Saturday, 28 January 2012

Just For Comfort...

I hold my baby every time she cries...just for comfort.
I know she isn't really hungry, but I let her come close and nurse anyway...just for comfort.
As she falls asleep, I'm always there; singing, rocking, nursing...just for comfort.
And most nights, she sleeps in my bed...just for comfort.
By day, I notice her, noticing the world, and if she looks lost or confused, I pick her up...just for comfort.
I let her move away, branch out, explore, until she falls, or hesitates, or looks to me, and then I offer her my arms...just for comfort.
When she's scared, or sad, or cross, or lost, I try to understand, to be there...just for comfort.
And any time she wants to snuggle, day or night, I stop everything else and hold her...just for comfort.


I write...just for comfort.
I paint, I dance, I sing...just for comfort.
I take a book, light a lamp, and get cosy...just for comfort.
I laugh with friends...just for comfort.
I walk, I run, I dream, I plan, I travel...just for comfort.
I return home...just for comfort.
I hold you tight, and you hold me...just for comfort.


I pour another drink...just for comfort.
I eat, and eat, and eat, long after I am full...just for comfort.
I roll myself another...just for comfort.
I try to find the vein...just for comfort.
I spend the night with him...just for comfort.
I slowly make the cut, and feel the sing of pain, and watch the red line form...just for comfort.
I search, and search, and search...for comfort.


Never underestimate the value of 'comfort'.
Don't hold back in your expressions of love, don't worry about spoiling, and don't pay attention to anyone who says you are creating bad habits.
You cannot hold your baby too much, respond too much, love too much or comfort too much.
When you comfort your baby or child, you are teaching them how to find comfort in good, healthy places, inside and outside of themselves.
When they are very small, they think that they are still a part of you, so when you comfort them, they just think they are comforting themselves, feel good, and learn a little bit more about how it's done.
As they grow, they realise that you are separate people, but they still need you to show them the way, to be their anchor and compass in the emotional ocean.
In your warm embrace they discover that they can feel distressed and then return to calm.
They discover that it's really quite simple.
If a child is not given the comfort that they need, they might spend a whole lifetime looking everywhere and in all the wrong places for the reassurance that they missed.
But if they find it, in you, and in the tender comforting ways that you teach them, they will never forget its location, for the rest of their life.

So really, 'comfort' is not, 'just for comfort', after all.


Friday, 20 January 2012

Everybody Hurts: Ten Ways to Help Children Grow Into Adults Who Cope

Life is tough: for everyone there are trials and sorrows, disappointments and heartbreaks. From a mental health perspective, the world loosely divides itself into two camps - those who cope, and those who don't. And as scary as it might be to contemplate, this coping ability or inability is pretty much entirely shaped by nurture - by our actions as parents.

It's simple: the way that we respond to our child when they are in a state of distress will become the way that they respond to their own distress as they grow into young people and adults. If we distance ourselves from their difficult emotions, they will learn to distance themselves too. If we respond with anger or tension, they will feel anger and tension too in life's harder moments. If we placate or 'medicate' our upset children with sugar or TV, they will learn to do the same for themselves as adults. And if we cannot tolerate their distress, we will teach them that distress itself is intolerable and must be avoided at all costs.

Ideally, we need to give our distressed child two strong messages to carry forward into their adult lives:

  • It is OK, normal and important to feel upset, distressed or emotional sometimes. 
  • When I feel upset, I can cope.

Here are ten suggestions of ways you might give your small child positive messages about distress and help them to grow up to become an adult who 'copes'.

1. Begin with Yourself.
Take some time to consider your feelings, thoughts and responses to distress - your own and other peoples. How do you cope when life throws difficulties your way? What do you do when your emotions are churning with sorrow, grief or despair? How was your distress responded to when you yourself were a child? And how do you now feel and respond when your own child is experiencing these feelings? What happens to your body, your breath, your thoughts, your feelings? Is it easy or hard for you to stay connected and present, physically and emotionally, at these times? If you think that 'Distress' is a problematic area for you, it might be worth talking this through with your partner, a friend, or even a professional counsellor or therapist. By understanding more fully your own responses and feelings you will be much better placed to help your child.

