Your parenting matters. That’s both scary and reassuring at the same time, isn’t it?
Babies are learning things all of the time, even though it can be tempting to think that they’re merely dolls that cry, eat and soil themselves. They absorb their environment like sponges. So investing some time to learn better parenting skills will only do good.
Putting time and thought into raising your baby is essential. I don’t mean which outfits they wear or which Parent and Baby groups they frequent. In the end, none of these has any long term impact on a baby’s wellbeing.
Instead, I’m talking about the big stuff. What makes their eyes light up, makes them feel secure, what frightens them, how they tell you… and what you decide to do with this information. As you probably already know, it is not possible to spoil a baby.
Babies are born with different temperaments. Some are easy-going, some the opposite and most are somewhere in between. We can help our children to learn how to regulate their emotions more effectively – what we’re talking about when discussing a baby’s temperament. Babies do not all start from the same place, but all children can learn how to regulate their emotions.
The self-help sections of book stores and the internet at large are full of all sorts of labels for defining a baby’s temperament type. I don’t find pigeonholing babies into neat categories helpful – especially as most categories exclude babies with special needs. There are as many temperaments as there are babies, in my view! The most important thing is that you know your baby.
Better parenting step 1: Be observant
- What are they most interested in? Usually, it’s faces. (If not, consider talking to a pediatrician)
- Are they sensitive to noise? What types? Are they more sensitive than their peers?
- Are they sensitive to light or dark? Are they more sensitive than their peers?
- Are they sensitive to texture? Are they more sensitive than their peers?
- What comforts them?
- How long does it take to comfort them? How does this compare to their peers?
Suppose you have an ‘easy’ baby. In that case, you’ll have a good chance of teaching effective emotional regulation through the toddler years – and may have a smoother ride. If you have a more emotional, easily overwhelmed and overstimulated baby, you will have a little more work to do. However, no one ‘gets away with it’ through the toddler phase! There is work to be done by all parents. Even ‘easy’ babies can be affected by dreadful parenting – the fact that you are reading a blog post about parenting means that’s definitely not you!
Billy, my now 5-year-old son, was a more emotional-than-average baby (and is an introvert). He was easily upset by extreme light or dark or loud noises. When using public restrooms, he would have a meltdown whenever he heard the hand dryer. He hated the toddler swings at the park – he does not appreciate being in places from which he can not escape on his own. But, you wouldn’t know this see him now! There are still glimpses of his anxiety, but he has mostly grown into a confident kid, comfortable in his skin.
Better parenting step 2: Form a secure attachment
This is not the same as attachment parenting. Do that if you want to, but co-sleeping, baby-wearing and extended breastfeeding are unnecessary to form a secure attachment. Instead, a secure attachment means that a baby or child feels listened to and that their parent will always be there emotionally. The Circle of Security is an excellent way of explaining the concept of a secure attachment.
Better parenting step 3: Be an Emotion Coach
Despite being aware of Billy’s hatred of hand dryers as a baby, I didn’t avoid public restrooms or insist that other patrons use a towel! I felt like running as soon as I saw a stranger go to use one, but removing all discomfort from a child’s life is pure insanity in my view. As a baby, I just held Billy close and calmly comforted him as he cried. As he grew older, I would warn Billy when I was about to use the dryer but did not force him to join. He usually covered his ears with his hands or distracted himself with the keychain on my purse. We developed coping mechanisms when confronted with discomfort rather than just avoiding it altogether. I won’t be there to ask his colleagues not to use the hand dryers at Billy’s first job!
The world can not and should not fully accommodate my child’s wishes, but neither should I force him to participate in something that makes him uncomfortable. Parenting is a balancing act. Each time I would ask Billy if he wanted to try using the dryer. He watched me, his friends and strangers using hand dryers without any adverse effects. Eventually, he just used a hand dryer. Now he thinks that it is silly to be afraid of one!
By gradually facing fear, with the support of an adult they trust, a child will slowly learn to overcome difficulties. Billy has also overcome his fear of climbing ladders and play equipment, dogs, learning to read and fireworks. The balance is in not running away from the fear but instead listening, empathising and rationalising before trying again.
According to Dr John Gottman, there are four parenting styles: Dismissing; Disapproving; Laissez-Faire and Emotion Coach. An Emotion Coach has proved to work best when raising a child so consider changing to this method for better parenting.
Better parenting step 4: Love the child you have
When they’re first born, people say things like, “I’m just glad they’re healthy”. Unfortunately, this sentiment doesn’t always prevail as parents project their own desires and values onto their child. You can’t alter an introvert into an extrovert or vice versa. They are who they are.
The good news is that there are long term advantages to “easy” and “difficult” babies.
Easy babies are more likely to become more extroverted adults, the advantages of which are evident if you live in a culture like the USA. Difficult (high reactive) babies are more likely to become introverted adults, although this is not always bad.
You Can Do Better Parenting: Be Patient!
All children can thrive if given our support and understanding. We can’t change our child’s intrinsic nature, but we can help them feel secure and equipped to deal with life’s challenges. Babies cannot express their feelings in any other way than crying, which is why we label them as ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’. But every time they cry, frustrating though it is for us, they are trying to tell us something about how they’re interpreting the world around them.
If you currently have a highly emotional baby, please do not despair! Billy was just the same, and now other parents remark on how ‘easy’ he is. The credit for this goes to him: all his Dad and I have done is to be sources of calm and reason, as far as is humanly possible. It is Billy who has learned to be resourceful and find ways to make uncomfortable situations manageable. He is the solution to his problems – and your child can be too.
All children need to develop emotion regulation skills, no matter their temperament: in managing disappointment, with the misunderstandings between friends and with all positive and negative emotions they encounter.
Your parenting matters! Put time into coaching your child through difficult emotions, and they will reap the rewards for a lifetime. And you’ll have an easier life too! Don’t forget that your relationship with your partner also matters and that is something your child observes. Better parenting and better relationships management connect to each other.