Wednesday 17 July 2019

Why parenting can be child’s play

Author, psychotherapist and attachment specialist Joanna Fortune explains the impetus behind her new book, 15 Minute Parenting, as she looks at some of the challenges facing parents today

Picture posed
Picture posed
Attachment expert Joanna Fortune

One of the most common things I hear in my clinical practice is parents saying, "by the time we get home, get dinner done and think about getting the children into bed we are lucky to have just 15 minutes of downtime together each day. Sure what can you do in just 15 minutes a day?"

I have always believed that small changes really can make big differences when it comes to parenting and from this, I developed my 15-minute parenting system. Fifteen-minute parenting? Don't we just wish that's all it took! But we all know that parenting is a 24-7 role and once we become parents our brains are hardwired to be on constant alert attending to our children's needs, worrying if they're okay, if we are doing enough for them, and all while we try to keep homes, jobs and family life working harmoniously. I am not for one moment trying to dismiss the full-time nature of parenting, but I am offering you an insight into what you can achieve in just 15 minutes of playtime with your children each day.

I think of play as the language of children and I believe that learning the language of our children is the key to creating deep and lasting bonds between parents and children.

In writing this book, I wanted to ensure that it was more than just an interesting read. I wanted it to be practical, accessible and useful. I wanted it to be fun, because when something is fun and pleasurable, we are much more likely to keep doing it. My aim was to show busy, time-poor parents that playing with their children didn't have to feel like yet another thing they have to try to squeeze into already demanding lives, but that there were clever and creative ways to embed mindful play into their existing schedules without it feeling like an additional task.

Parenting in a digital age is a challenge that has never been experienced by any other parenting generation before. This is unchartered parenting territory and it is very easy to feel like we are getting it all wrong when facing a sea of glossy, filtered social media parenting posts. I have worked with hundreds of families for over 20 years and I have met countless parents who are very aware of what they believe they are getting wrong. I meet parents who want the very best for their children and I meet parents who are always getting more right than they give themselves credit for and often underestimate their own true value and how they are exactly who and what their children want. I wanted this book to be a therapeutic parenting book to remind parents of this, to remind them of what they are getting right and to remind them that they are enough. And where change might be required, to see that this was not insurmountable but could be a fun and rewarding process.

I wrote this book while on maternity leave and while that might sound like a somewhat crazy thing to take on, it made sense to me. I have worked thousands of clinical hours with children and parents and am also a parent myself. I love my work and it has allowed me to come into contact with incredible and inspiring people and in this way, I think that the children and families I work with have given me more than I could ever give them. I wanted to write this book to give something back to all parents out there who just want to be the best kind of parent they can be. I wanted to share therapeutic play techniques that you don't need to be a therapist to do. I wanted to help parenting to feel more fun. I wanted to share, what I see as, a formula that results in less tears and more laughter. I wanted to show you that deepening your connection with your children could be child's play.

In an extract from her new book, Joanna shares how to lay some solid foundations upon which to build, and how to deepen your understanding of your own parenting impulses from the inside out.

Let's start from a place of affirmation. Good enough is good enough. And if you can embrace this as your starting point, there is room to make mistakes in parenting. More than that, you understand that making mistakes as a parent is important in modelling the value of repair and recovery for your children. Modelling perfection does not promote healthy development, so give yourself a break; it's OK not to have all the answers all the time. You will also accept that it is never too late to move towards a parenting model based on fewer tears and more laughter. Accepting this enables you to embrace new ways of parenting that will result in positive outcomes for both you and your child.

I believe that most parents are doing the very best that any of us can. I believe that we all possess what we need to parent our children to a good enough level. Some of us will benefit from support to access the capacity and potential that lies within us, because sometimes it lies beneath years of carefully scaffolded defensive layers, which are blocking us from being the best kind of parent we can be. Your parental self-audit is intended to help you look inwards and shine a light on some of this 'stuff ', but bear in mind that some of the stuff lurking in the shadows requires support from a trained professional who can help us identify, process and integrate the learning from negative experiences so that we can move forward.

