A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)
Chapter 7. Mindfulness for Parents, Babies and Children
Just one thing I’d like to point out here: when I talk about children and babies in this chapter, I am going to alternate between ‘he’ and ‘she’ so that I don’t get run out of town for being sexist.
If you have just read the last chapter and you’re a parent, you might be thinking, ‘How do I use this mindfulness stuff? I don’t even have time to do my own exercises, let alone take a shower, how can I do this with my kids?’ Here’s an example of a day you’ll never have, but read it anyway – it might make you laugh.
A Day in the Life of a Parent and Their Child
7.30 a.m. You go into your child’s bedroom to wake her up. Be gentle, and be early, so it’s not all panic stations. (My mother used to scream my name because I was late every morning; she was like an air-raid siren announcing World War Three.) Remember to keep your tone soft and soothing.
8 a.m. At breakfast, ask your child to describe how her toast/ eggs/ cereal taste. How does the sensation of chewing feel? What’s does the food feel like in her mouth? Ask her if she’d like to choose to do one activity each morning and not think so much about it but sense what she’s doing, for example, washing her hands/ putting on her shoes/ petting the dog … Each day she can pick something else, so it’s always new.
8.30 a.m. Driving your child to school, you could play I Spy with My Little Eye, but do it with sound, so it becomes I Hear with My Little Ear and ask her to guess what sound you’re listening to. This plugs her right into the experience of paying attention. You could also play this with smell. We rarely use this sense, but as long as your child is focusing on the subtleties of a sense, she’s exercising her mind.
9 a.m. Your child starts her school day. Hopefully, some mindfulness training is part of the curriculum. (See the section on mindfulness in schools in Chapter 8.)
4 p.m. Plan another game for your child to play each day after school – say you’re going to give her a fun quiz to do. One day ask her to count how many clouds she can see during lunch break. On another, ask her to notice how many people in the school hall are wearing something purple. How many teachers smiled that day? Each day, give her something to notice and ask her to tell you after school. Be curious and ask her for more details.
7 p.m. When you’re eating dinner, make it a habit to chat about anything she feels like talking about. Don’t have an agenda, just let it be a casual conversation. Stay curious and be interested, but do not pry. If you’re anxious or exhausted, tell her, so that she won’t think it’s a reaction to her and that she sees that you have emotions, too. (You, too, can throw a hissy fit.) Allow her to be in whatever mood she’s in. She doesn’t have to tell you why, but try to get her to talk about what she feels like inside.
8 p.m. At bedtime, read to her, but if there are any illustrations of the characters ask her if she can guess what they’re really thinking about. It’s only a guess; it’s to get her used to looking below the surface, using her radar. You can also do this while watching TV by turning the sound down – but only for a few minutes or so, or she’ll end up hating you.
Parenting without Tears
Every parent, at some time in their child’s life, asks the question: ‘Is it my fault?’ No one really knows to what extent children develop as a result of nature and to what extent it’s nurture: it has been a hot topic since the 1960s. They now say it’s about 50/50 … so you only have a 50 per cent chance to screw up your child. The genes are the deck of cards he’s been dealt, but how you play them is up to you.
The nature bit – the DNA – sets the blueprint with genetically pre-programmed brain cells, but they’re awaiting your input, Mrs or Mr Nurture. The way you hold, smile, frown, sing, and say, ‘Boo!’ directly affects the circuits in your child’s brain. And it is these which, ultimately, lay down his character, along with the culture, the environment and the people he meets in his life.
Read this now!
What follows are a couple of the most important rules for being a parent.
I’m sorry to harp on but, if you want to be the best parent, your first mission is to ‘know thyself’. The oracle of Delphi said this, and she didn’t even have kids. This doesn’t mean you have to dig down into the coalmine of your unconscious, but when you notice you’re having a heated reaction to something that’s going on and berate yourself for it, believe me, your kid will pick it up. As a matter of fact, when a baby feels that his mother is angry, depressed or anxious, he will absorb those feelings into himself rather than see his mother as flawed. If you’re kind to yourself and not judgemental, your baby will also sponge up that compassion, making him feel safe and secure later in life.
All your past experiences will affect your kid unless you become conscious of your own issues. The danger lies in projecting our problems on to our kids, blaming them for our shortcomings as if they’re a photocopy of us and as if, through them, we can make things right (see mothers who hothouse their twelve-week-olds to get them into Oxford).
How we interact with our children is influenced by the experiences we had with our own parents. In the same way that you’re imprinting on your baby’s brain, your parents did on yours. ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad,’ as Philip Larkin so lovingly said. If you think your child acts out, look in the mirror.
The mind of a child is like new-fallen snow, and we come along stamping our gigantic galoshes all over it, leaving our imprints. Your parents dumped their stuff on to you, their parents dumped theirs on them, and so on back to the first vertebrate. If you want to stop this ancestral relay race of ‘pass the flaws’, all you need to do is to become conscious of those imperfections.
