When worrying about a child gets out of hand

Sarah* was a competent health professional. She had years of experience assisting families with their children’s development. In her work life, Sarah was steady and confident. At home with her 3 young children it was a different picture. Sarah was gripped by anxiety about her 6 month old child. She was fearful that her son might have a disability and as a result was constantly monitoring, looking for indications of such a problem. Any number of things became evidence of her fear: when he didn’t sustain eye contact, when he was slow to smile, when he seemed to prefer rolling in one direction, when he was restless….and so the list of possible signs expanded. Sarah had begun to do particular therapy exercises with her son to address any possible delays in his development.

Chatting to Sarah revealed that she previously had similar anxieties with her other children during their first year of life but this current period of anxiety was much more intense and influencing her mood and capacity to maintain her life tasks. I asked Sarah what she could see were the effects of looking for signs of something wrong with her baby boy. She acknowledged that looking for problems wasn’t reassuring her; rather it was providing endless possible confirmations for her worries. As she asked herself “What if there is a disability that needs early intervention?” she was creating a kind of bottomless pit for her anxiety. Sarah had good insight that her monitoring and ‘therapising’ her son was preventing her engaging in simple play and enjoying getting to know her son’s particular preferences and emerging personality. She could also appreciate that. even in the unlikely situation that her child had a factual disability, her anxious parent- child interactions would not be helpful. We discussed how a parent can contribute to an escalating worry cycle where an infant responds reactively to the mother’s intrusive monitoring, which in turn confirms the mother’s worry and increases her fussing around her child, who in turn responds with restless behaviour…and on it goes.

I explored with Sarah what was going on in her important relationships and learned that she had withdrawn from her extended family supports and wasn’t keeping regular conversational connection with her husband. Her elderly father had died a couple of years ago. She had perceived that her mother’s grief meant that she wouldn’t want the load of assisting with her grandchildren. It was likely that this important loss and change in her extended family had added to Sarah’s anxieties with her third child. Certainly Sarah’s growing isolation appeared to be increasing the degree of her fears and her focus on her infant son.

Sarah knew it would be extremely challenging to reduce her worry for her child. There was something quite compelling and steadying for her when she perceived herself as helping her son. She felt stronger as a mother even though she was also frustrated by the effects of her increasing anxiety. Over time Sarah made a range of efforts to break this problematic worry cycle – making herself the priority project, not her child. This involved:

  • Noticing when her thinking was in the ‘WHAT IF?’ category instead of a ‘WHAT NOW?’  factual platform.
  • Noticing how much she was making a ‘fixing’ project out of her child – a project that could become something of a self-fulfilling projection.
  • Working to shift this project back to herself – her self-care, her relating to her husband, her initiating more contact and garnering support from her mother, siblings and friends.
  • Getting clearer about her personal job description as a mother. This was different to being led by every emotion and behaviour in her child.

Today’s parents swim in a sea of anxiety about any number of possible defects and dangers for their children. When I did a Google search on how parents can recognise problems in their child development, 4,960,000 results appeared! Added to this information over-load are the numerous categories where parents can look for problems: Language and Speech Developmental Delays, Vision Developmental Delays, Motor Skill Developmental Delays, Social and Emotional Developmental Delays, Cognitive Developmental Delays….. Such worry generating information can easily drive up the anxiety in many parents. Furthermore a worried parent will significantly influence the parent- child interactions in ways that are likely to confirm their imagined fear. The more a parent is distant in their marriage and/or from their extended family, the more such a worry cycle intensifies. Reversing such a pattern is immensely challenging – it can feel like a denial of the essence of maternal caretaking. Actually, the shift away from focussing anxiously on a child can build a pathway to a more confident expression of a parent’s caretaking instinct and wisdom. It also gives a child valuable enlarged breathing space for their natural growth and development.

*Names and details of this story have been changed

Knowing when to ignore our children

ignoring-regressive-behaviourHow does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression

How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. I was chatting to a Mum last week about her 7 year old who was crying about not wanting to do swimming lessons in the school holidays. She had been learning swimming with her older sister throughout the year, and while she hadn’t been enthusiastic, she was making progress and participating.  On the cusp of the holiday swimming program this little girl declared that she was afraid of the water and didn’t want to be made to do swimming. I explored with the mother her possible responses to this protest. She was clear that swimming lessons were important due to the family’s proximity to the beach. For her it was not just an extra-curricular activity, it was about ocean safety. She did reflect that this younger child tended to become anxious and slip backwards just as she was making some maturing progress. Her responses had often been to sit down with her daughter and try to talk through her worries. She would suggest strategies for managing her fears but found that the more she reassured her daughter the more her daughter seemed to express her apprehensions.

