Self-Awareness (Yours, not theirs!) – THE greatest gift you can give your children
Our children will learn how to navigate life by watching us.
Their view of what’s ‘normal’ or not will come from the ‘normal’ we provide for them.
Their ability to manage difficulties and overcome adversity will come from watching how we do those things.
All of us get our parenting beliefs from how we were parented, and our parents got their parenting beliefs from how they were parented and so on.
Were you parented in the twentieth or twenty-first century…?
Were your parents parented in the twentieth or the twenty-first century…?
It matters! Parenting and the world have moved on exponentially since the last century! We now have instant access to people, information, and services in a way we never did historically. We MUST recognise those parts of our own upbringing that are outdated; that don’t fit with the world we’re bringing our own children up in.
Our self-awareness is directly linked to our sense of self and identity, but these things are not the same.
Our sense of self comes usually from how we were bought up – we’re all subjected to social conditioning and our own family stories; these things form an integral (and usually subconscious) part of our belief system. If we’re bought up in a house where there are strict religious beliefs (for example), those beliefs will form part of our adult selves, even if we superficially discard the church and everything it stands for. When our back is against the wall, we’ll find that our faith comes streaming back in…
We are what we are because of where we came from so all our beliefs and views of ourselves can’t not be influenced by those things. Our sense of self is responsible for things like our level of confidence or self-belief, our worthiness and sense of purpose, how likeable or lovable we are… Things over which we have very little conscious control. That’s not to say that these things can’t be changed – they can – but first, we must be actively aware of them. Most of us only reflect on these things in times of doubt; if we’ve just been dumped, we’ll focus on how loveable we are; if we’ve just lost a job or not got onto a course, we’ll become actively aware of our confidence ‘being knocked’ and I expect we’ve all had days when we’ve woken up and wondered, “What’s the point?!” even if only briefly!
Our sense of identity is connected to our sense of self but is more personal – we’re influenced by things we want to do or achieve; we have our own ambitions and interests; we choose our own partners, friends, and acquaintances…
Our senses of self and identity are of course closely linked – our confidence grows when we achieve something we set out to do or receive praise for a job well done. We women tend to go out and have our hair done after we’ve been dumped – new hair, new me! and all that stuff…
Johari’s window thinks about influence. It thinks about those things we are and aren’t aware of about ourselves. It suggests that we all have things that only we know about ourselves as well as things about ourselves that are only known about by others. It sounds a bit complicated but it’s really not – we reinforce the ideas behind Johari’s window all the time without even realising it.
Picture the scenario: You’re introduced to the friend of a friend. You spend an afternoon together with them and your friend. When the new person leaves, there will inevitably be a discussion about that person’s ‘likeability’. We might say something like, “They’re a bit full-on!” or “What a lovely person…”
The new person is blissfully unaware of this judgement, so it goes immediately into C – What others know about me but I don’t know.
Self-awareness is a different thing. It’s less about personality or hairdos, more about acknowledging and owning those parts of ourselves that we’re not particularly proud of, or we don’t really understand. Self-awareness happens in B and C of Johari’s Window…
Self-awareness is the greatest gift you can give to your children.
Why? Because they learn from us! They learn what success looks like, what failure looks like, what humility looks like, you get the gist!
Most of us will tuck up those things we’re not proud of and they get concealed in B – What I know about myself but conceal from others. We’re VERY good at this as humans! We don’t like to be or feel judged or compared to others so we keep certain things about ourselves to ourselves. This is all good if you’re dealing with superficially ‘equal’ relationships. In other words, it’s ok to not tell your workmates that you had a tough childhood – it’s none of their business, frankly! But given that we learn about parenting from our own experiences of being parented, that tough childhood is far better kept in A – What I know about myself and like to reveal to others.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the process of growing one’s self-awareness is going to be fun or something you ‘like’ doing, but it's an invaluable part of your parenting journey. If everybody knows where they stand, life’s better!
I’m also not suggesting that you sit down with your children and re-live every terrible experience you had being parented; self-awareness isn’t a contest of who’s been treated worst – it’s about being honest about those things which you find difficult. If you were parented in a household (and many of us of a certain age were) where children should be seen and not heard, then your ability to create a safe space for your children to engage with you meaningfully about their emotions and feelings will be limited. Not because you don’t WANT to, but because you have no model for it – you don’t know how.
We don’t know what we don’t know until we realise we don’t know it.
Sounds obvious, right?! But we all plough through life not knowing that we don’t know stuff. This becomes problematic when we’re parenting because there are oodles of people in the world who will stand in judgement on our parenting whilst assuming that we think the same way they do when we don’t, necessarily.
Our human need to ‘fit in’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘not stand out’ means that we become conditioned to not admit when we’re struggling or don’t know or understand something; we blag our way through and hope for the best, usually! When our parenting comes under fire though, and we feel like we need to make a change, our conditioning often stops us from admitting that we need help. We fall straight into B – What I know but like to conceal.
