As part of the research for the several writing projects I have on at the moment I have returned to books from an earlier career, that of writing and delivering parenting programmes and training for those who work with parents. I was lucky enough to work with a colleague who introduced me to books by child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, paediatrician T.Berry Brazelton and Ellen Galinsky from the Families and Work Institute in New York. Yes, all American. Another inspiration for us was the National Center (sic) for Infants, Toddlers and Families – Zero to Three, based in Washington DC and I’m delighted to say that they are still offering the same high quality, realistic and accessible support to parents of under threes http://www.zerotothree.org/
It wasn’t that people in the UK weren’t thinking about children and families – John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, was a Brit after all, it was just that these Americans seemed to be able to write about relationships between parents and children and the child’s view of the world in a different way. A way that did not judge parents but understood that they might quite reasonably need support themselves (some more than others) to provide the care that would help their children thrive…that took for granted that parents go through stages of growth and change alongside their children and that every ordinary parent needs some help and support from time to time. All in language that anyone who likes getting information from books could understand.
This was from a time before neuro-science began to show how pathways in the brain are built through experience and repeated use and disappear if unused. I will never forget our excitement when the Families and Work Institute published Rethinking the Brain: new insights into early development by Rima Shore and can not believe now that this was back in 1998.
In 2011 the sophisticated and demonstrable insights provided by neuro-science – much of it of course confirming earlier work by people such as Bowlby and more modern developers of attachment theory – are as a matter of course incorporated into thinking about children’s development and family relationships. But the Americans still have the edge on the Brits when it comes to integrating neuro-science with genetics and the socio-emotional contexts in which children are raised, and particularly in communicating this thinking in an accessible way. A notable exception is the book, Nurturing Natures, by Graham Music that I wrote about here on June 20th but that is still too long and complex for most busy parents to trudge through.
The new kid on the block is child psychiatrist Dan Siegel. He has written several books for professionals and parents and I am currently enjoying Parenting from the Inside Out: how a deep self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive, written with Mary Hartzell, an early childhood expert and nursery school teacher. The basic premise of the book is that parents often have left-over or unresolved issues from their own upbringing that can get in the way of tuning in to and meeting the needs of their children. And as Siegel says, we as parents are especially vulnerable to responding to our children on the basis of our past issues during times of stress. Clues to when this is happening are when a parent has uncomfortable feelings in response to something their child is doing that they cannot account for and may make them behave in a way that is unhelpful for the child, such as retreat or disassociation, or when they find themselves reacting in a way that is far too strong for the situation. Many helpful examples, some from Siegel’s own parenting experience, are given to illustrate concepts or theory where the language needs to slip into more academic realms. At the end of each chapter there is an explanation of the science involved that I sometimes find myself reading and other times skipping over. The chapter on How We Attach; Relationships Between Children and Parents gives particularly clear explanations of different attachment styles and what struck me anew (as it is something I have ‘known’ for years) was how secure attachment to parents enables children not only to create meaningful personal relationships in the future but shapes their capacity to create a coherent story that makes sense of their lives. In this way we can see that confident parents who have the emotional capacity to provide the conditions of secure attachment for their children and share information about donor conception with their children from an early age, are giving their children the tools to make sense of their story and feel comfortable about donor conception origins. We can also see from this how much that solid and secure foundation could be threatened by a young person discovering that part of all s/he thought to be true about ‘their story’ was discovered not be so after all…particularly if this news came at a vulnerable time like early adolescence.
There is much wisdom to be found in this book and I recommend it wholeheartedly to ALL parents who are willing to do some thinking and understanding about themselves in order to benefit their children. Not necessarily a comfortable process, but an important one that it is never too late to take part in.