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This post was co-written with Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.
When we speak to groups of parents, someone will often ask us some version of the question that appears in the title above. Our answer? It’s up to you.
If you weren’t parented well, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good parent. In fact, while parenting is a complex subject to research, there’s one main factor we can point to as a determinant when it comes to how well we’ll raise our kids.
As we explain in our upcoming new book The Whole-Brain Child (Delacorte Press; October 4, 2011) there are many ways you can help your kids be happier, healthier, and more fully themselves. We focus on practical steps you can take right away to make an immediate difference in their behavior, in your relationship with them, and in who they become.
Now we want to take a few minutes and talk about the most important parenting step you can take within yourself. When it comes down to it, the number-one factor in how well a person parents isn’t about how much effort they put into being consistent, kind, or patient, with their children. All of that influences parenting, but what you need to know is actually much simpler (if not easier), and more hopeful.
Research has repeatedly shown that when parents offer repeated, predictable experiences in which they see and sensitively respond to their children’s emotions and needs, their children will thrive—socially, emotionally, relationally, and even academically. And while it’s not exactly a revelation that kids do better when they enjoy strong relationships with their parents, what may surprise you is what produces this kind of parent-child connection. The most important factor when it comes to how you relate with your kids and give them all those advantages, is how well you’ve made sense of your experiences with your own parents.
To understand how this works, we can look at the research of Attachment Science, a branch of Child Psychology. The knowledge we’ve gained from this scientific field over the last few decades has profoundly affected the way we understand parenting and child development, and yet few parents know about it.
Attachment Science: What It Means for You as a Parent
In the 1960s, researchers developed a fascinating and revealing test they began giving children right around their first birthday. Throughout the child’s first year, trained observers made home visits to assess mother-infant interaction on a standardized rating scale. Then, at the end of the year, each mother-infant pair was taken into a room for about twenty minutes for a test known as the “Infant Strange Situation.” It focuses on what happens when babies are separated from their mothers and left in a “strange situation”—either with strangers or alone. By looking at how one-year-olds react when dealing with the stress of watching their mothers leave a room, and how they respond when the mothers return, researchers can learn a great deal about the babies’ attachment system—the way they connect with their primary caregivers, and to what degree they expect that their needs will be met in significant relationships.
Over the thousands of times these studies have been repeated, we’ve learned that the key to the experiment is the reunion phase: how the child greets the returning mother, how easily the child’s distress is relieved, and how quickly the child returns to playing with the toys in the room. (Incidentally, the same experiments have been performed with fathers, with the same general results.)
Researchers who perform the Strange Situation experiment consistently find that about two thirds of the children show what we call a secure attachment. That means they show clear signs of missing their mother while she’s gone, actively greet her when she returns, then settle down quickly and return to their toys and activities once the mother is back in the room. Researchers find that the securely attached children are the ones whose parents can read their children’s cues and consistently meet their needs, particularly when the child requests connection.
The other children, the ones who show a non-secure attachment, fall into one of three groups. The children in the first group demonstrate what’s called an avoidant attachment. They show practically no distress or anger when their mother leaves, and ignore or even avoid her when she returns. As you might suspect, home observations show that the parents seem indifferent to the child’s signals and needs. They meet their child’s physical needs and provide them with toys and activities, but the child’s emotional needs are ignored, leaving the child to learn that this lack of connection means that the relationship holds no real importance for the parent nor a source of soothing for the child. Essentially, these children adapt to this kind of relationship with what’s called behavioral avoidance—they cope with their mother’s lack of attunement by minimizing the response of their attachment system, in effect, acting as if they don’t care whether she is in the room or not.
The second group of insecurely attached children reveals what came to be called ambivalent or anxious attachment. Here the parents show their children neither consistent nurturing nor consistent indifference. Instead, what characterizes the first year of life for these children is parental inconsistency: sometimes attuned, sensitive, and responsive, and at other times not. Still at other times, parents in this grouping can be intrusive, pushing their own emotional state into the interaction and leaving the child’s feelings out of the communication. As a result, relationships in general cause this child great anxiety. In the Strange Situation, for example, the ambivalently attached infant often seems wary or distressed even before the mother leaves. Then, once the mother returns, he remains inconsolable. Instead of returning to the toys as a securely attached child would, he clings to his mother with concern or even desperation. There appears to be a lack of trust in the reliability of the relationship, and as a result, even physical contact with the mother fails to give the child a sense of relief. The ambivalently attached child is afraid to move his attention away from his mother for fear that she might leave again while he’s not looking. Here the attachment system is put on high-alert, maximizing a sense of anxiety around separation.