It's second nature for most of us to reply, “Fine!” to the question, “How are you?” even if our world is collapsing! (For the record, therapists understand that the word Fine stands for: Fragile, Insecure, Neurotic & Emotional so use it carefully!)
It’s also human nature to bolt back to a place of safety (emotionally, not literally) when we feel stressed or pressured. In terms of parenting, this usually means that when we’re struggling to manage our own kids, we turn into our parents. We’ll hear ourselves saying things to our own kids that our parents said to us and that we (possibly) swore blind we’d NEVER say to our own kids.
I once met a parent who told me that what she wanted to achieve was to stop shouting at her son. No problemo! I said. She was surprised, as most parents are, when I said to her that the work wouldn’t be to “Get her son to behave”, but to get to a point where her own self-awareness and belief was such that she felt confident and able to deal with the behaviour differently. We talked a lot about her own childhood and upbringing and it turned out that she had been bought up in the care system so her understanding of what parent / child relationships should look like was skewed – it can’t not have been - even if a child lives with the best carers money can buy, they can’t replicate that Primary Attachment easily, too much has gone before to make the child wary of adults and their ‘support’.
We identified together that one of mum’s biggest ‘triggers’ for shouting was mealtimes. She’d cook for her son and he wouldn’t eat all of his meal which made her cross. In addition, she said that after not eating all his dinner the night before, he’d wake up in the mornings complaining of being hungry which, of course, made her even more cross because logic says that had he eaten the night before, he’d be less hungry when he woke up.
When we dug deeper, I discovered that one of mum’s biggest triggered memories from being Looked After was perpetually feeling hungry… Her inner-child was stuck at the point where mealtimes for her, as a child, were literally traumatic events. As is the way with most humans, mum believed that she could compensate for this need of her own by ensuring that her own child NEVER went hungry. The trigger for shouting came when superficially, he didn’t appreciate her efforts and this made her inexplicably angry.
Mum and I talked a lot about her own unmet needs and we delved into what she thought mealtimes for small children OUGHT to look like. It turned out that she was preparing her then 4-year-old son, a meal that most of us would have served to a grown man!
She told me that she’d cook him two burgers or two pies (or whatever), a heap of mash or chips (or whatever) and sides! So, we started to look at portion control and explore the idea that smaller portions didn’t immediately equate to starving the child. This work took a long time – mum struggled MASSIVELY to change her thinking around portion control = starving children, so we worked on a way to satisfy both her inner-child’s need to not panic that they were going to starve, alongside her grownup parental need to feed her child regularly and responsibly.
We agreed that initially, she’d cook the same meal she always did, but she’d serve it up on two plates – half per plate. She’d give the child one plate, and when he finished that, if he said he was still hungry, he could have the second plate.
Now, there will be people screaming all over the place about this as a tactic – they’ll be saying things about wasted food, pandering to whims, rewarding bad behaviour and the like, we may even have people muttering, “They’ll get what they’re given or go hungry!” These people are missing the point. The issue was NEVER the child wasting food or refusing to eat. The issue was ALWAYS mum’s need to calm her own inner child.
By allowing her to continue cooking a meal that she believed was sufficient, we VALIDATED the feeling of neglect her inner child felt when she wasn’t fed sufficiently, we GENTLY introduced the idea that her son was perfectly able to decide if he was still hungry or not, and we talked about some somatic and developmental FACTS.
We discussed the idea that all humans need calories to sleep and particularly small children – so much of their development happens while they’re sleeping that it's a miracle they ever wake up feeling rested! We were able to help mum understand these things as universal facts, not specific to her and her child, so we were able to reframe her thinking away from, “If you’d eaten all your dinner last night you wouldn’t be hungry this morning” (causing anger and starting the day badly) and towards, “Even if he HAD eaten all his dinner last night, he’d still wake up hungry – his body’s been busy all night doing developing and processing!” (causing acceptance and starting the day positively).
It only took a few weeks for mum to come back and start to say that she’d begun to notice a difference. She was feeling less anxious about mealtimes and she was gaining confidence in her belief that her son wasn’t starving! She was able to identify that as her anxiety lessened, so her need to shout was diminishing too. She was feeling less triggered…
I still hear from mum occasionally, she’s gone on to have another baby and says she hasn’t struggled at all with her mealtimes and eating patterns. She admitted that occasionally, she still finds herself dishing up two plates for her son but she now recognises that that need is hers, not his and is able to reason that sometimes, we need to reassure our inner-child that we’ve heard them.
The ability to say, “something is triggering ME right now. This is MY need, not my child’s…”
I expect adults to be somewhat self-aware. Particularly professional adults. When I’m called to deal with a dysregulated child, I ALWAYS ask, “What happened five minutes ago? What did the adult do?” and often, the adult in question turns immediately into a petulant child! “Me?! What did I do?! It’s not ME who’s (insert undesirable behaviour), it’s THEM! Question THEIR actions, not MINE!!”
