How the concept of parental “holding space” might transform our parenting methods

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One of the key concepts in object relations/ attachment theory is one called “Holding Space”.  This little concept is perhaps a foundational concept in understanding the theory.  And since this theory is one based upon the experience of being human, the implications of it are significant to know not just in our heads, but to connect with them in our instinctual experience.  I’m sad to say that our current culture tends to move us away from this basic concept. But talk to most wise parents and they’ll tell you the same thing that this theory states.  It’s nice when theory can actually come and substantiate what we know to be true in our bones.

The term “holding space” (in this case used as a noun rather than a verb) is used to label the physical and emotional space within which each of us “come to be”.  It’s the space that all of us humans need in order to do the necessary and messy process of growing, exploring, learning, and becoming.  We need this, of course, because we are not born fully organized; that is, our brains and bodies, as capable and ready as they are, are not yet in a position of full independent functioning.  Nature has therefore provided us with the necessary support and resources that will allow us to figure all that out.  That support and resource is caregivers.  Aduts.  Whose brains and bodies have gone through the process of growth needed to sustain themselves and then to also sustain those who depend on them.

In the science realm we might say that when an immature nervous system is brought into this world, that nervous system is evolutionarily designed to depend on a mature nervous system.

It’s kind of a cool set up if you think about it.

The emotional and physical space created by the mature nervous system, those whole brained adults, is quite literally EVERYTHING for the developing brain.  In the earliest years that holding space is quite literally THE WORLD to those little guys. Eventually they will internalize that concept into themselves and use it as the pathway from which they begin to organize their concept of the bigger world around them.

On an emotional level, this holding space is the space where kiddos learn to self regulate their emotions, hunger sensations, impulses, and more.  It is the place where they develop empathy, compassion, and altruism.  And it’s not done through verbal education, lectures, or specific skill training.  Nope.  It’s taught completely experientially in the process of relationship, love, safety, and security.

One simple way of understanding holding space is to swap out the word relationship.  Yes, RELATIONSHIP.  In attachment theory, relationship– not  money, the best schools, or all those other pressures we put on parents these days– is the greatest predictor of security later in life.  Relationship.

So when we’re trying to get it right in parenting the best thing to do is stop and connect.  That holding space is pivotal. In fact it may be accurate to say that without that safe and connected holding space all other efforts in parenting will be futile.

Here’s another pretty intuitive and therefore genius concept of the holding space: kids (well, all of us actually) are designed to grow.  No one needs to tell us to do so.  If the conditions are correct we just do it.  Those conditions: that’s the holding space.  So all this pressure to teach kids the right values and to be productive and successful?  Lame.  Doesn’t even do much in the long run.  If we hold space, kids just grow.  Their teeth grow, their emotions grow, their internal motivation to succeed grows.  Brilliant design feature in my opinion.

Kinda changes the way you look at parenting, eh?

Kids need to learn math?  Step one: relationship.  Then math.

Kids need to eat all their Broccoli?  Step one: relationship.  Then Broccoli.

Kids still won’t eat their broccoli and it’s ruining your relationship?  Throw out the flipping broccoli then.  Broccoli alone has never created secure kids.

Many critics state that this might be likened to indulgent parenting.  I want to be clear on this one.  Indulgent parenting is not creating a holding space. The balance of creating a holding space means holding the boundaries with love while at the same time letting go of what just isn’t needed.

So, lets throw out a few things.

First: That whole idea of perfect parenting.  It’ll just stress you out and make your ability to create holding spaces more difficult.  Get rid of it.

Second: The idea that kids learn only when we make the opposite of what we want them to be painful (aka punishment).  Let’s just be open to the idea that this concept is not AS accurate as we might have thought.

And finally Third: Let’s throw out anything that just doesn’t matter.  Is pushing broccoli causing undue stress?  Does letting go of broccoli lead to eminate death?  Let it go, then. Find a different pathway.

Are there things worth causing a rift in relationship?  Absolutely.  But let’s be open to the notion that things just don’t need to be painful.  Not all the time.