Parents and Play – The Nurturing Programme

Cristina Preda

For almost a decade I have worked in different settings with distraught and struggling parents. Sometimes they were presenting because of problems with their children, sometimes the family unrest was a consequence of parental issues.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be trained in delivering ‘The Nurturing Programme’ by Family Links, the only authorised trainer in UK for the programme. When I was able to use ‘The Nurturing Programme’ either via groups that I ran or in one-to-one sessions, I noticed that it had a positive impact on the parent and reportedly, on the child and on family life. So the first purpose of writing this article is to provide some basic information for parents about the programme.

We were all children at some point, and still have that child within us, living in what Melanie Klein called the ‘memories of feelings’

Melanie Klein and grandson

The second reason for writing is that I like to see the programme from a different perspective: that of parenting our own selves. The concept of the ‘inner child’ has its roots in the Jungian child archetype and is a popular concept in the self-help world. We were all children at some point, and still have that child within us, living in what Melanie Klein called the ‘memories of feelings’. Growing older does not mean we actually grow into authentic adults unless we parent our inner child and some of us re-learn to play and wonder. If we are not aware of our inner child we run the risk of having our lives potentially run and controlled by a wounded, rejected, unconscious part of ourselves. Because of its emphasis on felt experience, for me the Nurturing Programme offers a way of parenting this inner child, of allowing it to heal and express itself creatively. So the following paragraphs can be read with our inner child in mind and considering how we can each parent ourselves.  

As a trainee psychotherapist I have spent the last six months focusing on early childhood theories, so Freud, Klein, Winnicot and Bowlby have been my close companions. While reading their work I came across ideas that reminded me of ‘The Nurturing Programme’ and it became almost a game to try and find the psychoanalytic roots of the programme. So the third reason for writing is to offer (in italics) my interpretation of the possible (even if fictitious) psychodynamic origins of the programme. I invite you to have a go, play and attempt to find more or different possible sources.

In its current format the Programme consists of an introductory session followed by ten weekly sessions in which different topics are explored:

  • Week 1: Building Blocks: The Four Constructs. Giving praise
  • Week 2: The Question of Discipline. Time out… to calm down
  • Week 3: Family Rules. Rewards and Penalties
  • Week 4: Personal Power and Self-Esteem. Choices and consequences
  • Week 5: Feelings and What We Do with Them. Communicating clearly: Using ‘I’ statements
  • Week 6: Kinds of Touch. Nurturing ourselves
  • Week 7: Ages and Stages of Child Development. Helping children grow up
  • Week 8: Issues around Sex. Helping children stay safe
  • Week 9: Behaviour to Ignore. Problem solving and negotiating
  • Week 10: Continuing the Family Journey

 

During sessions teaching is kept to a minimum, using simple steps such as how to show empathy, give time out to calm down, active ignoring or creating assertive ‘I’ statements. The programme is encouraging reflection on own childhood, self-care and experiencing more positive ways of parenting by using praises, games or relaxation.

All sessions revolve around four constructs, called the four building blocks. Used systemically, these will provide the basis for increasing parental confidence, help improve relationships within the family and as a consequence, ensure children become kind, responsible and secure. The four constructs are:

  1. Self-awareness and self-esteem
  2. Appropriate expectations of children
  3. Positive discipline
  4. Empathy

As these are interlinked, exploration of one of them will inevitably provide information on the others.

“There is no such thing as a baby … if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone.”

These days it goes without saying that the way parents behave towards children will have an impact on the child’s psychological development but it was Winnicott and Bowlby’s idea that the real relationships of our childhood shape who we are. Prior to them, the psychoanalytical world was dominated by Freud’s drive theory and Klein’s internal phantasy model, focusing on the impact of the infant’s biological and internal experiences and neglecting his interaction with the outside word.

Donald Winnicott

According to Winnicott, “There is no such thing as a baby … if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone.” And Bowlby believed that environmental events, external experiences and particularly the quality of the relationship between primary caregiver and child determine its development. This is due to an inborn malleable attachment instinct that is dependant on the quality of the parenting received.

