This is the fifth post in a series on Thursdays summarizing the Power to Parent DVD course by Dr. Gordon Neufeld. I'm thrilled with the positive responses I've been hearing from readers about these concepts. I've got my fingers crossed that more of these DVD courses will be offered in the fall and the winter as I cannot recommend them enough.
This session is about preserving or restoring the ties that empower. Attachment is a stronger need than even the drive for food; it is the most significant human hunger there is. As parents, we must assume responsibility for fulfilling our child's attachment hunger. Our children are meant to belong to us, and we must assume that we are the best bet for our kids.
This is arrogance of the best possible kind - the confidence that we have exactly what our child needs. This restores us to our dignity. We can assume a generous attitude and offer the impression that there is always more to draw from. We can say, "Don't worry, I'm responsible for this relationship, I will take care of you, and this well won't run dry."
He listed these four ways that parents can take responsibility for the relationship:
1. Convey that the relationship is more important than conduct or achievement
2. Take charge of preserving a sense of connection
3. Be careful about conveying the message that the child is responsible for the contact and closeness
4. Give the impression that nothing could sever the relationship
You want to avoid the idea that your child feels they must be good to be accepted. This causes anxiety because they can't possibly be good all of the time (no one can). It's not what they do, it's who they are in relation to us. Kids need to know that the relationship will survive the issue at hand. This message must be conveyed in success and in failure. It's not about the achievement.
The parent is always responsible to mend the relationship. The child is not in charge. Saying things like, "I'll always be your mom, I'm not going anywhere" provides extra security. He also suggested using phrasing like, "Until we meet again" instead of goodbye for children who fear separation of any kind.
Use structure and ritual to cultivate connection and protect the relationship. It's important to safeguard your relationships before you lose control of them. Eating a sit-down meal together is less about the food and more about the ritual of connecting with each other. We need to impose limits which protect our child's attachment to us, and also create customs and traditions designed to cultivate a context of connection.
Refrain from using discipline that divides or hardens. Avoid using the relationship against the child. Any form of shunning, separation or withdrawal of love is harmful. We don't want to convey to our children that they could possibly lose relationship with us.
Using what children care about against them is referred to today as "consequences". This can communicate an adversarial relationship with the child, and it de-sensitizes them to caring. If what they care about is used against them, they cannot depend on us and end up hurt by us, so the caring becomes bad to them.
Avoid using threats and ultimatums to bring a child into line. If the brain becomes too afraid, we numb out our feelings of alarm, and we need our vulnerabilities. Many ultimatums are too much to bear for sensitive children, and they capitulate out of fear that they might lose the relationship, and then they harden their heart (to see this in action, read any of my posts about William in this last school year, or the ones in March 2011 when I was in counseling).
We must soften a child's heart in order to deepen the attachment and correct dominance problems. A soft heart means the child is capable of being deeply moved, curious, caring, feeling vulnerable, is scared when he or she should be, and is in touch with a range of emotions. Under a hard child is a very damaged one. It's concerning when they are numbed out and can't cry. We must work to thaw out our kids' frozen emotions.
It's important to put rules in place to preserve the vulnerability of children and not allow anyone to shame them. We can protect our kids from stress that overwhelms them, and lead the way by melting their hearts with warm words. We can say, "It's okay to feel hurt and scared." Sometimes we need to revisit upsetting experiences with our children to draw out the sadness and disappointment. As parents, we have to realize that our children are fragile and vulnerable, but often they are defended against those feelings, acting like they don't care when underneath that hard shell, they care deeply.
We must reclaim our kids if they have replaced us with something or someone else. We can fix it, but in reverse, having the resolve to remove the competition. We are the best answer for our children, and if we act with confidence, we can create an attachment void that we alone can fill, and arrange for our child to depend on us. We can do this by assuming a nurturing role and refusing to allow ourselves to be alienated.
Soft hearts are the key. This was life-changing for me, as I had been running from my own vulnerability for years and failing to nurture and grow it in my children. Now I feel like I have permission to own it for myself and value it more in others. It is significantly easier to parent when we have the hearts of our children in our hand.
One of the documents which came home from Ava's class at the end of the school year said she was smart and generous. She looked up at me with her big eyes, and said, "Do you think that's true, mommy?" In that moment, I had the power to crush her idea of herself or confirm it. I smiled and said, "Of course I do, Ava, I see that you are both smart and generous, and also a million other wonderful things." She walked away, her shoulders a little taller, and I saw again how powerful our position as parents can be, as long as our children have soft hearts that are open to us.