2. Be Present. 
When your baby or child is upset, stay with them. It might seem like you are not helping, especially if they will not stop crying. It might seem as if your presence is not bringing comfort or making any difference. But it is. By being there, you are showing them not just that you care, but that their upset is important, and that it is tolerable. You teach them how to 'stay' with their difficult feelings. If you only do one thing on this list, do this. You don't need to find the right words or even say anything at all. Just be there.

3. Use Body Language
Your body gives messages to others before you even open your mouth to speak. And often when we are in the presence of someone who is in emotional turmoil we can find ourselves unconsciously 'closing' ourselves - folding our arms, drawing up our legs, fidgeting or tilting ourselves away from them. When attending to your upset child, make a conscious effort to correct yourself if you find you are doing this, and to adjust your body to a more open position. Open up your torso and make sure it is turned towards your child, breathe, let your shoulders relax, connect with the floor. If you are hugging your child, let go of any tension in your body or breath and let yourself hold them without resistance. Not only will this give your child the message that you find their distress completely acceptable and unproblematic, but your own physical calmness will also help to soothe them, too.
And if your child withdraws from you, try mirroring: find a place near them and let your body adopt a posture similar to theirs. There is no need to speak, you are already giving out a strong message: "I am trying to put myself in your position, I am trying to understand."

4. Keep Being the Grown Up
When a child is upset, crying or having a tantrum, it can sometimes be tempting to join in. Particularly if you spend lots of time caring for small children, it can even start to seem normal to behave in a childish way. And it might be that, whether or not your are consciously aware of it, this particular situation is reminding you of a similar moment of distress from your own childhood, and awakening your own hurt and needy child within. However, if you are to effectively help your own child in this present moment, you need to try your best to remain in the role of 'adult', and this means being rational, strong and calm. Make sure your voice is low and steady, and that your body and breath are still and grounded. Keep reminding yourself that you are the adult in the relationship, even if this feels slightly fake or as if you are just 'pretending' to be the parent or the grown up. This will allow your own child to feel safe to rage, tantrum or grieve - indeed, to 'be the child' - whilst you hold on tight to the neutral, normal, status quo.

5. Never Ever Threaten, Punish or Shame
When a small child is upset, in particular if they are 'throwing a tantrum', you might feel like resorting to threats or shaming language in your attempts to calm them down. 'If you don't stop this fuss, we can't go to the party', 'Go to your room until you can control yourself' or 'You're being ridiculous - a big baby'. But whilst such an approach might have the 'desired' effect of restoring calm, what you are actually doing is teaching your child that these difficult feelings are completely unacceptable, and that they should keep them locked well away in future. Such a short term 'fix' can lead to serious long term mental health problems. Being fearful of or ashamed of emotions like anger and sadness is a recipe for a tough time in life, struggling to cope with these feelings that are such a normal and essential aspect of being human.

6. Validate
Take your child's distress seriously. The reason for their sorrow might seem ridiculous to you - a spilt drink, a doll that won't be shared - but from their perspective these are highly important matters. Avoid stock phrases such as 'It's not the end of the world', 'Don't be silly', or 'Not to worry'. Allow yourself to view the world from their level and try to imagine how hard the situation must be. Be genuine in your sympathy and offers of comfort. You might find that other family members or nearby adults 'make light' of your child's distress or even laugh. Ignore them. As far as your child is concerned, it is only your reaction that matters. And by treating their feelings with the utmost respect and refusing to belittle or diminish them, you will often find that they are able to move on from them quickly, satisfied that they have been seen, heard and acknowledged.

7. Let Your Body Be An Anchor
Often a child in distress will express their 'all over the place' emotions with their body. Pay attention to your own body and breath and make a conscious effort to keep yourself physically strong and calm. No matter how frenetic your child becomes, keep your own energy still and steady. If it helps, imagine that there is a lovely elastic bubble of calmness surrounding you, that can bend with your child's movements or sounds, but will never pop. Sit on the floor near your child and encourage them, if they are willing, to sit on your lap or in physical contact with you. The calmness of your own body will help to soothe, comfort and 'anchor' them.

8. Let Your Words Be A Compass
Just as your body can be a strong anchor to your child in their time of distress, your words can act as a compass, helping them to navigate their feelings by verbalising them and giving them a voice. A small child can feel overwhelmed by intense emotions, and it can be comforting to hear them being named in a clear and simple way. Don't assume to know everything, but make suggestions, for example, 'It seems like you are feeling really angry ' or 'Perhaps Daddy going away has made you feel really sad'. Using this language of feelings will help your child to eventually do the same, and grow up to become 'emotionally articulate'. They will be able to recognise, accept and understand their own feelings and the feelings of others, and build their own 'inner compass' for the day when you are no longer there to help guide them.

9. Be Careful of 'Distraction'
Often an upset child will be placed in front of the television or given a sweet treat as a form of comfort. This does 'work', but of course in the long run it carries a very negative message. Many many adults resort to eating the wrong foods or gazing mindlessly at the TV as a way of avoiding difficult or painful emotions. Help your child to learn that it is ok to stay with difficult feelings for a while. Sit together, cry together, hug together. See if this is the right time to try and talk or listen about the problem. And if you feel it would be best to move things on, try to find positive activities that acknowledge the feelings but help to transform them. Try, 'Let's dance a sad dance', 'Shall we paint a really angry picture', or 'When I feel upset I like to go for a walk in the wind, shall we do that together?'. Whatever activity you choose, let your child set the pace and move on from their difficult feelings in their own time.

10. See Difficult Moments As Goldmines
Times of high emotion, tantrums, distress - these can often seem the hardest parts of parenting, leaving us feeling exhausted and frustrated. But these are the moments when our children need us very deeply, and we can really make a difference. As parents we make many many mistakes, this is inevitable, and perhaps it's best to think of our role in terms of damage limitation rather than perfection. But if there is one thing that it is worth really really trying to get right, it is helping our children to deal with distress. Whilst sunny picnics or idyllic days at the beach might seem like your finest parenting moments, it is, in fact, the times when you are finding your child the most difficult and challenging that you are probably making the biggest impact. Amidst the chaos, the shouting, and the tears, there is priceless treasure to be found: your child is learning to cope.

This is not an exhaustive or definitive list. As always, please do add your own thoughts and suggestions in the comments below...

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Shouldn't We All Be Free to Buy Whatever Books We Like, and Hit Our Kids Too, If We Want To?


Nearly ten thousand people have now signed my petition to ask Amazon not to stock books which advocate the physical abuse of children. Over the last four months since I began the campaign the support has been incredible, and I'm grateful beyond words to all those individuals, groups and organisations who have signed and spread the word. I'm sometimes especially thankful to the total strangers who send me emails; warm, kind words that randomly land in my inbox, renewing my vigour to continue in spite of Amazon's silence.

But there have also been critics. For some people, the petition represents censorship, a threat to freedom of speech which they cannot approve of under any circumstances. Pottering around online, following the many Facebook threads or chat room discussions about the campaign, I have read with fascination several such discussions, and commented on a few. I think it's very important to listen to what people are saying, to mull over their views carefully, and to consider that their points may be as valid or more valid than our own. If we don't, we risk becoming completely convinced of our own self righteousness, entirely closed off to the possibility that we might be wrong; bigoted, self righteous, extremist, even dangerous.

So, believe me, I have listened to all sides of the argument, and searched my soul (often whilst breastfeeding in the wee small hours!). Is this petition right? Is it helpful? Is it censorship? An infringement of freedom of speech? Of freedom itself?!

Firstly, let's get one thing absolutely clear. I've said it before but sometimes, it seems, these things need repeating: This petition is NOT calling to BAN the book To Train up a Child, or any other. It is simply asking Amazon not to stock this and other titles that advise parents to hit / beat / spank or smack their children. Amazon themselves 'draw lines' ; they have a policy not to carry 'offensive' material, and the petition asks them to consider that the content of such books is offensive. If, and it's a big if, IF Amazon decide to pull these books from their stock, they will continue to be published, bought and sold. BUT. At least two things may happen. Other book sellers may follow suit and refuse to carry such material, meaning the books are harder and harder (but not impossible) to get hold of. And, as Dara Stoltzfus put it in this guest post on The Mule:

It is not just the act of getting those books removed from easy sale; it is the “why". It is the fact that everyone who looks for those books will have to ask “why” are they not available on Amazon, and then, they will be made aware that spanking is not the universal only and best way to raise kids. 

