We often hear the importance of treating children fairly, but at Attachment Parenting International (API), we advocate rather to love each of our children uniquely. Because every child—just like every adult—is one of a kind, each individual parent-child relationship forms to the distinctive shape of each other’s differences in temperament, interests, opinions, aversions, conversions and other subtle nuances of what makes each person and their interactions unique.
API celebrates every person’s unique traits, but some children’s differences set them apart from societal expectations enough that daily interactions—whether at home, childcare or school—can be challenging. Rather than viewing our children through the lens of understanding, however, our society’s response is often to see these differences as “symptoms” of a disorder and to follow up with treatments that may not resolve the problem.
I am excited to share a discussion with Barbara Probst, PhD, LCSW, author of When the Labels Don’t Fit, on her approach to facilitate understanding among parents and teachers in order to discover a new relationship with sometimes-challenging children based on appreciation and respect instead of illness.
RITA: What inspired your alternative approach to “treating” children whose differences often lead them to being diagnosed with disorder?
DR. PROBST: I feel quite strongly about the way our culture seems to be viewing every difference, difficulty, struggle and quirk—every extreme or unusual behavior—as a disorder, especially when it comes to kids!
I attended a mother-and-tots group the other night. There were two babies in the corner, sitting in their car seats, one about two months old and the other closer to four months. The older baby was contently looking around, and the younger was sleeping, later waking to gaze out and only fussing when it was time to eat, afterwards being happy to lie on a blanket on the floor. I asked the mom of the younger baby how it was going at home, and she said that her baby is so quiet and calm that it’s sometimes easy to forget that there is a baby at home.
I can’t imagine. Each of my three children was impossible to forget as soon as they were delivered. Each craved touch and presence. Each protested loudly and violently at separation. Just riding around in the car was a trial, let alone sitting in a car seat at a community function. These were babies that refused to be put down.
I was tempted with my oldest child to “teach” independence by way of crying it out, but she sank into depression that took years to break through. With my younger two, I focused on creating and strengthening a secure attachment, and didn’t try to change them. I just loved them, and continue to love all three of them, as they are. And over time, they have conquered many of their fears and anxieties on their own and have blossomed into secure, confident, happy, competent children.
Some parents breastfeed, some don’t, and for the most part, kids turn out fine. Some parents stay at home with their kids, some parents put their kids in daycare, and for the most part, kids turn out fine. Some parents enroll their children in public school, others homeschool, and for the most part, kids turn out fine. There certainly are parenting styles that are in need of improvement, to say it lightly, such as those that tend to be so strict that they could be labeled as abusive or those that are permissive enough to border on neglectful. But there is no one right way to parent, if your goal is to raise children who are functioning members of society.
Even with the healthiest attachment bonds, conflict will arise in our relationships. Healthy conflict resolution — which keeps the attachment bond intact — is done in a gentle, positive manner that promotes influence, guidance, and teaching rather than control.
Much of the root of conflict resolution resides in our own selves – in dealing with our own unresolved hurts and biases, as well as finding personal balance, so that we can control the urge to jump to conclusions and react without thinking. And so that we can have the courage to stop in the moment, take a deep breath, and think about how to control our default thinking to be able to react with compassion instead of anger and defensiveness.
Another important piece of this puzzle is understanding how personality differences play into both conflict and conflict resolution. Think about what is most likely to create conflict between you and your spouse or partner: Often, isn’t it because you two do the same thing in different ways? My husband and I encounter this all the time. I am much more detail-oriented than my husband and sometimes don’t understand why he doesn’t see the crumbs on the table, while he wonders why I care so much about the crumbs. The same situation can happen between you and a child who doesn’t see the world in the same way.