The most disturbing type of non-secure attachment is disorganized attachment, where a child has trouble with an organized, effective response when the mother returns to the room. The child might appear terrified, then approach the mother, then withdraw, then fall on the floor and cry, then freeze up. The child may even cling to the mother while simultaneously pulling away. Disorganized attachment results when children find their parents severely unattuned, when the parents are frightening, and when the parents themselves are frightened. Unlike the children in the other types of attachment, who develop patterns—secure or insecure—for responding to and dealing with a sensitive, disconnected, or inconsistent caregiver, here the child has trouble coming up with any organized and effective way to cope with distress. Here the infant has had the experience of inner conflict of being with a parent who is a source of terror, and a resolution to this biological paradox is not possible. One circuit says, “Go to the attachment figure to be protected and soothed,” while another simultaneously says, “Get away from the source of terror!” It’s not possible to go toward and away from the same individual, and the attachment adaption collapses into disorganization.
Many of the children who were studied in the initial Infant Strange Situation experiments have been followed over the last quarter-century. Researchers have been intrigued to discover that despite all of the influences and experiences in the lives of the children as they grew up, they remained for the most part in the same attachment categories, even into adulthood. Scientists were also surprised to find that these categories of attachment are not determined by temperament or other genetically influenced measures. Attachment categories are an outcome of experience with a particular caregiver. And one child can have a particular attachment approach that is unique with each caregiver, dependent on the experience with that individual over time. These learned patterns with the primary caregiver also then go on to influence how the child will interact with others—children and teachers—as they move out into the world.
For example, the children securely attached to a primary caregiver generally grew up to enjoy good relationships, be respected by their peers, meet their intellectual potential, and regulate their emotions well. In contrast, children with non-secure attachment lived with a sense of disconnection from others (avoidant attachment), uncertainty (anxious/ambivalent attachment), or severe challenges to their ability to regulate emotion and maintain mutually engaging relationships with others (disorganized attachment). The children with avoidant attachment tended to be seen as rigidly aloof, controlling, and unlikeable. Ambivalently attached kids became adults who lived with a sense of anxiety and insecurity. And those with disorganized attachment zigzagged back and forth between chaos and rigidity, thus encountering severe problems when it came to relating with others and regulating their emotions.
What do these often-repeated studies by attachment researchers show us? Well, again, it’s pretty consistent with what we’d expect: sensitive, attuned parents who are emotionally responsive raise kids who are resilient and emotionally healthy, and who generally grow up to be well-adjusted and happy adults. Of course genetics influence how a child turns out, as does chance. But even as early as a child’s first birthday, it’s extremely clear how much their parents influence their development and perspective on the world—both in childhood and as they become adults.
Creating a Coherent Life Story
What do we do with this knowledge? We know we want to be sensitive and attuned to our children, and to help them grow up with a secure attachment. But what if we, ourselves, grew up with less-than-perfect parents who weren’t the kind of consistent caregivers that produce secure attachment? What if we exhibit some of the characteristics of an avoidant, or ambivalent, or disorganized attachment? Are we doomed to repeat the same patterns?
Attachment Science offers an incredibly hopeful response: “Absolutely not”. Yes, the way we were parented significantly influences the way we view the world and how we come to parent our children. But what’s even more important than the specifics of what happened to us is how we’ve made sense of our own childhood experiences. When we come to make sense of our memories and how the past has influenced us in the present, we become free to construct a new future for ourselves and for how we parent our children. Research is clear: If we make sense of our lives, we free ourselves from the prison of the past.
It all comes down to what we call our life narrative, the story we tell when we look at who we are and how we’ve become the person that we are. Our life narrative determines our feelings about our past, our understanding of why people (like our parents) behaved as they did, and our awareness of the way those events have impacted our development into adulthood.
Our life narrative may limit us in the present, and may also cause us to pass down to our children the same painful legacy that marred our own early days. For instance, imagine that your father had a difficult childhood in which his parents lived in an emotional desert and were cold and distant, leaving him to weather life’s hardships on his own. If they failed to pay attention to him and his emotions, he would be damaged in significant ways. Abuse, of course, would injure him in whole other ways. As a result, he would grow into adulthood wounded and limited in his ability to give you what you need as his child. He might rage, or maybe he would be simply incapable of intimacy and relationship. Then you, as you became an adult and a parent yourself, would be in danger of passing down the same damaging patterns to your own kids. That’s the bad news.
The good news, though—the better-than-good news—is that if you make sense of your experiences and understand your father’s wounded nature, you can break the cycle of inherited non-secure attachment. It may require hard work on your part, possibly even some help from a therapist. You’ll most likely need to deal with implicit memories that are doing their work on you without your realizing it. The process may not be easy. But by understanding your own experiences and learning to tell the story of your childhood, the joys as well as the pain, you can become the kind of parent whose children are securely attached and connected to you in strong and healthy ways.
