Worlds apart (but still neighbours)

One of the many weird and wonderful things I did on the journey to becoming a psychologist was interviewing a range of teenagers from all over the UK. I was doing a study exploring how teenagers cope when one parent is seriously unwell. What impressed me the most about every single teen was their resilience – having to become a carer to their own parent for the foreseeable future meant that nearly every aspect of their lives had changed. But they found strength and humour in their situation and, as we do so easily when we’re young, they adapted.

I think a lot about one of the teens I interviewed, who had been at boarding school since the age of 4. Let’s call him Fred. When asked about his feelings about his parent’s illness, Fred was unable to describe them. Instead, he told me he was fine and didn’t see any need to talk about such things. Most of the other teens I saw were being supported very closely by their friends – in contrast, he told me that his friends ‘probably’ knew about his situation, but it was never mentioned.

Now I’m not passing judgement on boarding schools here, nor on this very impressive and contained control of emotion. You might disagree with me here, and think perhaps he just wasn’t affected by it. But I believe we all feel emotion deeply, we just learn different ways of managing it (just look at a two year old and how strongly they show their feelings, before they’ve learned to manage them). At boarding school, without a nurturing carer available to receive comfort from, it is remarkably adaptive to pack emotions away – to the point where you might forget you had them in the first place (and then they do have a nasty habit of rearing up when you least expect it, as discussed by Dr Joy Schaverien)

Yesterday I read a thread on a Facebook group about how to help children go to sleep. Actually, I’ve read millions of Facebook threads about children’s sleep over the years, but this  was a particularly punchy one following Monday’s Panorama programme ‘Sleepless Britain’. The two themes that seem to have emerged from the programme (which parents are now picking apart on social media) were firstly, turn off your screens and, secondly, do a bit of controlled crying.

The first point is a no-brainer, there’s an increasing amount of evidence that screen time affects sleep and we all know that kids sleep better after running around in the garden than watching In the Night Garden (although knowing and doing are worlds apart when you’ve had a long day and need ten minutes to take a breath).

The second point – well, let’s just say for some reason I continued reading thread after thread about sleep despite the fact that the conversation has never changed. The co-sleepers bash the controlled criers and the controlled criers bash the co-sleepers, everyone else wading in for good measure and a couple of lone voices saying ‘live and let live’ (well, it’s social media innit everyone loves a good slaying).

And while I was reading, I was thinking about Fred and how he almost certainly wasn’t responded to at night when he was a baby. And I was thinking about all those other babies who exist now and who have existed for years, sleeping at the bottom of the garden in the pram, learning that they might as well sleep because this is the time that they won’t be responded to when they cry or call (behaviourists would say this is a perfect example of extinguishing unwanted behaviour. Attachment theorists would say this is a perfect example of creating an avoidant response).

But again, I’m not passing judgement here. I have written previously about the ‘cons’ of sleep training but we all do what works for our families and, if you need a baby to sleep through the night, this is a particularly effective strategy.

If Fred met my teenage friend, let’s call her Lola, they would look at each other like aliens from another planet. Lola was a ‘character’. Everything about Lola was vibrant – she was loud, she wore bright colours and she didn’t walk, she bounced. And she was certainly in touch with her feelings – and we all knew about them. If she was upset, she cried – no, she wailed and railed against the world. If she was angry, she shouted and punched things. If she was happy, she sang. Her moods were volatile and sudden, and you never quite knew what you were going to get. The funny thing was that Lola probably wasn’t responded to at night either. Or, more likely, sometimes she was and sometimes she wasn’t. Just as during the day, perhaps sometimes a parent or carer would respond passionately to her cries and at other times completely ignore her. In attachment terms, this would create an ambivalent attachment – trying lots of different ways to get the comfort you need but never quite knowing what response you’ll get.

If Lola had met Fred, he probably would have thought she needed to pull herself together, and she would have thought he was repressed. They would find it almost impossible to connect with one another.

The thing is, they both probably felt a bit similar deep down underneath all those layers. When babies take part in the Strange Situation (the experiment used to assess attachment relationships in babies and toddlers), there have been some studies to suggest that the avoidant babies (who appear to be completely calm during a separation from their parent) are just as stressed (as measured by their heart rate and cortisol levels) as the ambivalent babies who falls to pieces upon separation. But Lola and Fred would never have been able to peel off the layers to find their similarity. They probably would have run a mile from each other. (Or ended up in a very dysfunctional relationship).

There’s no way that Fred would have listened to Lola when she told him that he needed to shout out his feelings from the top of a mountain. There’s no way that Lola could have bottled up her feelings if Fred had asked her to. And there’s no way that Fred could possibly co-sleep with his baby, if he ever had one, because that would feel like a complete and total invasion of his personal space. And there’s no way that Lola could leave her baby to even whimper on its own, because to her every sign of emotion is critical. (Unless they’d both been to therapy of course….!)

So why do Fred and Lola continue to have these conversations on Facebook, trying to convince each other that their way is the best way?

I’ve written before about ghosts in the nursery – those pesky parental influences that guide our behaviour when we least expect it. And our choices about how we help our children to sleep are just as personal as our choices about what we’re going to call them, what we’re going to feed them and how we’re going to nurture them. Our own attachment influences all of this – how warm we are able to be, the behaviour we expect of our children, how we respond when they do something wrong. Attachment is like the foundation of our very soul, we can’t get away from it, and it’s something that influences every single one of our relationships and how we perceive them.

What is right for Fred will never be right for Lola. In fact, they would feel so strongly against it they would feel the need to attack each other on social media. But Fred and Lola aren’t so different. They each want what’s best for their children. They both feel they are doing the right thing.

We’re all going to parent differently, based on our own experiences and of course our current circumstances. Our choices can feel worlds apart but in fact, they live side by side. The basis of each is what is best for our families. The foundation of each is loving our children. And if we could show a bit of that love for each other too, maybe it would make this whole world of parenting (and Facebook) a more pleasant place to be.

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