Friday, April 23, 2010

A Parents’ Group with In-House Childcare: A Model for Helping Families with Separation Issues

(written with co-author Anne Piche)

Separation anxiety is common in children and causes confusion and stress for parents. Holding a group for parents with a nearby group for their children has produced some positive results.

When we decided to do a daytime parenting group we realized that childcare for pre-school children is one of the most important services needed to get parents to come. Many at-home mothers wanted to attend the group, but did not have childcare.

The two authors, a parenting-group facilitator and a childcare worker especially good with babies and toddlers, decided to run a weekly parenting group with childcare offered in the same facility so the mothers could be close by.

Each of us came to this with the experience that working with only parents or children at different times was limited, and parents were continually frustrated with the seeming lack of progress around separation issues. We hoped we could help families move through this difficult stage more efficiently by holding the groups simultaneously with a common theory guiding each.

The assistance of a graduate intern in the childcare room contributed greatly by giving the primary childcare provider the freedom to be able to focus her attention on one child when necessary to assist that child through a difficult transition. Also, sharing the ideas and demonstrating the practice was valuable to the intern.

For the ten weeks of the group, the mothers and children arrived and went into the children’s room first. They were greeted warmly by the team members who took a few minutes to listen to them. The mothers were encouraged to take some time saying goodbye to the children, assuring them they would be back, as always. The caretakers also reassured the children that they were safe and that the moms would be back in awhile.

When the mothers left, some of the children cried. The caretakers were able to give the children attention and encouraged them to show how badly they feel when their moms go away.

Usually, when children show their fear and anxiety, people try to distract them or tell them their feelings are not appropriate. In this group, the children could work through their struggles with help. The other children sometimes asked questions and the staff was able to directly and simply talk about how it feels when someone you love leaves you. Normalizing this separation phenomenon and seeing an adult stay relaxed and attentive when a child is having difficulty created safety for all the children. Allowing a child the space to work through to a positive outcome, teaches a child that with support, they can toil through even very difficult feelings. When their minds are free of worry, they can return to relating to the people and world around them.

Here is Anne’s description from the childrens’ space: As the childcare provider for the team, I experienced success that gave me great satisfaction, especially with one of the young people. I had seen this mother and son previously and they had been struggling with separation issues. For the first session, D. screamed and clung to his mother when she prepared to leave him with me and go to the mothers group. D. expressed his anger, sadness and fear for the entire hour by screaming, crying, shaking and generally not relating to anyone else in the room. I continually paid close attention to him. He did not want me to touch him so I stayed with him at a respectful distance, continuing to talk to him. When his mother returned, he again clung to her and cried and buried himself in her arms. The second week, D. started to cry and scream on his way to the building and continued through their separation and for the entire hour. I was, however able to make eye contact with him for brief periods this time. Upon her return, he clung to his mother and continued to cry. On week three, D. came in expressing his distress again and cried and screamed for a few minutes. When he quieted a bit, I attempted to engage him and interest him in some of the activities that were happening in the room. He refused and “sulked” awhile. I kept connecting with him, inviting him, and remaining hopeful and then, quite spontaneously he joined me at the chalkboard and happily drew pictures, directed my drawings, chatted with me and smiled for the remainder of the hour. When his mother returned, D. engaged her in his activity, continuing to draw and chat for several minutes until the group dispersed.

At the same time, the parents were in the next room for a support and skill-building group. Here is Emmy’s report. The parents could hear the children crying. I was able to work with the mothers about how they felt when their children have strong emotions. I explained that adults have physical and emotional reactions to children crying and that is normal. I emphasized that the children were safe, and each parent was free to check on her child at any time. I encouraged them instead to tell the group how it feels when their children are crying.

This led to wonderful disclosures and emotional releases about the challenges, the loneliness and the stresses of parenting. This was accompanied by loads of tears and laughter. In addition, the parents were able to know that other adults could be relaxed and attentive while the children were expressing difficult emotions and I reminded them repeatedly that this is exactly what was happening in the childrens’ room. They found that hard to believe, and were quite surprised when they later saw the childcare workers looking relaxed and pleased. The mothers were able to wrestle with their own feelings while their children struggled nearby. We exposed the common parental difficulty of allowing children their full expression, including the “negative” emotions. We had good discussions about the challenge of setting clear limits for children without blaming or hurting them and how to stop the pull to stifle or punish a child who is struggling.