In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. A parent can try to get to the bottom of their child’s setbacks by focussing on their fears and feelings. It can be quite disillusioning when the child then regresses further in response to such attention. A parent may then get frustrated with the child or teen and shift their positive attention to more negative cajoling: “Come on you can get yourself to swimming lessons; you’ve been doing it all year. You’re just being difficult!” The negative attention often leads to more ‘stuckness’ for the child and parent and the tone of their interactions easily becomes tense.

I recall a period in my own parenting, after an inter country move, when my then 3 year old began showing distress when I left her at her nursery school. She had previously been very happy to have me leave and had commenced her new ½ day pre-school with excitement and confidence. When she showed her 1st sign of separation distress I recall the staff becoming anxious about the child who had travelled all the way from Australia. They strongly encouraged me to stay with her to assist her in the transition and this synced with my own concerns about by child’s vulnerability. Some weeks later I was still sitting beside my daughter in the welcome circle joining in the children’s action songs and assisting with the afternoon activities. I often think I should have been put on the pay roll. Predictably my daughter did not increase her autonomy but became habitually distressed with the first inkling of separation. At the time I did not see the part that I had played in reinforcing her regression.

Bowen observed that when a child is focussed on anxiously they respond with increasingly impaired behaviours. This can happen in families, in schools, in psychological treatment. It is predictable that as a child reaches a new developmental milestone of more independence and mastery of skills, that they exhibit episodes of retreat to an earlier stage of dependence on caregivers. This is part of the growing up trajectory. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression.  In essence, they ignore the child’s reversion behaviours and invitations for the parent to treat them as if they were back in a more dependent stage. When the child resumes their age appropriate functioning, the parent attends to the child with calm reassurance.

What might this look like? Drawing from the example of the 7 year old’s protests about swimming lessons: Firstly the mother will recognise her own uncertainties and steady herself so as not to inject her sensitivities into the child’s situation. When the objections arise the Mother can demonstrate with a brief comment that she will not entertain such protests. This is followed up by ignoring continued winging/wining from the child. The parent does not give attention to the child’s upset in the form of concern, advice or stern lectures.  Any parent will find this challenging and will need to attend to their own discomfort in reaction to their upset child. It is predictable that the child will up the ante of their upset for a time. They will give this up when they can sense that the parent is going to maintain their resolve. When the child moves back into participating in their swimming classes, as they previously had been able to do, the parents acknowledge the child’s efforts and show interest in what they have mastered. They take care not to ‘over- focus’, through exaggerated praise or reward for what is simply the child’s appropriate engagement in their life activities.

Looking back on my own nursery school internship with my then 3 year old I can see how helpful it would have been to ignore the initial displays of separation distress – To give the usual loving gestures of good bye and to leave calmly. At the afternoon pick up I would show an interest in her activities but not give my attention to discussing her earlier upset. With the passing of 25 years it is much easier to see a way through. At the time I was working through my own separation challenges from my extended family and I can see how this made it difficult to distinguish between my insecurities and my child’s emotions. Growing ourselves up as parents (or carers) requires managing our own insecurities so as not to allow them to spill over into our relating with our child.

The current tide of parenting is all about attending to a child’s distress and showing sensitivity to their needs. Challenging this ethos guarantees emotive counteractions from many ‘child experts’ and conscientious parents devoted to the path of tuning into their child’s emotions. Of course there are apt times to listen well and support a child as they face real challenges. This is different to attention that reinforces a child’s natural moments of resisting steady steps towards increased maturity. A parent who can see their part in these patterns can be the very best resource for their child’s resilience.

Key questions for reflection

  • How do I respond to my child when their behaviour is a step back in age appropriate maturity? { e.g. might be tantrums, thumb sucking, sleeping in parents bed, separation distress, refusal to do tasks or participate]
  • Do I attend to such regressions either positively (reassurance, affection) or negatively (lectures, threats)? Am I reacting to the other parent by attending with the opposite tone?
  • What do I observe of the effects of such attention over time on my child’s resilience?
  • What are my own internal struggles in the face of seeing my child’s increased neediness or immaturity? How can I keep myself calm and thoughtful? Can I recognise when my child’s increased neediness of me steadies my own insecurities?
  • What ways do I support my child’s steps towards more autonomy? – With acknowledgement and interest that encourage progress or with exaggerated praise, and rewards that promotes immature entitlement?


