What’s it like to be an Imperfect Parent?

by Benjamin Fry

The trauma of being left behind

The trauma of being left behind

News that David Cameron left his eight year old daughter, Nancy. in a country pub over the weekend got me thinking about what it’s like to be an ‘imperfect parent’.

One of the interesting follow up stories from the Cameron’s leaving their daughter in the pub was that it prompted other parents to come forward with their own stories of errors and neglect. This raises the issue about how difficult it is to an imperfect parent. The follow up question to which is usually ‘how much is good enough?’

To answer this question we have to look at the mechanism of the biological stress cycle in children. First of all each child has his or her own calibration of regulation which broadly speaking means as we all know that some children are just more robust than others. Someone who responds very quickly to threat, their nervous system activating more sharply than a comparable child, will appear to us to be more sensitive or more ‘difficult’ or even more ‘needy’.

Secondly we have to look at what we might call the ‘red line for trauma in any individual nervous system. So there’s a point at which the child activation in response to threat hits overload and the system crashes into the freeze state. This red line will be at different levels for different individuals, perhaps just based on their DNA but more commonly is effectively moved around and compromised by any difficulty in their environment or history. So to put it in common language someone who’s had a really hard time and has not yet got over it will be less resilient to the next problem.

The third factor that then comes in is actually what we do to these children as parents. And the important thing to consider is, how is the nervous system of the child responding to what we are doing? Usually we judge our behaviour based on what we think is normal or OK but this can be subject to all the normal pressures of society and family and internal processes of denial and confusion. The only thing that matters is how this behaviour is being received by the nervous system of the child in question. Our theories about what we should or should not be doing or about how the child should or should not be responding are completely irrelevant and redundant.

Unfortunately the combination of these factors leads to a fairly frighteningly low threshold for what we define as potentially traumatic for children; the definition given by Pia Mellody is ‘anything less than nurturing’. Most people hearing that for the first time think that it must be ridiculous but when you look in detail at the actual mechanism of the stress cycle and in particular the reality that trauma begins when stress is overwhelming, you can see that in a young child anything less than nurturing could be seen as a life or death threat.

Given therefore that it’s impossible not to traumatise our children, what is it that we should be doing as parents?

The answer in broad terms is to focus on not trying to prevent stress cycles but learning how to facilitate a child to complete stress cycles. There’s nothing wrong with activation and the trauma mechanism; all the problems we experience are as a result of not coming out of the freeze state rather than because we went into it. We can help our children to complete these stress cycles by giving them what we would call ‘resources’. This effectively raises the red line in what they can tolerate and therefore allows them to process things that previously they were unable to complete. On a basic level, time, focused attention, physical affection and being attuned or responsive to the child’s needs are good enough foundations for building these resources in a young child (see Peter Levine’s book on ‘Trauma Proofing your Kids’).

When these opportunities are missed in childhood the adult that the child then becomes may need some specific help in resolving these unfinished stress cycles in the nervous system. That’s the work we do at Khiron House.

So in the Cameron’s case like any parent they made mistakes but what augers well for Nancy’s recovery is that it was her mother that went straight back to collect her and not some nanny or bodyguard. This will have been received by Nancy as a resource, as a parent who is truly present and understands her needs, and that in itself is likely to lead to good enough parenting.

Nobody can ever prevent a child from going into the traumatic spectrum of the nervous system but everybody can play a part in facilitating a child to come out of it.

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