One parent, T. worked through a great deal. Her son D. was very upset about leaving her and she had not known what to do. The parents encouraged her to keep coming to the group, even though her son cried long and hard for the first two sessions. She cried in the parents’ group about how desperate she was, feeling crowded by her son’s attachment to her and guilty about wanting space. After the third meeting, when she saw her son playing happily, she was encouraged.

At the end of each session, the parents went back into the childcare room and talked with their child and the workers about how it went. We spent the last minutes together enjoying the reunions. During their separation, some had released emotions, some witnessed others releasing emotions, some discovered abilities that surprised them. They were happy to come back together having learned something important by being apart.

Parents want to spend quality time with their children but are hampered by discomfort or confusion about how to resolve conflicts, such as separation. Parenting in isolation does not help.

Our working theory was that the struggle these families faced around separation issues would be alleviated by giving parents time to develop trusting support, to learn and practice new skills and to release some of their own anxieties, while allowing the same for the children. We were able to use the parent/child issues that were presented by the families themselves and we were pleased with what we were able to accomplish.

Mothers of Sons: Staying Close

The joy of looking deeply into the eyes of your baby boy as he explores your face, his little hands reaching to touch your cheek, grabbing at your mouth or hair is indescribable. When you realize that your face is the center of his universe, the joy is compounded. Feeling him burrow his little nose and cheeks into you when you pick him up and his little arms reaching around your neck nourishes your heart. This initial closeness we parents have with our children will change in form over their growing years, but need never be abandoned.

What is this closeness that we cherish so deeply? Some describe it as unconditional love, the feeling that you are loved because you are you and nothing will interfere with that. Perhaps it is the freedom of being able to show oneself to another, not just the "good" stuff, but the difficulties as well, without fear of losing the beloved. Closeness is both glorious and painful. My own relationship with my young adult sons has taken us through the full range of experiences. We have had our share of arguments, feelings of anger, hatred, hopelessness, frustration. We have said unkind things to each other, been disrespectful, struggled through conflicts of needs and clashes of values. All this mixed in with scenes of playful harmony, laughter, thoughtful caring, successful conflict resolution, times of understanding and times of sharing deep feelings.

The actual state of closeness to another human being is not just the “happy ever after” stuff they show in the movies! At times it is. However, every parent discovers sooner or later that it is often a messy, confusing affair where each person displays his or her hurts and struggles. Often these hurts and struggles are projected onto the person we feel closest to with a load of blame, anger, contempt and disappointment attached.

Between mothers and sons, the initial closeness, which for many of us comes easily when relating to a relatively helpless, adorable baby, requires constant strategic thinking to maintain. The culture is full of messages warning that staying close to our sons equals damaging them. Unlike “daddy's girl,” a term of endearment which does not carry a stigma, "mama's boy" indicates a serious problem and holds a mother responsible for creating a boy who runs to his mother for protection and cannot face life "like a man". We mothers of sons are warned over and over that to remain affectionate with our boys as they grow is smothering and inappropriate. Our parenting skills are called into question if we "baby" our boys, and our sons are teased mercilessly by other children (usually boys) if seen being physically close to their mothers as they grow up.

Realizing that my son and I would have to give up at least the public displays of affection we so enjoyed as he grew out of babyhood, I decided to do whatever I had to in order to figure out how to stay close to him. At one point, I developed a game which I played when his friends were visiting. I became the “hug monster” and told them I was afflicted with an urgent need to hug them. I would chase them around the house and yard trying feebly to catch them. They taunted me and ran laughing in mock terror. When I caught one I would wrestle with him trying to hug him, telling him how lovely he was and how nice it was to be close and then letting him get away after a short struggle. These boys would look for me when visiting my son and announce their presence to me defiantly, hoping I would play the game. This strategy enabled me to be affectionate in a playful way with not only my son, but with other boys who now were in no position to tease my son. It gave the boys an opportunity to be affectionate without looking like they wanted it.

Staying close to your son requires a decision that you must make repeatedly to defy the cultural mandate to distance yourself from him. The most insidious thing about this mandate is that we mothers are part of the group that enforces it, pushing our sons away in order to be good mothers to them. Even though we often have an internal conflict, we encourage them to be independent because we are told, and to some extent we believe, that it is necessary for the creation of ‘good men’.

