“Family dysfunction rolls down from generation to generation, like a fire in the woods, taking down everything in its path, until one person in one generation has the courage to turn and face the flames. That person brings peace to their ancestors and spares the children that follow.” ~Terry Real
The appearance of the double pink lines on a positive pregnancy test brings with it much anticipation, excitement and preparation. The new little life brings a clear focus to the future and yet, that clarity is accompanied by an infinite amount of questions and, “What if…” machinations. The truth is, our story of parenting begins much earlier than the creation of a new life within us. Few people begin their parenting journeys with much direct experience, even if they were in charge of younger siblings while growing up, or have had to care for an elderly relative, or were the best and busiest babysitter on the block during their teen years! Our own experiences of being parented have been shown, through research into Attachment Theory*, to have considerable influence on how we ourselves will parent our own children. Yes, looking at our own parents predicts patterns of interaction we will have with our own children. While that news might be met with a positive or neutral response from many first time parents, for many others, that very idea can be mildly disconcerting to downright terrifying!
Now, now, there is no need to lose all hope nor throw up our hands and say, “My children are doomed!” The available research thankfully shows that it is not our childhoods, per se, that influence our parenting, but the meaning we make of those early experiences. Yes, there is some self-reflection work to be done, but if we mindfully do the work, we can change how we parent our kids and learn a bit more about ourselves in the process. Dr. Daniel Siegel, child psychiatrist and author of several excellent books on the brain science of child development, states: the deeper understanding we gain by exploring our early childhood experiences, however difficult they were, gives us the capacity to choose different paths when parenting our own children. Sound familiar? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” ~George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist.
Dr Lisa Firestone, clinical psychologist and author, describes several ways in which our past experience of being parented can create a distressing situation for our children in the absence of this essential self-reflective work on our part. She states that we may engage in imitating our parents’ own harsh reactions to our mistakes when our children make these same mistakes, reacting angrily ourselves instead of responding in such a way that offers grace and openness to problem-solving. This is often done unconsciously. We may also very purposefully overcompensate whereby we may emulate qualities that are the opposite of the ones that led to our unfavorable childhood experiences. For example, to battle against the unpleasant memories of rigidity around food, or not having access to snacks when hungry, or being forced to eat whatever was on our plates, irrespective of taste preferences or fullness, we may take a much more hands-off approach with our own children. This may take form in allowing our children to graze much more at will, conveying a sense of abundance in place of restriction, and being completely non-directional in matters of nutrition. While this may protect us from feeling those same old distressing emotions, we are still reacting to our past rather than thoughtfully parenting our children.
We reason that we do not want to expose our own children to the pain we experienced ourselves in childhood. Our projection of our own emotions and experiences onto our children elicits a response within us that is not actually indicative of what is really happening. It is a reaction to our own past feelings attributed to our children. If we were viewed as selfish for expressing our needs when they conflicted with the needs of other family members, we might then apply this hurtful label to our own child who is simply trying to get his own needs met. In this way, we are reacting to our clouded perceptions of our child’s behavior, coloring it as negative. We are projecting that label onto him; it is not rooted in the reality of the situation. Why is this not an optimal thing to have happen? Because, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” ~Peggy O’Mara, publisher and editor of Mothering Magazine.
An internalization of our parents’ negative perceptions of us from a very young age, if left unresolved, can sabotage our many attempts to go against the parenting “grain” of what we experienced. If we had controlling, intrusive parents with whom we felt powerless to determine our own actions, we might feel powerless to exert healthy limits with our children, because of inner monologues like, “What do I know about being in control? I can’t be a good mother, I’m too weak.” The strong inner critic (“inner bully” might not be too far off the mark here) can make us doubt our actions and not trust our decision-making, which will then be communicated to our children as lack of commitment to keeping a limit held. This, in turn, increases their sense of insecurity and their tendency to push limits knowing we are this close to caving.
This brings us back to the aforementioned Attachment Theory and why it is such an important concept to understand if we are to break the established patterns and behavioral cycles of our parenting– so hang with me here. It’s going to give us a foundation by which we can look at how we were raised, then make conscious choices as to how we may want to change our parenting. Remember, failing to understand our past increases the likelihood of repeating dysfunctional interactional and connection patterns into the next and subsequent generations. So, yes, it’s important! Let’s take a look at Attachment Theory and better understand what happens in our infancy and how it applies to our style of parenting.
Attachment Theory, developed by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby and then expanded by his student Mary Ainsworth, holds that, as infants of a very social species, we are primed to connect to another being to protect and care for us. We do this through behaviors like vocalizing and crying which (hopefully) result in our needs being met, and in the process, gain proximity to our caregivers. Parents heed that call, so to speak. Parents seek to care for and nurture the newborn to ensure her survival. The act of predictably and repeatedly meeting the infant’s needs for food and comfort, with love, sensitivity and warmth, creates an attachment between the newborn and her primary caregiver, usually the mother though it may be the father, grandparent or other caregiver in this vital role. The security and safety afforded by this high-quality attachment creates a sense of well-being within the infant. Needs are being met, everything is hunky dory in the infant’s world. Our loving primary caregiver is the “secure base” or safe haven from which the infant can engage her curiosity about the world around her. She knows the caregiver is there to provide soothing when needed and encouragement on which she can depend.
