Friday, October 24, 2014

Aware Parenting

Aware Parenting is an approach we were first made aware of by Dr. Aletha Solter, a Swiss-American developmental psychologist who studied with Jean Piaget.  She founded the Aware Parenting Institute as a way to promote her views and assist parents in developing a more healthy parenting style which takes into account the needs of the child and encourages healthy expressions of emotion.  It is also based upon attachment parenting principles, and so I was delighted, after reading her books and becoming familiar with the principles, to begin teaching Aware Parenting..  

Of course, it is always good to be wary of experts coming around with new "methods".  However, I can't really say that Dr. Solter "invented" this "method" or that it's new, because if you just pay attention to your child, your child will tell you what he or she needs, and that's what this approach is all about.  This kind of approach is as old as time itself.  It's just that we, in our "modern" mindset, think that we must come up with new ways for parents to manipulate the situation to get kids to do what we want.  There is no manipulation in this approach, by either parent or child.  There is simply listening, and loving, and respecting each other.  Of course, Dr. Solter does present this approach with new and very thorough research from the last five to ten years which clearly demonstrates the appropriateness of this approach.

Of course, you have to be willing to respect your child for this approach to work.  You have to be willing to let your child take at least partial responsibility for his or her own life.  You are just there to support, guide and assist them as needed.  If all you want is an obedient child who does what you want when you order him to, then this is not the approach for you.  The question is, do you want a child who thinks for himself, directs his own behavior from within without the need for punishment or rewards, respects himself and others, is compassionate to others, and does not repress his feelings so he needs therapy when he grows up?   Of course, that's the kind of child that I want. 

This approach simply helps us remember something we've forgotten:  we all have feelings, and we all have the right to feel the way we feel.  That doesn't mean we have the right to call someone names or punch them out because we are feeling bad, but we have the right and need to express our feelings about what has happened to us.

For instance, let's say I have planned a trip.  I am going away for a few days to someplace relaxing, fun and beautiful.  I really need the time away, to rejuvenate myself, to think about important decisions I need to make, to get some exercise, to spend time talking to someone who cares about my needs, to get some sunshine and fresh air, and to work through some emotional issues I've needed to think about for a long time.  Everything is planned.  I get on the plane and go to that place.  I get there and start enjoying myself, and all of a sudden I get a call saying that something's wrong at home and I have to come back.  I understand the need to return home, but I can't help but be disappointed that this experience which I need so desperately is coming to an end prematurely.  On the plane home, I hold it in.  When I get home, I go about dealing with the problems that have arisen.  That night I am home alone with my husband, partner or friend, and all of a sudden I start coming unglued.  I lose it.  I get in a fight with my partner over something insignificant, I slam the door, I throw something, I use angry words.  Then finally I melt into my partner's arms, crying and sobbing.  My partner thinks I am losing it.  What I am really doing is expressing the frustration, disappointment and sadness that has accumulated as a result of having to cut short my vacation.  My trip was more than a vacation or time to have some fun.  My vacation was going to meet a very important need for me, and now I am feeling frustrated because I don't know how I'm going to get these needs met and I am sad that all the opportunities to meet my needs are gone.  So I need to express these feelings, but I have to wait until I get in a safe place with someone who I know cares about me, and I know it's safe to express my feelings.  Then I let it all out.  After crying for a while and being held by my partner, I feel better.  I'm still sorry I had to miss out on my trip, but I feel better that I was able to express my feelings, and I am now more relaxed and able to deal with my current situation.