On the other hand, if you come equipped with a healthy dose of compassion, good genes and some knowledge about how your mind works, your child will be fine. And if you can stay present even when he’s screaming his lungs out, you’ve won first prize in the Parenting Gold Cup.
It’s interesting, though, to realize that, when your child is having a tantrum, the fury you initially associate with your child’s upsetting behaviour may actually be coming from you. You might be reminded of some pain from your own childhood; the idea is to notice that the anger you sometimes feel towards your child might be fuelled by your own unresolved hurts.
Don’t go into a full panic when you read this – most of us don’t get it right all the time, if we’re honest, but there are ways to make repairs, and it’s never too late. If you find looking back to your childhood all too painful an experience, it might be an idea to consider some counselling.
I had no idea how to be a mommy. I didn’t go to university to study how to wipe a behind or burp another human being.
But when they hand the baby to you, you feel this love whoosh through you. It’s either pure love, or the morphine – which is why I had three children: I couldn’t get off it. I had my children in NHS hospitals (thank you), and ended up sharing a room with a woman who had ‘read the books’. I kept her up all night with questions like ‘Why is it leaking? How do you feed it? Can I use your breasts for milking purposes?’ The next day I was wheeled out and put in my own room. I told them that, just because I was on TV, I wasn’t demanding special attention and I didn’t mind sharing. The nurse told me that the woman had asked for me to be moved; she couldn’t stand it. From then on, I depended on the kindness of nurses.
Your Baby is Not an Extension of You
God must have put an irresistible smell on the baby’s head to stop you from flushing it down the toilet at the first tantrum, but after it fades, what keeps you interested in the baby is, I think, your belief that it’s a reflection of yourself. Narcissus staring into the water and falling in love with his own reflection is how you gaze into the crib.
Then, suddenly, you realize this child is not you, he has his own quirks and mannerisms, and the baby that once adored you now has the audacity to break rank and march off to the sound of his own bugle call. Now, you can either celebrate that you’ve given birth to an individual and go, ‘Hooray!’ or you can attempt to take a mallet and beat that clay until it looks like you.
As a matter of fact, one of the first reactions after the baby’s grand entrance is for the mother to imagine that he looks exactly like his father and a little like her. (In reality, he doesn’t look like either of you – all babies look like smashed, bald prunes – but it’s in our biology to imagine they resemble Daddy, to ensure that Daddy sticks around.) Also, if you think there’s a sign that Baby’s going to be a mathematical genius or a future tennis star, that is also down to your imagination. Early on, you should try to see your baby for what he is, not what you project on to him. Nature, in the name of survival, is using everything she’s got to make you see this blue or pink package as containing all your dreams and hopes, otherwise you’d dump it. This ‘thing’ is the next ‘you’, and it will carry your genes into the future, so it’s in your interest to believe the baby is going to be the next messiah.
I remember, I had an operation on my feet when I was a kid and I begged my mother to turn on the air conditioner; it was boiling in Chicago – even the bugs melted. She wouldn’t do it because she said it was a waste of money; the air would just escape. I begged her again; I couldn’t get up, my feet were in bandages. She eventually went to the wall and pushed her finger, nowhere near the air conditioner, and went, ‘Mmmmmmm,’ imitating the sound it would make if it was on … like I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
I’m in a constant state of vigilance, guns cocked, to make sure my mother’s voice isn’t coming out of me now.
She loved me as a generic baby but not specifically as me. She thought I would be a duplicate of her; she was very beautiful, while I had the teeth of a beaver. I was punished a lot because she couldn’t understand that I had a different personality from her. We didn’t know it then, but she had extreme OCD. She used to make my bed when I was still in it, hold a napkin under my chin when I ate fruit, sort my underpants in the order of the year I got them and chase dustballs on her hands and knees with sponges tied to every limb.
It simply was not acceptable for me to have any traits, habits or thoughts that were not hers. Maybe they should have given her a glove puppet rather than a child – it would have saved so much confusion.
It’s crucial to try to see and love your child as he really is and to respect his tastes and proclivities (unless they involve collecting stuffed puffins). He doesn’t need your criticism; he will get enough as he grows older. If you are practising mindfulness, you’ll be able to feel what he feels and this empathy will bubble wrap him from the slings and arrows of future jerks.
My parents didn’t really approve of me. They were in love with me when I was a cute, bouncing baby, but the minute I opened my mouth and words came out, the love affair was over. I have hunted most of my life to find people who like me the way I am.
In contrast to mine, Ed’s parents were the stuff fairy tales are made of; maybe I married him partly for his parents. Nothing – but nothing – was too much trouble for them. Scones came out of Ed’s mother day and night. She’d run up and fluff your pillow before your head hit it, and would practically be waiting there with a cup of tea when you woke up. Can you imagine me marrying into that? It reminded me of those Dickens stories where the orphan, after years of abuse, finally walks into the warm hearth of a happy home.
