Re-parenting is a constant theme in psychology. And how can it not be, when so many people spend the bulk of their adult lives undoing the damage caused by childhood trauma? All that we choose to spend money on, isn’t it a subconscious attempt to recreate our definition of a perfect childhood ?
We are brought into the world as blank slates, only varying in shades determined by our genetic makeup. Ultimately, it is our upbringing — the environment we grew up in and the relationship we form with our surroundings — that determine who we are at our core. Our sense of self.
It is no wonder then, that there is so much emphasis placed on self-discovery and exploration. The ‘Self’ is an ever-changing concept, a fluid notion that changes according to the circumstance of our lives at that moment. Parenting therefore, should be about equipping the child with enough resilience to brave this journey of self-discovery.
Dibs: In search of Self, is written by clinical psychologist Virginia Axline, a pioneer in play therapy. She documents sessions with Dibs, a gifted but socially stunted child. Throughout the course of a year, Dibs was able to come out of his shell, get in touch with his feelings and finally learn how to express himself to others.
Following Dibs’ journey of self discovery, there are a few key takeaways that we can apply both to our personal lives and to parenting as well.
1. Never diminish a child’s feelings
Dibs was unable to communicate his feelings efficiently, and when he got excited over something, would just blurt it out regardless of context. This annoyed his father, who could not phantom why his child was obsessed over something so small, and in turn, Dibs felt dismissed and got his feelings hurt.
So yes, your child may be crying over a broken toy car. It’s just a toy car, you can easily buy another, why is he making such a big fuss over it ?
The problem is, you have seen tons of toy cars over the years — which is why it doesn’t matter that this one is broken. But what about the child who has only ever known one toy car ? That was his world, and now it’s destroyed, which is why he is upset.
The context may seem insignificant compared to ‘adult problems’, but the intensity of emotions is always the same. And the child’s lack of life experience is no reason to invalidate his reality.
Let him explore and figure out boundaries for himself, for ultimately he is the only one who can grow into his own person.
2. Practice what you preach
During the sessions, Dibs often wondered out loud to Axline why certain things are allowed only during certain times. Like all children, he wanted to do things his way all the time. It took him a while to understand how to respect boundaries and accept that things many not be so black and white all the time.
Unintentional hypocrisy is the epitome of parenting. Imagine not allowing your child to eat chocolates because they are full of sugar and are unhealthy (valid), yet simultaneously stuffing down an entire box of M&Ms on your own.
To your defense, you as an adult can eat chocolates because you understand the health consequences and have already weighed out all the options. A 5 year old however is not able to make such rationalizations.
But from the child’s viewpoint, he is just going to see that rules don’t apply to everybody — so how is he to know which rules he should follow, and which are negligible ? It takes a lifetime for adults to learn how to navigate grey areas, much less children.
3. Be mindful of how you act around your child
Through the course of therapy, while Dibs would barely speak a complete sentence, he had no problem repeating random phrases (often unpleasant) that he picked up from other adults.
Children are like sponges, they absorb everything in their surroundings. Always be mindful of your actions in front of the child, even if you think he’s not looking. For he is always listening and observing.
A child’s behavior is often a reflection of his environment. Therefore, you need to be mindful of even the smallest things, such as the words you say or the way you express your emotions. It is surprising how much children can pick up from their surroundings.
4. Let them be children
Dibs was born into a privileged household — with a notable scientist father, and a doctor mother, but that also meant immense stress on him to become just as successful. When he did not turn out to be the model child, his relationship with his parents, as well as the parent’s relationship with each other, suffered. (Spoiler alert, the family managed to mend their relationships in the end, but not without a lot of understanding and effort from all parties involved.)
Try not to define them by their developmental milestones, or how they are progressing as compared to their peers. Their worth is inherent in them being a child, not of their intellect or anything else.
Grades, money etc, the conventional markers of success — these are things that can be achieved by anyone with enough effort. Instead of trying to fit them into our ideal image of a child, we should aim to provide them with a safe space to grow and experiment with failure. This is the only way through which they can build up resilience to weather through adulthood.
Because ultimately, the best thing you can do for your child is to love them unconditionally for who they are.
Previously published on medium
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