So, in one of my other roles, I’m training to be a trainer on recovery from mental health problems. On Tuesday, I co-facilitated an intro session for the first time, and it gave me-the-parent a lot to think about.
One of the exercises we do in that session is to ask participants what helped them to recover – from anything: a broken leg, a bereavement, whatever – and write up the answers on a flipchart. Usually, we have everything from long walks to chocolate and brushing the dog. Then, we ask people how they’d act if they didn’t have access to any of those things. The point of the exercise is to show that anyone might react in a way that, for someone with a mental health diagnosis, would be seen as “a symptom”, if they felt out of control and unable to look after themselves, which is a situation often imposed on people in, for example, hospital.
But that second list – the “how might you behave” one – always looks a lot like how a small child behaves a lot of the time. People call out things like: angry, shouting, crying, withdrawing, panicking, being un-cooperative. And if you argue that parallel: how much of the time are children behaving in the way an adult would if their life were like a child’s life?
If you lived in a world where you were constantly confronted by new things, which you were expected to assimilate and understand quickly and without showing concern? If you pretty much never got to choose your own activities? If you were regularly touched, lifted and restrained without your permission? If you lived at the mercy of, however loving, people who were in total charge of your comings and goings, your access to food and drink, your access to activities you enjoy?
I’m not trying to say that we all traumatise our children horribly for no reason. This is not mother-blaming central. But too often we don’t see children as people; we don’t think, hey, if I were taken from something I was absorbed in, strapped into a pushchair and hurried down the road without anyone checking I understood what was going on, would I scream and struggle? Probably.
Parents need to protect their children from harm. We also need to get things done. Children don’t have the rich, hard-won, slowly acquired knowledge we have that sets everyday things in context. And so, sometimes (often) we can’t let our kids have the sort of freedom they want. I’m just saying, when I remember they’re humans in a difficult situation, I find it easier not to see my kids as demons; I’m not their torturer (or their psych nurse), but I am someone with immense power who must seem to them to be capricious and not always kind. Sometimes, being myself a human in a sometimes difficult situation, I am capricious and not always kind. But me and my kids, we three humans, we’re in this together.