I used to choose my best friends in school based on who their mothers were. I usually went for the warm and overweight Jewish mothers (not the crazy ones) who lived to cook and feed their offspring. I would sort of move in, hoping they wouldn’t notice, like those stray kittens who, when they suddenly just show up during milking time, get included in the litter, and no one goes, ‘Who the hell is that?’ Likewise, the mothers didn’t mind me being there; they were that loving, and knew something wasn’t right in my own home. They never mentioned the fact that I lived in their refrigerator, gazing at all the fresh and homemade food. In our fridge, we had cigars and some coleslaw left over from when Kennedy was shot. I loved it when these mothers hugged me, being smothered in those large boobs and the smell of cinnamon cookies.
If you’re with your child and you’re either reacting to his mood or, for some reason, you find your mind is going down the pan, notice it (that alone will earn you seventy-five gold stars). When you’re in the clutches of a negative takeover, do not at this point converse with your child, instead, even if you have to make an excuse, go and sit in another room and try to do a minute of mindfulness. (If that doesn’t work, take Xanax or swig vodka.) When the feeling has diffused in your mind, return to your child, even though you still may want to run for the hills. Only when you’re steady can you solve your own and therefore your child’s problems.
When you’re with your child (or, really, whoever you’re with) and beginning to feel yourself quivering with rage, anxiety or frustration, try to label the emotion you’re experiencing, either in your mind or by writing down the one word that describes what you’re feeling. This labelling process stops the rumination, when you build up a story about all the reasons you’re furious, which results in a tidal wave of cortisol. Those feelings will be dampened down as you move your focus from the primitive to the higher, more thoughtful prefrontal cortex. This is a great way to deal with amygdala hijack: ‘Name it, don’t blame it.’ (I think I made that one up.)
When you’re interacting with your child, try to switch on your internal spotlight to scan for any tension in your body; posture and body language give away your state of mind. Eighty-five per cent of what we express is through our body language, not through verbal communication.
Check if you’re reacting in your reptilian mode. If you are, you can bet your boots he’s going to respond in his: ‘Angry monkey see. Angry monkey do.’ You can’t really blame the child – he’s a child, impulsive and wildly emotional; you’re the one who is responsible for developing his prefrontal cortex.
When your child is highly stressed, angry or sad, try expressing in words what you think he might be feeling. So, if he’s screaming about the fact that you threw out the five-year-old sock that he still sleeps with, maybe reflect back to him, for example, ‘I can see that you’re upset. It must feel terrible … I loved my sock, too, from when I was six. I should have asked you first.’ Try to put yourself in his shoes so you’ll feel what it’s like to be missing a sock or without a shoe.
Your child’s character is shaped by your early interactions with him. He learns emotions by mirroring your facial expressions. He can only learn to smile, stick out his tongue, make a sad or an angry face, from copying yours. So, when he is getting hot under the collar, use your face to portray interest, kindness and openness. Experiment with it and see if he begins to reflect back curiosity and kindness and forgets about the anger. It’s not unheard of that, by changing our expression, we alter not only our mood but also that of our baby. Sometimes we can ‘fake it to make it’; as long as you’re doing it consciously, it’s still mindful.
A reflective parent does not focus solely on the external behaviour of their child but also focuses on him as an individual with his own mind. The phrase ‘he has a mind of his own’ is often used in a slightly derogatory way to describe a wilful and stubborn child. A reflective parent appreciates this and remains non-judgemental, appreciating how different their child’s mind is from theirs.
The Five-minute Whine
If you notice you’re going into a violent game of verbal volleyball with your child – ‘It’s your fault.’ ‘No, it isn’t, it’s your fault.’ ‘No, you messed me up.’ ‘No, you did.’ – this is a good time to try the following exercise.
As you’re the parent, now’s the time to shut up. Tell your child he has one minute (set the timer on your phone) to give his side of the story without you interrupting (even if you’re tearing every sinew in your body trying to restrain yourself from wringing his neck). As he rants, see if you can do the mindfulness of sound exercise, listening to his shouts as if they’re just noise rather than getting caught up in the drama. Then focus in on what he’s saying and see if he’s changed in any way … Hopefully, he’ll be calmer. The benefits of this exercise are that he’s probably exhausted himself from his hissy fit, and you’ll have brought down your cortisol levels.
Just as you practised shining that spotlight of attention on a sense, in this exercise, take your focus to your child, paying attention to the details of what he’s saying, so when he’s telling you about how his rabbit was eaten by a fox you can feel the depth of the trauma and – here’s the big challenge – put down your phone while you’re listening.
My children sometimes ask me about when they were little. I can’t remember – we have to watch videos to find out. When they were talking to me, I was only half listening.
If you do pay attention your cortisol level goes down, and when you become calm, your child becomes calm. If you’re hyped up on adrenaline, he will fuel up on his. If you’re oozing oxytocin, your child cooks up his own supply, and that particular hormone engenders the ultimate nurturing.