But what does it mean, specifically, to make sense of our life story? The key is to develop what’s called a “coherent narrative,” where we reflect on and acknowledge both positive and negative aspects of our family experiences, so we can show how these experiences led us to become who we are as adults. For example, a section of a coherent narrative might sound something like this: “My mother was always angry. She loved us, there was never any doubt about that. But her parents had really done a number on her. Her dad worked all the time, and her mother was a closet alcoholic. Mom was the oldest of six kids, so she always felt like she had to be perfect. So she bottled everything up, and her emotions just boiled over anytime something went wrong. My sisters and I usually took the brunt of it, sometimes even physically. I worry that sometimes I let my kids get away with too much, and I think part of that is because I don’t want them to feel that pressure to be perfect.”
Like many of us, this woman obviously had a childhood that was less-than-ideal. But she can talk clearly about it, even finding compassion for her mother, and reflect on what it all means for herself and her children. She can offer specific details about her experience, moving easily from memory to understanding. That’s a coherent narrative.
Many people who are securely attached as adults grew up with parents who, while not being perfect, did a good job most of the time to consistently responding to their children’s needs. But other people are like this woman and achieve what’s called “earned secure attachment,” which means that even though their parents didn’t present them with the kind of childhood that would lead to secure attachment as adults, they overcame this major obstacle by making sense of what they went through.
In contrast, adults who haven’t done the difficult emotional work of developing a coherent narrative and earning secure attachment, are more challenged in specific ways when it comes to telling their life story in a way that makes sense. When asked about their early family life, they may become lost in the details, even getting preoccupied with recent events from their adult life. This is the pattern for a parent of a child with anxious/ambivalent attachment. Or a parent might not be willing or able to recall emotional and relational details at all. This lack of recall of past events and an expressed attitude that relationships are not important in life is the pattern found in parents of children who are avoidantly attached to them. In the most severe cases, a person may have experienced trauma or loss as a child, so clear communication about their past becomes filled with moments of disorientation or disorganization. In many ways, these moments are thought to reveal unresolved trauma and grief as the common pathway in parents who have children with a disorganized attachment.
Without a coherent narrative that gives us a foundation for understanding ourselves and how the past has impacted who we are, we are often quite challenged to be fully present as a parent and remain receptive to who our child is. When we haven’t made sense of the past, we are quite likely to repeat the mistakes of our own parents as we raise our children.
But when we gather the courage to look at and get clear on our own past, and we develop the ability to narrate our own stories in a clear and coherent way, we can begin to heal from our past wounds. In doing so, we prepare ourselves to form a secure attachment with our children, and that solid relationship will be a source of resilience throughout their lives. Research shows that even when parents have to “earn” their security later in life by creating a coherent narrative, they can parent their kids as effectively as those who had more optimal childhoods, and raise children who feel loved and securely attached.
We want to make this point as clearly as possible: Early experience is not fate. By making sense of your past you can free yourself from what might otherwise be a cross-generational legacy of pain and insecure attachment, and instead create an inheritance of nurturance and love for your children.
We hope you can sense our passion as we share with parents everywhere this awe-inspiring message of hope. Dan and Mary Hartzell wrote a book, Parenting from the Inside Out, that focuses on this very message. If you’re interested in delving deeper into the information we’re presenting here, this book is a great place to start.
Even if you experienced an enormous amount of pain, neglect, or chaos as a child, you now have the opportunity to take those experiences and understand them, developing a coherent account of what happened to you. This coherent narrative is the number one predictor of a strong attachment relationship with your children, and more than anything else you can do, it gives them the opportunity to thrive in the different stages of their lives.
So that’s our most heart-felt message to anyone raising kids: Regardless of your upbringing, and whatever happened to you in your past, you can be the loving, sensitive parent you want to be, and raise kids who are happy, successful, and fully themselves. It all starts with reflecting on your experiences and developing a coherent life narrative. Then you can feel confident that you’re ready to create the kind of relationship with your children that promotes integration and well-balanced lives. As a result, you can all more easily survive the daily challenges, and truly thrive.
*Adapted in part from The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.
Go to www.earlymomentsmatter.org to learn about attachment and to get an award-winning toolkit that introduces ways in which parents and caregivers can help their children build secure attachments.
Siegel, D.J., & Bryson, T.P. (2011). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive. New York, NY: Delacorte.
Siegel, D.J., & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. New York, NY: Tarcher.