To read more see: p 106 – 129 in Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. Jenny Brown

If you’re going to assist your child to grow their resilience, the first step will be to increase your own resilience in tolerating your child’s upset without feeling compelled to rush in and smooth over everything for them. The grown-up parent, who really wants to be a loving resource to their child, is prepared to work on themselves and not make a project out of their child. P 108

Relevant Quote from Murray Bowen MD

The process begins with anxiety in the mother. The child responds anxiously to the mother, which she misperceives as a problem in the child. [The father usually plays a role – he is sensitive to the mother’s anxiety, and he tends to support her view and help her implement her anxious efforts at mothering] The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. Once the process has started, it can be motivated either by anxiety in the mother, or anxiety in the child. In the average situation there may be symptomatic episodes at stressful periods during childhood which gradually increase to major symptoms during or after adolescence. P 381 FTCP

‘Knowing when to ignore our children’ – Jenny Brown

Seeing our Parents as Human

IMG_2086 [878459]Over my years of clinical practice I have met many people who either blame or idealise each parent. A parent can be described as ‘toxic’ with a resultant avoidance of relationship. Conversely when one parent is labelled as the ideal it can lead to setting impossible standards for self and for others to live up to.

At a special birthday celebration late last year for my father in law, my husband remarked:

“My father is not an exceptional man but he is my Dad and so for me he is exceptional.”

It was a moving comment to hear.  A comment he had heard made by a father who had lost a son in the Paris bombings that had resonated with him.  I reflected back on when I met my husband well over 30 years ago and heard of the challenges in their father- son relationship. There had been a growing distance in the relationship as my husband experienced a sense of his Dad’s disapproval for some of the decisions he had made. At that time my husband’s narrative about his Dad was dismissively negative about how he had fallen short as his ideal role model. As with most young adults he was not considering his own contribution to this.

Over the years I have watched my husband make an effort to get to know his Dad better – to understand his growing up experiences and to learn about the generations of his family. It has been a privilege to watch a relationship change over the decades, from negative distance to warmth and affection. Interestingly my father in law had a tense relationship with his own father when he was launching into the adult world. There were very similar tensions around life decisions that played out  in the next generation.

I reflect on an analogous journey with my own Dad. At the time that my mother was dying of cancer I was angry and judgemental towards my father. When he went on a weekend away with friends while my mother was very sick, I viewed him as irresponsibly avoiding his duty to help with her care.  At one level my Dad’s decision to take a holiday when his wife was in latter stages of metastatic cancer is not particularly admirable. What I’ve come to see however, is how this choice reflects the pattern of my parent’s marriage. My mother would have encouraged him to take this break while she ‘soldiered on’.  Considering my father’s relationship to his own strong mother and then to his highly responsible wife has softened my judgement of him. In its place I’ve developed a broader understanding of how his relationship interactions have shaped him. This greater understanding brings a sense of grace and warm acceptance of the less mature aspects of his character. In turn I am better able to have such an accepting, honest posture towards myself and others.

What are the effects of continuing to carry narrow labels of our parents through life? Over my years of clinical practice I’ve met many people who are holding onto either blaming or idealised labels for each parent. Many describe a parent as ‘toxic’ with a resultant avoidance of relationship. With such distance a person carries their reactive judgments into other life relationships.  They may become quick to blame and label and slow to see the impact they have on those around them. Conversely when one parent is labelled as the ideal it can lead to setting impossible standards for self and others to live up to. It also prevents a deeper, honest connection from developing in the relationship with that parent. When a parent is idealised the adult child tends to play out a pretend positive self with that parent – and to others.

Seeing our parents as human beings rather than as narrow ‘good’ or ‘bad” labels, doesn’t mean excusing any damaging actions (I acknowledge that for some people they have had a parents who has been abusive – which should not be minimised). For me it also doesn’t wipe away seeing the flawed and selfish aspects of being human. However most of the judgements we develop about our parents are not actually in this category of ‘wrong doing’ but about their relationship sensitivities and maturity gaps. Getting to know more of what shaped our parents can enable us to see how most of the characteristics that we found challenging can make sense. We can also begin to see how our reactions to that parent provided them with significant challenges.

As I reflect on the changes in my Husband’s relationship with his Dad and the shifts in my perceptions of my parents I can affirm the value of getting to know members of our original family in a more objective way. Both our Dads- alongside other extended family- have been an important resource to us on multiple levels. I understand that this is what Dr Murray Bowen meant when he wrote:

‘Gaining more knowledge of one’s distant families of origin can help one become aware that there are no angels and devils in a family: they were human beings, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, each reacting predictably to the emotional issue of the moment, and each doing the best they could with their own life course.’

What would be your next step in getting to know each of your parents as human beings and as part of a multigenerational family system that has shaped them – and us?

‘Seeing our Parents as Human’ – Jenny Brown

Are you a leader or follower as a parent or a dog owner?

Are you a leader or a follower with your dog?    


Are you a leader or a follower with your children?

yelling parent

I think there are some parallel principles to being a pack leader with a pet dog to being a parent leader with children. While clearly dogs and children have different needs and developmental trajectories both need good leadership for them to thrive. I think the current child focused trend has produced a lot of parents who are followers, not leaders. They parent in reaction to their child’s emotional state as distinct from parenting from managing their own emotional state and from clear leadership principles. Its not easy to reverse this trend when it is mirrored in schools and health professionals offices.