If you feel sudden hostility or negativity towards your child, even if he’s mid-tantrum, do a short, visual mindfulness practice. Take your focus to a feature of his face, anchoring your attention as you would with sound or breathing. Focus on his face and investigate with curiosity that particular feature – the eyes, nose, or mouth – as if you’ve never noticed it before.
This is to wean you off that overwhelming urge to make it all better when your child is distressed. He needs to learn how to soothe himself; if you always do it, he’ll have to find someone who looks like you to marry.
The idea of compassion shouldn’t be confused with gushing sympathy, where you mollycoddle the kid, as in ‘Oh, you poor baby, Mommy’s here.’ Like he can just feel better because you say so? Let him feel what he feels. Support him by reflecting back his feelings to show that you understand him and that his feelings can be dealt with. You’re teaching him not to run away from his feelings but to turn towards them and learn that they’re nothing to be afraid of, they’re just feelings.
To sum it all up …
The responsibility of the parents changes depending on what age their child is, but the basic foundations remain the same: give unconditional love, lay down boundaries … and keep shovelling money out to them.
Each baby comes with a genetic blueprint and a range of possibilities which the body is programmed to develop; however, the program isn’t automatic. It’s switched on or off by external experiences. Think of the baby as an external foetus needing to be programmed by you or some nice other human nearby; otherwise, she’ll just remain a sack of organs. The brain of a baby is shaped by her interactions with the world and her relationships. These stimulate neural firing and sculpt the connections. As your baby grows, there’s a weaving together of genes and experiential input, and this is how a personality is born.
When you have a baby, you’re so hyped up on love juice (you have to be, otherwise you’d never forgive her for destroying your body) that everything is euphoric: you’re baking cupcakes with bows on them and suddenly find that pink is an acceptable colour. Then time goes by and, one sunny day, you find yourself in a state of wanting to kill. You have gone ballistic because of this person, only fifteen inches long, and bald, who can’t even tell you what she needs, she just lies there screeching, and you’re supposed to know what she wants – like you’re Psychic Nell.
I used to go into high panic each time I was left alone with one of my kids when they were babies. I thought I wouldn’t notice if they suddenly ate a plug or I left them in a shoe shop; I didn’t trust myself with them. I spent most of my money hiring professionals; I even tried to drag a nurse home with me from the hospital. Gradually, I remembered that my mother didn’t have a maternal bone in her body. She obviously didn’t read the baby manual either, and used to leave me in my cot, shouting, ‘Gargle, gargle, gargle!’; it’s all I could come up with. Later, she read me stories from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, where a bear always ate the children if they did something appalling like not finishing their soup. I now always finish not just my soup but everyone else’s in the restaurant.
A Baby’s Brain
Before I explain the following exercises, I’m going to give you a little tour of your baby’s brain so that you can understand how and why she reacts to the world the way she does.
Even before she is cooked, while still in the float tank known as ‘you’ your baby is forming 25,000 neurons per minute. Every second, about 2 million synaptic connections are made. Each time those branches connect they’re downloading traits and tendencies which have been perfected through all those previous generations. Imagine zillions of also-rans from the Beginning of Mankind – all those losers who didn’t make the grade. Your baby is the survivor of the fittest of the fittest; first-prize winner in the evolutionary Grand Prix. There were probably humans in the past with webbed feet, but they became extinct, because ducks came along and could waddle better.
Right from when she was still in the womb, your baby can already assemble herself without a navigation system. Each cell innately knows which location it’s meant to go to. An elbow cell knows to move to the elbow region (or Elbowville, as it’s known), a toenail cell heads southward without a compass and finds the exact place it’s meant to be. Can you imagine if there was a mix-up and your eyebrow found itself on your armpit? No amount of surgery could help. (Though if you ended up with a breast growing out of your forehead you could auction yourself off as a Picasso.)
Her body cells don’t need your help to form a body; they know what they’re doing and have been doing it for billions of years. To create the brain is where you – Mommy, Daddy or caregiver – need to step up to the challenge. You are now the master builder. Four weeks after conception, half a millions neurons are being manufactured every minute, more than your baby will ever have again, so you have to take this opportunity with all the plentiful neural crops to connect the ones she’ll need if she’s going to flourish in a particular environment. You’ll help her strengthen the neurons she’ll need, and the ones she doesn’t need will just wither away. It’s called neurogenesis (a great name for a band).
For example, if your baby is born in the Western world, she probably won’t need the skills for blowing out a nose dart or skinning a whale (unless she’s from Canada), so the neurons that would establish those talents atrophy. This process of the weakest cells being culled is known as Neural Darwinism. In the same way, when your baby begins her life she has an almost limitless repertoire of sounds she can create, but only the words and sounds that she hears repeated will construct her own native language.
So if you make those clicking noises to her on a daily basis, she will be able to speak Xhosa by the time she’s twenty. In narrowing the sounds down, the other synapses that would have developed her knowledge of other languages don’t connect, so she may learn another language later in life but she’ll never get that accurate sound of phlegm being coughed up that you get with, say, a native German speaker.
