Becoming a parent reawakens in us our own experiences of being parented and can evoke both joyful and painful feelings and memories…

By coming to understand our own life course we open ourselves up to fully connecting with our children and promoting their secure attachment.


Having a child changes your life forever. It opens your world to new hopes and dreams, new fears and struggles. At the same time, it can unlock the unfinished business and difficult experiences of our early lives. Becoming a parent reawakens in us our own experiences of being parented and can evoke both joyful and painful feelings and memories.


We all want to be good parents and raise securely attached children. However, how we parent and respond to our children is heavily influenced by our early life experiences. We may not have had a perfect childhood, but through those first relationships we learned about love. Those models and lessons follow us into parenthood, just as they did for our parents before us. As a result of learning these lessons, we each possess great strengths, and weaknesses as well. In spite of this, we are not predestined to recreate the same sort of childhood for our own children that we experienced ourselves.


There are many things that parents can do to improve our parenting, free ourselves from acting upon harmful messages we have received, and help our children be healthy and happy. For example, we can learn about child development so that we are working from a realistic set of beliefs and expectations. We can also learn strategies and skills for interacting with children in positive ways and for handling the challenging issues of childrearing well.


One of the most intriguing findings of over 3 decades of attachment research is that secure attachment in a baby is strongly related to his primary caregivers’ own emotional health. One hallmark of emotional health in parents is the ability to deeply understand themselves and their early life experiences. This ability may not come naturally to some parents, but it is an ability that can be learned and strengthened.


Another hallmark of emotional health in parents is the ability to think about the experiences of their baby. A baby who has a caregiver who is thinking about him as a person with his own thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and who can think about things from his perspective, is more likely to develop a healthy sense of himself.


Learning about the components of optimal parenting and healthy attachment can often evoke sadness. We are faced with the disappointing awareness that our growing up may have included experiences that were not in our best interest. At the same time, we may feel guilty about how we have interacted with our own children as we learn more about what children need.


It is important to understand that most of the issues we faced in our own early years are part of a pattern of many generations. We are not responsible for the messages we received. However, those messages shape the way we form attachments, and most often we are unaware of their power. It is by gaining new awareness that things can begin to change. We can’t change the past. But we can start to make changes in what we do now. When we do this, we build upon the foundation of positive events from our past and join that with new ways of being that enhance our ability to form healthy attachments.


As we know, our brain is built upon experience. (See Basics.) The human connections we make create the neural connections in our brain. If we had a childhood with high levels of stress, little expression of affection, strained communication, neglect or trauma, our brains developed accordingly, creating a mental map that allowed us to navigate those obstacles. That our brains are able to do this – to design a strategy for what we faced – is remarkable and a testament to our personal strength and our instinct for survival.


Unfortunately, that map is often misguided. While we all share the desired destination of healthy relationships, some of us follow a path that leads us into painful, harmful or distancing ways of relating, thus making the outcome much less than we’d hoped for. These situations require new maps. Thankfully the brain is always open to change. With each new interaction we can restructure our mind and invent better ways of being. The first step is realizing that our old map isn’t working. Having a child often brings us to this awareness.


If you find yourself repeatedly experiencing overwhelming or intense reactions toward your children, it is a sign that your map needs revision. Feeling extremely angry, yelling, high levels of stress or anxiety, noticing discomfort at our babies’ needs, wanting to withdraw: these are all indicators that the feelings and experiences of our childhoods are colouring our current interactions. When we find ourselves unable to examine what our babies really need, when we worry excessively about what others think of our parenting, when we blame our children for our own strong reactions, then we can be sure that we are in the presence of unresolved issues from our past. Thankfully we don’t have to stay stuck here. We can move forward.


To deepen your ability to understand your child and yourself, start drawing up a new map for yourself and your relationships, and build your emotional health, it helps to have someone to talk to who will be able to listen to your thoughts and feelings and to help you to organize them and make sense of them. (Talking about your reactions to your child can often be especially valuable.) This can be done, for example, with a trusted friend. Often, when parents share their experiences and feelings about parenting, they find that they have much in common and can use their shared experiences as a starting place for exploring their feelings at a deeper level than they normally may. Many people find it helpful to explore the unfamiliar territory of their emotions and history with a counsellor or therapist – an objective listener who is on your side, is skilled at helping people reach a deeper understanding of themselves, and does not bring her own agenda or needs into the conversation. In all cases, the freedom to explore our emotional states knowing that we won’t be judged is a very powerful form of support to help us become more healthy adults and more capable parents.


The reward for undertaking the journey of self-understanding is a better relationship with ourselves and with our children. Put simply, when we are able to relate to and nurture ourselves we will be able to do this with our children, too. By coming to understand our own life course we open ourselves up to fully connecting with our children and promoting their secure attachment.


(You can find professional articles and books that describe, support and further the information presented in this paper in our References.)


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