Insightfulness in Parenting: A Vital Practice
In preparing for the monthly attachment-based parenting group I facilitate here in Istanbul, Turkey, I was brought face-to-face with some very difficult realities: the impact of my own childhood on my adult life. Since becoming a parent almost 7 years ago, I have been forced to face the impact of some of my childhood experiences and consider how my own attachment relationships, developed through the unique relationships with my mother and father, play out in my adult relationships and inform the relationship with my own children. While I would not describe my childhood as one characterized by trauma, there were experiences that were negatively impactful - perhaps, perceived as traumatic – to my younger self: experiences that left me feeling insecure, misunderstood, and invalidated. And it is these feelings and unconscious memories that are triggered during difficult times with my children. It has taken a tremendous amount of work to understand how these factors play out in my everyday experiences and to prevent a repeat of behaviors that left me feeling alone as a child, and somewhat broken as a young adult.
As you may guess, our topic for this month’s group was just this: how reflecting on and making sense of a person’s life can positively impact the ability to manage difficult situations with your child. In this psychoeducational meeting, I encouraged caregivers to reflect on the experiences of their early lives, and how they continue to play out in their adult lives. We considered the attachment-styles we have adopted as children and continue to guide our behaviors as adults, specifically in the role of parent. We considered the framing, or ways we interpret our child’s actions, and how it informs our approach to discipline and the very core of our parenting approach. And we discussed the role that inherited or trans/intergenerational trauma plays in our ability to parent.
The Effect of Insight on Parenting Behavior
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed. in their book, Parenting from the Inside Out, define insight as ““Recognizing the [conscious or unconscious] factors that influence our parenting choices.” These factors consist of leftover and unresolved issues from our childhood that unconsciously impact our present-day behaviors, such as our response to our children during difficult parenting situations. As demonstrated in this graphic, this includes our framing of the situation (our actual thoughts and way of thinking), somatic and emotional response to the trigger, any biological traits including temperament and mental health issues, environmental conditions at play, and the attachment style we developed from our relationship with our own caregiver and carried with us throughout our lives.
Research conducted and then published in 2018 on the effect of insightfulness on parental behavior found that awareness has a profound impact on a parent’s ability to understand the inner world of their child, accept the child for who they are, understand their child as a separate being, and be able to focus on the child’s agenda. In terms of behavior, parents who are insightful treat their children with more respect, empathy, and kindness, viewing discipline from a mentoring/guiding approach rather than a top-down model that relies on rewards and punishments to influence behavior. Insightful parents are considerate of allowing their children the space to safely explore, take risks, and make mistakes, thereby protecting against intrusive, or helicopter-style, parenting. Insightful parents are aware of their own needs and desires which may conflict with those of their child, and are able to support their child as a unique and separate individual through coaching as well as by providing appropriate learning materials and experiences. Aware parents are understanding of a child’s maturity and developmental readiness, and able to separate that from their own - sometimes, unrealistic - expectations and desires for their child. In short, parents who use insight in their parenting are sensitive to and supportive of a child’s needs and allow them the space to become their own person which serves to strengthen the natural attachment relationship forming between parent and child.
Our Attachment Styles
In their new book, The Power of Showing Up, Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryon, Ph.D. demonstrate how our attachment styles impact our ability to respond to our child’s difficult behaviors in an intentional way. For those who developed a secure attachment to a caregiver in childhood, that sense of safety and security, and confidence in oneself transmits to relationships formed in adulthood, including the parent-child relationship. Parenting from a place of confidence, recreating the nurturing connection that a caregiver gave a person in childhood places that person at a significant advantage for cultivating a secure relationship with their own child. Those who formed another attachment in childhood may have difficulties cultivating a secure attachment with their own children unless they have built awareness of their own attachment style and the unresolved and leftover issues from childhood that may have impacted the development of that attachment (such as in abuse or neglect by a caregiver). In the process of increasing awareness and understanding of these past experiences and a person’s attachment style, the person may be able to change the pattern of attachment playing out in their present relationships. It is possible to have developed an avoidant/ambivalent (or even disorganized) attachment in childhood, but through work develop a predominantly secure attachment in adulthood. This is the power of insight and personal awareness. The graphic below highlights how a parent's own attachment style and corresponding parenting tendencies are received by her/his child. Without insight, an anxious, ambivalent, or disorganized attachment style may be passed onto a child through the parent's own interactions (both parent-initiated dialogue, as well as the way of responding to the child).
