Are you a Distancer or Pursuer parent?

I notice that in our parenting we tend to fall with varying degrees, into one of two camps; distancer or pursuer. Although these are terms traditionally used in the context of couples (it is a universal pattern that in relationship one partner takes the distancing role and the other pursues) I think we also have these tendencies in relationship to our children.   The reason we fall into these dynamics are due to our attachment patterns. As babies if we had enough experience of being able to trust that our caregivers would respond when we needed we would become securely attached. If our caregivers weren’t always responsive, but connection was a good thing when we got it, we were more likely to be anxiously attached; constantly seeking out and reaching for connection. If our caregivers were more frightening than reassuring, we learned to keep our distance from them to feel safe, known as avoidantly attached. If we had a parent who was sometimes attentive and sometimes frightening and we couldn’t predict when, we may have developed a disorganised attachment (meaning that due to this unpredictability we couldn’t rely on an organised strategy that would ensure our needs were met so we swing between anxious and avoidant strategies in a disorganised fashion). As adults we are still governed by our attachment patterns from babyhood. You may notice you have a different pattern with your partner than you do with your kids. We can also vary either with different partners/children, or in different contexts. These patterns are hardwired in us. I’m going to describe these patterns, slightly playfully, with the awareness... read more

How befriending your life story can make you a better parent

I spent the first 5 weeks of my life in an incubator. I must’ve cried as many times as babies do during those weeks, except the nurses would only come every 4 hours. When they did come I imagine it was either to ensure I received formula via tube or to perform sometimes painful procedures. My mother came to visit each day. Apparently I used to become lively as soon as I heard her voice coming into the neonatal unit. She sang to me and held me. This experience of being sometimes so loved and sometimes so neglected left me with what they call an ambivalent attachment status. It has permeated my adult relationships, leaving me anxious and distressed when an attachment figure goes off radar.   Attachment researchers Mary Main et al discovered something incredibly enlightening in a study they dubbed the Adult Attachment interview. What they found was that they could predict with 85% accuracy, a child’s attachment status based on the coherency of their parent’s biographical narrative. What this means is that the hurts that Life deals us can impact on how coherently we can tell our life story. All the hurts we have endured; physical and emotional, accumulate in the body. When we are holding a certain level of upset from past hurts, we tend to skip around when we tell our story. Feelings come up, we go off on different tangents and remember details in the wrong order. Conversely, when we have processed these hurts, we begin to tell our story in a more objective, linear fashion.   What this study suggests is that when we... read more

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (published JUNO Winter 2020)

Click here to open pdf   When my first child was born I was so ready for him and longing to meet him. My body however wanted to freak out and be taken care of so it generated a uterine infection that left me sweaty and comatose for the first 5 weeks of my son’s life. This was the exact duration I had spent in an incubator, separated from my mother when I was born. Fast forward a year or two, being with a toddler felt mostly intolerable. The months blurred by, but the days were each one an epic, painstaking marathon, that required seemingly impossible levels of determination. The only thing preventing me from enjoying this sweet little, curious, funny person was an internal chasm of latent, unresolved feelings which made a normal day feel like I was drowning. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is usually something we associate with war veterans or people who have witnessed shocking events. But Complex PTSD is something slightly different. It can occur through a longstanding sense of not being seen and upheld by those around us when we were growing up, or an accumulation of relatively minor but frightening, neglectful or confusing experiences. Things that we tend to normalise like a parent becoming scary when angry, or never being allowed to express our emotions, or not receiving the attention and delight that we really needed, can all become internalised as complex trauma. Flashbacks are less visual and more visceral than typical PTSD flashbacks and we often don’t realise we are having one. The limbic system (emotional brain) gets activated and feelings... read more

Are you missing signals for connection from your pre-teen?

Do you ever get kinda hunkered down when it gets to bedtime, on a slighted fixated mission to just get the kids in bed? I do.   My kids were doing the usual multiple procrastination stunts and I was fielding them, on autopilot; herding the kids into bed. No you can’t have a snack you just ate a huge supper. No I’m not going to read another story. Finally they settle and I sink into a hot bath.    My 11 year old’s face appears round the door. ‘Can I get in the bath with you?’ he asks and immediately I’m telling him to go to bed, that I’ve still got another hour of work and I can’t go to sleep myself until I’ve finished it. And suddenly I interrupt myself, noticing that he obediently walks away, shoulders hunched. I’m so caught up in my own frenzied to do list and tiredness that I miss him reaching out to me for CONNECTION. He wants some time just with me while his sister is in bed. And of course I feel like the worst mother and shout after him to join me.   It’s easy to miss as our kids get older. They seem so much more independent and they reach for us less often. And when they do it can be easily missed if we are preoccupied.   Here are some of the ways I’ve noticed they reach out:   Asking you to do something for them they can do by themselves Asking to climb into your bed/bath/come with you on an errand/hang out with you and your friends... read more

Tribal hearts – this is for you!

I was really sorry to miss you folks so I pre-recorded the talks I was due to give at Tribal Hearts last weekend. So if you missed them you can watch both here.   Healing Separation Anxiety Are you struggling whenever you have to be away from your child? Does your child… get upset when you have to leave, or even at the thought of being away from you behave in challenging ways either before or after separation Would you like to… leave your child feeling safe and confident to be without you respond to your child in a way that honours their emotional needs help your child face the fear they carry about the times they’ve been separated from you In this talk I share powerful tools to reduce the stress of leaving your child and off-track behavior as you help your child feel more secure. Further info: To get started with Listening Partnerships, you might like to download my Listening Guide. You can find a Listening Partner here. You might enjoy this blog on preparing to start school. And on the subject of Listening Partnerships, here’s how you might address separation by working on yourself     Why do Kids Push Our Buttons? Ever found yourself saying the EXACT thing you SWORE you’d never say to your kids? You know you don’t want to incite shame, fear or rejection, yet sometimes they just make you crazy and losing it is beyond your control. You’re committed to being patient, available and playful, yet often you just feel so tired and overloaded that somehow they’re on a screen again... read more

Increasing closeness by lifting out separation anxiety (mine!)

So often, I’m amazed by the power of this therapeutic parenting work, to shift not just tricky behaviours, but entire patterns that I had written off as just being part of my or my child’s personality.   I’m very close to my kids, but they’ve always been kinda avoidant with me. Wanting physical contact but wriggling away from it after a few seconds and pretty much always choosing daddy over me – since they were babies. I just assumed it was how they were.   Last spring I undertook some very deep emotional work on early separation in my listening time over several weeks. It was a huge emotional project that has involved lots of protesting and crying for my mummy and it culminated in working quite intensively on this theme for a few days with my Listening Partner. The work we did felt profound and left me feeling freer, more myself and bigger in the world. My posture changed quite noticeably and I became much more assertive.   And seems like my kids could just feel it before they’d even seen me. When I picked them up from school after this emotional intensive, they both flung themselves into my arms for the first time ever! Except of course, I realised the distance had always been… in me.   They were squabbling over who got to sleep in my bed or cuddle me, my daughter wanting me to constantly play with her. It’s like the channel for my love getting to them was blocked, I was going through the motions but it wasn’t getting through.   Our children’s issues... read more

Is the house on fire? A tool for parenting emergencies

In those moments when we’re just about to lose it with our kids and we don’t really want to blow up at them, it’s good to learn how to de-escalate. It often feels way more urgent than it actually is. Start by asking yourself “is the house on fire?” And if it’s not, here’s what you need to do instead of freaking out. Stash your kids somewhere safe for 5 mins (if developmentally appropriate). If they are squabbling, separate them. If they need entertaining stick on an audiobook or get out a special toy you hide except for in these moments, or occupy them with a much coveted foodstuff. Go where you feel safe and ideally not overheard. Lots of folks use the bathroom or car if nowhere else can work. Call one of your Listening Partners. If you do not have one of these we suggest rectifying this immediately, but in a pinch point 4 can be done alone (or at least with pillows and a baseball bat). Scream/rant/cry/make some noise/thrash about. Catastrophise about how much the house is DEFINITELY burning down. Blame everyone whose fault it is. Swear like a rabid, Tourettes ridden creature. Tell them exactly how much you want to throttle your two year old and abandon your 12 year old at boarding school. Be NOT fine. Just for 5 minutes. Go back to your life with a miraculous capacity to keep holding the shit together. We call this taking EMERGENCY listening. Unlike your regular Listening Partnerships, (where you schedule a preemptive time to exchange listening regularly, with the intention of pouring out the build-up of feelings to... read more

