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Unlocking Family Harmony

How to overcome modern parenting chaos by understanding our children's ancient drive for connection

Sally with her baby during a challenging time in her parenting journey

Original article "Moving into connection", by Sally Prebble, published in Natural Parenting Magazine, Issue 53, Jan 2024.


Nine years ago, I had just come home from hospital after a challenging delivery with my third child. I had been studying and caring for my two preschoolers right up until the delivery and I was very stressed. My eldest child had recently been diagnosed with autism, while my middle child was feeling very uncertain about the new person in our family. Both were often dysregulated. I was struggling and feeling like a failure.

My days were a blur of nappy rash, mastitis, tantrums and meltdowns; my nights a lonely insomniac vigil with a baby who did not appear to sleep. I was very overwhelmed, very lost, very depressed.

I started to notice a frustrating circularity to the situation I was facing. It was clear I needed support, but I didn’t have energy to seek it out. Without support, my capacity to be present with my children was diminishing by the day. The more I withdrew, the more challenging their behaviour became. This in turn left me even more desperate and depleted, further disengaging from my children and the external world.

Each day, I seemed to sink deeper into this vicious cycle.

The message I received from my doctor and midwife was both reassuring and alarming: you are not alone - so many families are stuck in the same trap. A decade later, my work with parents and families confirms this. So many of the parents who come to Peace Talks seeking support are feeling alone, isolated, overwhelmed and lost in very similar cycles. They long for support, connection and harmony, but are paralysed about how to extract themselves from the challenges they face.

As one father recently said to me: “We are only just surviving. None of us are thriving”.

The light that eventually guided me through this vortex was a life-changing journey of learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC). This was the catalyst for a gradual but profound transformation in the way I understood my children and myself, giving me the skills to strengthen the connection within our family.

I learned that there are good reasons why many of us are stuck in these paralysing loops, and that it is both possible, and incredibly rewarding, to shift into a different way of being together. In this article, I will share some things that you can do practically (starting today!) to break free from this cycle.

Nurturing Our Evolutionary Drive for Connection

To understand this modern cycle of becoming ever more stuck, we must recognise an evolutionary truth: children are hard-wired for connection. We now have more evidence than ever before that a child’s secure bond with caregivers is critical for their brain and emotional development, physical health and learning.

It turns out that children will work really, REALLY hard to make sure they receive the connection their evolutionary programming tells them they need. This is literally a matter of survival for them, so when a child cannot secure the unconditional love and affection they crave, it places their nervous system in a state of stress.

For some children, their preoccupation with meeting this fundamental need could look like separation anxiety (e.g., clinging, sleep challenges), while for others it could look like challenging behaviour and defiance (e.g., pouring paint on the carpet, fighting in the playground), or shutting down and disengaging.

Put simply, if our children are not receiving the level of connection their wiring tells them they need, our life is likely to become very challenging indeed. Conversely, when a child feels unconditionally held in warmth, belonging and a sense of mattering, their nervous system can relax and they are able to operate in a cooperative, inter-dependent way with those around them.

The hidden reason many parents are in chaos

The problem with our children’s incredible nervous systems, which kick into gear so reliably to ensure their connection needs are met, is that they evolved at a time when society looked rather different from our modern context. They developed when it was reasonable for a baby coming into the world to expect ten or so loving adults to care for them.

The reason it takes a village to raise a child is precisely because we evolved to be raised by a village!

Modern babies come into the world with exactly the same evolutionary expectations as their ancestors, but are instead welcomed by one or (if they are lucky) two overstretched, isolated parents. Unfortunately, most parents today do not have the support, resources and capacity to give the depth of care and connection that our babies’ biology anticipates. These structural differences between our children’s evolutionary expectations and our actual lived reality can feed into a devastating cycle for families that looks like this:

1. Lack of social support depletes parents.

Social isolation, combined with the pressure of fast-paced modern life, leaves many parents exhausted and under- resourced.

2. Depleted parents lack energy to put into connection.

Due to the absence of a ‘village’, children are often entirely reliant on their parents to provide this vital connection context. We are now facing an intergenerational deficit of connection, with many parents carrying attachment wounds from their own upbringing, which can make it incredibly difficult for them to provide the unconditional connection their children crave.

3. Lack of connection leads to challenging behaviour.

Children lacking connection work hard to restore the relationship, including through challenging behaviour patterns. This can be incredibly draining for parents, further exhausting them, and using up precious energy that could be devoted to connection.

4. Depleted parents are unable to seek community support.

Parents focused on surviving each day have nothing left over to engage external support and build community around them. They are left unsupported practically, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

Thus, we enter a typical modern-parenting death spiral. Most of us have little choice but to do the best we can within these less-than-ideal social circumstances. It can bringan incredible sense of self-compassion to realise that ifwe are struggling, it is not because we are incompetent, unloving, stupid, selfish (or any of the other things we may tell ourselves). It is because, despite the many technological benefits of our modern world, this is an historically challenging time to raise children. You are not alone, and you are not imagining it - it really is this hard!

