Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy
In this third instalment of our discussion of the book Brain-Based Parenting: The neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment. we continue our discussion of some practical implications of brain-based parenting, particularly the Acronym PACE. Last time we discussed the importance of playfulness in maintaining a healthy parent-child relationship. This week, we move to the role of acceptance as another key component to managing the reciprocal or intersubjective relationship between a parent and a child.
Acceptance plays an important role for both parents and children because it strengthens the brain circuitry which promotes healthy interaction:
“When infants - and later, children - experience acceptance from their parents they are likely to feel free to give expression to their feelings and desires, thoughts and perceptions, intentions and memories, safe in the knowledge that they will not be evaluated for aspects of their inner lives” (112).
Similarly for parents, acceptance “… facilitates the kind of nonjudgemental awareness that is crucial for the robust functioning of the Child-reading and Meaning-making Systems and for promoting mindful parenting” (113).
Initially when parents are with their new-born baby, “they tend to be unconditionally in love with him or her, accepting the baby as he or she is, with no strings attached. Parents do not evaluate the rightness or wrongness of their baby’s behavior or judge him or her to be “good” or “bad”. Evaluation exists only in so far as parents must determine the infant’s immediate needs for nourishment, sleep, a diaper change, etc” (111).
However, as children grow up, parents need to evaluate their behaviour, “guiding and directing them” (112) to act in terms of what is safe and in their best interest as well as that of others. It should be noted that this guidance, within the framework of acceptance is purely behavioural and non-judgemental and “does not place either the relationships or the children in any psychological risk”(112).
“In this relational context, correction (i.e. discipline) is linked with connection, helping both parents and children to know that their relationships stay strong even when parents need to set limits and be firm. In a deeply accepting relationship, when the inevitable parent-child tensions arise, the relationship bends rather than breaks”(112). Although there is inevitable conflict, the conflict does not trigger intense fears of abandonment and rejection(112).
However this all changes when children start experiencing judgement or feel invalidated and shamed. When children experience shame they assume a “defensive posture” which promotes a “dissociative style of self-defense”(114). Similarly, when parents experience acute or “chronic conflict with their children, their overall experience of the parent-child relationship inevitably turns towards the children’s behavior, and acceptance, along with playfulness, tend to be minimal. Parents then tend to become increasingly focused on behavioural problems, evaluating their children and communicating their displeasure regarding their behaviour”(114) in a judgemental way rather than constructively. “At the same time, parents are likely to experience their children as evaluating them, being angry with them or disappointed in them… Both parents and children have moved unintentionally into a defensive posture with each other in which the capacity for caring about each other is suppressed, blocked. Neither is open to the experience of the other”. (114)
As adults, it remains the responsibility of parents to realise that they have moved from a position of acceptance to one of judgement (even, and especially if it was triggered by anger, self-defence or any other socially unacceptable behaviour from their children) and to deliberately return to a position of acceptance. This will once again make it possible to connect with their children and enable constructive correction rather than judgement.
Of course, keeping the balance between connection and correction - acting with acceptance rather than judgement - is not easy, but it remains crucial and essential if we were to maintain healthy, formative relationships with our children. “One of the greatest challenges of parenting is blending limit setting with empathy, using discipline in the spirit of teaching, while keeping the parent-child relationship safe and intact. When parents are able to ‘correct in connection,’ they give their children wonderful opportunities to practice emotion regulation and, when appropriate, negotiation”(114).
Dr. Jacobus (Lieb) Liebenberg