It’s 9.30 am on a Balmy Bangalore Saturday -the therapy room is spruced clean to make space for crayons, color markers, board games, blank canvases, white board and a bowl of candies. I come in armed with bits of newly acquired knowledge ; updated music Playlist (I now know that K-pop is not short for the sound that my knees make when I wake up), Superheroes (DC vs Marvel warring tribes are not for the faint hearted), Japanese Anime (brilliant creativity with plots that may put Indian soap writers out of jobs), latest trending memes (I admit I enjoy most of them), unmissable hashtags on social media, sports hits and misses - pretty much everything that may have captured the imagination and the mental landscape that affects the age group I prepare to meet.
I meet young clients from the ages of 10 to 18 every Saturday.
I have learnt more from each one of them in one hour by simply holding the space for them to share, explore and flourish, than from the years I spent learning clinical psychology.
But it is the care-givers, parents, siblings who wait outside that room that unveil a bigger, more fascinating insight.
Don't get me wrong, I revere you - By accompanying your loved ones to therapy, you embolden their voices on this mental health journey. However, by asking me to ‘fix’, ‘cure’ or ‘change’ your child, you show glimpses of how your own journey may have been. It’s impudent and just terribly unempathetic if I judge you or your hopes and fears.
The fact is that I ‘see’ you and sometimes, I see myself in you too.
You are here for your child.
It may be the school that picked up a deviation in expected behaviour, perhaps another parent or relatives who pointed out the consistency with which your child reacts explosively, perhaps your spouse pointed at the child’s sudden disinterest in social attachments, or it could have been a scribbled note in the back of his book that jumped at you, may be it was her casual remark of how ending life is better than a heart - break that got you worried, or her need for constant feedback, reassurance and trying to be perfect that got noticed by your friends. So many possibilities, so many psychopathologies, yet most of the parents articulate only one outcome of therapy – Make my child successful!
Someone wise once said that “the greatest burden a child bears is the unlived life of the parents.
I see how this burden often wears our children down and impairs the most important journey each one of us must begin as early as possible -the journey inwards -the one that tells you where your mouthful of sky is, and how to get there.
So I often share an analogy with the parents of the clients I treat; Imagine that you want to grow a beautiful private garden in a wild jungle which of course is a place where conditions allow all things to grow wild, unchecked and rampant. Now to grow this dream garden, you clear a plot, plant the right seeds only to realize that the weeds, vines, creepers keep growing around and animals keep trampling on the saplings. The task, an arduous one at that, is to keep the environment safe, nourished and secure for your garden to bloom.
Parenting in some sense is a lot like that, for the flower to bloom, you start by fixing the environment not the flower.
Dan Seigel, a renowned neuropsychiatrist and Child development researcher suggests that the most efficacious contribution we can make towards this, is by fostering the 4 S in how we bring up our children – Safe, Soothed, Secure and Seen.
Safe (from real threats, perpetrators, actions and responses that hurt them)
Secure (internalized sense of being and belonging - to you and the society -not based on conditions under which a child is accepted or approved for your affection)
Soothed (Helping them deal with distress, difficult emotions and inevitable adversity by teaching them adequate coping skills)
Seen (Seeing them beyond just looking at their action, performance and behaviour – connecting with them deeply and emphatically as an individual)
In a science journal, the concept of the 4S reads profoundly. I am somewhat certain that right this moment too, as you are reading this, the idea of simplifying this maze of mindful parenting resonated with you.
But then real-life; the one outside of the browser, the parenting books, the fancy seminars and inspiring social media posts, begins.
To put it simply, How do we make sense of this, so we can at least attempt to grow this private blooming garden?
Often, by understanding and accepting that if our child is showing signs of struggle with mental health - then, doing our own work in therapy, processing our own past, developing our own set of healthy adaptive behaviours in the present, may be the best place to begin to address the issue.
This is a powerful idea because it means that we are not doomed to replay past patterns, and even if we suffered from insecure anxious attachment as children, or soldiered trauma from childhood emotional neglect or sexual abuse, there is a good chance that if we as parents sought help first; we could stop, heal and grow even from this intergenerational process of passing the legacy of psychosocial narratives.
It’s not what we tell the child, it’s what we do every day in front of them that they learn. Their feelings and emotional states are intensified because they have small frames of reference, of which you are the biggest one! If you have distortions, biases and unhelpful thinking habits or anxious patterns when an everyday life adversity arises, your telling the child to not worry about exams and performance will not make him trust you with the big responsibility of dealing with a possible setback.
If you aren't able to say No to working on a holiday because of how you will be perceived by the boss, don't expect your child to have the gumption to say no if their personal space is violated by a figure of authority outside. It is not what you know, but what you do that the child imitates. If you respond to conflict with your spouse with contempt and condescension, there is little chance that the young one watching you won't play it back with someone one day.
Before you bring the child to therapy, do an internal weather check. Analyze the environment. See what you can alter. Seek help on how you can grow through, what you go through.
After all, You can only meet someone, as far and deep as you have met yourself.