Hold and Be Held: Parenting strategies for raising strong kids

Erin Belanger, LMHC

My son got himself stuck in a precarious position the other morning and absolutely panicked. I was running on the treadmill at the time and saw him dangling upside down on the play set we have in the basement. I waited… was he ok, or was he in trouble? Then the scream came… I heard an almost inaudible “Help!” through the strained scream… and then again. I hit stop on the treadmill, jumped off, ran over, and grabbed him so he wouldn’t fall. He was terrified and crying, and I hugged him. I wanted to say, “this is why we use our playthings the way they’re meant to be used”... because his fear scared me. Instead, I reflected briefly on how scary that was. Then, I held him and very calmly and gently said, “I saw you, I heard you, and I got you.” He continued to cry and so I repeated the same statement. He settled, and then he went back to playing. At that point, I asked him to be more careful about hanging on the outside of the play structure since falling from it could hurt him and he went back to bouncing around and hanging on the inside.

As parents, we want to do the best for our children. We want to keep them safe and help them develop and grow, and learn to enjoy their talents while giving back to others as they go. These are all wonderful goals. These goals, I would say, are even pretty doable… if not for the fact that as parents, we have emotions and needs too. Further, we sometimes have strong emotional reactions triggered by our children that are hard to manage because of our own stressors and life issues.

The story above is a picture of what went right because I was feeling generally ok and enjoying a run when this happened. What if I had been more depleted… tired, emotionally exhausted, stressed by work or life or family issues? What if I was running on empty and without support to lean into and depend on? My ability to not react to my initial anxiety may have been challenged, and I may have snapped instead of being reassuring. If I had gone with my immediate emotional reaction and told him he needed to use his toys the right way, he would not have felt soothed, safe or secure.

This is one of the biggest challenges of parenthood - how do we as parents manage our level of depletion so that we are capable of being there for our children in their times of need? In psychological language, we are working to provide a “centered hold” for our children in which we are attentive and responsive to their needs. This means that we track them with awareness so that we know how they are doing in any given scenario. Then we make decisions about when to step in or when to step back, and we provide presence and statements that reflect security and safety, which help build trust. This way of being with our children is near impossible without, again in psychological language, “contextual holding”.

Contextual holding is created by the support system around a parent that helps meet the needs of the parent so they can provide the centered holding and meet the needs of their children. This support system may be made up of a partner who helps break up household, parenting, and financial responsibilities. It can also include extended family and friends who provide emotional or physical support. Community programs, like the YMCA, can also contribute to this contextual hold as they provide free childcare for parents who want to workout (or even sit in the lobby and read quietly for more than 2 minutes at a time). No matter how it comes together, the contextual hold is necessary for every parent and caregiver.

Our children need to feel safe and secure in examples like the above. They also need to feel seen and understood in their everyday feelings, without being shut down or told that they are wrong about what they feel. A child who cries in frustration about the game they want to play not having all the pieces doesn’t need to hear that they should get over it and play something else. Another who’s angry at a friend for not inviting them to a party doesn’t need to hear that they shouldn’t feel angry because their friend has the right to invite whomever they want. Attuned and responsive parenting allows children to feel that the people most important to them understand what they feel and are ok listening to those feelings without having to change them, fix them, or ignore them. To provide this space for our children, though, we must be taken care of ourselves.

Here are some basics for improving your “centered hold”:

To begin building a better contextual hold:

If we as parents provide our children with the kind of relationship that provide security and emotional soothing, we teach our children how to manage their emotional reactions. With time, they get better at regulating and talking about what they feel, versus just reacting and acting out. This means that, as parents, we need our own emotional soothing and someone to be there for us. We need to be seen and heard. We need to be understood. We need to be able to receive so that we might better provide.