 

Self-awareness and self-esteem

If we are mindful of our own needs and take responsibility for caring for ourselves our wellbeing improves but it also helps us be more present and caring towards others. As a secondary positive outcome, parents will model better behaviour to children.

The Programme suggests that we cope better with life when our own needs are being met.

In ‘The Nurturing Programme’ a lot of time is spent focusing on self-reflection and self care. Practical exercises are designed to remind participants how their childhood impacted on them, both positively and negatively and how in turn, their childhood experience determines how they parent their own children. The Programme suggests that we cope better with life when our own needs are being met. How parents can take care of themselves socially, physically, intellectually, creatively, emotionally and spiritually is explored. Different relaxation exercises are encouraged as a way of self-nurturing and a ‘mood thermometer’ is used as a check-in tool for remembering to be self-aware.

Self-awareness – ‘Know thyself’ is the first commandment of psychotherapy. Freud, the father of psychoanalysis emphasised the need for personal analysis as an integral part of training for a psychotherapeutic career. He could not imagine how an analyst could help someone else in the process of self-knowledge, without first having gained awareness of his/her own hidden thoughts and desires.

Transference, unconscious reaction to others based on early life patterns does not happen only in the counselling room but in everyday encounters

Therapeutic relationships recreate family dyads according to Winnicott, so an equal amount of self-awareness would be necessary for parents. Transference, unconscious reaction to others based on early life patterns does not happen only in the counselling room but in everyday encounters, so for a parent to be wholly present with her child and respond to the child’s needs requires knowledge of her inner world. As a parent’s self-awareness and self esteem impacts on the child’s development, the majority of the Nurturing Programme is focusing on the parent’s experience rather than on the child.

 to have good self-esteem is to have internalised a two-person relationship in which one part of the self feels good about the other

With regard to self-esteem, Holmes (1993) points out that to have good self-esteem is to have internalised a two-person relationship in which one part of the self feels good about the other. This is the ‘good internal object’ of psychoanalytic theory that was developed by Melanie Klein. Internal objects are mental and emotional images of someone or something that have an emotional meaning that are internalised by an individual. The most important internal objects are those derived from parents, in particular from the mother. According to Winnicott, in order for the parent to be able to be internalised as a good object, she has to encourage the child’s development and a sense of independence whilst simultaneously reassuring the child that she will protect him from danger.

Appropriate expectations of children

Children need a range of physical and mental activities to enable them to explore and make sense of the world, develop healthy relationships and fulfil their potential. Children flourish when what they do matches our expectations of what they ‘should’ do so a parent’s expectations should be dependant on their child’s developmental stage but also take into account individual differences.

According to Winnicott, if the parent is not able to attend to the needs and potential of the child and her expectation is not in sync with the child’s development, the child might create, as a coping mechanism, a ‘false self’ that pleases the parent and keeps the child safe. The true self can only be experienced when the child is acknowledged and accepted   as he is in its entirety. If a false self is developed by a child, in adulthood this person will feel a growing sense of futility and despair, of ‘sleepwalking through life’, as if their life has yet to start. They will experience difficulties in connecting with others and forming meaningful relationships.

The following paragraph is a full quote from Winnicott as I believe this is a extremely common occurrence when parents expect and measure their children based on their achievements:

 

“(a) particular danger arises out of the not infrequent tie-up between the intellectual approach and the False Self… The world may observe academic success of a high degree, and may find it hard to believe in the very real distress of the individual concerned, who feels ‘phoney’ the more he or she is successful. When such individuals destroy themselves in one way or another, instead of fulfilling promise, this invariably produces a sense of shock in those who have developed high hopes of the individual.”

 

Positive discipline

Positive discipline is about guidance, setting clear boundaries and reinforcing them fairly. This is done via consistent family rules, negotiation, fair penalties, praise, rewards, timeout to calm down, assertive communication, choices and consequences. These are discussed throughout most of the sessions, the central idea being that the behaviours parents pay attention to are those that will be exhibited more frequently.