In other words, the petition carries a message: this is not an appropriate way to treat children. 

And let's just remind ourselves of just what kind of treatment we are talking about here, with a few quotes from To Train up a Child:

"If he continues to show defiance by jerking around and defending himself, or by expressing anger, wait a moment, lecture again, and again spank him until it’s obvious he’s totally broken."

"Switch him 8-10 times on his bare legs or bottom. While waiting for the pain to subside, speak calm words of rebuke. If his crying turns to a true, wounded, submissive whimper, you have conquered; he has submitted his will. If his crying is still defiant, protesting, and other than a response to pain, spank him again. If this is the first time he’s come up against someone tougher than he is, it may take awhile…if you stop before he is voluntarily submissive, you have confirmed to him the value and effectiveness of a screaming protest!"

"If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he has surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring, and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally…A general rule is to continue the disciplinary action until the child has surrendered."

We have to ask ourselves, if we are arguing the case for 'freedom', whose freedom we consider to be most important, whose human rights do we value the most highly? The authors of such books, to sell their content via mainstream booksellers? Or the rights of children to be protected, as far as we possibly can protect them, from such treatment?

There are similar arguments to be made about the case for banning, or not banning, the corporal punishment of children entirely. There are those who argue: smacking or spanking should not be made illegal, the state should not interfere in my home affairs in this way, this is an infringement of my liberty. But again, the liberty of the parent to hit their child is being prioritised here over the liberty of the child to grow up protected by law from the threat of physical assault, a protection that all adults enjoy without question.

What one generation or society holds dear as their right as a free human can be seen as immoral or corrupt by people enjoying the clearer vision provided by geographical or historical distance. Here in the UK, we no longer flourish under a slave trade. We no longer prevent women from voting. We do not think it acceptable to put our criminals to death and we don't allow teachers to punish our children by hitting them with birches, canes or paddles. But it would be arrogant of us to assume that right now, in this culture, in this moment in time, we have got it 'sussed'. That there are no more problems left to solve, no more rights being violated, no more causes to fight. That we won't look back on this time, as we do on ALL others and say, 'Can you believe they used to DO that? It seems UNTHINKABLE now, doesn't it?!'

I believe we will look back on our treatment of children in this age with a degree of shame and regret. We will feel sad that we did not recognise their right to be protected from being intimidated and hit by bigger, stronger adults. Future generations will read the text of To Train up a Child and other similar books with even more horror than we do now, and wonder, why didn't anyone DO something? And no one will refer to 'freedom' in these contexts any more than they would now wonder if the abolition of slavery was an infringement of civil liberties.

So yes, I have thought long and hard about these questions, and the conclusion I come to time and time again is, No, I don't think this it is censorship to ask Amazon not to carry these books, and No, I don't think it is damaging to people's liberty to make it illegal to smack children. Freedom, I'm sorry to have to say, is never 'absolute', and nor should it be. Some actions are wrong, and should not be condoned or allowed by a society or it's laws. What actions we decide to place in this category shift and change with the zeitgeist. Often, perception follows policy - it takes a change in law to change people's thinking.

No one should be free to hit a child, any more than they are currently free to hit an adult. The defence that it is 'only occasional', 'only if they are really pushing it' or 'it's a family matter', no longer works for husbands, so a parent should not be free to use this defence any more, either. And no one should be free to 'switch' a child until he 'surrenders' or is 'totally broken'. We need to work together to move our society, our world, forward on this one. It is time.

Of course, there are grey areas and fine lines to be investigated here. And as I said, I'm never completely convinced that I'm right about anything. That would be worrying. So do, please, contribute your thoughts. Oh, and, sign the petition!