Creating PLACE: Parenting to Create a Sense of Safety
from “Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections,” MacLeod, J. & Macrae, S.(Eds.). Warren, NJ: EMK Press. Pp. 57-61.
by Daniel Hughes, Ph.D.
A child can best be understood by focusing not so much on the behavior that you can observe, but rather on the nature of the child’s intentions which underlie the behavior. The child’s intentions include the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and motives that are associated with the resultant behavior. Often these features of the child’s inner life are associated with previous events that were traumatic and/or shameful. Thus, the meaning of the behavior is often closely tied to the meaning of those past events in the child’s mind.
To ignore the child’s inner life, we will have only the most superficial understanding of him. To encourage the development and expression of his inner life we need to first make him feel safe. If he knows that he will be judged negatively for his intentions, they will remain hidden. To provide the experience of safety, a parent might well consider PLACE.
PLACE – representing Playfulness, Love, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy – creates a sense of safety that facilitates self-discovery and communication. PLACE also describes the nature of a home which serves both as a secure base for exploring the world and a safe haven where one can return when the world becomes too stressful. I hope to present each of these five qualities of this parental attitude toward one’s child so that their beneficial role may become clear.
PLAYFULNESS characterizes the frequent parent-infant reciprocal interactions when the infant is in the quiet-alert state of consciousness. Both parent and infant are clearly enjoying being with each other while being engaged in the delightful experience of getting to know each other. Both are feeling safe and relaxed. Neither feels judged nor criticized. These experiences of playfulness – combined with comfort when he is distressed – serve as the infant’s original experience of parental love.
During frequent moments of playfulness, both parent and child become aware of how much they like each other. Playful moments reassure both that their conflicts and separations are temporary and will never harm the strength of their attachment. Playfulness also provides opportunities to convey affection when more direct expressions may be resisted. The child is likely to respond with less anger and defensiveness when the parent is able to convey a touch of playfulness in her discipline. While such a response would not be appropriate at the time of major misbehavior, when applied to minor behaviors playfulness keeps the behavior in perspective. The behavior is a threat to neither the relationship nor the worth of the child.
LOVE – when the central motive for the parents’ interactions with their child – enables the child to have confidence that what underlies the parents’ behaviors involves the intention to do what is in the best interests of the child. Love, when it is expressed most fully, conveys both enjoyment and commitment. At times one or the other is evident, but for the child to feel loved, he needs to be confident that commitment is always present even when moments of reciprocal enjoyment are not. The child needs to know that basically his parent “likes” him, enjoys being his parent, and looks forward to having fun together. While at times these moments may not be evident, there remains an assumption that this basic “liking” will return.
Fundamental to the sense of being loved is the child’s conviction that his parents will do what is in his best interests. The parent will do whatever it takes to keep him safe and to insure that his basic needs will be met and his rights will be respected. “Hard times” will pass without abuse, neglect, or abandonment because the child’s welfare is at the core of the parents’ daily motives, decisions, and behaviors with regard to their child. Children who have lost their first parents for whatever reason need ongoing signs that their relationship with their adoptive parents is permanent – that they will never be “given away” regardless of the crises or conflicts that lie ahead.
ACCEPTANCE – unconditional acceptance – is at the core of the child’s sense of safety, value, and relaxed sharing with his parent. Within acceptance the child becomes convinced that his core sense of self is worthwhile and valued by his parents. His behavior may be criticized and limited, but not his “self.” He becomes confident that conflict and discipline involves his behavior, not his relationship with his parents nor his self-worth.
While the behavior of the child may be evaluated and limited, the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and motives of the child never are. The child’s inner life simply “is;” it is not “right” or “wrong.” Am I suggesting that if a child says to his parents that he does not like his brother and wishes that he lived somewhere else, such expressions are “OK?” Yes — and the fact that your child disclosed his inner life to you may well reflect his trust that you will not dislike him because he has such thoughts and wishes. If he is criticized for his inner life, he will most likely begin to conceal it as well as feel ashamed of that aspect of himself. When he is safe to communicate his inner life, his parents will be able to understand how he is struggling with his brother, the reasons for the struggles, and possible ways to reduce them. When he is not safe, the parent will be left with simply disciplining inappropriate behavior toward his brother, without addressing the underlying causes. When the child knows that his parents understand his dislike and wishes to have his brother “go away,” often his experience of his brother begins to change on its own, the behavior problems reduce on their own, and there is no need for the parent to “fix” the problem. When the inner life is not expressed and accepted, the parent is often constantly managing conflicts between their children.