Learning to Pay Attention
We learn to pay attention at the beginning of our lives, then we just forget it later on because we get too distracted by all the choices we have. Your baby’s attention becomes riveted on an object until she finally comprehends its name, its colour, its shape, then she moves on to the next object. Your baby instinctively pays attention while relentlessly repeating, ‘Wa’ and pointing to a car. Luckily, Mommy doesn’t (normally) jump down her throat, giving her, ‘Shut up already, you got it all wrong.’ She corrects her baby and squeals with delight when she finally gets a word right. With each correct word, the baby gets a hit of dopamine, so she’s motivated to learn the next word. A baby, like an animal, has the ability to be completely present with her feelings, whether she’s happy, sad, scared or angry. By the time you’re an adult, you’re usually covering up those feelings, feeling guilty for having them or neatly tucking them into your pants so they never show up in public again.
Exercise: Tuning into Baby
Bring your attention to where your body is in contact with whatever you’re sitting, lying or lounging on, and switch your attention away from the chattering mind to the physical sensations you are experiencing. Now move your attention to your breathing, maybe counting from one to ten. Gently pick up your baby and hold her so her heart makes contact with yours. Imagine that when you breathe out your breath is going into her heart, and when she breathes out it’s going into your heart. Notice if your heartbeats synchronize. Lastly, hold your baby away from you and look into her eyes, observing what’s there, without projecting your emotions on to her, just being in the moment.
Now, start rocking gently. The normal Motherese that spills out of your mouth (remember the ‘Whooogie, woo, woo, doo dee doo’) is what calms and soothes your baby. So make those cooing sounds and watch her reactions … all babies love this one. Your tone is as important as your facial expression.
Tragically, I didn’t have any of this information, so I had to develop my own methods. When my daughter Marina used to start screaming, for whatever reason, I used to join in like it was a competition for who could shout loudest, and that made her stop mid-shriek in surprise and then laugh. This may not work for all babies, so tread carefully. As she got older, she demanded I sing at top volume at her parties for entertainment. Her favourite tune was the theme of The Flintstones sung in the style of Ethel Merman. It was so piercing that the ears of the other, traumatized children were bleeding.
The benefit of this exercise isn’t just to create that Kodak moment or to have a fluffy experience – when a mother rocks her baby or holds her, she’s unconsciously synchronizing their heartbeats, and when the baby sees her dilated pupils she instinctively senses that her parasympathetic system (calm) is aroused. This triggers a biochemical response of pleasure in the baby as her endorphins kick in. If the mother doesn’t give good face, or holds her aggressively, or says sharply, ‘No, don’t do that!’, it triggers a release of cortisol and her sympathetic system becomes active. I had a few too many ‘no’s from both my parents. That’s why I’m usually ready for battle even in my sleep.
The thing that really helps to attune mother and baby (though some scientists say this is bunkum) is what are known as mirror neurons. These particular types of neurons, found in various parts of the brain, seem to provide an explanation for how one state of mind can imitate that of someone else, by linking motor action to perception. Let me explain. The parent’s emotions (shown by their facial expressions) will automatically fire similar neurons in the baby’s brain and create identical expressions; if you smile, she smiles.
You can think of yourself as an emotional mirror that gives psycho-feedback any hour of the day and night. It’s as if you asked me how I was and I had to stare into my girlfriend’s face to give you an answer. This is probably why comedians become comedians – because they have a deep need to see thousands of faces smiling back in order to know they feel okay. If those faces aren’t there or if they look bored, the comedian feels empty and abandoned. (I made that up; it may not be a fact.)
Anyway, if a parent smiles, the baby feels good; if they look mad, the baby feels bad. Our brains are directly wired to our facial muscles, so every spurt of chemicals and neural connectivity is directly linked to our faces by our nerves. If some warm and cosy oxytocin is cooking upstairs, our mouths may lift and our eyes twinkle, creating a smile. Basically, if your mother always looked at you with a scowling face, you’re pretty much screwed.
A Pot-pourri of Facial Expressions and Their Effects
Smiling Face Every face you pull influences the way your baby perceives herself. That’s not to say that the parent should smile approval all the time (this would probably plant the seeds of narcissism) and make the baby believe that she’s the greatest being on earth when, actually, she’s a putz (Jewish expression for loser).
Faking the Face If your baby believes that Mommy or Daddy is faking it, she’ll suspect that people she meets later in her life are phoney. She also is being taught a lesson in how to cover up her feelings (which is only useful if she is going to be a stewardess).
Angry Face If a parent has a cross face when a child is distressed, chances are she’ll have a touch of anxiety later on – or have a tic like Mr Bean’s.
Disapproving Face Each time the baby gets this look, she experiences a feeling of alarm that is accompanied both by a high level of cortisol and a dose of shame.
