How to parent: a psychotherapist's view
Psychotherapist Philippa Perry explains how we should shift our childcare focus away from longer term goals to being in the present with them and building an ongoing respectful relationship
Produced and directed by Juliet Riddell. Filmed and edited by Petros Gioumpasis and Richard Topping
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The most important thing between parents and children is their relationship. It's not about a project. Your child is not a project to perfect. You have an ongoing relationship with your child. And your child isn't chores to get through, either. Children need to be seen, first and foremost, as a person and a person to have a relationship with. Nobody really wants to be fixed. People want to be related to, and children are no different.
Psychotherapy isn't just about healing someone who's sick. What it's about is about allowing someone to truly be themselves and let their true self actualise. A psychotherapist acts as a sort of container for her clients so that the clients can tell the psychotherapist absolutely anything. And I would like children to be able to tell their parents absolutely anything. And, I mean, what would you think if you went to see a therapist and they told you not to be silly, or that they'd been talking too much, or that they were unreasonable to have the feelings they have. If we close that down, we're not going to get any more.
It can also be quite dangerous to close things down because, to us, they seem silly. They might say something: I don't like going to auntie's because I don't like the way she cooks the sausages all spicy, or something like that. And you just want to say, well just leave them then. You just want to fix it. But if you say, oh yeah, the sausages are a bit icky, aren't they? What you going to do about that?
Then they'll think, well, I could tell her I don't want any. That's a good idea. Get them to fix the problem rather than go in with a solution straight away. And then they feel able to tell you something like: I don't like the way the piano teacher puts his hand on my leg. Now you really want that information. You really want that information. But if you've closed them down at other times when you've told them they're being silly, they'll not bother share anything filed under icky.
The first thing I try and get parents to do is be in the present with their child. So often, we're thinking what has to be done next or rushing to the future or worrying about whether they'll get into university when they're nine years old. We're always off into the future. And it's great. Somebody has to keep an eye on the future. But we need to be present with our child more than that. That's even more important than thinking about the future, is being with them now where they are. Because if you get the present right, the future tends to look after itself more.
Parenting is a relationship. Relationships are ongoing. And when we're having coffee with our friend or something, we don't think, I got that right, I nailed that coffee with that friend. We don't think of relationships like that. And we shouldn't think of our relationships with our children like that. Because we idolise parents, or tend to idolise our parents, if they're cross with us, we immediately go, me bad, even it's not my fault. Like all relationships, you can see where you have misattuned to the other person, where you've got something wrong, or maybe where you lost your temper, blamed them, and it wasn't their fault. I think it's really important to backtrack and say, I got that wrong.
I think it can't help but help the world if people feel secure in themselves. They know what they see. They know what they feel. I think it makes them more generous and more loving in general, which can only be good for the world. People sometimes tell me, but surely we need to toughen our kids up a bit because otherwise, when other people are horrible to them, they won't know how to cope. Believe me, they'll get enough experience of other people being horrible to them.
What they need is a safe haven. Once, a counsellor friend of mine was working with a refugee family, and he was trying to empathise with them for having no home, no permanent home. And one of the kids piped up, oh, we've got a home, we've just got nowhere to put it. And I really want children to feel like this, that home is a safe haven, not a place where they go to get told off.
It isn't massive great big treats that make a great childhood. It isn't the great holidays. It isn't the visits to the theme park. It's our everyday minute interactions. It's honouring bids for attention. It's seeing what they mean. It's helping them express stuff, even when it's different to what we feel. It's that sort of attention and respect. We need to respect our children. An awful lot of horrible things have been done to children in the name of love. I think we need to think more about respect.