This is the first of a series we have titled “Concepts and Skills of Parenting.” It is adapted from the book Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust and Love.
Before you were born, you were floating warmly, comfortably and securely in your mother’s womb. You were snug, safe and content. You basked in the biochemical messages that you are loved, wanted, and all is well.
Then suddenly, one day, you were thrust into a world of bright lights, loud noises and unfamiliar smells. Adding insult to injury, you were abruptly poked and prodded. This was scary stuff — until finally, and with great relief, you were reunited with the familiar heartbeat and soothing voice you’d come to know. You were held in loving arms, able to relax into adoring gazes and smiles. You could snuggle into the splendor of a soft, warm breast and its life-giving nurturance.
Soon, your sensitive and responsive caregivers learned which of your cries meant, “I’m hungry,” “I’m uncomfortable,” or “Pick me up.” You and your caregivers were in sync — and very quickly, you learned you could have the power to have an impact on your surroundings.
You experienced that your needs would be met, an you learned with patience and the ability to manage your impulses and feelings. You learned to trust caregivers to be reliable, to trust that the world could be safe and good, and to trust that you could feel good about yourself. The connections in your brain developed and expanded. You developed confidence, and over time, became independent, resilient, optimistic and compassionate toward others.
Throughout your childhood and adolescence, you were continually on a journey toward becoming a responsible person, a good friend, a loving spouse and an affectionate parent.
Now imagine a different world and a different start in life
In this scenario, we also go back to the time to before you were born. In this world, you received messages of ambivalence about your value — or you were flatly unwanted. You overcame your mother’s stress hormones, anxiety, depression and fear. Her poor diet, drinking, smoking and drug use assaulted you. Every time she took a drag on a cigarette, your tiny heart raced, and you struggled with a flood of carbon dioxide, which cut off life-giving, oxygenated blood. You bathed in a noxious soup of more than 2,000 toxic chemicals, including nicotine and by-products such as arsenic, cyanide, and formaldehyde. You were developing in a state of chronic anxiety.
After experiencing the trauma of birth, you were not held or reassured — and you weren’t comforted much as you got older, either. Your cries of protest were ignored or met with anger. You soon became discouraged and withdrawn into a state of despair and hopelessness. You quickly learned that your caregivers were unresponsive, unsafe and could not be trusted.
Because you were not properly regulated by soothing and calming attention, you didn’t learn how to self-regulate impulses and feelings. You lacked confidence in your ability to make an impact on others. It was easy for you to become closed off and disconnected. With little to no experience of emotional connection, it was also easy for you to become selfish and incapable of intimacy and closeness. You develop a cynical view of humankind, seeing others as untrustworthy. You believe your needs are unmet and that you must be “bad.” Later, you become unwilling to play by society’s rules or to see the value in helping others. You feel like a victim of life — and you blame others for that and take no personal responsibility.
You haven’t received the experiences necessary to correctly “wire” your brain. You lag behind developmentally, cannot handle stress and anxiety and become depressed or violent. Fear of abandonment is a force that ruins your life. You are distant and controlling to hide your vulnerability. Anger and argumentativeness cover your fear. You become pseudo independent and lack resilience, empathy and compassion. You become a neglectful and abusive spouse and parent, perpetuating the cycle of maltreatment and emotional disconnection with the next generation.
Secure versus compromised attachment
The anecdotes above illustrate the differences between starting life with secure versus compromised attachment. When we refer to wounded children, we are describing those who lacked safe, secure and loving attachments in the early part of life. Instead, those children experienced neglect, abuse, abandonment and other attachment disruptions.
Disrupted and compromised attachment is more common than many people realize. Numerous studies in the United States and in other countries have found that about 33 percent of children in middle-class families are insecurely attached (Levy and Orlans, 1998). As many as 82 percent of children develop severe attachment disorders in high-risk families, whose dynamics includes parental depression and substance abuse, unresolved psychological problems, abuse and neglect and multiple moves and caregivers (Hesse et al 2003; Lyons-Ruth and Jacobvitz 1999).
When you have a cut, your body forms scar tissue, which toughens and thickens the flesh to provide a protective shell around the injury. Emotional wounds heal in much the same way. If we have an emotional injury, we harden our hearts, become more callous toward others and withdraw into protective armor. This strategy is designed to protect us from the original perpetrator and from all others who could potentially hurt us (Maltz 19960) — but this leads to a lifetime of compromised attachment, which is basically a condition of emotional detachment. When a child perceives others as unsafe, she will keep away. She is controlling and pushes others away as a defense — to survive.
The “cure” to emotional wounds is instead connection; helping a child learn to trust, to be emotionally vulnerable and to really connect with another human being in a safe and satisfying way.
That’s where the role of healing parents comes in. Healing parents are therapeutic parents. They provide the correct blend of ingredients to promote emotional, mental, social and moral growth. They create opportunities for their children to heal wounds from the past and develop positively in the future.
Focus on establishing secure attachment
Sensitivity and responsiveness to children’s needs leads to the development of trust and the ability to internalize the wishes and values of caregivers. Securely attached children are motivated by the desire to please, to put a smile on Mom and Dad’s face, to be just like them. They learn quickly from consequences. Without adequate nurturing and protection early in life, children do not develop trust or the motivation to please caregivers. They take pleasure in defying rules and don’t care about receiving parental disapproval. Punishment doesn’t work because they believe they deserve harsh treatment (“I’m not worthwhile or lovable,” they tell themselves.). They make the same mistakes time and again — and their parents often respond by being punitive, giving in or giving up.
We, however, are going to focus on establishing secure attachment — which also means that parents and caregivers must be attuned to the importance of self-understanding and personal growth in their own lives. As they understand more about themselves and evolve as people, they are in a much better position to help a child recover and succeed in life. Generally speaking, parenting is tough and requires parents to be stable and mature. After all, children will “push your buttons,” test your coping abilities and make you question your competency. To be a healing parent, you must be able to “look in the mirror,” take stock of your own life, know your emotional triggers, seek healthy relationships and plenty of support, and pursue personal growth and well-being.