Dead Face This is the most debilitating of all expressions: the no expression face. Even an angry face would be better, because at least then your baby is getting a reaction. With the dead face she doesn’t feel she even exists, so she doesn’t develop a sense of self.
Nice Face If Mommy soothes her baby by showing her looks of love, understanding and compassion, the chances are greater that she’s building a well, better-balanced baby.
By the way, there are fifty different kinds of smiles (smug, sneering, gloating, patronizing): make sure you’re using the right one. Get the smile right, or your child will be sneering at you for ever.
Mindfulness for Children
The saying for child-rearing that really helps me is ‘Connection rather than correction’; it prompts you to re-establish a connection with your child when you’ve had a bit of a rocky encounter. What do you think? Is it as hard for you to be reflective all the time?
Your baby will miraculously become a child at around the age of four. At this point he’ll ask you questions like ‘Does peanut butter come from heaven?’ ‘Does a baby come out when you blow your nose?’ I’m not an expert at answering these questions, so I just said ‘yes’ to everything … that’s why they still wait for Santa, aged twenty-six.
It’s never too early to understand the brain, so my first suggestion is to show your child a drawing of what it looks like and to explain how it works. Help him understand that everyone has a similar set of reactions; everyone has an amygdala that registers danger, and that’s why he’ll have an urge either to beat up the bully or to scram. If he understands that we all share this equipment, he won’t feel shame or blame. So when he’s about to blow, hopefully, he’ll be able to say, ‘That’s my amygdala firing – thar she blows!’ If he understands the impact of high emotions or stress, he won’t blame himself for losing his cool or not doing well in exams even after he’s studied hard, because he’ll know that one of the first things to go down when he’s under too much stress is his memory.
This will also help him to understand when he’s operating from his limbic brain, and this knowledge will automatically shift him into his prefrontal cortex, his Captain America brain. You can also use Barbies and/ or Transformers as visual aids to demonstrate the different functions of each brain. But the perfect aid for illustrating the shift from limbic to prefrontal has to be the Incredible Hulk.
It may seem as though your child craves independence, but at this point he still needs to know you’re close by – you’re still God-like until he becomes a teenager, and then you’re loathsome. You, as God for now, are the source of all safety and security. So the most important thing to remember (as I’ve said before) is not to dump the luggage from your past on to him.
Your child’s brain is still under construction, and one of your jobs is to help him understand why he does what he does, even if you have no idea. Stepping into someone else’s shoes is called mentalization, a term coined by clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy and his colleagues. It’s the capacity to understand your own and therefore other people’s behaviour, motivations and intentions. Mentalization is a particularly effective skill for parents to have, because the child doesn’t know how to make sense of what he’s feeling. With your help, eventually, he will. If you bark at him, he’ll bark back. If you’re caring and genuinely curious, without your own agenda lurking in the wings, you’ll be able to influence his biology positively. Remember: experience shapes brain structure, and how you treat your child will shape who he is and who he’ll become.
When your child does something that you find unacceptable (as in try to push his sister down the stairs) try to notice your reaction. If it’s tyrannical and you let it loose, you’ll never get him to tell you his side of the story honestly. He’ll just go into defence mode. See if you can be stern and yet compassionate … and if you can do that, you’ll be canonized.
I once fell in love with a lizard when I was a kid on holiday in Jamaica with my parents. I named him Alvin and spent days gleefully watching him leap from ceiling to wall to floor. My mother tried to flush him down the toilet, which broke me. No warning: straight down the pan. Obviously, I was traumatized, otherwise I wouldn’t still remember it.
It got worse. I got another lizard, called him Alvin 2 and, unbeknownst to my mother, packed him in my suitcase to take him home to Chicago. I thought he would be able to breathe between the clothes. At Customs, they opened our bags and there he was, spread-eagled and stiff. My mother gave me hell, not recognizing the depth of my love for Alvin.
Peter Fonagy writes that parents who can read their child’s mind while understanding what’s going on in their own minds have something called ‘reflective functioning’, which promotes good social skills and the ability to manage and regulate their own emotions. A reflective parent sees their child as having a mind of his own, which (for some reason) is often used in a slightly derogatory way to describe a bolshie child. So when Fonagy uses the term ‘reflective parenting’, he means the style of child-rearing that we all dream of. To be able to listen patiently and enter the mind of the monster that is squishing toast into your hairdryer is, of course, beyond most of us.
Exercise: Be Inquisitive, Not an Inquisitor
If you, as a parent, find yourself facing a lizard-type situation (see Alvin), first, maybe do a little mindfulness and, when you feel settled, ask your child, calmly, to tell you what exactly he loves about the lizard. This doesn’t mean that, afterwards, you should say, ‘Get a hundred lizards if it makes you happy,’ but, before you start laying down the law, at least acknowledge your child’s point of view. Don’t just throw in, ‘Okay, so the lizard died. We all die. Don’t be such a cry-baby, you’re a big boy now.’ Instead, say something like ‘Maybe he’d be happier outside jumping from plant to plant with his friends rather than smashed up in a suitcase. What do you think?’ He may just go along with this. If you’re curious about your child’s feelings, it releases feel-good endorphins in him so, when you explain your point of view, he’s not so defensive.
