Sunday, March 04, 2007

On Meeting Our Children's Needs...

I posted recently about the Internal Critic(s), and how we, as children, internalise external hostility or disapproval in an attempt to control our impulses and make our external world safe. I have been pondering since then about how that post was received by people who are also parents. We all have multiple selves who interpret the world through their own particular framework; this is most apparent for those of us who have a (real)* parent self with the responsibility of care-taking and nurturing our own children. Whilst our ‘child self' may have felt validated by the argument I presented, it is possible, if not highly likely, that our 'parent self' might feel guilty about it’s own capacity to raise a child with good self-esteem. I think a post on one strand, therefore, automatically necessitates a post on the other strand. And then Atyllah produced a wonderful post on the problems of the ‘self-esteem movement’ in the US, and how overly positive parenting is producing a generation of young people with narcissistic disorders. A lovely synchronicity.

So this post is for all parents (or prospective parents), in case you had decided you should hand your children over to the perfect parenting brigade for their own well-being.

Winnicot talked of ‘good enough parenting’ and argued convincingly that whilst small babies need parents who can anticipate and meet their needs satisfactorily, developing children need only have some of their needs met by their parents for healthy psychological growth. He argues that:

The good-enough mother...starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure... (My italics)

D.W.Winnicot (1951) Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena

Small children are by their very nature grandiose and egotistical. They wish to control their world, to ensure that their every need is met and that the world responds only to their wishes. (Of course they do. Who wouldn't? I would, if I thought I could get away with it.) Our job as parents is to ensure that we do meet their essential physical and relational needs, but, importantly, that we enable them to regulate their internal, emotional experience when we fail to meet their ego-needs. Our job, in fact, is sometimes to let them down and then allow them to feel the rage and grief that ensues.

Kohut called this a process of transmuting internalisation. He argues that failures of empathy allow the developing child the capacity to develop their own internal self-structures which will enable them to deal – bit by bit – with a world that will not respond to their every whim. In other words, if we get the basics right but screw up a bit around the edges, we give our children the best chance they can have of learning to deal with the big bad world. If we indulge their grandiosity then ultimately they develop a fragile ego and fail to cope with the real world when the time comes. If we let them down just a bit, they develop a robust ego that can cope with life’s disappointments.

The important thing is that we do this in a ‘day to day’ kind of way, rather than a ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson’ kind of way (which is why I have a great deal of difficulty with the ‘naughty step’.) If our failures of empathy are persistently punitive or hostile, our children learn another kind of lesson altogether. But we can let our children down, if this is the exception rather than the norm, because by doing so we are actually giving our children a big psychological hand up. Let's remember that children who don’t learn to move beyond their own grandiosity turn into narcissistic adults. I’m not suggesting you should beat your children into submission. But go ahead and screw up just a bit. Trust me, it’s good for them. And if you don’t believe me go and read Atyllah’s post.

*as opposed to the Parent ego state of Transactional Analysis, which we all have whether we or not we have children of our own.


yellowduck said...

Thank you. I will read this more closely and then come back to it. I have some - muddled, as ever - questions I want to ask you about this.

Anonymous said...

My sweet lord!! I'm glad I was stoned last night and not now, because you have just freaked me out lady. Not yet being ready to reveal myself to those whose blogs I am commenting and therefore just posting as 'dan', it seems you have beaten me to the big reveal. I'm assuming you came across "In Wild Heaven" by accident, strange happenstance or whatever or am I just quite lame using this technology?! So I'm coming out now rather than have two sets of conversations as 'dan' and 'Daniel' Anyway, yes that's me 'dan' who you've been conversing with these last few days.

'Adversity is the first path to truth' is Byron, who I have soft spot for - I think it's probably a thanatos thing.

Excuse me while I go and pull myself together LOL

charlotte said...

Great post. I'm going to have to let it percolate for a while. I certainly agree with you and Amyllah that being perfect and so so special doesn't actually prepare children for the harsh realities awaiting them. I don't feel guilty allowing my children to have their little disappointments and I try not to jump in and rescue them too much.

However, I do feel guilt that I can't seem to satisfy one of my children. Two are content with what I provide for them, a little less than perfect as it is, while my middle child seems to be a gaping hole of need that no amount of mummy time, daddy time, one on one special time ever seems to fulfill. She's just so hungry and nothing we (and especially I) provide is adequate. I do find it exhausting.

Ms Melancholy said...

Hi Ducky, all questions welcome. I find it hard to reduce this stuff into a short post, so it probably comes out as a bit muddled anyway. Ideally this should be 4 times longer, but then no-one would bother reading it. Speak soon...x

Hey Daniel, I did kind of wonder! I could now pretend that either I am psychic or that it is a fabulous coincidence. The truth is that I have noticed your blog coming up on my stats for the past few weeks, and decided to pop over and check it out as no-one had owned up to it. I know who you are. I know where you live. I know what you want. Now are you scared?

Ms Melancholy said...

Hey Charlotte, you snuck in there. That sounds like a thorny problem, and makes me think of the role that personality and genetic inheritance might play? I wonder if she would be able to articulate it to you, or is she too young for that?

