There are times when, as the mother of six and eight-year-old girls, I feel a bit like a punchbag. They come home from school, having conformed to what’s been expected of them all day, and vent their frustrations on the nearest person, who, more often than not, happens to be me.
As I’m also the person (along with their father) who loves them most in the world, this can be difficult. Yet rather than allow myself to take the all-too-easy route of being drawn into conflict, I try – admittedly, not always successfully – to take a step back and consider what lies behind the aggressive behaviour.
Economic advantages aside, growing up is harder, in 2016, than it has ever been. With the proliferation of testing in schools, children have never felt more under pressure to perform academically, and even playground teasing has escalated to 24-hour online abuse through social media. Little girls, bombarded with adult images and perspectives, feel they have to shake off childhood as soon as possible – hence my eight-year-old recently asking to wear a bra.
The request came out of the blue and I was uncertain of how to respond. I didn’t want to grant permission, but neither did I want to risk alienating her by simply saying “no”. We’ve reached the compromise of cropped vests.
With my eldest daughter in particular – a deep-thinker, highly sensitive and painfully self-conscious – I feel that insecurity lies at the heart of many of her anxieties. I try to combat this by illustrating, in graphic terms, how much I love her. I like to tell her, as a first child and grandchild, how special her birth was for the whole family, and how I spent sleepless nights with her as a baby just staring in wonder and disbelief.
More generally, I try to boost my two daughters’ confidence by providing visual images which they can draw upon. I’ve talked about letting their light shine and about being a superhero with a special suit they can wear to make them invincible. These aren’t miracle cures, but I hope that in times of worry and stress, they at least add to my daughters’ armouries.
I find another useful technique is to try to empathise with my children – i.e. “That happened to me too, and this is how I dealt with it”. They tend to think that we, as parents, appeared in the world as fully-formed adults with all the emotional resources maturity brings, so it’s worth emphasising that we too were their age and went through similar experiences. I’ve told the story of how, as a shy teenager, I worked up the courage to be in the school play, praying that God wouldn’t let me make a fool of myself. Thankfully, it worked, proving that it’s always worth the risk of challenging yourself.
My daughters love hearing anecdotes from my childhood and I believe that bringing myself to their level like this makes me more approachable and helps them to appreciate that we all face struggles in life.
In all our conversations about matters that might be troubling them I stress that whatever the problem, I’m the one they should speak to – even if it’s something they’ve done that I mightn’t like. To me, my role as their advocate is fundamentally important, just as I encourage the idea of us as a family being united against the world. Throughout my children’s their lives, there will be plenty of people who will criticise them. I would like them to feel that home will always be their safe haven.