I remember the first time my son traveled alone by plane. He was a senior in high school and was flying to have an interview at a college far away. When we got to the curb at the airport I explained the curbside baggage service to him. As his bags were being checked I handed him several dollar bills assuming he would want to tip the porter himself. An embarrassed look came over his face as he dug his hands into his pockets and he shook his head “no”. I asked if he wanted me to do it. His head bobbed up and down. My seventeen year old man looked to me like a three year old! The internal struggle I experienced at that moment was intense. Would I be babying my son if I tipped the man, thereby preventing him from moving along towards his own manhood? The force of the culture was pressing hard on me. I looked at my son's face and saw that same apprehension I had seen dozens of times when he was learning something new and challenging. It was a mixture of intense concentration, awe and fear. I took a chance and trusted that it would be fine to nurture and support him a bit longer. After I tipped the man I asked my watching boy what he wanted to do on his return since he would be alone then. He said, with confidence that he would handle it. I told him it would be good to have a few dollar bills handy when he arrived at the airport. When I picked him up from his return flight, I asked him how his trip had been. The first thing he told me was that he had remembered to have some money ready and he had checked his bags at the curb.

In the process of growing into a competent adult, one usually takes steps forward and backward. My son seemed to need a bit more time before he was expected to act independently. My own struggle as a mother over whether to "push him" to act more grownup or let him be may have been simplified by the absence other adults around watching us. This helped me take a chance, trust my own thinking, and decide to let him be dependent on me a bit longer. I somehow managed to avoid preaching to him about what was expected of him, to accept his anxiety as a normal part of the growing process. Most importantly, I trusted him and our relationship.

In order to defy the cultural mandate to cut our sons off thereby forcing them to act independently, it is important to keep the needs of our sons central with our own needs. We all have a need for close, safe, contact with others. This never ends. Your son has a need to be protected from the cultural belief that says boys do not need closeness and which will punish boys in various cruel ways for wanting closeness with you. In fact any closeness with any human outside of the expected sexual relationships which males are expected to attain, is a cause for difficulty for males. Closeness to other males will label him gay or a faggot, closeness with females other than conquests will cause endless teasing. Closeness with his mother is the worst of all! It is necessary to recognize this and to work with your son about how you can be creative together and about what closeness will look like as you both change. You will at times feel loss when some way you have enjoyed being with your son is not possible any more. This is a good time to commiserate with other mothers!

We start out as the center of our child’s universe, and as he grows his universe expands. The trick is to stay in his world as a loving ally and close friend.

An Unusual Lesson in Listening

When my oldest son was a baby, wanting to be the best parent I could, I decided to learn Effective Parenting and enrolled in a course. I learned active listening, how to communicate in non-blameful ways, how to resolve conflicts in the family, etc. I did a pretty good job, I thought, applying the skills I learned to my relationship with my children, and as they grew I noticed that despite the chaos and confusion of family life, we listened to each other much of the time.

When my son was about 12, he and I began having a “night out” together every week. We did what he wanted, which was always to go to the local mall and “cruise”. He helped me pick out what to wear so I would be as cool as possible (given the handicap of being an adult). We would walk around, talk, sometimes shop, play video games or table hockey, have an ice cream and drive home.

When he was about 13, a close friend of mine died. I decided to be silent for 3 days in memory of her. One of these days fell on Wednesday, the day of my weekly date with my son. I told him beforehand that I would not be talking and asked him if he wanted to go ahead and have the date anyway. I told him he could talk to me all he wanted, but I would not say anything. He said that he wanted to go ahead with our regular plan.

When the time came, we got into the car, as usual. Within a few minutes, my son began to talk. He began to tell me things that I had been trying to get him to tell me using my best listening skills. He talked in a way he never had before. He told me about school, about relationships with boys and girls, about his teachers, about his confusions, about his dreams and hopes for himself, about his feelings about his father and his brother. He talked about religion, his grandparents, life and death, his fears. All this happened on the 30 minute drive to the mall, continued as we paced up and down the mall (he was not interested in shopping that night, or even in ice cream), continued as we drove home and when we pulled into our driveway he said “don’t get out yet!” and we sat another 45 minutes in the car as he continued to pour out his deepest thoughts and feelings.

I was quite humbled from the experience. I have thought about it many times in the 10 years since. Something happened that night that enabled my son to feel safer than he had ever felt before and I suspect that it was because the “conversation” was on his terms. He was able to reveal himself to me without my well-intentioned encouragement, direction, advice and curiosity. Sometimes I remember this little scenario when I am struggling to communicate with someone. A voice inside says, “Just be silent!” Often, if I can quiet myself and listen (no easy task) the results are that I feel more understanding and subsequently, more understood.

Recently I watched my son at a celebration for my mother’s 80th birthday. He gave his devoted attention to his grandmother, listening carefully and with delight to her stories, advice and wisdom, and showing his affection for her in a relaxed and compassionate way. What a joy to see one’s children value kindness and attention!