There is a wild creature in you that knows how to parent, writes STEVE BIDDULPH
A mum is sitting, holding her baby. She is peaceful, and the baby is gazing up at her and making little noises of pleasure. Their eyes are gazing happily at each other.
Then the mum frowns. Instantly, the baby’s face crumples and they start to whimper.
If mum doesn’t smile again quickly it will turn into full on distressed crying.
This could be anywhere in the world, but it’s actually happening in a psychology laboratory and the baby has tiny wires attached to its head – don’t worry, they are only sensors taped on, like one of those meditation apps. But what the neuroscientists are noticing from behind their one-way mirrors will knock their socks off, and echo around the world of child development research. What they could see on their computer screens was that the baby’s brain reacted to the mother’s change of expression in a less than a hundredth of a second. It’s as if the two human beings, parent and child, were really one creature, utterly attuned.
This is the way that we now understand how the brains of small children are shaped for good mental health – not that mum never frowns, but that by that loving interaction, children getting distressed by the natural events of life many times a day, and mum or dad being close at hand and soothing them. They learn that comfort is possible and they can ‘down regulate’ their emotions by sharing them.
Mum is cool with it! It’s also been discovered in the adult world too that post traumatic stress after terrible events is much worse if there is nobody nearby who is caring and understanding. Being able to cry, shudder and shake, and tell our story until our brain knows it is just a story now, something that happened, in the past and not still hanging around. It was terrible, but it is over.
Babies and children do not care if they live in a mansion or a tin shed. But they are acutely aware of the emotions of the people around them. And if those are seriously and long-term stressed, then it’s very hard for children to relax, learn and grow.
Mum or dad being absolutely present is what helps children grow their mental health.
So we have to learn that skill and the way to do it is surprising. We have to tune in to our own body first, before we can tune in to our child. It’s as if we have a wild creature, a panther, a brown bear (or in my case probably a twitchy nervous hamster) down inside our body. If we tune into the sensations down in our body, especially the middle of our torso, literally our gut feelings, we will instantly know if we are calm or in turmoil, and begin automatically to settle down. Then and only then, can we really be with our child fully. Let me just say that again – to be with our children, we first have to be with ourselves. It takes just a few seconds, a couple of breaths, a dropping of the shoulders, and perhaps some letting go of the headlong rush that our life so easily becomes. And a step into the quiet fountain of sweetness that is the ‘now’. That’s where your child is, waiting for you to show up!
Your mind settles, and then it can settle theirs. And this really matters. Long after you are gone, when they are living their lives far in the future, they will think of you and smile. You taught them what peace feels like.
Steve Biddulph’s new book is Fully Human – a new way of using your mind, published by Pan Macmillan.
Steve Biddulph AM
Author – 10 Things Girls Need Most, Raising Girls, Raising Boys.
Complete Secrets of Happy Children, The New Manhood and Fully Human