British psychologist Dr Helen Penny shares valauable insight into parenting. Guess what? It all starts with self love!
This week’s guest contributor is Dr Helen Penny, a clinical psychologist and mother of two. She runs a facebook page called 101Mothers which is all about “Collecting and sharing stories of motherhood from around the world“.
You may not yet be a mother but I am pretty sure you will benefit from reading this post as it also touches on my favourite subject – building a relationship with yourself! Enjoy!
“I could have thrown a brick through a window as a child and my grandmother – Nanny Gwyneth – would have said “did you see how well she aimed that brick?” She had in abundance something that psychologists refer to as Unconditional Positive Regard. In its essence, this is the ability to view someone positively regardless of his or her behaviours or achievements. It is holding the attitude that the person you are dealing with is inherently valuable just because they exist. My Nanny had oodles of this attitude when it came to her grandchildren; it provided us with the security that we were valued regardless of what school reports or other people may say; we were loveable and important.
To my mind, this is one of the most helpful approaches to motherhood that we can adopt. Being able to send our children the message that they are inherently valuable just because they exist. They don’t need to impress us or earn our regard. And whilst most mothers probably feel this way, we are often indoctrinated into another system. Our child’s ability to reach their milestones, excel scholastically, be popular, and conform to our demands can often colour the way in which we interact with them. Children who are going through a challenging phase, living in stressful environments, or simply more “spirited” children will be told off morning, noon, and night. Quickly internalising the message that they are stupid or naughty or trouble. Showing unconditional positive regard doesn’t mean letting children get away with murder it just means altering the message a little. Saying “I love you, I like what you bring to the party, but that thing you did can’t happen again”.
Unconditional positive regard is also really important in romantic relationships. The psychologist Gottman has conducted over 40 years of research using a “Love Lab” (think apartment converted into a research facility rather than a caring breed of dog) to study how couples interact. Gottman and his team report that they can predict whether a couple will get divorced within a few minutes of meeting them! And they’re pretty good at it; they have a 95% success rate. Two of the main characteristics that predicted divorce were the way in which couples talked to each other. Couples who used lots of Criticism – saying that their partner’s problem behaviour was a personality trait, for example saying “You’re late again because you’re a selfish person” and couples who spoke to each other with Contempt – acting in a superior way and saying things which demean or belittle the other person, such as “You’re useless”, were more likely to get divorced. Having respect for each other may be difficult through the haze of sleep deprivation and under the stresses of parenting but it works.
I’d argue that the best way to show others unconditional positive regard is to show it to yourself first. Be a bit less critical and a little kinder when you look in the mirror. It’s not easy though when we live in a society that often shows contempt towards mothers; criticising mothers who make mistakes or do things differently. Celebrities are often the first to be attacked – whether its Alicia Silverstone advocating chewing your baby’s food for them or Kim Kardashian piercing her baby’s ears, criticism and contempt are common. Articles on so-called “mothering” websites mock, criticise, and derogate everything from the speed with which a mother does or does not lose baby weight to the name a mother chose for her child! But we end up hurting ourselves when we jump on the bandwagon, because we normalise the idea that there is one right way of raising a child and by criticising others we implicitly condone the notion that we are fair game too if we don’t live up to society’s ideal.
There are some simple strategies you can use to help increase your level of unconditional positive regard for your children, your partner, and yourself:
1) Label the behaviour and not the person – So you might say to your child: “when you hit your brother that was really naughty, say sorry”. Rather than “you are a naughty boy”. It is a subtle yet powerful difference.
When talking to your partner you might say: “We need to keep a close eye on the kids when we’re in the garden” rather than “Don’t let them eat worms, you numpty!”
And when talking to yourself, instead of saying: “I was useless at breastfeeding so I gave up” you might say “I gave breastfeeding a go then moved on to formula, and continued to love and raise my child!”
2) Politely ignore people, websites, and media that criticise and show contempt towards mothers.
3) Give yourself, other mothers, children, and partners, the benefit of the doubt. We’re all just muddling along! That’s OK.
At 101mothers, we believe that all children deserve a Nanny Gwyneth in their lives. Children’s poor impulse control and curiosity will inevitably lead them into trouble sometimes and wouldn’t it be great if they just learnt from their mistakes and moved on without negatively stereotyping themselves forevermore? Equally, we think that criticising mums is not only destructive but pointless, mothers are mothering in different ways all over the world. That’s great, we all bring different things to the party. So pat yourself on the back, give yourself a high-five, and regard yourself positively, unconditionally each day!”
If you are a parent and have been struggling with the demands of this highly complex and emotionally draining role, there is help for you. Being a parent is difficult and can be extremely isolating but it is important to reach out if you feel you are not coping. Everyone needs support. Start by seeking help from friends and family but remember that there is also a host of trained professionals who can assist you and help you manage these difficulties.
If you would like to read more about the kinds of services I offer as a parent educator or clinical psychologist please click on the pictures below and you will be redirected to my website.