Anonymous said...

Er, terrified!

Calamity Jane said...

Good lord - I must be better adjusted than i
I give myself credit for. My parents subscribe to the feed' em, clothe 'em and love 'em at arms length school of thought. My curs-ed self esteem problems must be self-inflicted.

Ms Melancholy said...

Hi again CJ - you know, the truth is that parents are never going to get it completely right. And more importantly, we are never going to be entirely without anxiety, self-esteem issues or internal conflict. Our existence is doomed to be an imperfect one. Oh, I really am a cheery old bugger today, aren't I? Sorry, CJ - you drop in with a perfectly reasonable comment, and I start telling you how miserable you are doomed to be. I wouldn't blame you if you never came back here.


Caroline said...

Bloody hell! You're a genius!
I can now remove some of the guilt that has been layering, as I refused to over compensate in response to my own feelings of letting them down. I've read this post three times now. Your stats will see my yoyo acts.
Exposure without abuse and neglect - yes? Reality checking within boundaries and security - yes? Essentially leading to a more rounded and less blinkered child. Empathy and awareness. I think?
You're wondeful. I can not formulate sentences.

Ms Melancholy said...

Thanks, lovely Caroline! Being a parent is such a nightmare sometimes, isn't it? We overburden ourselves with guilt, and can't accept anything less than perfection from ourselves, despite the fact that we know that it is absolutely impossible to achieve. I must admit, when I first read this theory (the Kohut especially) I was delighted. Not just an excuse for not being a perfect parent, but actually a damn good reason not to be. I like your phrase 'exposure without abuse or neglect'. That just about sums it up for me.


Nikhil said...

Frightening indeed. There really seems more to this parenting business than leaving your kids with the nanny, and bickering over their love when the divorce papers are served?

Ah well, your advice does seem to be better formed than my mind's.

Ms Melancholy said...

Hey, Nikhil

There really seems more to this parenting business than leaving your kids with the nanny, and bickering over their love when the divorce papers are served?

That's pretty funny. That's how the upper classes do it in England. The rest of us find other ways of fucking them up.

apprentice said...

Ah I'm so relieved to read about things going pear-shaped over the pond. They are so confident, everyone there can give a vox pop like they've just been hired by CNN.

While here the Scottish Executive runs ads asking us to be nicer to our kids. Please just let me survive my son's teenage years with a bit of my sanity in tact -that's all I ask.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

This is a great post, thank you.

Thank you, thank you.

mad muthas said...

phew! and double phew!!!

Reading the Signs said...

Well in my young day, the not-so-affluent bohemian middle classes used to leave them with au pairs to be fucked up. I, in consequence, was an over-protective parent. I love the idea of 'good enough parenting' and one of the best bits of advice for parents I ever read (but can't remember who said it) was that giving your children fish and chips three nights in a row does not make you a bad one. It was that kind of thinking that saw me through, I think.

Boris said...

Nice post (as usual). Thought provoking.

I have come accross the idea of "good enough" parenting before and I do adhere to it as much as I can.

I think the best we can do for our kids is teaching them to deal with disappointments - the world is full of them and they need to know this as they grow-up.

On the other hand they also have to have sufficent self esteem to know (from deep inside) that they are "worth it" and that they should not take second best. The dilema for many parents is finding that balance.


PS hope your boobs are feeling bettter now!

Leesa said...

Just wanted to stop by to tell you that Battle of the Blogs: Round 2 has started, and your blog is one of the ones still in the competition.

Leesa (

Atyllah said...

Excellent post Ms M. The things that struck me as I read where this - balance and unconditional love. And you are so right about the reality of the world. Parents screw up, the world screws up. Nothing is perfect. Hence the need for balance to which your post refers. Neither too much, nor too little - but unconditional love with it all.

Ms Melancholy said...

Hi Apprentice - thanks for dropping by. It's always good to welcome new visitors. I'm not looking forward to the teenage years, I must admit. I know what I was like, you see...

Hi Sam - what a fabulous name you have! You're welcome, you're welcome!

Hi MM - yeah, phew indeed. No more yummy-mummy, at last.

Hi Signs - I guess we all have our own achilles heel, based on our own experiences. Mine was to have just the one child, having come from a large-ish family. I'm sure he'll tell me one day if that was the worst thing I could ever do to him. But I agree with you, good enough is just right.

Hi again Boris, - I guess it is finding that balance that is the hard bit. Personally, I err on the side of both discipline and screwing up. I think it's good to give your kids something to kick against - a hard edge for them to meet, as it were. (Like you really care about my boobs after your comments over at yours, but thanks for asking anyway...)

Hi Atyllah, and thanks for drawing our attention to that research. I am still shuddering at the thought of a whole generation of American kids growing up thinking that they are so entitled. It actually makes my flesh creep. Balance is the answer, I agree. Yes, definitely balance.

Cheers Leesa - I haven't sussed out if you have actually visit or can send these messages by remote...anyway, hi and thankyou.

Helen said...

