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  • Writer's pictureHaim Omer

The need for a personal space for parents of young children

A friend of mine, who had given birth to twins a couple of years after having her first child, told me of an interesting decision made by her therapist. The psychologist thought my friend was deeply exhausted and she became worried by the fact that the young mother could not find any protected space for herself, although the twins were already two years old. When my friend would arrive to her therapy session, the therapist would have her sit for an hour in an armchair in her garden, before starting the actual meeting. My friend told me that this had taught her a vital lesson: That if she could not find a safe space for herself, she would not be able to give her children the stable mother they needed to grow up well.

Exhaustion and burnout are common conditions in the parents of young children. The burden on the parents, especially the mothers, has grown in recent decades, among others because the protective influence of the extended family is much reduced in our society. Today most parents rear their children within the confines of the nuclear family. Moreover, the belief that the child’s emotional development is the inevitable result of his/her intimate relationship with the mother has gained enormous ground in our culture. This puts a heavy burden of responsibility on the shoulders of mothers.

The truth is that children require a wider network of care already in their first year of life. The involvement of other caregivers (father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and sometimes also paid helpers) can contribute much to the child, to say nothing of the mother. Anthropological studies show that in cultures in which the norm is that other people besides the mother help in taking care of the baby, the phenomenon of “fear of strangers” does not arise. In all probability, also social anxiety in later years is much less frequent in those societies. In my book “Courageous Parents” I’ve described the belief that mental health is almost exclusively a function of the close mother-infant relationship as reflecting our “religion of intimacy”. This attitude is probably a source of countless problems of children and mothers alike.

The capacity to get help from others, thus creating better conditions for the parents’ stability, is not only an objective given. It is also related to the parents’ attitude. Isolation is not only a fact, but also a construct, influenced by habits and beliefs. In our studies we have shown that when parents learn to ask others, help is usually forthcoming, changing the parents’ and the child’s situation. Even a modest support can be of significance. Recently, I witnessed an event in a Tel-Aviv Mall, in which about 20 mothers with their babies were instructed by a parenting coach, how they could interact with the other mothers and babies in the circle. The encounter was witnessed by many of the Mall’s visitors, thus creating a wider circle. This brief experience might have given some of the mothers and children an inkling of the notorious “village” that in the words of a traditional proverb “is needed to bring up a child”. Hopefully this experience encouraged some of the mothers to open themselves to additional forms of contact and support.

The experience of support allows both mothers and fathers to carve a protected space for themselves. Some of our major “tips” for parents of infants and older children are: “Ask for help, involve others, don’t stay alone!” “Dare to give yourselves some hours or half-hours of respite!” “When you get support, your children get the feeling they are held by a safety net! This deepens their sense of belonging!”

The safe space that parents need has also a physical side. Ask yourselves: “Do I have a corner of my own?” “Do I allow myself the rest that I need?” “Do I dare reduce my total availability to my child?”

When parents guarantee a safe space for themselves, the child begins to develop a vital skill: the ability to self-soothe. This is shown, for instance, by research on infants with sleeping problems. In treatment programs for the parents of such children (usually between 9 and 18 months of age) the parents are taught to reduce their total availability when the baby cries. They are trained not to take the baby in their arms or to their bed, but to give comfort while sitting at the baby’s side. For instance, when the baby cries, one of the parents approaches the baby’s bed, caressing and talking soothingly, and then sits in a chair nearby. If the baby remains restless, the parent can bring a mattress and lie down upon it “modelling sleep”. Research shows that under those circumstances babies not only fall asleep quicker, but also sleep better during the night. They wake up less and when they do wake up, they are much more capable of going to sleep on their own again. In other words: the baby learns to self-soothe. An interesting finding is that when fathers take an active part in this process, the results are much better!

In this process the parents are building themselves a protected space. Their body, their bed and their room are not totally available to the child, but only under certain limits. The parents learn to say to themselves: “This my body!” “This is my bed!” This is my room!” What is surprising is that when the parents become able to convey these messages, the child sleeps better! In the terms of our model, the child enjoys an anchoring experience. Parents who can build a protected space for themselves, convey safety to their child. After all, the parental anchor can only stabilize the child, if it finds a secure place in the ground to hook up to.

The importance of a safe parental space is crucial in the subject I’ll be addressing in my next post: children’s fears. As we shall see, the creation of a protected space for the parents is often the secret for reducing the child’s anxiety!

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