then assist us in being able to maintain a calm and balanced connection with our child.
It’s always good to remember that our role as parents is to guide and teach our children. We do this in every moment as we go about our lives. Our children learn about the world by the way we interact with it. So when it comes to teaching our children about emotional wellbeing, feelings, empathy, and compassion – then modeling it to them when they are upset, is the best education possible.
As Aletha Solter states, “Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world” and I have to say that I completely agree. I have witnessed incredible changes with the hundreds of families I’ve worked with, as well as my own personal experiences in raising my own children this way. It is possible to create harmony in the home and raise children to be the full expression of who they are.