Parenting well through connection

I recently became a certified Parenting by Connection instructor through Hand in Hand Parenting (http://www.handinhandparenting.org/). I decided to take this training both because I wanted to continue to improve my parenting skills, and because I wanted to help make the lives of parents and children easier.

My own parenting story is that, like many parents, I found that parenting was much more difficult than I imagined before I had kids. Equipped with many tools that I learned implicitly from my parents that I didn’t want to use, I found myself floundering as a mother with young children. I had a vision of how I wanted to be, but didn’t really know how to put it in place. Reading parenting books and talking to other parents helped some, but I needed to learn some ways that would work, fit with my values of non-violence and attachment, as well as address my needs as a parent. In addition to the usual challenges of parenting, my son showed signs of anxiety very early in life, which turned into not speaking at school during most of junior kindergarden. We tried all the usual routes – hospitals, a children’s mental health centre, as well as a child therapist. None were that helpful, and some were downright judgmental and disrespectful to me as a parent. When my son was 7 and my daughter 4, I found out about Hand in Hand Parenting through Lawrence Cohen’s book, Playful Parenting, and found something that felt really right to me.

Hand in Hand Parenting is the organization that teaches parenting by connection, and was begun by Patty Wipfler over 20 years ago. I found that there was a lot of overlap with attachment parenting in the focus on connection, but there was a new element that fit intuitively for me as a therapist, a parent, and a former child. Along with the focus on the essential need of children to feel securely attached to their parents and caregivers, the parenting by connection approach also emphasizes the need of children to be able to offload the stress of the inevitable experiences of disconnection and of daily life in the messy, emotional ways that children know intuitively how to go about. That means not stopping children from crying through the common ways of threats or distraction, containing children through their fear and anger in respectful, warm ways, and both challenging and supporting children through life’s vicissitudes. There is also a lot of respect for parents in this approach, which felt like a welcome and warm relief. They advocate a realistic view that parents can only offer respectful attention and high quality care to children when they themselves have the opportunity on a regular basis to be listened to and to express all their own messy feelings with other adults. The cornerstone of their approach is listening, both to children and parents. Parent to parent listening is done through listening partnerships between peers, and listening to children takes place through one of four listening tools. These are special time, setting limits, staylistening, and playlistening. I’ll give a short description of each of these below.

  • Special time: This is a short, defined period of time, during which there will be no interruptions – no telephone, door, or siblings to be tended. You can use a timer if you like. The parent chooses a time where they are as free of worries and fatigue as possible, and focuses their warm attention on their child. During special time, the child is in charge of what you do. The parent follows the child’s lead, within safe limits, reversing the usual balance of power between parent and child. The parent lets their affection, interest, and approval radiate. Through this process over time, your child’s trust in you will grow and they will start to show you the areas in which they are struggling. They may start showing you how they feel scared of you when you’re angry, or think they’re not smart, or they may start to get upset over slight things, like a small hurt or the ending of special time. This is good! These are feelings coming to the surface that have been there all along, which just needed some trust to be able to come out.
  • Staylistening: This is what a parent does when a child is upset, whether the child is crying, having a tantrum, or feeling afraid. The parent stays in close contact with the child, offering their warm attention and presence. They don’t try to fix the feelings, but instead stay with the child, offering a few words of caring, until the feelings subside. The child then often feels much better, and goes back to being their more flexible, sunny selves, able to cooperate and to think well.
  •  Playlistening: This is a form of listening which helps children to bond with their parents through laughter, and to offload some of their hesitancies, fears, and worries. The parent’s role is to give the child the upper hand, allowing them to be safely in charge, while you look for ways in play to let them laugh extensively. In our culture, play often turns into competitive contests. In this kind of play, the parent ensures that the child will win out through their superior strength and cleverness. This gives children some relief from the challenges of being a child – always being smaller, less skilled, less respected, and less free to determine how things go. This looks like things such as a child pushing her dad over with her foot while he’s pushing her on the swing, over and over again, while she laughs heartily and he falls over in mock dismay and surprise. Or a parent becoming the “shy one” too afraid to go into his new school, while the child reassures his parent, and encourages him in. This allows the child to have some power over difficult experiences. If you know of issues that are worrying your child, you can try initiating playlistening around these – issues such as separation worries, fears of failing at school, sibling battles, and many others. The parent becomes the one with the trouble, and the child the one causing it, or the one with the solution.
  • Setting Limits: This is something that all parents do on a regular basis. Limits such as bedtime, TV watching, cookie eating, hitting, biting, or not doing homework. Most of us experienced these limits ourselves as children accompanied by some degree of harshness. Instead, they can be accompanied by warmth, or playfulness, and a willingness to listen to all the feelings that children have about the limits in their lives. Children naturally want to be cooperative, and when their need for connection is feeling full, they can accept limits much more easily. When they don’t feel connected, though, their brains aren’t able to think well, and they become unreasonable. This unreasonableness has often been interpreted by parents as manipulation, or some kind of “badness” that needs to be punished, whether through isolation, harsh words, or even physical punishment. Instead, we can meet this “off-track” behaviour with an approach where you limit the behaviour, but listen with caring to the feelings underneath it. An example of this is where a child is hitting another child. The parent needs to physically intervene, hold the child, gently preventing any further harm while saying, “I can’t let you do that”. The child can then struggle, cry, and rage until they feel better. Children need their parents’ or caregivers’ warm limits when they are feeling “off-track”, and will even purposely look for situations where they can get a limit to bring relief.

I will be co-leading a free teleseminar through Hand in Hand Parenting on September 12th, and leading an online Building Emotional Understanding class starting October 2nd. Information about these courses will be available on the Hand in Hand website soon, along with many other courses here: http://www.handinhandparenting.org/schedule.

Sandra Flear is a psychotherapist practising in Toronto, Canada. For more information visit http://www.therapytoronto.ca/sandra_flear.phtml.