Reacting with anger when our needs are not being met continues throughout life and it is important that feelings of anger are acknowledged

Discipline is needed because children will inevitably display unwanted behaviour. All great psychoanalysts had a view about our dark side. Freud described the destructive force of Thanatos, the death drive as the counterpart to Eros, our life instinct and for him, aggression was the greatest impediment to civilisation. Melanie Klein brought a major contribution to psychodynamic theory in describing the role envy plays in human destructiveness and stated that it is constitutionally rooted in the human being. In a kinder way, Winnicott described how the mother cannot always be perfect and the child responds with rage and aggression towards her when his wishes are not being met. The mother has to survive these attacks and continue to love her child so that the balance is restored. The expression of anger is important as it signifies that the baby believes he will change the mother through his cry. “A baby who has lost belief does not get angry, he just stops wanting.” Reacting with anger when our needs are not being met continues throughout life and it is important that feelings of anger are acknowledged in children of any age rather than punished or ignored. One of the things I liked about ‘The Nurturing Programme’ is that they make it clear that there is no such thing as a ‘negative’ feeling, rather some feelings are ‘uncomfortable’.

So envy, rage and anger are all part of our human nature, of what Jung called our shadow. He argued that this aspect of ourselves needs to be acknowledged, accepted and “carefully amputated”.

Positive discipline is not about denying the feelings, rather about how they are expressed in family and society.

Bowlby talks about how the good mother has not only to withstand her child’s aggressive onslaughts but also to use firm boundaries that are a mark of loving attachment rather than rejection. How parents react to unwanted behaviour has a lasting effect on the children from the creation of the ‘false self’ described previously, to the development of insecure attachments. In the experiments conducted by Mary Ainsworth, parents who were frightened by their child’s behaviour had similar effect on their development as parents who were seen as frightening.

 

Empathy

Empathy is the cornerstone of the Nurturing Programme and it essentially means understanding the other person’s point of view and accepting how they feel even if we do not agree with them.

 

Understanding the role empathy plans in parenting really brings together the four constructs and shows their systemic interplay.

Winnicott’s famous statement that the mother’s face is the mirror in which the baby begins to recognise himself shows that a sense of self arises from an interpersonal relationship and is dependant on the mother’s capacity for empathy.

the mother’s face is the mirror in which the baby begins to recognise himself

The way a child’s needs and emotions are responded to influences the way the child will eventually see himself and be able to relate to others.

Parents who empathise with their children respond sensitively to their needs and see them as separate beings with feelings of their own. As a consequence, the children develop secure attachments and have good self-esteem, emotional health, ego resilience, initiative, social competence and concentration in play.

If a mother is swamped by her own feelings she might impose these feelings on her child

Sometimes it is hard for parents to respond empathically, especially if the feelings displayed are uncomfortable such as rage, grief or frustration which seems to last forever. The parent has to have the trust in both her and the child’s capacity to survive these feelings so she can accept them without trying to change them for the child. She can only do so if she is in touch with her own powerful anxieties. If a mother is swamped by her own feelings she might impose these feelings on her child and be unable to respond to her child’s needs with empathy.

So it is important for the parent to contain her own fear and despair and maintain a spirit of hopefulness. This in turn will convey to the child that he can experience these feelings without going to pieces, as the parent will hold the space for him.

A word on play:

Throughout ‘The Nurturing Programme’ play was a major element, with ‘energiser’ and ‘calmer’ games used frequently. These provided great fun and made group experiences significantly more positive than one-to-one sessions.

Play is a natural way a child communicates with others and himself from the first moments of life and according to Ischa Salzberg-Wittenberg, is the basis for later creativity at work and imaginative ideas, intimate relationships, connectedness to nature and to the world beyond our intellectual grasp.

One of Winnicott’s most uplifting ideas was that the true self is free to play creatively and the work of a therapist is to bring the client “from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play” so in a therapy room there are two people playing together.

Imagine what the world would be like if we could all just play!

 

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