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Parents first, then the children


At a conference recently, one of the presenters spoke about mentalization – about the importance of mothers being ‘mind-mindful’ in respect of their babies, but also the importance of the mother being able to mentalize for herself. How does a mother, or father, or key carer, of a baby or very young child, understand their own feelings and impulses in a frustrating parenting situation? If the parent behaves harshly towards their infant, how can we help them understand the origins of their dysregulated state?

The presenter was talking about women and men who are exceptionally challenged in their parenting. I say ‘exceptionally’ because all parents find themselves ‘challenged’ at some or most stages of their parenting journey. Challenged in demonstrating sensitivity to their baby’s cues and maintaining quality of parenting over time, so as to assist the development of a socially confident child, adolescent and adult.

The need to talk about difficult feelings around caring, whether it be parents bringing up children, or professionals caring for patients, has perhaps never been so urgent. NHS nurses and midwives, under constant threat of losing their banding, of being sued for making an honest mistake, of facing disciplinary proceeding for failures to ‘care’ in situations of gross understaffing, need to talk. Parents, and particularly new parents, also need ongoing support in a society where there are few opportunities for them to acknowledge how hard they may be finding their 24/7 job. And because the first two years of their children’s lives are so critically important, this is when the opportunities for talking should be readily available.

I am constantly amazed by how desperate women are to talk at the drop-in postnatal sessions I run. They’re eager for information, but what they are primarily seeking is reassurance from their peer group that their perception of themselves as inadequate mothers, or their feelings of frustration and sometimes anger, are common to others as well.

Becoming a parent is a developmental process. We know that new mothers experience ‘enhanced signal detection’ in relation to all babies’ cries and especially their own baby’s. The maternal brain is different from the non-maternal and maternal circuits are built and strengthened through experience. This is why it’s such a major step when a woman becomes a mother for the first time. The mother-circuitry is there, but it’s relatively under-developed. Newly qualified drivers may stick a green P inside their windscreen to acknowledge (and warn others) that their application of newly acquired driving skills may sometimes be slow and haphazard. New mothers, and fathers, also need a green P (parent) to elicit understanding and support, both material and emotional, from others.

Therefore, while attachment should be a focus of early intervention because it is associated with better emotional understanding and a better capacity to establish relationships as children grow up, we also need to work to understand the psychology and the neurology of early parenting to support relevant and timely work with new families and young children. If we can support parents optimally, they will, with little or no help from professionals, look after their children just fine. Providing time and opportunities for talking may be as valuable as providing ‘services’.

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