When a stranger is losing it

I’m packing up our tent and the screams from the van opposite are escalating and it’s all sounding just a little bit too aggressive for my liking. I can hear a very distressed child, who sounds quite young and her mother, getting more and more irate and shouting at her. I debate whether to go over. One of my friends says leave them to it, the other says… go help them! I have a policy of intervening in fraught situations between parents and their kids if I’m feeling resourced enough, but as I approach this angry woman and her hysterical child, I’m actually a bit frightened that she might attack me.   As she sees me she turns to say (in a back-off kinda way) “It’s alright she has autism and ADHD. This is normal.” I can see I’ve got her defences up. I make my body language as unthreatening as I can. “It’s ok I’m a mum, I got one like this. Just wanted to see if you needed some support.” “Are you coming to take her off me?” I shrug and smile “Sure if that’s what you want me to do” “Don’t worry, we’re fine, she’s like this every day” Except she doesn’t look at all fine. She looks overwhelmed and furious and now she feels like she’s done something wrong. “I just wondered if I could listen for 5 minutes.” When she realises I mean listen to her, her expression goes from hurt/defensive (‘why would it be ME that needs listening?’) to incredulously delighted (‘Goodness… someone is willing to listen to ME?!’) She edges out of... read more

Guide to a connected summer festival with kids

We’ve all been there. You’re supposed to be taking the kids to somewhere you can all have fun, where they can get plenty of freedom to run around and make friends; where you can engage in festival fun en famille; where you might even get some time to yourself. And yet so often festivals end up feeling fraught. Our children get overtired and hysterical and the more we give them, the more unreasonable they become. It doesn’t make sense that they should be so upset when we’ve moved heaven and earth (or at least  the entire contents of the house) to give them a lovely experience. So what is really going on and what do our children want us to know about their core needs when festivalling? We need connection! Sometimes in the busyness, the packing and the non-stop activity, the connection we usually offer to our children gets interrupted. Try offering Special Time (one on one focused attention, where you set a timer, say ‘I’ll play whtever you want’ and delight in them without distraction) when you arrive after a long journey, rather than rushing to set up the tent. Our peers are not a reliable source of connection! Often when our kids are off playing with new friends for hours, we assume they are having fun and receiving connection. The kind of connection that lets the emotional part of your kid’s brain know they are safe and cared for and that someone in the world gets them, needs regular attention from an adult. Try checking in periodically with the focus on play and delight. If your child... read more

When children are anxious or explosive

“You’re KILLING me, I can’t BREATHE, I’m HOT, let me go! You’re hurting me. What kind of MOTHER hurts her own SON.”   I look down and check. My hands are so loosely around his 7 year old wrists. Admittedly, I was holding him pretty tight a few minutes ago but now it feels like he just needs an impression of being contained to thrash against.   “I’m right here Angel, I’m not trying to hurt you, I’m going to let you go as soon as you can stop hitting and breaking. I see you breathing. Yes, you’re getting hot.”   This routine on repeat was how we lived our lives for several months when my son was suicidal, wetting himself, had many explosive, aggressive meltdowns a day, was so anxious he couldn’t fall asleep and woke several times in the night. He would roll out of bed screaming some mornings, he’d hurt or throw his sister around if we got there too late or try to bite/slap/wet himself or headbutt the floor when he got distressed. Some of us have these intense kids. So beyond just keeping everyone safe, what measures can we apply to actually remedy this level of distress in the family? I’ve wanted to write something on helping children with anxiety/aggression/OCD/self-harming type behaviours using these therapeutic, trauma informed parenting tools from Hand in Hand and based on my experience as a mother, because I know they are many others out there enduring this level of stress in family life. And none of us tend to talk about it too much. Some of our kids show... read more