Here are a few things to think about.
· What were your internal thoughts and feelings when the situation arose?
· If you had a trigger response of negativity, how did you manage to stabilize yourself?
· What were the child’s reactions before and after the exercise?
· Do you like lizards any more now?
Dealing with Emotions
Don’t try to make everything better when your child feels a hot emotion. Humans are built to feel the whole palette of emotions, so let him experience as many as he can, even though you’re dying inside that he’s hurting. Emotions aren’t to be avoided, so don’t bring out the cotton wool too soon; he needs to build up some coping mechanisms so that, later in life, he’s resilient when things don’t go his way.
When Max was little we went to a party in the park and he was bullied on the bouncy castle. I was devastated that someone could do this to my perfect son and make him suffer. Max didn’t even notice or seem to mind. But I went into full terrorist mode, got up on that bouncy castle and tried to choke the bully. Max was appalled. (It can’t have been a pretty sight either, as I was also eight months pregnant so kept losing my balance and falling over.)
Sure, I made mistakes as a parent, but you couldn’t say I wasn’t upfront with my emotions. Some parents keep their feelings locked away and smile like loons even though they’re furious inside. Their children will smell a rat but won’t be able to untangle their confusion. So, when their child is grown up, he’ll smile just like them, and just like you have all that rage juice simmering in his basement. If you express your emotions in a non-threatening way, your child will be able to deal with his own.
Exercise: Dealing with Emotions
When your child is in the grips of a negative emotion, sense the impact it has on your own emotions and, without trying to repress or deny them, focus in on the feelings in your body rather than the stories in your head (see mindful emotions in the six-week mindfulness course). The point of mindfulness isn’t to try to feel good, it’s about being able to relate to negative emotions as if they’re just a physical phenomenon – they don’t need to be analysed. When you feel your mind has cooled down from the red mist of panic, you’ll be able to listen to your child without your tripwire hot reaction and be able to reflect his feelings, maybe saying something like, ‘That really must have hurt. I would have felt bad, too, if that happened to me.’ The idea is to validate him instead of smothering him with, ‘There, there. Mommy’s here. Everything will be okay now.’
Being told stories is how children make sense of themselves and of the world. Only the names of the characters change; stories are archetypes and the themes are universal. The stories usually set up a moral compass with a bad guy and a good guy; the good guy usually wins, mainly because they’re good (except in German fairy tales, where wolves devour whole families for reasons unknown, other than to Messrs Grimm, the authors). Usually, a fairy godmother type is thrown into the mix to spice things up and provide a great excuse for a costume change. Stories help to establish the child’s own autobiography, to give some narrative to his life, and a strong sense of self.
We are the only species who tell stories; no other animal on earth can do it … ask them, and they’ll give you nothing, probably just moo at you and walk away.
I assume you’re already reading stories to your child. If not, why not? Anyhow, now take some time (but only if he’s in the mood) to suggest that maybe one time, instead of listening to the story, he could tell his own personal story so far. Whatever he says, listen, and keep your attention focused on the story and on his demeanour. If he gets bored or doesn’t want to continue, drop it. Usually, when you listen with energy, he’ll be energized, and if you’re curious and compassionate, he’ll be excited and motivated to keep going.
Exercise: Puppet Time
Ask your child to tell you a story, any story. You’ll learn a lot about him by his choice of plot, the characters and the way he tells it. If he doesn’t want to, don’t push it. Or maybe he would like to use a few dolls or action figures to help tell the story. Maybe one doll is your child, and another toy is you, Daddy or the caregiver. It may be revealing to discover how your child perceives your relationship not just with him but with the whole family. Whatever happens, don’t interrupt or make suggestions: keep shtum.
Exercise: Early Self-regulation
Before I get to the actual exercise, I want to stress that one of the most important things any child has to learn is to be able to tolerate delay, to somehow hold back from instant gratification. To expect everything you want to happen right now will only lead to disappointment.
A famous experiment shows how the ability to hold back on instant satisfaction in childhood impacts on academic and social success later on in life. Four-year-olds were asked, each in turn, to sit in a room at a table with one marshmallow on it. The children were told that the experimenter was going to leave the room for five minutes and that they must not eat the marshmallow. If they refrained from eating it, they could have two marshmallows when the experimenter returned. Some of the children were also instructed that, when the person running the experiment left the room, in order to help them not eat the marshmallow, they should try not to think about what it would taste like but instead to pay close attention to its shape, colour and size. The ones who focused on these physical details did better at restraining themselves from eating the marshmallow than the ones who thought about the taste. This is a lesson in early mindfulness: focusing on an object in the moment means that you can’t ruminate, whereas imagining the taste will cause endless frustrated thoughts of yearning to eat it and future thinking of how delicious it will be.