I respect the central ethos of the training principles of Dog Whisperer, Caesar Milan. Watching his television series illustrates clearly that the most important work in assisting a problem dog is for the owners to address their anxious way of relating to their dog. The work of change comes from the owner not by focussing on changing the dog. The following 10 questions from Caesar Milan are a checklist to ascertain if you are your dog’s pack leader. this gave me the idea to write some parallel questions for parents and their children. See what you think of such parallels?

You know you are a follower in your pack if you can answer yes to any of these questions: You know you are a follower  with your children if you can answer yes to any of these questions:
1.       Does your dog wake you up?

If your dog wakes you up, it means he doesn’t respect you. In order to correct this behaviour, you will need to change your dog’s habits to let him know that you are the one who will wake him up. So if your pup tries to wake you up, simply ignore him. And then when he finally exhibits the desired behaviour, reward him for following your lead.

1.       Do you wake up according to the demands of your child?

If your children expect you to rise and schedule your night waking and early morning according to their requests it indicates they have not learned to respect your schedule. Even if you need to check briefly on them when they call on you at night, you can demonstrate that it is not yet your time to be out of bed. When they show respect for this schedule you can demonstrate your appreciation for this.

2.       Do you reward your dog at the wrong time?

Don’t pet your dog when she does something wrong. This affectionate act — or reward — nurtures the very behaviour that you don’t want and will only convey that it’s okay for your dog to act that way. Instead, learn how to master affection.

      2. Do you give your child rewarding attention at the wrong time?

Focussing sustained attention on your child when they have not behaved appropriately is nurturing their irresponsible behaviour. They will become accustomed to your engagement when they are misbehaving rather than being given time to reflect on their poor choices or naughtiness.

       3. Do you feed your dog before you feed yourself?

A dog mom makes her babies wait to eat. So it should be no different with you as a Pack Leader. Instinctually, dogs know that the Pack Leaders eat first. So feed yourself before you feed your pup to show that you’re the leader.

     3. Do you allow your children to help themselves to a family dinner (pizza, desserts, treats) before you have commenced eating or given permission?

A parent is in control of serving food. Hence it provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate order and leadership.

    4. Does your dog enter or exit rooms ahead of you?

Just like with food, dogs instinctually know that the Pack Leader is in control and should be the one to lead. Dogs don’t walk ahead of their Pack Leader, so you will need to change your role if you’re the one following your dog around the house.

    4. Do your children rush ahead of you when visiting others? Do they rush into lifts and buses without waiting for others to exit? Do they rush to play without helping you unload the shopping?

Being clear about expecting your children to wait, help, and not rush to their play is a clear way of holding leadership in an everyday activity. “I expect you to help me unload the car before starting anything else.” Or “Hold on now, I am not going to tolerate you rushing in before others have left the bus.”

    5. Does your dog jump on you?

Jumping is a dominance behaviour. Enough said. So when your dog jumps on you, he’s asserting his dominance over you. But you can’t just jump on your dog, so you need to let your dog know that his jumping isn’t okay and learn how to manage jumping issues.

    5. Does your child push into your physical space? Shoving or pulling or poking you?

By stepping back and creating your space boundaries, you are demonstrating helpful leadership. By not giving any attention or responses when being prodded and pushed you make clear that this is not an acceptable way to get something from another.

    6. Are you your dog’s source of excitement?

Without rules, boundaries, and limitations, you make yourself out to be a playmate instead of a leader. Remember, your dog needs to follow a Pack Leader to feel secure and to be balanced. Strive to be your dog’s source of calmness and direction by creating your dog’s calm, submissive state.

    6. Have you oriented much of your life towards providing play, activity and entertainment for your child? Do you demonstrate through providing constant novelty activity that it is your job to keep them entertained? Are you always too busy and stressed? Or do you set aside other life responsibilities to attend to your child’s activities.

Remember your child needs you to provide opportunity for them to practice slowing down, Periods of quiet, calm, alone time. This starts with a parent who practices this in their own life on a daily basis.


    7. Does your dog have the run of the house?

She is on your bed, on the sofa, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, and going berserk at the front door if anyone dares to ring the bell. You need to set boundaries for your pack, so she knows what is and isn’t allowed. Follow these tips for building boundaries with your dog. Claim your space; teach your dog to wait; correct at the right time.

    7. Do your children have the run of your house? Do they come into your bedroom without knocking? Do they come into your bed when they choose?

Do they leave their stuff anywhere?

Think about how you can be in charge of when your children enter your space and how they take up the household space. Parents who have no boundaries when a child is anxious contribute to a child becoming increasingly anxious and unable to self-regulate.