A secure attachment such as this is characterized by a healthy developmental sequence of attunement, balance and coherence. This means a parent is attuned with her child when the parent “gets” her kid. The child feels understood because the parent is “in-sync” with her child. How does this happen? This occurs through the coordination of non-verbal cues such as facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice and body posture. This process brings about the child’s ability to self-regulate her bodily states, and later, her emotional states and thought processes, thereby achieving internal balance. It is important to see here that the child’s internal zen is completely connected to the external connection from the loving parent. The connection guides the child’s self-soothing/ self-regulating process. This balance paves the way for internal integration or coherence of various emotional, physiological and cognitive aspects which promotes a sense of inner wellbeing, and helps catalyze healthy relationships with others.
So, what happens when this is not the case and the infant does not have this solid foundation? It results in less stable attachment. The defining of less stable attachment styles emerged through the research of Mary Ainsworth, who worked closely with John Bowlby to test his Attachment Theory. They developed the infant-strange situation**, an assessment designed to test the robustness of a child’s attachment to her primary caregiver at around one year to 18 months of age. The results of this test were as such: children who had a secure attachment to their mother cried upon the mother’s leaving but showed relief and were quickly soothed upon her return. Children with an anxious-avoidant attachment conveyed indifference to the parent leaving the room and then returning, but their physiology indicated that they indeed noticed these actions. The anxious-ambivalently attached child sought to reunite quickly with the mother once she returned, but her arrival didn’t bring about soothing and a sense of comfort sufficient to return to play; these children may be clingy and uncertain in their mothers’ calming abilities.
A fourth attachment style, disorganized-disoriented attachment emerged from an expansion of Ainsworth’s research by Mary Main and colleagues. In this style of attachment, a child experiences fear, confusion and chaos upon the mother’s return, responding to her in a disorganized manner. It is most likely to be seen in situations of childhood abuse, neglect and parental addiction, in which the living environment is characterized by lack of predictability, confusion and fear, that is, when the adult caregiver an infant or young child is predisposed to seek out for soothing is the very person causing the violence and from whom the child needs to escape.
“In general, parents who were sensitive to their child’s signals had babies who were securely attached to them. Parents who were neglectful or rejecting tended to have children who were avoidantly attached to them. Parents who were inconsistently available and who may have been intrusive generally had children with an anxious/ambivalent attachment to them.” ~Dr Daniel Siegel
Before we start comparing these four attachment styles to how we were parented, we should acknowledge something pivotal. We cannot reach back into the past and change the way we attached to our primary caregivers. What we do have well within our grasp, is the ability to make sense of our early lives by looking at our relationships with our parents, siblings and other significant people, losses we experienced and any trauma we might have endured. In doing so, we can gain what Dr Siegel calls “an adult security of attachment” that renders us far more likely to create a secure attachment bond with our own children.
Dr Lisa Firestone echoes this concept. She says, “…no matter what distress or even trauma we endured in early life, what matters most is how much we’ve been able to feel the full pain of our childhood and create a coherent narrative of our experience. By processing what happened to us, we are better able to relate to our own kids and provide the nurturance they need.”
So how do we go about taking care of what might seem like a monumental, even terrifying task? Dr Dan Siegel discusses at length the ways in which storytelling can help release us from our pasts. By creating narratives of our own lives and examining them, we can heal our past traumas and fears to create new, meaningful and intentional connections with those we love the most. Dr Siegel speaks about the importance of creating a coherent narrative, one that takes the events from our past, and integrates them with the emotions we experienced and the meaning we derived. In his book, co-authored with Mary Hartzell, Parenting from the Inside Out, he discusses in depth, the process by which we can share the logical, sequential facts of a given upsetting situation, loss or trauma. This linear retelling of the negative event creates a coherent, integrated narrative. This is done by the engagement of both hemispheres of our brain which is a natural byproduct of sharing the story. The actual retelling of the linear narrative engages our “left mode of processing” in the left hemisphere of our brain which then integrates the linear events with the more holistic, emotional and autobiographical components of the narrative defined as “right mode of processing” (which comes from the brain’s right hemisphere). “This bilateral integration (of left and right sides of the brain working together) may be at the core of how we create coherent narratives that emerge when we make sense of our lives. As coherent narratives are the best predictor of a child’s having a secure attachment to us, this bilateral integrative process may be at the heart of a parent’s ability to provide a child with a nurturing environment and a secure base.” ~Dr Daniel Siegel
There are various ideas for addressing our own emotions about parenting. The movements of Conscious Parenting (Dr Shefali Tsabary) and Connection-based Parenting (Patty Wipfler, Dr Laura Markham) suggest similar strategies to Dr Siegel and Mary Hartzell. Dr Shefali Tsabary, in her book The Conscious Parent, dedicates the chapter, Parent from wholeness instead of your wounds, to exploring various painful parent-child dynamics from our pasts that have led us, now, as adults and parents, to engage with our partners and children from a place of wanting, or hurt, or approval-seeking.