The children who showed that they could restrain themselves had a better-developed prefrontal cortex than the children who couldn’t hold back. (Remember: a more developed PFC means more self-control, greater ability to pay attention and higher thinking.) The four-year-olds with the greatest self-control grew into teenagers who did better at school than their more impulsive peers. They had better attention and concentration skills throughout their lives.
You can’t successfully train a child to resist a treat by badgering him. This causes stress, and he’ll probably go for the whole bag and ram in every last one.
What you can do is to help him, using playful and innovative ideas, to learn how to hold back on his desires. You have to make it seem as if the child is taking control of his own emotions; you’re only there in the background to catch him if things get rough.
Two great games for teaching young kids to make use of their developing prefrontal cortex are Simon Says and Musical Statues. Following instructions on cue is a magic key when it comes to self-control. The better your child is at stopping when the music stops or making the right movements on command during Simon Says, the stronger his prefrontal wiring for cognitive control becomes. The real first prize should go to the kid who can say ‘no’ to his impulses.
Exercise: Feeling Like a Snow Globe
Give your child a snow globe as a present. If, for some reason (like you’ve been in a coma since you were born), you don’t know what this is, it’s one of those clear balls which usually have some sentimental, or touristy, scene stuck to the bottom, maybe Jesus in his crib glued in there with the three kings. When you shake up the globe it goes into a frenzy of glitter or white snow. (Imagine how surprised Jesus would be if that had really happened.) When you hold the globe still, all the turmoil calms down. Suggest to your child that he might like to shake the ball and watch the turmoil turn to calm. Tell him he could use the snow globe when he feels unsettled or agitated, as a reflection of how he feels. The more angry or frustrated he feels, the harder he should shake it. When he holds it still, he should really focus on the spectacle happening in the ball. When the storm of glitter has settled, ask him if he can imagine that the flurry in the snow globe could be like the way he feels. Be casual and curious.
Here are some more things to think about.
· What was he feeling when he shook up the ball?
· What did he feel while he was watching the snow?
· Does he feel that his emotions have also calmed down, or not?
If he enjoys the experience and says it makes him feel calmer, tell him he can use the snow globe whenever he feels his emotions are taking him by storm. If he’s about to take an exam, if a friend makes him angry or he feels the teacher’s been unfair to him, he can just get out his secret snow globe, shake it and settle his mind along with the glitter. This will also train him to recognize when his mind is in high alarm and to realize that he can bring it back to the set point of calm without blaming his wobbly state on someone else. This is an example of early self-regulation. If your child learns this when he’s young, by the time he’s an adult he’ll recognize when he’s flipping into that limbic zone. Also, by keeping attention on his raw feelings without thinking about whose fault it is, he’ll know that the feelings will eventually shift. They always do.
Someday, when he’s about fifty-one, he may even be able to calm his mind without the snow globe but, if not, it’s better than shooting heroin.
Exercise: Being an Owl
I based this exercise on one from a wonderful book by Eline Snel called Sitting Still Like a Frog, a children’s book to teach mindfulness through imaginative games. The author gives various exercises and there’s a DVD in the back of the book. I’m going to give you my version. I hope Eline forgives me.
Ask your child to describe what an owl does while it sits perched on a tree branch. Hopefully, he’ll say, ‘It sits still and only moves its head and its eyes. It looks very alert and in control.’ Now ask him to imagine being an owl, sitting very still on a tree branch without moving or flying away, and just to notice everything that’s going on around him. You can tell him that an owl is very wise and notices everything. Ask him to notice the owl’s feathers lifting when it breathes in and lowering when it breathes out, and to move his eyes like an owl would. After a while, ask him to close his eyes and try to hear every sound around him and any sound coming from inside of him. He should listen hard to every rustle and even to what seems to be silent. Now ask him, with his eyes shut, if he can smell anything.
After a while, ask him if he notices that his breathing is slowing down. If it is, ask him if he notices that his thoughts are calming down like his breathing. If he says they aren’t, that’s fine, too, because he’s learning to pay attention and to notice how his body feels inside.
Tell your child that he can imagine being an owl, sitting still and feeling his feathers move up and down whenever he feels restless, scared or pressurized. He might feel calmer and able to concentrate more when he needs to deal with tests, bullying, or when he gets hurt by someone. Remember to say that everyone feels these scary emotions, so he shouldn’t pretend they’re not there or get even more scared, but notice them and then imagine being that owl who focuses only on what’s in front of its eyes.
Imagining being an owl is also helpful when your child wants to go to sleep but can’t because his mind is racing with worries, plans, excitement or rethinking what he could/ should have done in a certain situation. Tell him he can imagine what the owl would do when it goes to sleep. It would probably close its eyes and let all the thoughts come and go, and then just imagine its feathers moving up and down with each breath.
Then your child can say, ‘Nightie night, owl.’ You can then go to your bed and pretend to be an owl, too.