If the planet – and humanity – has any chance of a positive future ahead, then it needs a generation of children who know themselves deeply, and who will live intentional, conscious lives. Nicola Chantler interviews parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith about holding space at home…
Building deep and lasting connections with our children is our mission as parents. We strive to be pillars of support when they need advice, to comfort and reassure them during their big emotions and to ensure our unconditional love allows the difficult conversations to flow freely.
Yet, in our families’ increasingly demanding schedules, being there when they need us, in the way that they need us, can be tough. Children don’t often know how to articulate challenges or worries, so we have to be able to interpret those and be prepared to take the time to let their feelings emerge.
In today’s culture, our children are busy people. The school day, after-school activities, play dates, engagements, the pull of technology, coupled with our own working lives, can mean that time to ‘simply be’ together is in short supply.
And, as our children continue to grow and gain more independence, we’re up against stiffer competition for downtime together.
‘In a utopian world, it would be good to have more support from other adults, friends, family members, etc, and have less work [and] more time with our children,’ says Sarah Ockwell-Smith, who has written many books about child-rearing and who specialises in the psychology of parenting. ‘But, in reality, our world has changed, families are fractured and we are all ridiculously busy.
Acknowledging these obstacles and giving ourselves grace for working against them is important,’ she says.
The time crunch can mean that sometimes we fall into »
a parenting ‘trap’ of trying to encourage interaction with our children at the wrong times. Quizzing our children when they just walk in the door, asking convoluted questions when they’re tired or jumping to problem-solving might be well meaning, but often isn’t met with the desired response.
In fact, bombarding our children with questions before they’ve had time to wind down can often elicit the opposite reaction – shutting down an opportunity for mutual engagement. It might also lead to a grumpy or rude outburst from our child, as they grapple with not having had the space they need to relax.
Knowing when to make conversation with your child is key to getting them to open up. ‘As much as you’re dying to hear about their day, they just need to decompress and relax,’ writes Ockwell-Smith in How to Be a Calm Parent.
‘Give them at least half an hour before asking… A lot of children are ravenous after a school day. Offering a snack as soon as you’re home usually makes for a much calmer, happier child. When they’ve had a little bit of space, ask if they would like to join you in a game, a cuddle, watch a TV show together or read a book.’
With the benefit of some R&R, we might find our children feel more inclined later on to open up to us about their day. Holding space for our children to talk about their emotions, at a time when they are capable of sharing with us, is crucial.
‘A connected child is a child who is much more likely to communicate with you and spontaneously tell you about their day,’ writes Ockwell-Smith, adding that certain tools can help pave the way to open channels of communication. ‘Books that talk about emotions and TV shows or movies which explore them’ can, she writes, be really helpful. ‘My favourite is Disney Pixar’s Inside Out (which centres around the differing emotions and voices in our mind).’
During the parenting journey, our relationship with our children naturally changes. As they evolve, so do we to meet their new demands, interests and dislikes. Throughout this, it’s our hope that they continue to confide in us with whatever arises in their lives, big or small.
Ockwell-Smith says that, while it may feel that we need to focus on them, it’s really the inner relationship we have with ourselves that makes the greatest ripples. ‘The most important thing we can do is to focus on our own feelings and life experiences and how we deal with them,’ she says. ‘If we want to embrace “emodiversity” in our homes and to raise children »
who feel free to talk to us – about their worries and problems as well as their happiness and hopes – we have to have a household where everybody feels safe to express themselves. That starts with us.’
Leaning in and being kind to our own inner child can be enlightening work, yet also challenging. However, when we consider how we were parented, whether we were able to express our own emotions, had loved ones to confide in – or had our feelings repressed – it can offer valuable insight into how we might be, knowingly or not, parenting our children.
It can also give us the opportunity to make the changes that we want for our own children. Through this active reflection, we might discover certain patterns that we wish to change in our own parenting.
‘Raising children who feel able to be open with us about their feelings is about who we are, how we handle our own feelings and our responses to our children,’ Ockwell-Smith explains. As parents, we need to model how we manage our feelings and how we talk about them – and even be gentle on ourselves when we see patterns repeating.
‘We all carry triggers related to our past,’ she adds. ‘These memories, triggers and emotions shape who we are and how we interact with our own children.’ Working on them can mean ‘we don’t launch in with admonishment or punishment’.
Loving our children with a fierce intensity can mean that, when we make mistakes or fall back into a noticeable pattern of our own childhood, we can feel that all-too-familiar parental ‘guilt’. Yet, rather than punishing ourselves for our misstep, realising the conditioning and triggers that we all carry is pivotal to bringing a greater sense of stability and connection in our relationships with our children.
Ockwell-Smith concludes that these moments of recognition help bring about positive change. ‘Too many parents blame themselves for not being calm enough, for snapping at their children after trying techniques to help,’ she says. ‘They feel a failure when they don’t work, but don’t realise quite how much conditioning they carry with them.’
She says that ‘realising that they all carry hurt and conditioning with them from their own childhoods and realising the impact this has upon our interactions with our children’ can offer opportunity to change.
Positive reflection and being kind to our own inner child can crucially help us as parents bring a greater sense of peace into our children’s childhoods.
‘Our children need to see that we are happy to talk about how we feel and also that we listen to what they say respectfully.’