Updated: Nov 3, 2020
I recently found myself in a conversation with two mums, both of whom worked in student support, and both of whom had similar tales to tell of their relationships with their respective daughters…
‘She doesn’t really talk to me, I’m lucky to just get a grunt out of her’.
‘I’ve no idea what she’s up to half the time’
‘She looks at me like I’m the devil’
I could see they were both coming from the same place, both feeling like somehow they’d failed – failed as parents, mothers and people. So you can imagine their surprise when I congratulated them both on doing a good job. Looking back they may even have considered that I was either mad or just being sarcastic, but I was being neither. Let me explain why.
What environment are we looking to create for our children?
We want to create an environment where they feel safe to experiment, safe to play with the boundaries, knowing that they can work with that edge. Put yourself in the shoes of their daughters – a place where you feel able to test out your relationship with your mum, where you feel like it is ok to look at the person who will always be there for you like she has horns, where you can try out staying out late, where you can experiment with who you are as a person, because it feels safe to do so.
Do we want our children to grow?
We want our children to know bravery, to confront fear, to work out to the edges and not stay in the centre the entire time. Growth comes from having room to expand, and we expand at our best when we know that there is a firm foundation beneath us to do that, and the firm foundation is the relationship with parents when you are growing. When we fear the ground collapsing beneath us we stay where we are, low to the ground, too scared to move, with no thought to working to the edges. We don’t take chances.
And you know what, age doesn’t matter here. Whether your child is screaming at you in a school car park, or throwing a tantrum in a supermarket, or screaming at the photographer on your sister’s wedding day, they are doing that because they feel safe, because they know it is ok to do so. And don’t just take my word for it.
Let me introduce Donald Winnicott. You may not have heard of him, but he was a leading psychoanalyst in the 40s, 50s and 60s. He wrote numerous books on families and childhood relationships, and in his 1971 book, ‘Playing And Reality’ introduced the idea that when a child develops, to fully develop they need to explore all parts of themselves. ‘If your children find themselves at all they will not be contented to find anything but the whole of themselves, and that will include the aggression and destructive elements… as well as the elements that can be labelled loving’ [Winnicott, 1971, p193].
So if you think your son or daughter is out of control compared to a friend’s child who sits quietly at every event you go to, then maybe rather than beat yourself up over it, you should be recognising how you’ve created an environment where your child feels able to explore themselves, safe in the knowledge that you are there to catch them should they fall.