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When parents change

A few years ago I was talking to a family social worker who was also an NVC trainer. She told me something about attachment parenting that stuck in my mind, but didn’t really make sense until much more recently.

She said that she was paid for contact hours with children who had been excluded from school, or who had never gone to school because of behavioural issues. That wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that she spent as many of those hours as possible with the parents, rather than the children. Why? Because when the parents change, so do the children.

I knew that her colleagues regarded her as particularly effective, so I took her word for it. But at the time it didn’t really make sense to me. After all, it was the children who were presenting with tantrums, sensory impairments, and difficulties in communicating, not the parents. She told me, “Children take on the colour of the water in which they swim. By and large it’s the parents who are responsible for the colour of that water. If the parents change, the children will change.”

More recently, I’ve become familiar with attachment parenting and the research that supports it. You could take a look at this book: Parenting from the Inside Out: how a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. We’ve been referring to this book in our first six-week online Compassionate Parenting course, which is just coming to an end (we’ll be repeating it in 2021). See our YouTube video of The Six Tips of Compassionate Parenting.

Attachment theory helps to explain why our early experiences with our parent or caregiver have such a powerful impact on the overall development of our life. One of the fascinating findings of attachment research is that the strongest factor in determining secure attachment in a child is how their parent or caregiver has made sense of their lives.

How we come to make sense of our lives, how we tell a coherent story of our early life experiences, is the best predictor of how our children will become attached to us. Adults who have made sense of their lives have an adult security of attachment and are likely to have children who are securely attached to them. Enabling our children to build a secure attachment lays a foundation for their future healthy development. (Parenting from the Inside Out, p.123)

It turns out that the image of children taking on the colour of the water that they swim in is a relatively easy way to picture and understand this research. The parents are primarily responsible for the colour of the water that their children swim in. The children soak up the colour of the water. Whatever colour the water is, they soak it up. The colour of the water represents the behaviours and beliefs, conscious and unconscious, of the parents. The children just soak them up, again more or less unconsciously.

How can we improve our attachment parenting? The good news is that, even as adults, we can make more sense of our formative experiences. When my friend the family social worker spent time with the parents, supporting them, listening to them, helping them to understand their child’s behaviour, and making links to their own upbringing, she was helping to change the colour of the water. She knew that if the parents changed, the children would automatically change and soak up the new colour.

When we practise self-empathy for our childhood experiences, this can also help us to ‘see’ the colour of the water that we’ve been swimming in. And as if by magic, once we become aware of it, the colour has already changed. This means that we will be more responsive and attuned to our children, rather than reliving our own childhoods as we watch them navigate life. This is part of what we mean by attachment parenting.

Here’s a soothing self-empathy guided reflection that you can use to make sense of your childhood experiences and ‘see’ the colour of the water that you’ve been swimming in.

If you want to learn more about self-empathy, you can join our online courses or read Shantigarbha’s book, I’ll Meet You There: a Practical Guide to Empathy, Mindfulness and Communication.