Patty Wipfler and Dr Laura Markham encourage us to be far more intentional and thoughtful in how we engage with our little ones. The key tenet is retaining self-awareness and recognizing that our emotions are not being caused by our children, but by triggers that were installed in our earliest years. We have the power to modulate the triggers so that we are not engaging in the same yelling, screaming, punishing and berating behaviors with our children that made us once feel small, scared and insignificant.
Dr Laura Markham calls upon parents to engage in a process of dismantling our triggers, reparenting ourselves with the kindness, grace and self compassion that might not have been available to us when we most needed it as children. How might we be the kind, compassionate and open-hearted being we needed when we were kids? And how do we parent our own kids the way we would have wanted to be parented?
Patty Wipfler recommends developing Listening Partnerships with other parents, exchanging listening time and sharing our honest experiences both of parenting our children, and how this brings up past hurts in the form of triggers. Having had a Listening Partner for probably four or five years now, I can attest to the immense support, grounding and safety that is available in this weekly one hour call.
In all of these strategies, concretizing the storytelling aspect of the healing process is key. Writing in a journal, talking to a partner, close friend or a therapist are all ways in which we can begin developing the narratives of our past experiences in being parented. This clears the path for more optimal, present-moment-focused interactions and much richer, closer, emotional connections with our own children (whatever their age).
Another important aspect of this healing and reckoning is to keep this storytelling activity as an analog process. If you are choosing to write about your experiences to create your coherent narrative, document it the old-fashioned way. Despite the availability of many online platforms for documenting, journaling and blogging, this is one project for which I’d strongly recommend putting pen to paper, journaling in a notebook, rather than typing. Why write in longhand, you may ask, when typing can be so much more time efficient? Research of longhand note taking vs typing in college students shows improved comprehension and greater conceptual mastery of the information in those who wrote longhand notes over those who typed (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014). Additionally, Dr Virginia Berninger’s work on writing systems and learning indicates a greater engagement of the brain in forming the letters and connecting them using handwriting rather than typing. Engaging in other expressive work, such as art, dance, movement and music can be a powerful adjunct to the process of writing to bring about healing.
If it all gets too overwhelming or discouraging going it alone or even in partnership with someone, such as a Listening Partnership, healing can also be assisted by seeking professional help, and in this case I do not mean hiring a super-nanny! Examining this emotional baggage within the safe space of a therapy office gives an opportunity for deeper explorations into the beliefs we carry about ourselves that were installed in childhood. We can identify the specific ways in which those beliefs caused us to feel hurt and powerless in the past, and how, once triggered, causes us to act in a self-protective manner with those around us, especially our children and partners. Through the process of narrative work and cognitive restructuring we can examine the words once said to us or behaviors we experienced which led to these layers of defensiveness. Re-examining our experiences permits us to finally understand that unloving acts (intentional or unintentional) on the parts of our parents, whether occasional or frequent, didn’t happen because we were unlovable. They happened, most likely, as a result of tour parents’ own unexamined histories. We cannot undo the past hurts, but we can dismantle the cognitive, emotional and behavioral armor that cling to us into the present day that cloud relationships we share with our children.
The good news is this: resolution of these dynamics can finally allow us to engage with our children joyfully with an authenticity of connection that is unhindered by our past experiences. We can be the parents we want to be, not the parents who we were programmed to be. It is well worth the journey.
* Attachment Theory: A theory that states a strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver is critical to personal development. John Bowlby first coined the term as a result of his studies involving the developmental psychology of children from various backgrounds.
**The Infant-Strange Situation: The study which observed and defined attachment styles in 12-18 month old children. The laboratory was set up as a playroom with a one-way mirror by which recording of the interactions can occurred. The child was brought in by her mother or other caregiver, who spent time getting the child accustomed to the toys in the room. Shortly thereafter, a stranger entered and took a seat, perusing a magazine. The mother then left, and the stranger engaged and comforted the child. The child’s behavior upon return of the mother, the ease with which she was soothed and her ability to return to play were the primary factors of interest to the researcher. In the second part of the experiment, the mother and the stranger both leave the room briefly, for a period of up to three minutes, and once again, the child’s response to the mother upon reuniting is observed.
References and further reading ideas:
Ainsworth, Mary, et al (1978) Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation.
Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development.
Firestone, Lisa, PhD (2015) 7 Ways Your Childhood Affects How You’ll Parent https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201507/7-ways-your-childhood-affects-how-youll-parent
Main, Mary (1995) Attachment: Overview, with Implications for Clinical Work. Found in “Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives”
Markham, Laura PhD (2012) Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to stop yelling and start connecting
Mueller, Pam, and Oppenheimer, Daniel (2014) The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.
Siegel, Daniel M.D. and Hartzell, Mary, M.Ed (2003) Parenting from the Inside Out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive.
Tsabary, Shefali PhD (2010) The Conscious Parent: transforming ourselves, empowering our children.
Wipfler, Patty on Listening Partnerships https://www.handinhandparenting.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Listening_Partnerships_for_Parents1.pdf
Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and drinking tea!