Uh huh… If all behaviour is communication and we accept that ‘behaviour’ is an effect not a cause, then how could the adult’s actions possibly NOT have influenced the child’s reactions?!
If we meet chaos with chaos, we’re only going to create more chaos aren’t we?
Child doesn’t eat their meal
Adult has a choice – react or respond.
Child reacts too
Adult ups the ante, “You’ll sit there until you’ve eaten every mouthful”
Child feels unheard and acts out further
Two people are now behaving in a way which is definitely and unquestionably reactionary and we’ve all heard of the dangers of knee-jerking, haven’t we?
It’s our job as adults to meet their chaos with our calm.
Child doesn’t eat their meal
Adult has a choice – react or respond
Adult takes a moment to reflect – to be self-aware and recognise that their own need is fighting for attention.
Adult responds instead of reacting and negotiates with the child or discusses a resolution – “Eat this bit and you can leave the rest”
Child (usually!) feels heard and will ‘play the game’
Two people are now behaving in a way which is definitely and unquestionably cooperative and we all know how much better that is don’t we?
Self-awareness is important in every aspect of our lives. Being aware of what we do and don’t know about ourselves makes us better people – we’re more likely to be amenable and balanced in our views and responses if we’re aware of our triggers and reactions.
As adults, our level of self-awareness is rarely questioned – we’re so good at pretending to be “Fine”, that most of the time, we believe it!
We’re also guilty as humans of believing truly that if we ignore bad stuff for long enough, it'll go away. We talk about stuff being in the past, moving on, not dragging stuff up again, getting over it…
Refusing to think about or acknowledge it though, won’t make it go away, it’ll just mean that when it does rear its head, you’ll be completely unprepared for it! Your child will refuse to eat their meal and you’ll go postal on them for apparently no good reason! Then, usually, because we’re human, the child bears the brunt because they did or didn’t do something tangible that we can tell them off for – that’s cause and effect, right?
Wrong. The ‘cause’ is usually well hidden. The ‘effect’, not so much… The behaviour seen from the child is evident. REALLY evident. So it needs dealing with… that’s what parents do, isn’t it?! What if the child’s behaviour is the effect (reaction) to something caused by (triggered in) you?
At these times, our children are usually dancing about, desperate to be noticed, in C – What I don’t know about me but others do. They’re TRYING to tell YOU something… They’re saying, when they behave inappropriately, you haven’t yet understood me…
Only you can know what things trigger you and unless you do some serious reflecting and accepting, those same things will be borne out through your children – if you don’t heal it, they’ll inherit it. Recovery is learning to live with your past, not in it so if you find yourself being constantly angered by something seemingly miniscule that your children do (like not finishing a meal), take some time and reflect on what it is in YOU that makes you so disproportionately angry.
Self-awareness is key to good enough parenting. If we’re able to recognise, acknowledge and accept our own difficulties, flash points and struggles, we’ll be able to better model how to manage those things for our children - we’ll create children with resilience. If we’re able to admit to our children that we don’t know something or that we got it wrong, they’ll be more able to do those things too.
Recognising when we’re feeling triggered by something and owning those feelings – being able to say, “I can’t do that for you just now, I need a few minutes please.” Helps our children understand that we’re not superheroes, sometimes we just need to look after ourselves for a minute or two to make sure we do a good job of looking after them; it’s far better to make a child wait a minute and respond to them calmly than it is to react instantly in a way that you’ll likely regret, instantly!
Our children are a window to our own soul. If we see something in them we don’t like, it’s probably an accurate reflection of something in ourselves we need to work on.
Self-awareness is by far and away the best way to improve our relationships with others – if we find ourselves perpetually engaging in dissatisfying relationships and finding fault in others, there’s probably something inside of us that we find dissatisfying…
Extinguishing someone else’s candle won’t make yours burn brighter. Often, people who ought to be more self-aware, spend their time highlighting fault in others in order to avoid having to address their own shortcomings. Bearing in mind what we’ve learned about Johari’s Window and that we don’t know what we don’t know until we realise we don’t know it, the person in question may have no idea that that’s what they’re doing so be gentle.
Our children learn how to ‘do life’ by watching us ‘do life.’ It’s our responsibility as parents to ensure that what we model for our children is what we want from our children – if we want them to be honest, humble, and polite, we must model honesty, humility, and good manners. Shouting at our children to tell them to stop shouting isn’t positive modelling, it’s a shouting contest!
Spend a little time getting to know yourself. Knowing yourself is the best way to understand your child – they’ll show you all the bits of you that you’d hoped had been stashed neatly away in B – What I know about myself but don’t want others to know. If your child is constantly repeating a behaviour you don’t like, ask yourself, “What’s their model for this? How do I deal with this? Is my coping strategy being reflected? Do I need to change what I’m doing in order to provide a better model for my child? Is it me or my inner child who’s reacting to this behaviour?” If we don’t ask ourselves these questions, we’ll keep on putting the same things in, and we can’t be surprised when we continue to get the same things out!
For more information about Behaviour, Chaos and more see our other Blogs!
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