Alistair Cooper is a clinical psychologist and consultant with the National Implementation Service at the Michael Rutter Centre. Based at the Maudsley Hospital, the centre specialises in the treatment of youngsters with mental health issues. Alistair is co-author of the brilliant book Reflective Parenting. He takes an evidence-based approach to developing parenting programmes for children in care. He lives in London with his wife and two young children.
Our son’s birth was traumatic: witnessing it was very difficult indeed. In the aftermath, it seemed that it was more important for professionals to tell us that if we had another child my wife could and should have a natural birth. My wife was offered a counselling session but I wasn't, so it was an interesting introduction to being a father and left me wondering how valued fathers are, and how we are perceived. Saying that, I now know that pregnancy, birth and the early months are a very different experience for women than for men.
Initially, we were unsure if there would be any neurological damage from our son’s birth. This was soon forgotten within a wondrous year, completely unlike any other before or since. It was certainly the hardest year, but definitely the most exciting and one I look back on again and again!
Becoming a dad has changed me fundamentally. My perspective has altered. Being a dad has forced me to think about the future, about security, my health and the world. It’s forced me to look at my past, to try and get a sense of what influences how I interact with my children, to better understand their behaviour and where they are coming from. It’s made me examine how I was brought up.
How you were responded to when you were growing up can be very helpful to reflect on. Especially when emotions were high and you needed your parent to understand and be comforting. My memories of being parented have helped me understand myself better and helped me shape how I want to respond to my children during tough times for them. When I don’t fit this image of myself - like I'm dismissive, or correcting my children rather than listening to them – I'm learning to use my reactions as data for me to reflect on and learn from.
Another thing I've noticed is how my appreciation of life has changed. I focus more on what I have rather than what I don’t have. I was never like that before. I try to be aware of the moment to moment interactions with my children, to appreciate that every moment is different but special. Even difficult times are learning experiences and chances to understand each other. That can sound rather idealistic, but I think it’s really important. It’s not something I can do all the time, but I try.
I hope he would be surprised at my confidence not just towards the many roles of parenting, but towards the many roles of a clinical psychologist working with children. He would see how being a dad has helped me as a clinical psychologist, but would laugh at how, in the early days, being a clinical psychologist did not, in any way, help me to be a parent. It does now though. Now when I work with parents helping them to increase their connection and sense of security with their children, I sometimes discuss some quite simple parenting techniques that really help parents manage situations. Things like helping parents think of and talk to their child about the type of behaviour that you want to see, rather than what they don’t want to see. They help me realise that my children’s behaviour is normal (so I can be a bit more tolerant) and we use some of the techniques ourselves.
Pre-fatherhood me would be pleased that my children are more or less well behaved, around others anyway, not always at home. He would probably be a bit upset that his life is no longer his own though! He would be proud that, coming through a late adolescence and early adulthood with barely any self-reflection, my work and journey into fatherhood has led me to become more reflective.
This journey was a big inspiration for writing a parenting book called Reflective Parenting with Sheila Redfern. We call the process of self-reflection constructing a Parent Map, a way of charting out what you’re like as a parent. What influences how you parent, what kind of parent you want to be and what happens when you are able to be that parent. Being more aware of this has helped me be a far better parent than I would have been.
What I hope is not like having a psychologist! Luckily, when I asked my son, he told me I was stern but cuddly and fun. I think that fits quite well, and is a more realistic father-son relationship. I can be quite firm around some things, and I know I have the capacity to overreact. I consciously work hard to own my mistakes, my overreactions, to get a sense of how I might have impacted on my children. Reconnecting with my kids after fall-outs is so important to me. I believe it makes our relationships stronger through the feeling of closeness that comes from this process.
I draw on the advice I give to parents at work to help my parenting. It doesn't make me a perfect parent or my children behaviour beautifully every moment though. That’s what I love about parenting. I think it’s like people getting to know each other, learning and growing together. This was another big inspiration for writing Reflective Parenting.
Life has changed forever! My identity has definitely changed, but with the identity of dad something has solidified, I have become more certain about myself and I am clearer about what is important. While I welcome that, the sense of responsibility being a dad brings, I do worry about death or the loss of a child, which can be terrifying. When I hear about another parents’ loss, either at work or in the news, I connect to it more and it hurts.
Reflective Parenting is based on research of what kind of parenting supports children’s development. I believe in the principles behind the book and live them every day with my own children. I want to influence other parents to do more of this kind of parenting. More than that though, I want to look back and be proud that I became the type of parent we wrote about in that book. I want to be a parent who connects with and understands their children, not one that misses opportunities to make the bonds grow stronger.
It’s impossible to be in this reflective stance all of the time, for example to not let your emotions take over or biases interfere with making sense of my children’s behaviour. It feels reassuring somehow that I can’t be perfect, but I try to consciously to see myself from the outside, to see how I came across in situations and how that might have felt for my children. Life isn't all about fun and laughter, people don’t get on quite a lot of the time, the ideas and techniques in the book help parents see this as useful and a great learning experience.
We share common principles, like children using their parental relationships to develop, explore and learn. Kids always practising what is acceptable and what isn't. Children being driven by emotions they cannot fully understand. These are the ideas we keep coming back to. It doesn't mean we agree on everything though! One thing we work hard on is not undermining or reversing parenting decisions in front of the children. For example, if my wife said that they can’t have any chocolate, I back this up when they ask me. This maintains parental authority, doesn't set up favourites and doesn't annoy my wife and vice versa!
They’re in the book! Trying to be more skilled as a reflective parent definitely helps me be a better dad. For example, we talk about a really useful process called “rupture and repair”, which happens naturally in many families.
This happens when there is a disruption in your connection with your child. For example, after you have told him off or overreacted, or felt hurt by something he said. Being able to get over this quickly and repair the break by apologising, explaining, or discussing what happened, is not only incredibly important in the moments, but really helpful over the longer term. By really understanding these moments together with your child, the parent can help a child’s development. That’s the job after all. These “rupture and repair” moments help me and my children to feel closer.
We've also coined a term - the Parent APP - to describe an attitude that parents can bring to their interactions and help them be more reflective. It breaks down into: Attention (being curious), Perspective taking (taking your child’s perspective) and Providing empathy.
We know from the evidence that all these qualities improve parenting. I know this from my own practical experience too, when things get heated at home we get to a better place where we all feel better and they are better behaved. Even when I am really irritated by what is going on, it’s about understanding my children’s point of view, telling them I get where they are coming from and expressing empathy at how they’re feeling.
It’s hard to think what a better person might look like. I'm more aware of my emotional experiences - my internal emotional thermometer - which makes me better to be around. I am less wrapped up in my own life and more able to imagine other people’s perspectives. Overall, it’s made me appreciate everything more.
It is a huge part of my identity now, so being a father is now part of me, like my children are too. Knowing you would do absolutely anything for someone, that you love them totally with an intensity that is different from anything ever experienced before, means everything to me.
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