Good for the parents and good for the child
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
I’m often asked what is unique in our approach for parents. Whenever I give a presentation about NVR (non-violent resistance), I am asked: “Isn’t this like non-violent communication?” “Doesn’t it overlap with positive discipline?” “What is the difference from parent management training?” Indeed, there are commonalities. After all, we didn’t create anything out of nothing, nor have a monopoly on good ideas. However, there is a special emphasis, which I believe characterizes our approach more than any other. That’s the search for solutions that are good for the parents and good for the child. We always ask the double question: “What is difficult for these parents and how does it make it hard for them to help their child?” We believe that parents can only give the child what the child needs, if they also get what they need. Of course, we are not the first to raise this issue. But we think about it all the time.
Let’s have a look at our central concept of the parental anchoring function in the context of very young children. Pre-schoolers need the experience of a parental anchor that stabilizes them against the waves of powerful emotions and drives. A child who is flooded by anger or anxiety, or experiences a dangerous impulse, needs a parent who is “strong and wise” (to use the words of the renowned psychoanalyst John Bowlby) to give them protection and stability. This need lies at the root of the attachment drive. This is the universal need of the young and frail members of a species to attach themselves to a stronger adult that is capable of providing them with the security they need in order to survive. In humans, the parent protects the child both against external dangers and against the powerful emotional storms that beset them. Interestingly, anchoring is as much a need of the child as of the parents. That’s because parents who feel prey to repetitive fury, waves of anxiety, or endless hassles, sink into helplessness and exhaustion. These parents need to reconnect to their parental ground to renew their forces, regulate their emotions and regain the ability to act.
The parental anchoring function is based on presence, self-control, support and structure. Presence: children need parents, who can say “I am your parent, I am here, and I stay here!”. Self-control: children need parents who do not flip out, collapse or capitulate. Support: children need parents that are connected and supported by their social network. Structure: Children need to experience order and a stable routine. Those four elements are no less necessary for the parents. Parents must feel that they have weight and influence (presence); that they don’t “lose it” or give in (self-control); that they are upheld and legitimized (support), and that their home is not ruled by chaos (structure). In other words, parents must anchor themselves to anchor their child.
Consider the daily experience of a family with an “explosive child” (in Ross Green’s characterization). The child is bombarded by a flood of stimuli that clamor unceasingly: “Now! Now! Now!” The parents feel an endless urge to yell back: “No! No! No!” life become a rollercoaster, propelled by the multiplication of the child’s “Now! Now! Now!” by the parents’ “No! No! No!”. The child has no experience of continuity but lives in a whirlpool of disconnected moments. The parents feel unable to plan, predict or even relate to what has just passed, as it gets washed away in the rush of succeeding crises. In many of those families this “routine of chaos” is further punctured by occasional major explosions, characterized by uncontrolled screaming, violence, exhaustion and despair. How can these parents create an anchoring experience to rescue themselves and their child from the rule of chaos?
We begin by telling the parents the difference between the experience of “No-chatter”, in which each parental “No!” is like a bubble that appears in a flurry but bursts as soon as it is emitted; and the feeling of a “No-anchor” in which the parents stand behind their “No!”, creating a warm and loving limit. A “No-anchor” can only be emitted with parsimony (we propose that parents attempt to do so no more than once weekly). However, the experience can deeply change the family atmosphere. In order to emit a “No-anchor” the parents have to decide, plan, announce, implement, follow up, and gather support.
Going back to the family with the explosive child that we have considered above, the parents were asked to decide what would be the first issue they’d like to address by a “No-anchor”. A rule of thumb is that whenever there is violence, this should be the parents’ first priority. The parents therefore decided to defend themselves and other family members against violence. This would be the theme of their first “No-anchor”, as it were the constitutive “No!” of their parenthood. Thereupon the parents announced their decision to their child. The “announcement” is a basic technique that we use to create a transitional rite what went on before from what is to come afterwards. With children who know how to read, the announcement is given both in writing and by word of mouth. In this case, the child was 5 years old and did not know how to read. The parents then had a brilliant idea and prepared an illustration of their announcement, which they delivered to the child in a formal and festive manner. The words accompanying the picture were:
This said, they gave their son the drawing and left the room without another word. To their surprise, the boy restrained himself for a whole week. But then, the inevitable violent outburst occurred. The mother, who was alone with the child at the time, sent him to his room, telling him: “I won’t suffer this anymore! I and Dad will consider our reaction and let you know what we decided!” After the family dinner, the parents took the child to his room, sat down, and the father said: “We’re here, because you threw a chair at Mom! We’ll sit and wait for a solution, how this won’t happen again!” Thereupon both parents remained silent for about 15 minutes. The child then started crying and said he didn’t remember what had happened. This is not necessarily a false claim, as these children often have difficulty in retrieving a specific memory from the flood of intervening events. The mother patiently reminded him about what had happened. The boy nodded showing he understood. He then said: “But I was punished already! Mom sent me to my room!” The father answered: “Yes, but now we’re looking for a solution how this won’t happen again!” The boy made an angry face and crossed his arms in protest. The parents waited another 15 minutes and then left the room saying: “We still haven’t found a solution. We’ll continue looking for one. What is certain is that we won’t put up with violence anymore!” The next day the boy’s uncle, who had a particularly close relationship with him, arrived and told him: “You know I love you very much! But I agree with your parents that the violence has to stop. You threw a chair at your mother. As you know, she is my sister, and I can’t agree to your being violent with my sister. I’m willing to help you. If you call me when you’re angry, I’ll help you calm down. You can call me at any hour of the day or the night. I’m sure that you can overcome this. But the violence has to stop!” In the course of the next month the violent episodes diminished significantly and then stopped altogether.
Parents often ask: “What about all other problematic behaviors?” We tell them: When you create a “No-anchor” experience, you change yourselves first of all. You decide, plan, announce, implement, follow up, and get support. You discover that you’re capable of doing this and your child soon discovers it too! You stop being at the mercy of events, and start getting control of yourselves and the home. This changes the atmosphere. And after one week you can decide on an additional “No-anchor” to deepen the change.
In effect the experience of a “No-anchor”, or even of several of them, does not cover all problematic areas. But our studies and experience confirm that parents that learn to create those experiences become more emotionally regulated, have fewer outbursts, and experience far less helplessness. The “family music” changes. Instead of the cacophony of the child’s “Now! Now! Now!” multiplied by the parents’ “No! No! No!”, we now may still have the child’s “Now! Now! Now!” but they are met by the deep bass accompaniment of one parental “Noooooooooooooo!”, with an anchoring effect. All family members notice the difference. Gradually, the child remembers better, shows more self-control and regulation, and connects the various experiences with one another. The parents feel less helpless, less impulsive and more present. Both the child and the parents are at the center of the process. The family is no longer a circle with the child at its center, but an ellipse with two “centers”: the parents and the child.
A more detailed description of the “No-anchor” and of various ways of setting a loving and warm limit can be found in my book “Courageous parents”.