You have the capacity to say “I will tell you when it’s OK to have special story and play time in our bed.” Or “I will not be serving dinner until that mess has been put back where it belongs.”

    8. Does your dog turn a deaf ear to your commands?

If you haven’t trained your dog in basic obedience, you are losing pack leadership points. Work on teaching your dog these five essential commands to establish yourself as Pack Leader and curb behaviour issues; Sit, come, down, stay, leave it.

    8. Does your child ignore your requests?

Improving your leadership in all the above areas makes it much less likely that a child will ignore you. If you just try to get a child to do what you want without working on broad leadership behaviour it is likely to become a  futile power struggle.

An instruction that depends on the child’s co-operation is less effective when re-building your leadership than a request where you can control the consequences. E.g. – when you serve food, go out, provide a lift, take them to a favourite place, pay for something.

    9. Do you yell at your dog?

Yelling is actually the best way of making sure your dog 1) never listens to you, and 2) develops fear and anxiety because of your unbalanced energy. So instead of yelling at your dog — which gets you nowhere, fast — try being calm and assertive.

    9. Do you yell at your children?

Highly reactive parents equates to highly reactive children.

Yelling is actually the best way of making sure your child 1) never listens to you, and 2) develops fear and anxiety because of your unbalanced energy. So instead of yelling at your child — which gets you nowhere, fast — try being calm and assertive.

And when a child is demonstrating their own calm self-management come alongside them and calmly show an interest in what they are doing.

    10 .Does your dog pull you on the walk?

This is the ultimate sign that you have yet to master pack leadership. On top of that, if you don’t walk your dog daily, it’s hard to establish your leadership. That’s why mastering the walk is essential to every Pack Leader.

10. Does your child dictate what you do on an outing?

Rather than every outing being focussed on the child’s interests include something you need to do before going to their preferred activity. They can benefit from developing capacity for delayed gratification and respecting your priorities.

Remember, when it comes to pack leadership, you are the one in charge. By setting boundaries now, you and your dog will be in great shape towards building your relationship and strengthening your bond for years to come. Remember, when it comes to parent leadership, you are the one in charge. You are not becoming a follower of your child’s moods and wants. By setting boundaries now, you and your children will be in great shape towards building your relationship and strengthening your bond for years to come.

count your “yes” answers.Here is Ceasar Milan’s checklist scoring:

0 yes…………………………………… You are the Pack Leader / or parent leader (it may well be a mythical being who can completely answer yes to every question all the time)

1 – 10 yes…………………. You are not the Pack Leader / parent leader YET.

Change does not happen overnight but in small steps of self-management. The effort is on changing self for the benefit of the dog and the child. I know I have often failed to be a calm assertive leader as a parent and dog owner. Rather than beat myself up I can get back on track with my own leadership project.

*10 signs that you are not yet a pack leader – Cesarsway.com

‘Are you a leader or follower as a parent or a dog owner?’ – Jenny Brown


Once a Parent Always a Parent

parent generations [1166589]I have come to see that balance of connection and respecting autonomy remains  important whatever life stage the relationship is going through.

The intensive days of parenting are well and truly behind me. I recall them well. So much activity and so much constant change in a child’s life! -Adjusting to changing teachers, friends, subjects, sports, hobbies, technology, trends, – alongside their constantly changing bodies, cognitions, emotional expressions and fears. The challenge was always around how much to intervene in the child’s efforts to adapt to change and how much to step back and allow them to find their own way. Now that my children are well into adulthood my role is indeed very different, and my responsibilities substantially less. Given this, I kind of expected that I would have transitioned out of my parenting role taking up much energy, yet surprisingly I find that my grown children and their goings on are still very much in my thoughts. I have come to see that the parenting dilemma, around when to get involved and when to step back, remains a constant through all stages of life.

Just this last month I realised that I hadn’t had the usual catch ups with one of my daughters. I was wondering how she was going with a number of changes in her life including her work situation and paused to consider: what was the appropriate amount of contact for me to have with her? I always want my daughters to know of my interest in their lives but I don’t want to convey intrusiveness or worry. This is the very same dilemma for a parent of a younger child: How do I stay an interested support for my child while at the same time promoting their independence? Of course children’s developmental capacity for independence is very different in the younger years. In the initial stages of my children launching as adults I knew how important it was to step back and not impede their growth in responsibility and independent functioning. I think sometimes I’ve tended to go too much in this stepping back direction and not appreciated the value of regular contact. In my clinical practice I saw so much of over involved parents and dependent young people which primed me to focus on the independence side of the relationship balance. This meant that I sometimes avoided asking about aspects of my children’s lives that I thought might encroach on their adult launching. I have come to see that balance of connection and respecting autonomy remains important whatever life stage the relationship is going through.

