Generally, consistent, caring, committed parenting creates secure attachment in children who become adults with secure attachment styles. Inconsistent parenting creates anxious attachment in children who may grow up to be adults with preoccupied attachment styles. Absent or rejecting parents create children with avoidant attachment styles who may be dismissive as adults. Punitive parenting creates disorganized attachment in children and adults. The adult attachment style is predictive of parenting style. The secure adult does not take the child’s behavior personally and can provide a safe base for a child to develop trust. The dismissive parent is not necessarily one who pushes the child away, but one who cannot attune to the child’s pain, in part, because they cannot acknowledge their own. The preoccupied parent takes the child’s behavior personally. The disorganized parent is unpredictable and does not contribute to secure attachment nor to moving a traumatized child toward it.
Now, you say, “But my childhood’s over and I can’t go back and redo it.” It kind of feels hopeless especially if our own attachment style so influences our parenting. What this requires, then, is an exploration of our childhood and its effects on our relationships and functioning. This process of looking at our past and bringing up old experiences and feelings can be difficult and painful. Each of us has buttons, things that bug us or trigger a strong emotional reaction.
The adoptive mother of Donald and Harold described a sometimes angry but loving father and a nurturing but sometimes permissive mother. Her parents live with her and she has several siblings. She can describe the ups and downs of her life, the achievements and losses, with both pride and sorrow. Her story makes sense. So, when Donald refused chores and Harold had tantrums, she was stressed, but she called in her support system, reached out for help, and kept her sense of humor. Her secure attachment allowed her to stay up nights with fighting, screaming boys, seeing it as a sign of their trauma and staying close and connected until they began to feel safe with her.
In contrast, the mother of a ten year old boy, adopted weeks after birth, hid in the bathroom or drove away from the home when her son came knocking and demanding that she help him with chores or make him food. This anxious child grew more anxious, and his mother could not understand why his behavior continued. She is a loving mother. She described an authoritarian father who demanded perfection in her chores. Asked what she did when her father checked on her work she said, “I kept my head low. I did my chores and stayed out of his sight.” So, when her boy wanted her attention, she did not hear her son, she heard her father. And, when she was able to acknowledge that old trigger, she was able to train herself to stay with her son in his distress, to play with him even if she wanted to escape his fear of losing her and her approval.
One adoptive couple, about to parent an anxious boy and an avoidant girl, came for a first appointment. The mother-to-be had questions about furnishing the bedrooms. When asked about her childhood, she said, “It was happy. I don’t remember much before the age of six. It was happy.” Her husband looked at her, puzzled, “Honey, don’t you remember that you got diabetes early and spent a lot of time in the hospital? And, that your dad was kind of mean.” “Oh, I forgot that,” she answered. The father-to-be, on the other hand, described a difficult childhood with alcoholic parents who almost divorced when he was 12 then sobered up for his adolescence. He had been to some therapy and had made peace with his parents. He had developed “earned security”. However, the mother’s dismissive attachment style led the family to put counseling on the back burner for their two new children going through another traumatic move. Processing pain was not a priority.
Ned came in repeating, “I’m happy. Just happy,” with a painful smile on his face. Talking about his trauma was too threatening, and broaching the subject led him to bang his head on the wall and wail until it stopped. It took him years to be able to recall witnessing his parents fighting and his mother leaving never to return. His adoptive mother had her own abusive past. She had cut her own parents out of her life, endured a painful divorce, but had gone on to raise fairly healthy children. However, for this mother, Ned’s daily verbal assaults and devious behavior became personal. She often “lost it” with Ned and blamed his behavior for making her life miserable. He was trying to keep caring adults at a distance for fear of more rejection, and for this mother, it worked.
Traumatized children find these buttons pretty quickly and begin pushing them to get a response. The thing is, they did not put the buttons there, our parents did. We often walk around unaware of why we have instinctive responses to perceived negative stimuli. This kind of personality style does not just affect our parenting but other relationships; with spouses, friends, and bosses. So, it’s worth the kind of introspection that Daniel Siegel, M.D. invites in his book, Parenting From the Inside Out. The work of introspection which requires bringing to consciousness unconscious feelings and motivations is part of the process of becoming a more powerful parent.