Dr Julie Hollitt
Adults struggle with emotions and emotional regulation. Some parents might say that they struggle more with emotions since their child was on the way – and then born – than when they had no children.
As adults, we tend to experience more immediate struggles with our emotions when we are relating to another human being. Interestingly, we experience more acute struggles with our emotions in relation to someone we really care about and less urgent emotional struggles in relation to acquaintances. That makes sense! To relate to another human being is an interaction in which social-emotional skills are at work and multiple needs are seeking to be met. The closer we become to another human being, the more connected to their emotional world and needs we become. Emotions and needs clash, as they must, and this is true of the emotions and needs of children and their parents and carers. As parents, relating to our children necessarily brings us to relating to our past, current and future. Like a current, the vast experience of emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, flows through us as human beings.
Of course, children struggle with emotions too. It is a biological imperative for a child to learn social-emotional skills and to develop socially interactive ways to have their needs met and to connect with others. If it weren’t an imperative, over the duration of our lives, we could all remain stuck and, for instance, continue to cry – and even scream! – when we are hungry! And expect some others to attend to us! We have to learn – gradually and age-appropriately – to sustainably attend to ourselves in relation to our emotions and needs. Developing into an adult can occur in no other way. In the case of emotions, development either occurs step by step or becomes arrested, and stuck.
For children, learning about emotions and needs is a developmental pathway. For development to occur for the child, the nurturing and patiently supportive presence of a warm and generative adult is required. An adult needs to be able to sustain themselves emotionally in order to sustain the sometimes rocky road of the child’s emotional world. In order to be able to be present for their child who is experiencing their first rocky roads, the parent needs to be able to remember the emotional rocky roads they have already travelled, while also remembering what is worthwhile and lies beyond them.
Children find it difficult to know or understand that very strong and challenging emotion are likely to pass. Parents are the compass for the child in the world of needs and emotions.
‘Good enough’ parenting (a concept proposed by D. W. Winnicott, 1973*) provides a nugget of wisdom for parents navigating the world of emotions and needs with their children. ‘Good enough’ parenting acknowledges that the parent cannot possibly protect their child from some unmet needs nor from some unpleasant emotions. To live is to experience joys and frustrations, hope and disillusionment.
The ‘good enough parent is one who is able to sustain and nurture themselves when emotions are challenging and needs remain unmet, and therefore, is able to sustain and nurture their child who also gradually learns the same elements of human existence and how to care for themselves within that existence. The ‘good enough’ parent provides for the child to the best of their ability, but always imperfectly. The ‘good enough’ parent is continually developing their own emotional regulation capacities (for frustration, disillusionment, anger) while enabling their child to develop and safely experience and work with and through challenging emotions felt for the first time.
For example, the ’good enough’ parent can calm and feed the infant who newly experiences hunger as though it were a world-ending event, and cries and screams accordingly. The infant learns hunger is an unpleasant state and, with time, learns about eating and enjoying the process of eating with their ‘good enough’ parent. From there, the child learns their needs and associated emotions, and ever so gradually adopts and learns ways of self-soothing from the practical skills and emotional responses of the parent. The unpleasant state can pass, and the childlike the parent – can take part in its passing.
Enduring happiness involves our ever-developing capacity to observe and participate in our world of emotions and needs. It involves working practically and within limits with our emotional and need states as human being. Any attempt at perfect gratification of our emotions and needs very likely results in frustration and anger, disillusionment and despondency.
Enduring happiness for the parent and the child comes about from ‘good enough’ parenting. Instant but ever-evasive happiness comes about from efforts to perfectly parent.
Enduring happiness is a practice of relationship between parent and child during the emotional ups and downs of that which life brings.
The ‘portfolio’ of being a parent can bring with it great joys, and most certainly brings with it feelings of guilt, worry, inadequacy, incompetence, anger, impatience, anxiety, exhaustion, mental fatigue, and just simply not feeling good enough. I haven’t met a parent yet who does not struggle with at least some of these emotions in relation to their child. To be a parent is to become familiar with the joys, and to get to know, understand and wrestle with less pleasant emotions in one of the closest relationships a human being can have: the parent-child attachment relationship.
* D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Penguin 1973) p. 173.
Dr Julie Hollitt is an educator with more than 30 years of experience across early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary settings. Her work has spanned diverse contexts and populations, from Kensington to Mt. Druitt (Greater Sydney, NSW), Port Moresby to Wewak (PNG), and Wilcannia to Mudgee (Greater NSW). She has worked as a teacher, consultant, academic, author, and clinician.
She is currently a practising psychologist working with school leaders, teaching staff, children and young adults, and parents/carers. She is very active in the professional learning and clinical supervision space, particularly with professionals in regional and remote settings.
Julie’s PhD is based in psychology, education and professional practices, especially in relation to ‘outside-of-the-box’ situations and settings including a wide range of people and experiences.
She loves nature, her family and pets, a good book, a good laugh and pretending to paint and play the guitar.
For further information, see: https://www.continuumpsychology.org/