As I reflect on the appropriate contact to have with an adult child I remind myself of my goal to be a loving, interested presence in their life and to also convey respect for their autonomy in making their way in life. It’s less about how much contact –although that question is worth asking – and more about the tone of the contact. I try to think more about my relationship with the child than getting caught up in thinking about their life issues. This might sound a bit uncaring. However when I think about myself in the relationship, instead of just thinking about the other person, I’m reminded of the effect I can have on them and how I want to address this. If my focus is all about them, it’s all too easy to fall into directing the proceedings of their life – which results in either anxious dependence or anxious distancing from the child. Being a calm loving presence can be easy when we know that our child’s life is going smoothly, with few changes making demands on them. It gets much harder to keep a relationship balance at times of perceiving stress and challenge in a child’s life. I make every effort to keep my anxieties to myself since my children and every other person in my life have enough stress of their own. I have learned that I can’t easily hide my worry from my children, it has a way of getting through and therefore I need to responsibly work out my worries away from relating to my children.

As I consider whether or not to make contact with one of my children I consider firstly the practicalities: Is there good quality, non-distractable time for me to make contact? Is it likely to be convenient for them? Then I consider the relationship: Am I calling out of interest and support rather than out of worry? Am I as open to sharing news of my life as I am hearing their news? Am I clear that I want to understand how they’re thinking about life’s challenges before jumping in with my thinking? The other area I keep in mind is not to parent on behalf of my husband. This means that I don’t convey too much news with him from my catch ups with our daughters. We discuss our mutual thoughts about our children and work to stay independently connected. (I admit this is an ongoing challenge to keep in balance)

So even when children have flown the coop and care taking is no longer an active part of the parent role, the work of being a supportive parent continues. Indeed I agree with the adage: “Once a parent always a parent.” There is always occasion for stepping in a bit more and for knowing when to step out of the way. My effort is to convey genuine love and interest without pushing any of my anxiety into the mix. Seeing the back and forth of the relationship rather than just focussing on the child helps enormously in not going too far in an unhelpful direction.

Questions for reflection

  • What do I see as the bigger picture goal as a parent? How much of my relating promotes responsible independence for each of my children (whatever their age)?
  • How do I manage my worry about my children? Does it get sprayed into the relationship unhelpfully?
  • What is the difference between thinking about myself in relationship with my child, rather than just thinking about my child? Which focus is most helpful for my child’s growth in appropriate independence?
  • In what ways did my own parents relate in ways that assisted me to be a responsible member of society? What are ways I can address any gaps in this as an adult?

Relevant M Bowen Quotes on parenting (from family Therapy in Clinical practice)

The motivated parent must carefully define his /her responsibility for self in his/her family, the operating rules and principles within the area of his/her responsibility, and what he/she will and will not do in relation to those who go beyond those rules.

The important principle is that the parent calmly defines self and rules and consequences, communicates them when they are sure of them and is prepared to stand on the consequences of broken rules if need be. P235

The parental problem was transmitted to the child through making a project out of the child…… parents who could make a project out of themselves was a turning point in both the theory and practice of family psychotherapy. P96

The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s (parents) anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. P381

“Once a parent always a parent” – Jenny Brown


Saying Goodbyes

the fsi

I am also clear that my children are not a possession and are not in this world to meet my needs. This helps me to make room for feelings of sadness at the moment of goodbye but not to allow such feelings to dominate.

What a special time I’ve just enjoyed with my daughter and family who live across the other side of the world. It is a torrid 24 hours of travel to reach her but worth all of the jetlag and side effects to have that personal face to face time. My priority was to be part of her regular routine and to get to know her life in a more tangible way. Nothing can substitute for face to face time! That daily sharing of life for even a short time enables me to move past feeling like a visitor in her life to reinforcing the settled platform of our lifelong connection. Cooking, shopping, attending the ordinary family member events, domestic duties and time out for the simple treats of a café outing. My position in this relationship needs to adapt to the changing phases of the life cycle but the loving bond of family continues to undergird the changes of circumstances.

After a teary farewell I took the opportunity to catch up with 2 friends before undertaking the long flight back to Australia. My friend asked me at lunch how I manage living so far away from family. She said to me that it must be very hard to deal with the distance in our relationship. I responded saying that while it has its challenges I never dwell on the loss of geographic closeness to my daughter. This is a definite choice for me grounded in some important perspectives. I’m mindful that my own mother never lived to see her children married and the arrival of grandchildren. With that reality as a back drop I couldn’t think of grumbling about the distance in my relationship with any of my children. I am grateful to be alive to enjoy seeing her and her family’s life unfold. I think of many people who are bearing the much greater weight of strained relationships with adult children or not having the opportunity for children and grandchildren.  I am also clear that my children are not a possession and are not in this world to meet my needs. This helps me to make room for feelings of sadness at the moment of goodbye but not to allow such feelings to dominate. Indeed as I write this blog I feel the small tugs of emotion that this much anticipated reconnect has come to an end. This is however tempered with a deep gratitude for such a blessed time and an appreciation of the joy of returning home, reunions with loved ones and resuming my own meaningful routines.

