Thursday, May 31, 2012

Parenting from the Inside Out: Book-related Discussion

By Fouzia Ahmad, an MWF parent

After some thought-provoking discussions on this great book at our March and April PECs, I thought it might be a good idea to follow-up with some of Kent Campbell's colleagues on questions that we may not have had a chance to get answered.  I caught up with one of the panelists, Dolat Bolandi, a licensed marriage and family therapist, providing psychotherapy to adults, couples, and teens in Los Gatos, and presented these questions to her.  Read on to know what she had to say:

Q. As a psychotherapist, what about this book stands out to you?

DB: I like the fact that this book really shows in a more concrete, evidence-based fashion how we are affected by our primary relationships.  It also delivers hope and a way to heal both as parents and in helping our children develop in a more conscious, connected way.

 Q. The book talks about emotional attunement with your child; that is attuning to the emotion inside your child before you change the external behavior.  How do you think current day practices such as Ferberizing fit into this model?  If we let our child cry it out until they “give up” on thinking that anyone is going to come get them, isn’t that---according to the author---just fixing external behavior without really attuning with our child?  How do you think this might affect children as they grow older and the nature of their attachments to their parents?

DB: The Ferberizing method has been taken in many extremes, which is not helpful.  Letting a child/baby get to know their own frustration and learn how to self-soothe is an essential skill that needs care and time.  Letting the child cry to the point that he or she has to give up is---intuitively---not attuned.  On the other hand, hovering over the child constantly and “fixing” everything is intrusive and equally not helpful.  In my opinion, one of the main messages of this book is asking the parents to invest in getting to know themselves as they are getting to know their child, so that they can separate and focus on what is needed in the present moment rather than their unmet needs of the past.

Q. If the low road, by definition, means that the higher-level processes of the brain have shut down, is it even possible, at a physiological level, to stop yourself and get out once you are immersed in the low road?  Should you be attempting to fix the problem when it's actually happening, or later, after you have recovered and reflective capacity is restored?

DB: I think the first task is to get out of the low road, the state that activates the fight or flight response.  For example, taking deep breaths is known to help reverse the fight or flight reaction. By definition, we can have access to more of our internal resources, and therefore, respond more effectively.

Q. Sometimes kids lie to get out of trouble.  On the other hand, sometimes kids lie because they do not want to feel “exposed” and want to maintain their dignity.  Are the mental processes within a child’s brain different in both cases of lying, and should parents handle both lying scenarios differently?

DB: I am not sure how the mental processes compare in the two scenarios.  When a child lies, I do want to explore and wonder what is behind the lying.  For example, depending on the age of the child and how imaginative the child is, he or she may not truly be lying in their own mind.  When there is lying based on fear, as a parent, I would want to see how I can change the dynamic around so there is more room to tell the truth and still set limits.  So digging deep inside to see what the child may feel and to be able to put words to their experience can be an effective way to connect.  For example, “It must be hard to see your sister get a new dress, while you don’t,” is one way to connect in an empathetic fashion, without either “fixing” the problem or getting rid of  feelings of jealousy.  It can give permission to the child to experience difficult feelings and know they are OK.  The feelings can be known, but don’t have to be acted on.  Kids need kind and firm limits.

Q. A section in the book offers some examples on how to resolve trauma or loss and suggests using reflective statements in this regard.  One example about a young child who has a change in her babysitter is as follows: “Anna took care of you since you were a baby.  You probably didn’t want her to leave.  Do you still wish you could see her every day?”  I think this is great, but what should be the conversation that follows?  You know, after the child, all teary-eyed, says, “Yes, I do.”

DB: This can tug at every parent’s vulnerability to want to have their child feel better quickly.  The idea is to continue to give words to the child's experience with empathy and a sense of connection.  Perhaps a response could be to continue reflecting.  For example, “I hear how much you miss her, and it’s hard to not see her every day.”  This is a great example of how one can practice grief in life. Tears are a part of grieving, and having others around who are willing to bear it with you is also an essential part of passing through life's losses, both big and small.

Q. During our group discussion, you had given us an analogy comparing children’s emotional behavior to that of pregnancy.  Would you repeat that here so that it may benefit our readers?

DB: I was comparing how when one is pregnant, the fetus/baby feeds off of the mother's body, and needs the mother’s body to digest and get rid of toxins as well.  Emotionally, the same metaphor continues.  Children need their parents in order to be nurtured, and also to help digest and get rid of the "toxins".  For example, this is especially visible when a young child keeps it together all day, but as soon as his or her mother or father comes in, the child's behavior falls apart.  This child needs the parent to help digest all that he or she has taken in through the experiences of the entire day.

Q. A large section of the book presents the science behind attachment and the brain.  But the scientific information about interpersonal neurobiology can be overwhelming for many of us.  Can you provide a couple of "gems" of information from amidst all of it that you consider key to bettering us as parents?

  • Develop your support system.  Be around other parents who are willing to be honest and share how joyful and how messy it is to be a parent.
  • Self-care is crucial.  It’s about being able to ride the high roads.
  • Mindfulness practices (yoga, meditation, etc.) are effective ways to develop the muscles that allow us to be able to observe, respond, and not react. 
  • Don’t wait too long to get support.  You don’t have to be in trouble to be in therapy; it is also a place for growth and can be a preventive approach.
  • Have fun and leave room for mistakes.

Q. What do you think is the most important thing for parents to think about after reading this book?

DB: To me, this book also delivers a lot of hope: our attachments can continue to reshape, but needs conscious effort on our part.  This is an ongoing process.  It is part of our makeup to revisit the past (consciously or not) in an effort to heal and grow---just like our children.

Dolat Bolandi, M.A., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Gatos, providing psychotherapy to adults, couples, and teens.  For more information on her services, you can check out: