“I have a daughter of 6 and a son of 3. I feel I am far more understanding to my 3 year old and find his age more interesting than my daughter’s. I am worried that when he becomes five or six I won’t be such a good parent to him. I enjoyed my daughter’s babyhood and childhood up to the age of 5 but feel until she is 8 I am not at my best. I feel very guilty about this. Will I have affected her for life?”
Most professionals working with children choose the age they are most comfortable with. There are different groups working with babies, under-fives, junior or adolescent. Only a few professionals work across the whole age range. However parents are linked irrevocably to all stages of childhood and adulthood for as long as they are alive. It is not surprising that in that life-long relationship there are variations in the quality of parenting. One parent will say “I love babies - it’s having teenagers that exhausts me”. Another will stress “I’m no good with them as babies but the moment they can speak they’ve got all my attention”.
Why should this be? As parents, we have unlocked before us with each new developmental stage of our children some conscious and unconscious memory of our own child selves. Even in a crowded shopping centre heads will turn when a baby cries. In the sound of the baby’s distress we can hear our own infantile cry. If we were picked up and comforted as babies when we cried there is a greater likelihood we will emotionally manage to deal with that cry. Awakened memories are a source of richness and empathy when they help us understand what our child is feeling .Preparing a child for starting a new school, changing class, crossing the road for the first time, all of this is made easier by using our own recollections. But what if those memories are not a source of richness but of distress?
Some parents batter their children because they can not bear the sound of their crying . They did not have their own cry answered, or had it answered with violence. In the sound of their baby’s distress they hear their own and cannot bear it. At a less extreme level, ordinary parenting becomes more frayed when the child’s stage or age stirs up a painful period in the adult. In addition to the particular unique individual experiences that determine what is harder or easier, some developmental stages seem to be generally more difficult. A crying baby, for example, who cannot be comforted, reduces resourceful parents dramatically. In the presence of a screaming toddler, it can be hard for many parents to stay adult. The Punch-and-Judy style combat of “Yes I can” “No you can’t” takes over and only the exterior size shows who is the adult! Dr. Judith Trowell, of the Tavistock Clinic’s Child and Family Department, comments that “it is often the beginning and end of childhood that cause the greatest emotional difficulties, babyhood and adolescence”. The testing of limits that adolescents try out before they leave the nest can stir up rival adolescent feelings in the parents who then wish to give up their parental role for the easier one of older sibling.
What about more personal reasons for difficulty? Mrs L.S. has not given us further information to help us think about why the age of 6 does not evoke her imaginative sympathies. What happened to her when she was six? Was there a major event in her family? A new sibling born, perhaps, which meant that her own sense of herself and her age were deadened next to the excitement over the new arrival? Was there a bereavement, a divorce, a change of school or home? All these factors can be quietly hiding behind such statements as “I have never liked junior age children, they are so boring” or “Adolescents are so wild”.
Where families can be lucky is if one parent is more resourceful than another over a particular stage. If Mrs L.S. has a husband who sympathises with the six-year old age that will tide their daughter over until she reaches the age her mother feels happier about. To help each other best at parenting tasks means husband and wife need to be honest over their own shortcomings, rather than rivalrous. A single parent has a more difficult task here.
However, Mrs L.S. does see light at the end of the tunnel. She feels that when her children are eight she will be able to manage again. It is only the three years from five to eight that she fears. Out of 18 years of childhood, three duff years out of eighteen is clearly not a bad innings! Mrs L.S. is nevertheless worried about the lasting impact her difficulty will have engendered in her children. Perhaps the work of Professors Anne and Alan Clarke of Hull University will be of help here. They emphasised that the reason why people worried if the first five years of life were not secure was not just because of the impact of those five years but because often the rest of that child’s experience would continue in the same way! However, if family circumstance improved, then the child’s experience would improve too. So, if there are frayed periods in the quality of parenting, as indeed there must be, what matters is whether repairs are made. Mrs L.S. will repair for her eight year old the tears she made in their relationship from 5-8. Of course there are some children who are individually more vulnerable to these black holes in family relationships who will find it harder to recover when all is well again. However, for the lucky-enough average family member there are ups and downs in family life just as there are in marriage.