When we begin to draw life meaning and steadiness from any relationship it can move into what Bowen described as fusion. The other person loses their separateness from us and becomes merged into our own functioning. Each of us brings varying degrees of propensity to relationship fusion from our intergenerational families. It’s easy to use a relationship to provide us with a sense of being needed or to reduce a sense of inadequacy or futility. This rarely happens consciously but it can slowly develop in the presence of life’s anxieties and is reinforced as other people reciprocate in the fusion pattern. For some, who carry dissolution with their family relationships, it’s likely that they will over invest in substitute relationships. When there is cut off from important family members it may be that intense new relationships are not too far away.

From my faith position I find it useful to view the tendency to relationship over-investment as a kind of heart idolatry- where the other person is elevated to a position of exaggerated importance. Canadian Bowen theory scholar and Presbyterian minister Randal Frost described this in a presentation on ‘faith and functioning’ where the tendency to anxiously invest in others (or in work, education, causes, and substances) can parallel a lack of effort towards God:

 “…people who come to know and trust God no longer have the same need to secure themselves by means of over-investing in others.”

“..modification of the idolatrous component of an intense emotional attachment (to people or things) should gradually enhance the possibility of defining a self to the other.” Frost R 1998, paper presented at WPFC

As I reflect with warmth and gratitude on my recent time with my daughter I remind myself that my relationships are a gift not an entitlement. Even with the challenges of distance they are to be appreciated and worked on – but not elevated to a place where they are necessary for my sense of purpose or happiness. In my everyday growing up efforts I endeavour to keep relationships in their appropriate place. To feel the emotions of reunions and separations but not to let such feelings elevate the person to an unrealistic importance. To love them, appreciate and enjoy them but not draw on my interactions with them to prop up my wellbeing.

Questions for reflection

  • Which relationships risk becoming overly important to me?
  • What are the ways I look to a relationship to provide a sense of wellbeing?
  • How do I manage separations from important other’s?
  • If the emotions of loss and grief are excessive when separating from another, how might this indicate fusion (or elevating a person to a place of heart idolatry)? How can I slowly begin reducing this intensity?
  • What is the place of feelings in separating from important others? What is the place of principle and perspective when dealing with geographic distance from family?
  • Have I reflected on how it is that programs that encourage a relationship with a ‘higher power’ assist many people to reduce their investment in addictive behaviours? (12 steps in AA)

Relevant quotes from Bowen theory (this summary is taken from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice- showing what high, moderate and lower levels of fusion look like. p 366- 370.)

High Fusion People

  • Live in a feeling dominated world.
  • So much energy goes into seeking love and approval and keeping the relationship in some kind of harmony, there is little energy for life-directed goals.
  • When approval is not forthcoming energy is directed into withdrawing or fighting their relationship system
  • When failing to achieve closeness, they may go to withdrawal and depression, or to pursuit of closeness in another relationship.

Moderate Fusion People

  • Are more able to distinguish between feelings and facts especially when tension isn’t high.
  • Their feelings still tend to tell the intellectual system what to do
  • Their well-being can be dependent on other’s approval. Criticism can be crushing.
  • Are sensitised to reading the moods, expressions and postures of the other.

Low Fusion People (high differentiation/maturity)

  • When relationship tension is high, the person’s intellect can hold its own without being dominated by the emotional system. (emotions are both feelings and physiological reactivity)
  • They have employed logical reasoning to develop principles and convictions that they use to over-rule the emotional system in situations of anxiety and panic.
  • Are less relationship directed. While aware of relationships and connected to important others their life courses are not directed by what others think and how they react.

A caveat from Bowen

“A common mistake is to equate the better differentiated person with a ‘rugged individualist.’ I consider rugged individualism to be the exaggerated pretend posture of a person struggling against emotional fusion. The differentiated person is always aware of others and the relationship system around him/her.” P 370

‘Saying Goodbyes’Jenny Brown

Resisting the Tendency to Over Help as a Parent

Respecting parent – child boundaries, whatever the stage of life

grad blogStaying on the sidelines as a parent does not mean being detached but rather being connected without interfering.

I’ve learned that the work to be a balanced parent continues well beyond the school years – indeed beyond leaving home.  My tendency, embedded in my family of origin, is to over- invest as a parent. Hence I make an ongoing effort to relate to my daughters in a way that respects their autonomy while being an interested support.