Yes, I seem to have brought a tiny tyrant into the world, and yes, I am constantly obsessing that I am a crappy sort of mother. My biggest guilt-trip at the moment is that I "don't provide him with enough stimulation", which I know is rubbish because he finds his own amusement and gets annoyed if I interfere. But with issues such as him shrieking for cakes/biscuits/toys or not wanting to go into the buggy/high chair/cot/bath, I have no problem with saying to him: "Tough luck, Buster, this is how it is." So maybe I'm doing OK?! Yeah! Mind you, it isn't half wearing. I feel as if I spend every day battling with a miniature Kim Jong Il.

austin said...

And in all this parenting business, I'm surprised noone has mentioned step parenting and the interesting range of challenges that can have.

I am the step mum of a young man (no challenges there, he is just a delight to have in the family) and a 15 yr old teenager (challenges galore). Teenager, fortunately has a good mum and dad to do all the usual stuff ( eg discipline and both are at a concert of hers right now with my little daughter) but...It can be much harder to find a balance and also to relate honestly when sometimes you become a seething mess in response to usual teenage "whatever" stuff.

I have been wisely counselled to pull back and not react to her states of mind or off hand behaviour, but don't always manage my own regression to teenage land when she is around!
That is not to say that she can't also be gorgeous and she is particularly so with her younger half sister.
Anyway, onward with the "balance " stuff...

bindi said...

Interesting. As far as parenting goes, approach with caution - theories are only theories.

(Not that I discourage any discussion on their merits or relevance to our lives. Its all thought provoking. Thanks).

Parents don't have total control over who or how their children are and be.

A little thought on too-good parents being to blame for a generation of narcissistic people: What role does a consumer society play in creating such persons? Research on Generation Y suggests that they are the penultimate consumers because of the world they have grown up in, bombarded with choices and advertising they become savvy - this is me (accept), this is not me (reject), for example.

Also, we cannot judge 'perfect' from another person's point of view. What we think of as perfect parenting might be off the money for our children. Having an open mind is important & being prepared that your children might have ideas of their own that you hadn't thought of. Listening & learning from them is a joyful thing.

My one goal as my children grow up is to try to keep communication lines open.

... oh and to get a life so I don't miss them when they do grow up!

someone said...

You said questions were OK, so:

importantly, that we enable them to regulate their internal, emotional experience when we fail to meet their ego-needs.

1)how do parents enable children to regulate the experience of not getting their needs met ?

2) what happens if the parents fail to teach the child how to regulate their internal experience ?

If our failures of empathy are persistently punitive or hostile, our children learn another kind of lesson altogether.

3) what lesson do children learn from persistent punitive or hostile parents ?

Ms Melancholy said...

Hi Helen

I feel as if I spend every day battling with a miniature Kim Jong Il. Well, that's probably not a bad description of life with a toddler! Sounds like you have it pretty nailed, though. And I agree with you about the 'stimulation' issue - apparently we should be structuring their every waking moment with stimulating and educational activities. Let them play, I say.

Hi Austin - good point. I am a step-parent myself, and it brings its own challenges. Discipline and boundaries are very different when you are dealing with a child that is not your own, whatever the child-care experts say. It takes a lot of patience, in my experience.

Hi Bindi - I like your take on this. You say that Parents don't have total control over who or how their children are and be. I couldn't agree more. I think our job is to help them to become who they already are, if that makes sense? We cannot mould them. We can only give them a good enough environment for them to become themselves with grace and confidence.

Hi someone - this is a huge question, and neuro-psychologists are writing books on it as we speak. It is a question of affect regulation. In very simple terms, we want our small children to learn that their feelings will not overwhelm them, will not harm them, are tolerable and are completely normal but cannot be used to control others. We do this by a) being able to regulate our own emotions and interior life and b)accepting our children's feelings, digesting them for them and feeding them back in a digestible form. eg. when child is tantruming saying something like "I know this feels really horrible, but you are ok and this will pass". As we accept our children's feelings they learn to accept them for themselves, and thus become less intense. But we don't give in to the tantrum, nor do we punish them for it. We just stay really, really firm in our position whilst holding their intensity of feeling. Does that sound OK? And we don't have to get it right all of the time! If you are really interested in this stuff, google 'affect regulation' and there is some very interesting neuro-psychological research.

Persistently punitive or hostile parenting has the opposite effect ie children learn that they are either bad or that their feelings are dangerous, and this stuff then gets shoved down into the unconscious. It can emerge in a number of ways in adulthood, but mostly will manifest in insecure relationships and low self-worth.

mad muthas said...

oooh - don't get me started on yummy mummies - the acceptable, submissive, non-challenging face (or belly) of motherhood!

Janejill said...

I have just read "The Nanny Diaries" which shows another type of parenting but is v v funny, as well as very moving. (By the way, I still miss the family in "A Suitable Boy" and I read it a few months ago) A very long time ago, I studied Psychology (for a wee while, as is my style) and I remembered reading that, when your baby cries,you should not go to it immediately as then s/he will not understand that pain is a part of living, and so in Adulthood,will always demand an instant response; like-wise, if you leave the baby to cry for too long,then it will be very fearful, as an adult, that pain is there to stay . In other words, let the little thing cry a bit, but not overlong. Whatever happened to me.......

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