Our Early Experiences
How we experience the world is influenced by our attachment relationship with our parents. For a securely attached child, the world is safe and people can be trusted; as a result, that child may develop confidence by having navigated a challenging experience, or, by processing the difficulty encountered and preparing oneself for a similar experience in the future. This is what is meant by resilience. An insecurely attached child, by virtue of viewing the world through a lens of fear and uncertainty, may not be able to successful navigate difficulties or learn from them. This can affect the child’s confidence and lead to an entrenchment of views that the world is scary and unpredictable. Any developmental issues, conditions which impact learning, as well as mental illness and trauma can also be impactful and resonate in our present. For example, a child who was not able to learn ways to manage her impulses, anxiety, or anger; a child with dyslexia or other learning disability that was not addressed early on; or a child who experienced a trauma which was not processed and resolved: all may carry the impact of these experiences into their adulthood and parenting. As a parent, it is essential that we understand what baggage we carry into our parenting relationship, the present conditions that trigger conscious or unconscious memories of those experiences, and embark on a process of healing so that we do not act from a place of reaction, but rather from a place of intention.
Lastly, in our attempt to deepen our self-awareness, it is important to consider any trauma that may have been passed down through the generations. This new area of research called transgenerational, intergenerational, or inherited trauma refers to trauma that occurred in previous generations but continues to impact the current generation. According to the article How Intergenerational Trauma Impacts Families, the impact of these experiences can be “passed down through a multitude of factors, including epigenetic processes that increase vulnerability to various mental disorders, repeated patterns of abusive or neglectful behavior, poor parent-child relationships, negative beliefs about parenting, personality disorders, substance abuse, family violence, sexual abuse, and unhealthy behavior patterns and attitudes.” The epigenetics factor is a new area of study which demonstrates that genes present at birth can be activated or remain dormant depending on one’s experience, and that a trauma that occurred generations prior to pass along the effect of that trauma through activated genes. One example being how the genes of a survivor of a time when food was scarce changed in order to more efficiently process nutrients: in a person deprived of food, this can prove to save his/her life; however, if that same gene expression is passed on to future generations, it can lead to obesity in eating normal amounts of food. A similar example can be drawn from a person living in a time of war; hypervigilance can serve useful, but when the same gene expression is passed on to future generations it can result in chronic anxiety.
Breaking an Unhealthy Cycle
As parents, we have the power to disrupt the cycle of abuse or neglect that has plagued our families. The first step in healing these unhealthy patterns is to become aware of the factors at play that affect our behavior and, consequently, our relationship with our children. These factors include: our own attachment relationship with our parents or primary caregivers; the quality and amount of early nurturing, as well as neglectful or abusive experiences; any biological factors present, including developmental conditions, mental illness, and personality traits; and, the presence of any transgenerational trauma. You can begin to build awareness by critically reflecting on your behavior in challenging parenting situations.
You can start with this brief exercise. Ask yourself: do you place blame or judgment on yourself, catastrophize the situation, enter a rigid/inflexible mindset in response, have developmentally inappropriate expectations, and/or do you take your child’s behavior too personally? Are your emotional responses (and accompanying physiological responses) too intense - and incongruent - to the situations? If any of this resonates with you, then you likely have some unresolved and/or leftover issues which need further exploration and processing. You can engage in this journey by allowing adequate time for self-reflection through journaling or art, or participating in dialogue via a support/educational group. Depending on the severity of your responses, you may find it necessary to seek the support of a mental health professional to guide you in this journey. Whatever path you take, understand that seeing a problem is the first step to addressing it. By reading this article, you have taken an important first step in breaking an unhealthy cycle of trauma, towards raising secure, confident, and resilient children who will pass along these psychological characteristics to your future generations.