I’ve had a valuable opportunity to work on this over the past couple of years, thanks to my youngest daughter making a call to go back to university and change her career direction. The icing on the cake of this ‘growing up opportunity’ is that she chose the same career platform as myself – the potential for me to become over-involved in this journey is heightened.

In May this year I joined with close family to attend and celebrate her graduation.  During toasts and reflections over lunch she thanked me for the support she received.  I responded, affirming my respect for how she had engaged with her subjects and excelled as a result. My contribution had been to listen to her on those occasions when she was struggling to figure out how to tackle an essay or select from the assignment options.  I had worked consciously not to jump in with suggestions or advice, just to listen and ask questions about how she was thinking.  “How are you approaching the topic?” “What are you weighing up in deciding which questions to tackle?” “What’s your thinking about the issues?”….There was always a niggling part of me that was drawn to jump into the essay topic as if it was mine to do – to cross boundaries and begin to step into the actual structuring of the argument.  I know this drive to take over for a child (whatever the age) is partially driven by a worry about whether or not my daughter is up to the task – not a logical concern but something embedded beneath the surface of maternal sensitivity.  At another level it is also an insidious, yet out of awareness, way to steady myself in the position as a caretaking Mum – feeling useful can be a way of stealing strength from the other.  Of course jumping in to do for another, what they can figure out for themselves, is not a true caring act – it crowds another’s space to grow self-motivation and regulation.

It has been a joy to stand back and hear my daughter’s independent approach to her studies; to see her both struggle to manage the pressures of a demanding work load and also to flourish in her work and results. Hearing my child under pressure is a fine laboratory for me to grow as a parent. I get to practice being present – while staying in my own skin, to be a listening ear, to trust that she can and must find her own way to overcome the challenge.

Being a parent into a child’s adult years can indeed be a gift- as friendship and mutual support is cultivated. I remind myself to ensure that this relationship keeps a separate space from my commitment to shared support and friendship in my marriage.  I appreciate that diverting from being truly present in a marriage and in one’s own adult responsibilities is the fuel to over- crowding and over helping the next generation.

I’ve truly appreciated learning from my daughter as she shared her scholarship during her studies and in her work assignments.   As the years unfold I will be interested to stay on the sidelines and watch her carve out her own unique career path alongside the other important aspects of her life and relationships. Staying on the sidelines as a parent does not mean being detached but rather being connected without interfering.

Postscript – I sent this blog to my 28 year old daughter for her to read over. My principle for these blogs is that they are about my efforts rather than the other people I mention. However I do want to give family members the opportunity to suggest edits of any aspects that speak about them personally. My daughter sent back the following comments:

I think that you did a good job of finding a balance between not doing any of my work or thinking for me but at the same time not ignoring me when I needed a sounding board. My sense of achievement, when receiving strong results, I believe was all the more satisfying knowing I had gotten there on my own.

Questions for reflection

(For those who are not parents these questions can apply to other relationships at work and in other groups)

  • Are there ways I tend to ‘over- help’ a child – or in another significant relationship?
  • How is my balance between genuine interest and connection with my child and allowing their autonomy?
  • How do I respond when my child is struggling to manage something?
  • Did my parent’s ‘over- worry’ or ‘over- help’ any of their children? How has this influenced my own focus?
  • How do I ensure that I don’t neglect my own responsibilities to be real in my marriage and other responsibilities?

Relevant quotes from Bowen Theory about anxious child focus

NOTE: In Bowen family systems theory all patterns sit on a continuum of intensity from very high to mild. Bowen suggests that all parents have some degree of unrealistic projection/investment into the next generation – and not all children are equally invested in or worried about. This variation in worry focus for different children explains part of how siblings can turn out very differently in terms of their capacity to manage life challenges. Parents are not to blame for this, as it is beyond awareness and driven by loving intensions; but with awareness they can reduce ‘over rescuing, monitoring or correcting’ a child and turn their attention to managing themselves.

Some parents are so emotionally invested in the child that so much of their thoughts, worries and psychic energies go to the child…it is difficult for them to speak about anything else. Bowen  P 97 FTCP

The child functions in reaction to the parents instead of being responsible for him/herself. If parents shift their focus off the child and become more responsible for their own actions, the child will automatically (perhaps after testing whether the parents really mean it) assume more responsibility for him/herself. Kerr & Bowen (1988). Family Evaluation. p. 202.

Parents often feel they have not given enough love, attention, or support to a child manifesting problems, but they have invested more time, energy, and worry in this child than in his siblings. The siblings less involved in the family projection process have a more mature and reality-based relationship with their parents that fosters the siblings developing into less needy, less reactive, and more goal-directed people. Kerr M 2004, One  Family’s Story.

“Resisting the Tendency to Over Help as a Parent”Jenny Brown