Dan Siegel, in his wonderful book, Parenting From The Inside Out, outlines research that suggests a child’s attachment status can actually be predicted by how coherent their parents’ autobiographical narratives are. Our stories reflect how well we have made sense of our lives and this directly impacts on our ability to parent responsively.
I know personally from spending many hours using listening partnerships to make sense of some of the hard things in my life, that the process is transformative. I feel lighter, more authentic, more playful. I experience greater intimacy and uncontrollable belly laughs several times a day! Siegel suggests helping children heal their experiences too, by telling them their story.
I had been waiting for the opportunity to do this with my 7-year- old. This morning we were off on an adventure, just the two of us. He was in the back of the car playing with Lego vehicles and one of them represented me. They fought and he said to my vehicle,
“Aw, you broke my heart”.
“Did I?” I asked.
“Nah…” he said. Now was my moment; he was calm and connected and was captive to the car journey ahead. I took a deep breath.
“I might’ve broken your heart at some points in your life,” I said casually.
“Really?” he was intrigued.
So I told him his story. How when he was a baby he had two very devoted parents who were right there with him and helped him with everything he needed. But when he was a toddler Daddy was confused about whether he loved Mummy or a different lady and became unsure if he wanted to stay living with us. And Mummy started crying all the time and there was scary arguing and his parents stopped being playful and helping him as soon as he needed something.
“And did I say, “What’s wrong Mummy?” and give you cuddles?”
“Yes, you must’ve wondered what was wrong and where those loving, fun parents had gone.”
And I went on to describe how we’d had to move house and how confusing it might have been to see all his toys packed into boxes. We remembered together how I became pregnant and was sick all the time and had to lie down instead of playing. And how Daddy was gone a lot of that time. And we talked about dear Wendy who came to live with us at that point and how great it was that she could take over being his Mummy while I was sad and unwell.
“It was the best fun playing with Wendy,” he agreed.
“And then Arte was born.”
“Ah, that’s when my heart broke,” he said very matter-of-factly.
“What was hard about that, Zeph?” I probed.
“It was so disappointing, I couldn’t have enough attention anymore and I only had cuddles for some of the night and I had to wait for everything.”
“Yeah, I’m so sorry, it must’ve been hard to have to share your parents,” I responded. “And then when we had to move house again, we didn’t live with Wendy any more and she left the country. How did you feel about that?”
“Uh I just… forgot about her,” he shrugged “Can you turn the music up, please?” And our sweet chat, (which had also been dispersed with talk about ‘epic’ ice weapons, 3D printing and whether he could buy Lego for his sister) was over.
Using narrative can help children work out their feelings about what has happened to them so that they can be less ruled by the undercurrents of emotion attached to past events. Here are some tips for giving it a try:
- Choose a time when your child is regulated and seems interested. A walk or car journey is less imposing than trying to sit down for a chat. It can work well when they are asleep too.
- Tell the story in simple language from their perspective. You may need to tell your side of the story to another adult beforehand so that your own feelings and projections don’t spill out.
- Ask them open questions such as “How was that for you?” or “What did you wish we could have done?” or “What do you wish you could say to X.” Try to allow the harder aspects rather than rose-tinting them.
- Don’t negate what they tell you, even if you feel their perspective is inaccurate.
- You don’t need to “teach” them anything, there is no agenda other than to explore their experience together.
I’d love to hear how this goes for you. Please leave a comment below or contact me privately via the homepage.