Thank goodness for defenses. While we sometimes view defenses in an adversarial way (“We’ve got to tear down those defenses!”), they actually exist for very good reasons. Their job is to protect us from vulnerability that would be too much for us to bear (in general, or in that moment). And, also, there is a kernel of truth in viewing defenses as something that need to go, in that we all need a place where it feels safe enough to soften our defenses, a place where our hearts can be open and we can rest from the work of protecting ourselves.
For our kids, we can only hope that this place–the place where they can put down their defensive shields and feel tender feelings such as disappointment, grief, caring and hope–is with us. If we imagine defenses as a shield, there will be many places where our kids need to “shield up”–maybe at school or aftercare or maybe on the baseball field or the school dance. Just like us, they can’t go everywhere with their hearts on their sleeves. As long as they have places where they can lean their shield against the wall and leave it for a while, things are okay. Maybe that place–the place where the shield comes down– is at their grandma’s kitchen table, maybe it is with us on the drive home from school or maybe it is when they talk on the phone with their uncle.
Where things get dicey is when there is no place where the shield can come down. When the shield is needed 24/7, it grows into permanent armor. When a child or teen is armored, development stalls out and maturation suffers. We need our tenderness, our vulnerable feelings, to grow and mature.
When a child is peer oriented (the bulk of their attachment energy is going towards peers), they can often become armored. When a teen spends their afternoons and evenings on social media, they often become armored. When we spend most of our time with them trying to manage their behavior, they often become armored. When our kids become armored, we need to notice and step in.
Even the noticing can be hard to do. We’re so used to armor these days that it can appear “normal.” While it may be normal (meaning that it is currently the norm), it is anything but natural or healthy. Ironically, the armor can often be better “seen” by noticing what is missing: does my child show tender feelings, such as caring, concern, embarrassment, guilt and alarm present? Is my child moved to care for younger kids, pets or the elderly? Does my child cry or feel sad? If we are not seeing evidence of vulnerability in our child, there is armor there.
What can we do if our child has become armored? Well, the good news is that defenses are reversible and can be softened. They soften in the steady presence of love and patience. They don’t come down in response to force. Remember that idea of “tearing down those defenses” mentioned above? Not a good strategy. We can take our cue from the Aesop’s fable The North Wind and The Sun*, where it is not the blowing of the wind, but the sun’s gentle shining that leads to the traveler peel off his coats (defenses). Can we, as parents, be like the sun? Patient and warm, ever turning our shining love toward our child? If we can they will, in good time, take off their armor and rest with us for a while.
*The moral of the story (from the Library of Congress edition of the fable): Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.