Now, another scenario.  You have promised your three-year-old that you are going to take him to the park to play.  He is looking forward to it very much.  He is going to get to be out in the sunshine and fresh air, he is going to get to play in the sandbox, which he loves.  You are going to help him swing high on the swings while being there to support him, which is going to help him get over his fear of swings.  He's a little scared but looking forward to it.  He knows you love him and would never let anything hurt him intentionally.  He has been looking forward to this for a long time, and it's very important to him because the last two times you were supposed to take him to the park, something came up and you didn't get to go.  Now you are there, and he is having such a great time.  He is feeling happy and full of life.  The sunshine feels so good and the sandbox is so much fun.  You haven't got to go to the swings yet.  Then your cell phone rings and you learn about a problem at home.  You run to pick your child up, grab him and go to the car.  You tell him that something has happened at home and you have to go back quickly.  First, he is afraid because he doesn't know what happened or how serious it is.  Second, he is disappointed because his special trip has been cut short.  Third, he didn't get to work out his fears on the swings, so he still has his fear about that.  Fourth, maybe his special toy which he took to the park was left there in the hurry to get back.  Fifth, mother is distracted by her worry of the situation at home, and is not giving him the emotional attention he needs.  When you get back home, you deal with the situation.  Everything calms down and everyone seems ok.  Later that night, your son wants a snack before bed, which you usually allow.  He wants a cookie, so you go to get him one.  However, there is only one cookie left, and it is broken.  You tell him this is the only cookie left, and ask if he wants it.  All of a sudden he comes unglued.  He starts crying and having a tantrum because there is only one broken cookie left.  He cries and cries very loudly, stamps his feet, falls on the ground, uses angry words, maybe even calls you names.  This continues for some time.  You simply look on because you are confused about what has brought this about, and you don't know what to do.  Your child continues this until he melts in your arms, sobbing.  After a few minutes, his tears dry up, he eats the broken cookie, and happily goes to bed, kissing you goodnight.

Now, what is the fundamental difference in these two scenarios?  Only the names and places have changed,  The difference is, when you as an adult have your meltdown, it's acceptable, but when your child has his tantrum, you tend to not be so accepting of this.  Some parents might reprimand or punish this child for having a tantrum.  We might tell him he's being bad or there's nothing to cry about.  We might go to the store and buy another box of cookies to try and assuage his disappointment.  We might think in our minds that what he is crying about is not very important, while our situation with missing our vacation was more important because it involved important issues for you.  Well, let me tell you, all the issues we have mentioned above are VERY important issues for a child.  Disappointment and sadness are no less uncomfortable for children than they are for adults, no matter what caused those feelings. 

The point is, we all have a right to our feelings, and to be able to express them.  Crying and expressing our emotions is the way we heal from stress and trauma.  When we are not able to do this, we repress our feelings and this can manifest itself later as emotional and behavioral problems.   Just because you as an adult are able to pick up and go on and continue to function doesn't mean a child can.  He needs to work through his feelings RIGHT NOW, and not suppress them to a later time.  We as adults need to be mindful that we should not allow our busy schedule or meeting our own needs to interfere with the child when he needs to meet his.  Children will heal immediately from stress and trauma when they happen if we allow them to cry and rage about it RIGHT THEN, when it's happening.

In Aware Parenting, we honor our child's needs and try to meet them, and when a child experiences stress or trauma of any kind, we honor their need to cry or rage to work out their feelings.  We also honor their need to do this over and over until they have done enough crying to deal with their feelings.  They may also use laughter or work out their feelings through symbolic play.  Even if the child has a tantrum in order to heal themselves, we do not reprimand them for having such feelings and behavior.   Tantrums are not misbehavior, they are healing to the child, and should not be discouraged.

We adults often do not understand that the little things are very stressful for children.  We will talk more about this later, as well as how hyperactivity can be a sign that children are harboring unexpressed stress and trauma.

Another aspect of childhood behavior is the "broken-cookie" phenomenon, where a seemingly insignificant and unrelated event triggers the child's need to release pent-up emotions.  In both examples above, crying was triggered by this type of event. 

Later on I will post more lessons about Aware Parenting.  For now, I recommend that you read Dr. Aletha Solter's three books, available below from

Click on the book you are interested in to see more information.

The Aware Parenting Institute, age 0-2.5,The Aware Baby

The Aware Parenting Institute, ages 2.5 to 7 or 8
Helping Young Children Flourish

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