What is called good enough parenting is determined by our intentions. If our intentions are good and genuine, they will help us to form safe, secure and lasting attachments with our children. This also creates a solid foundation of procedural memory in our children. Procedural memory is like a breadcrumb trail we leave in our children's psyche as they grow and develop, and it serves as a soothing and encouraging kind of internal soundtrack that influences the choices they make, the things they do, the friendships and relationships they form; in fact everything that happens as they grow out of childhood into adolescence and then into adulthood. Your ability to emotionally self-regulate allows you to co-regulate with your child and ultimately to lead them to be able to emotionally self-regulate by the time of middle childhood. It's a bit like riding a bike. Once you know how to do it, you don't need to run through the steps in your mind before setting off - you simply get up on the bike and go.

This is how procedural memory works. We learn how to think/feel/behave, we store that in our procedural memory bank and then we just get on with it. True wisdom and security and a positive sense of self lie in how our feeling brain (limbic system) and our thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) connect and communicate with each other. The key to the way they connect and communicate is held in our procedural memory.

That is what good enough parenting is about - filling up that procedural memory bank for and with your children. When you meet your child's needs and respond to their demands with appropriate, calm and consistent boundaries and limit-setting in the first two years of life, you are investing in their procedural memory bank and helping them to develop memories that will stand to them throughout their life, growing them into emotionally resilient and self-regulating adults. Learning how to self-regulate our emotions is an essential life skill without which we cannot function as healthy adults. When you see your child engaging in so-called 'acting-out' behaviours (or, conversely, 'acting-in' behaviours, when they turn emotions inward against themselves), what you are actually witnessing is your child's attempts to manage their emotions when they don't have the requisite life skills to do so. Dysregulated emotions result in dysregulated behaviour, and if you only respond to the behaviour without considering the emotional disruption, you are not addressing the real problem. Purely behavioural modification parenting techniques might change the overt behaviour, but in my clinical experience I tend to see children re-presented for treatment with a new behavioural issue and the same underlying emotional dysregulation. We must get to the emotional kernel of the matter to effect meaningful and sustained change in behaviour.

Attachment expert Joanna Fortune
Attachment expert Joanna Fortune

'15 Minute Parenting, The Quick and Easy Way to Connect With your Child' by Joanna Fortune is published by Gill Books, €16.99, available now at all good book stores. For more information about Joanna, see

Joanna's top tips: Using play to connect and maybe problem solve some challenges at home

1. Sometimes your child will become emotionally dysregulated, meaning either hyper energised or flat. Rather than verbally interrogate “what’s wrong?”, use play to help them get back to a more optimum level of energy. Jelly and ice cream is a great game for this. Every time you say jelly, your child must say ice cream, but they must say it the same way that you do. So if you yell jelly, they yell ice cream, but if you whisper jelly, they whisper ice cream. Be creative and use lots of funny ways to do this. Tip: If your child is hyper, start loud and get quieter, and do the opposite if they appear a bit flat.

2. Some children need help with impulsivity and learning to take their verbal cues from the adult in charge, especially relevant at this back-to-school time. You can play red light/green light to help. Have your child stand on other side of room and tell them to cross over to you by using hops/jumps/baby steps etc but they can only go when you say green light and must stop when you say red light.

3. Some children need help winding down when it’s time to go to bed. Playing cotton ball face massage can help with this. Get your child lying in bed on their back, tucked in. Invite them to close their eyes and, using a cotton ball, trace all around their faces down to their necks and perhaps down their arms if they like it. Use enough pressure so that they feel it; too soft will feel ticklish and too hard will hurt. A couple of minutes of this activity will not only help them wind down, but may even send them to sleep.

15-minute practice: Active listening

It is important that you attune to your child in other ways by using your active listening skills. How do you know if you are actively listening or partially listening to your child? Add the quiz below to your parental self-audit and stay on top of it.

1. When your child is talking to you, do you stop what you are doing?

2. Do you give your child your full attention when they are talking?

3. Do you interrupt when your child is speaking?

4. Do you repeat what you think you heard your child say, just to be clear?

5. When your child is asking you about a problem, are you already thinking of the solution before they have finished speaking?

Irish Independent

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