Intuitive parenting

Most parents know what a stranded tourist would feel like: lost, alone and without a phrasebook in the middle of a foreign country. A language barrier also looms between you and your kids. Why is my baby crying? What does it mean when my infant grizzles like that? Why is my toddler flipping out into a full-blown tantrum and what can I do about it? Why is my teenager rolling her eyes at me, locking herself in her room for hours — and how can I help?

Helpless, confused, frustrated, not knowing what to do — these are all regular stops on the journey of parenting. This is despite today’s parents having access to a bewildering and unprecedented array of scientific information about child development. The problem is there is so much to sift through it can be overwhelming. To make matters worse, sometimes we are given conflicting information.

Have you noticed that experts are often at loggerheads, polarised into opposing camps? So, although it is valid and important to have a gander at what the experts advise, how do you avoid giving your power over to them? How much inner wisdom is each parent equipped with and how can you use your own intuition to weigh up and filter the advice you are given?

You’ve been there

You were once an unborn child, then a helpless infant, a babbling baby, an uncontainable toddler, a child and then … an adolescent with all the angst and smugness that a deluge of hormones can bring on. Not so long ago, you sounded, behaved and felt a lot like your child does now. You actually know a lot more about how your child feels than you might be consciously aware of — and this understanding can be the master key to your effectiveness.

All parents have parenting intuition; there’s nothing magical about it. It’s just a case of knowing how to hear its voice inside you and is as simple as learning to listen to the voice of your heart. But can you trust that voice? Doesn’t our culture tell us over and over not to let the heart lead? Don’t we prize rationality and efficiency over the mushy, gooey quagmire of the world of feeling?

Could it be that intuition and the voice of the heart are romantic confabulations, the stuff of fairy tales? Probably not: modern science has rescued intuition from the realm of sentimentality and located its biological base.

Your heart is a brain

In every culture around the word, people point to the centre of their chest when they talk about love. Have you ever felt a warm glow, a melting feeling, some tingling or buzzy sensations in the centre of your chest when you are filled with love for your child, or for any other person? Do you know why that happens?

In a revolutionary discovery that’s sure to transform how we understand ourselves, it was recently found that the human heart is far more than a muscle that pumps blood around. The heart contains at least 40,000 of its own brain cells, much like the ones in your head. Just like the “head-brain”, this “heart-brain” makes its own brain chemicals in copious amounts, one of the main ones being oxytocin, the hormone of love.

When neuroscientists have looked at the connections that join the head-brain and the heart-brain, they have found that more information travels upwards; in other words, the heart is wired up to tell the head how to think.

The heart rules the head

Biologically speaking, the heart rules the head and it always has, much as we have long feared to admit to ourselves. Even inside the head-brain, the emotions seem to run the show. The emotional centres of the human brain (limbic brain) make decisions much faster than the rational, logical part of the brain (frontal lobes), so quickly, in fact, that this tends to happen subconsciously. The emotional brain then tells the rational brain, a more lumbering thinker, how to reason. There are far more neural connections flowing from the limbic brain to the frontal lobes than the reverse. So, when you think you are being purely rational, this is an illusion. The more you come to terms with the primacy of emotional intelligence, the more this will open you up to a new world of intuitive sensing, releasing you from a life of cold and analytic calculation.

How is this important for parents? Working out what your children need in order to thrive is definitely not simply a matter of knowing the right information about child development and having an armoury of clever techniques (the controlled cry, the naughty stool, the gold star reward charts, the 1–2–3 magic and so on). A deep and joy-filled connection with your children — the kind of connection that allows you to be a positive influence in their lives — rests on your ability to relate to their innermost feelings, to see more deeply than their surface behaviour.

This kind of connection is far more powerful, influential and enriching than authoritarian behaviour-control and it has something to do with your willingness to hear your intuition, the voice of the heart.

What is intuition?

More than a thinker, you are a feeler, a sensor. Though you may not be consciously aware of this, your body remembers everything you felt as a child, as a baby and even as an unborn baby. The amygdala is a part of the brain that organises emotional memory and it’s fully functional by the third trimester in the womb. Even though most people have no conscious recall of their lives before about three years of age, your body remembers all your feelings since before you were born.

Your emotional memory — what many people call your “inner child” — is actually your most important source of parenting wisdom. Your body has retained the knowledge of what you most needed when you cried just like your baby cries today, or how you wished to be treated when you once yelled just like your toddler does. The knowledge of what would have comforted you is buried, but not as deep as you might imagine.

Your brain contains a miraculous set of neurones that comprise the wiring of human empathy. Known as “mirror neurones”, they fire in sympathy with the feelings of people you care about, helping you to feel a little of what others feel. You know more than you realise about how your children feel and what they need long before they can speak. Inside you is all the necessary hardware and circuitry needed for fully fledged intuition.