Reversing the negative feedback loop of modern parenting

In my life, learning nonviolent communication was transformative precisely because it worked at many points on this feedback loop simultaneously. The changes at first seemed small, but the magic was that these incremental changes did not simply slow the downward cycle - they actually reversed it.

Time and time again, I have seen the deadly current that was pulling a family under gradually reverse, until it became a powerful force lifting them up. By making small and practical changes, over time it is possible to create a positive and self-sustaining cycle that can carry us, and our children, in the direction of more connection, support and harmony.

A positive feedback loop can look like this:

1. Greater self-connection revitalises parents.

The practice of NVC starts with fostering connection with yourself, building awareness of your inner world and what you are feeling and needing at any given moment. For parents, greater self-connection provides a solid inner place to respond from, to connect from, and to return to whenever life becomes difficult. The tools and practices of NVC transform our conscious experience of the world, our ability to self-regulate and our resilience to cope in challenging situations.

2. Well-resourced parents are better able to offer the connection children need.

The wisdom of NVC also shows us ways to connect more deeply with those around us, even in times of conflict and challenge. NVC offers ways to translate children’s words and behaviour into an understanding of what they need. This provides an entirely new lens through which to understand our children, allowing us to find a place of softness and peace even when we disagree.

3. Deeply connected children are easier to parent.

As the connection with our children is strengthened, their challenging behaviour reduces, giving parents even more rest, time and energy. There is a natural and inevitable shift towards more peace, more cooperation, more harmony and mutuality.

4. Well-resourced parents have more capacity to seek community support.

From a self-connected place, parents are better able to identify their needs and have the skills to request the support they need (e.g., “Maybe I will have that cup of tea with my neighbour after all...”). As parents are able to engage more in building supportive networks, they feel less isolated and alone. More support gives them more energy to put into building connections with themselves, their children and their community.

Shifting your family into a positive cycle of connection

I recall that from within the tightly winding helix of my own negative feedback loop, any change felt overwhelming. On my journey of learning NVC, I developed micro-habits that could help to soothe my nervous system in times of stress. Over time, small changes like these strengthen neural pathways of self-regulation and enhance the family and community connections that we desperately need in order to parent effectively. If you are feeling similarly stuck, here are some small and practical steps you can take today to start reversing the direction of your tornado.

1. Take a moment to self-connect.

Turn your attention inward and begin to notice your inner landscape:

  • Feelings: What physical sensations do you notice inyour body? (e.g., tightness in neck and shoulders, increased heart rate, fatigue, headache). How do you feel emotionally? (e.g., overwhelmed, irritable, anxious?).

  • Thoughts: Can you notice your thoughts? Create some inner space, and support yourself to see these as ‘thoughts’ rather than ‘the truth’ by saying, “I notice that I am telling myself ______ (e.g., ‘...my child should have learned to handle transitions by now’, ‘...I’m doing it wrong’, etc.)”.

  • Needs: What really matters to you right now? What do you long for? (e.g., Peace? Rest? Cooperation? Space?).

You can use this process to self-regulate whenever you are feeling overwhelmed, and as a daily routine each morning or evening.


2. Create connection routines with your child.

Connection is not a grand, theoretical thing, but rather something that is built over time with thousands of small, daily interactions. Add regular, predictable connection routines into your child’s day to strengthen your connection (e.g., read/listen to music/dance together, a hot drink together after school, cuddle in bed each morning, etc).

A powerful micro-habit to meet a child’s need for connection is “collecting”. When you reunite after spending time away from each other (or even when you notice you have been less present), you can bring your full consciousness to these moments, reconnecting with your child through such simple gestures as (remember the acronym "SWEET":

Smiling

Warm, soft voice and words

Eye contact

Extending an invitation (e.g., to come with you, to do

something together, etc.)

Touch (hug, holding hand, etc.) and proximity (being

close)

Take a moment to think about some connection routines you would like to introduce into your child’s day/week.

3. Finding external support.

Look back at the needs you identified above. What concrete images come to mind when you connect with these longings? Brainstorm specific, doable steps you could take to bring more support, peace, rest (or whatever you long for) into your life (e.g., visit playgroup on Tuesday, sign up to a parenting workshop, ask a family member to spend 1-hour helping with housework each week, etc.).

Building the depth of connection we all need - step by step

We cannot change the historical moment we were born into; but through the skills and consciousness of NVC, we can make a dramatic difference to our ability to cope and our children’s ability to thrive.

Learning to see our children’s defiant behaviours as desperate calls for connection can be a first step towards establishing the nurturing connection they need.

We can choose to embrace our roles as guardians of this precious relationship and learn skills to manage challenging moments in a way that prioritises everyone’s needs. This transformative journey begins with actively seeking connection within ourselves, our families and our communities.

These are aspects of life that allowed our ancestors to thrive; by taking active steps to restore them, we can cultivate a more peaceful, compassionate world for our children to inherit.


Curious to learn more? Sign up to our newsletter to receive regular resources and information about how to bring more connection and harmony to your family.

If you are interested in our upcoming guided online support programme for parents, Living Compassion, you can register your interest here.




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