Accepting the child’s intentions does not imply accepting behavior. The parent may be very firm in limiting behavior while at the same time accepting the motives for the behavior. In fact, this combination of making a clear difference between unconditional acceptance of intentions and presenting expectations regarding behaviors is probably the most effective way for your child to experience less shame toward self and more guilt toward others when he engages in inappropriate behavior. Inner-directed guilt, in the absence of pervasive shame, is probably the most effective circumstance for facilitating socially appropriate behaviors.
CURIOSITY – without judgment – is crucial if the child is to become aware of his inner life and then communicate it to his parents. Curiosity does not mean adopting an annoyed, lecturing, tone and demanding, “Why did you do that?” Curiosity involves a quiet, accepting tone that conveys a simple desire to understand your child: “What do you think was going on? What do you think that was about?” The child most often knows that his behavior was not appropriate. He often does not know why he did it or he is reluctant to tell his parent why. With curiosity the parents are conveying their intention to simply understand “why” and to assist the child in such understanding. The parents’ intentions are to assist the child, not lecture him and convince him that his inner life is “bad” or “wrong.”
With curiosity, the parents convey a confidence that by understanding the underlying motives for the behavior, they will discover qualities in the child that are not shameful. As the understanding deepens, the parent and child will discover that the behavior does not reflect something “bad” within the child, but rather a thought, feeling, perception, or motive that was stressful, frightening, and/or confusing and seemingly could only be expressed in behavior. As the understanding deepens, the child becomes aware that he can communicate his inner distress to his parents. There is no need for the inappropriate behavior. The behavior does not reflect his being “bad.” He is much less likely to engage in that behavior again, since there is no need for it. He is also more able to step back from the behavior, be less defensive about it, and experience guilt about it.
For curiosity to be experienced as helpful it is not communicated with any annoyance about the behavior. Nor is it presented as a lecture that provides an excuse to “process” a behavior in what amounts to rational blaming. Curiosity is a “not-knowing” stance involving a genuine desire to understand and nothing more. When it leads to the child developing a deeper understanding of himself and a deeper sense that his parents understand and accept him, it will – when combined with empathy – naturally lead to a reduction in the inappropriate behavior much more effectively than will focusing on behavioral consequences.
EMPATHY enables the child to feel his parents compassion for him just as curiosity enables the child to know that his parents understand him. With empathy the parent is journeying with the child into the distress that he is experiencing and then feeling it with him. When the child is sad or in distress the parent is feeling the sadness and distress with him. The parent is demonstrating that she knows how difficult an experience is for her child. She is communicating that her child will not have to deal with the distress alone. She will stay with him emotionally, comfort and support him, and not abandon him when he needs her the most.
The parent is also communicating her strength and commitment. The pain that the child is experiencing is not too much for her. She is also communicating her confidence that – with her sharing his distress – it will not be too much for him. Together they will get through it.
Empathy enables a child to develop his affective resources so that he can resolve and integrate many difficult emotional experiences. He will be able to manage such experiences without being overwhelmed by anxiety, rage, shame, or despair. Curiosity enables a child to develop his reflective resources that will enable him to understand himself more deeply including his intentions underlying his actions. With both empathy and curiosity the parent lends herself to her child for the purpose of his developing the affective/reflective skills necessary for him to be able to act in ways that are in the best interests of both self and other. Researchers are increasingly clear that it is deficiencies in these affective and reflective skills that are often at the core of behavioral problems.
In essence PLACE focuses on the whole child, not simply his behavior. It facilitates attachment security and the closely related affective and reflective skills that are so necessary for maintaining a successful and satisfying life. The child discovers that he is doing the best that he can, he is not “bad” or “lazy” or “selfish.” Through PLACE and the associated attachment security, he is discovering that he can now do better. He can learn to rely on his parents and they will facilitate the development of his inner life and behavioral choices in a manner that he could never do on his own. Then as he experiences PLACE first hand, time and again, these same qualities will become part of his stance toward others – now toward parents and friends, and later also toward his partner and children. He will clearly know that both intentions and behavior matter. He will also know that both “self” and “other” matter.
In ending, I would like to return to the beginning, and speak of safety. When we angrily lecture and scold our child about his behavior and our assumptions about his equally unacceptable thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and motives, our child is not feeling safe. He is likely to become shameful, isolated, and defensive, all of which will reduce the likelihood that he will change his behaviors. If instead, we relate with PLACE, he will be likely to feel safe even when his behavior is being limited. He too will strive to understand his inner life and associated behaviors. Feeling safe that the “self” is not being attacked and that his attachments with his parents are still secure, he is likely to become motivated to change his behavior. When his inner life is respected, valued, felt, and understood, first by his parents, and then by himself, his difficult behaviors are likely to lose much of their reason for being.
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