Your heart-brain and emotional memory centres speak to you in a quiet inner voice and they speak to you through bodily sensations. A pang in the chest might be telling you, for instance, something about emotional hurt, while a knot in your stomach perhaps speaks about anxiety or worry. Although at the core we all share a common emotionality, there is no perfectly universal formula; it’s a case of getting to know how your own body speaks to you about your feelings.

As a parent, it’s useful to know that, because you are organically designed for empathic connection, your body also speaks to you about your child’s inner world. So when you feel lost and hopeless about how to interpret what your little ones are feeling, a good place to start is to pay attention to what your own body is saying to you.

Your heart-voice

Even as a parent, you add your part to a shared social trance; a collective and unwritten contract that agrees to downplay your child’s emotional world. When small babies cry often, they risk being characterised as manipulators, burdens, or “difficult” babies. Everywhere, practitioners and handbooks tell us to leave our babies to cry alone, without comforting, until they cry themselves out, especially if they cry at night. Children are told “it’s nothing”, “don’t be silly”, “get over it”, “cheer up” and so forth, while adults remain embedded in a culture that says no to human emotion.

How, then, do we find the heart-voice again? How do we pick out its sound from the many noisy voices that vie for our attention? When you witness your child experiencing any strong emotion or expressing some need (for example, crying, screaming, acting out angrily), this acts as a trigger: it presses your buttons. Your child’s feelings and behaviours reactivate in your emotional memory systems any similar feelings and behaviours you have experienced throughout your life. Even if you have absolutely no conscious recall, your own childhood experiences are reawakened in the form of a fleeting body memory, a set of sensations and feelings.

In a micro-instant, your nervous system weighs up all you have personally experienced that is similar to what you now see your child going through. Your nervous system examines these vast annals of feeling, the sum-total of your body’s emotional memory, scans what your mirror neurones are telling you about your child and finally distils from all these notes a single, meaningful impulse. Parenting intuition is the motivational signal that offers the most helpful suggestions — should you choose to stop dismissing it and to act on it.

In order to develop your ability to listen to your intuition you need two simple things:

1. Attention

Bring your attention to your throat, heart and guts. Notice any sensations in and around those places. What do these sensations feel like? What do they seem to be saying? Begin a quiet inner dialogue with your body’s felt sense. When you get an idea of what your body-sense might be saying, check back by asking your body: “Is this what you are saying?” When you hit the right message, you will know because the sensation will immediately change; it will become more intense, change in nature or dissolve altogether.

2. Trust

Be willing to validate what your body is telling you and, tentatively, to act on it. The next step is to trust your baby’s or child’s response. Any changes you see in your child’s mood or behaviour will be invaluable feedback about the appropriateness of your response. If what you offer seems wrong for your child, don’t beat yourself up — be willing to adjust and try to offer your child something different.

Your body signal may be telling you what to do or what not to do.

Countless harried mothers have been told by a nurse or doctor that when their baby cries too much they should let their baby cry it out, to train their baby to “self-soothe”. Inside, most mothers’ hearts would beg to differ; they feel profound grief for their babies if they are unable to pick them up and comfort them. I have spoken to many who, having ignored their own intuition and followed this advice, suffer great remorse for years afterwards. On the other hand, parents who listen to their hearts and remain a consistent holding presence for their babies tend to have calmer babies and more self-assured children in the long run.

Your own wisdom

The more you practise connecting to how you once felt as a child, the stronger your intuition will be.

Access your parenting intuition

Here is a process you can follow, whenever you feel stuck:

  • Think of a troubling and recurrent problem you keep encountering with your child.
  • Ask yourself what was going on around you when you were the same age as your child is now.
  • How did that make you feel at the time? Be sure you recall your own emotions, not what others told you about yourself.
  • If you could have full permission to wish for anything, what do you wish would have been done for you differently? Also, was there anything you really wanted to say or shout or do that you were too afraid to say, shout or do because of threatened consequences?
  • If there are any emotions that come up for you while doing this exercise, give that emotion some expression: write it down, yell it or cry it, speak it out loud, talk about it to someone you trust.
  • Now think about your own child. What do you now think your child needs when this issue arises between you? Did your connection with your childhood memories help you to understand your own child differently?
  • As a parent you need to balance the best information science can bring you with the intuitive signals that spring from your heart. This involves gathering up-to-date information about childhood development and balancing this with an ongoing journey to rediscover the inner child. Your intuition speaks to you constantly via your body, through the voice of the heart. All you need is the willingness to practise listening to and trusting this voice.

    Robin Grille is a Sydney-based psychologist, author and parenting educator. The themes of this article are discussed in greater depth in his book Heart to Heart Parenting (ABC Books). W:

    The WellBeing Team

    The WellBeing Team

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