We each form a blueprint when we are babies for how we relate to other people. The security of the emotional bond that we form with our primary caregiver(s) in our first 12 – 18 months of life profoundly affects the way we approach relationships into adulthood. Kids who feel secure in their attachment with their parents/caregivers are likely to feel free to explore and be autonomous, both as children and as they grow up. Children who didn’t feel as secure in their relationship with their caregiver(s) may struggle to trust that people will stick around, be loving and kind, or value them for who they are.
These patterns in relationship usually follow us in to adulthood and play out in our relationships. For parents, these patterns can come up in confusing and unexpected ways. Imagine having grown up with a mom who was critical and rejecting when you tried to be independent. Acting autonomously becomes a fearful thing that you associate with potential abandonment. This may sound extreme but to a child the connection with their primary caregiver is supremely important, a matter of survival, and as such finding ways to maintain the connection with the caregiver is of the utmost importance.
Now you find yourself parenting your own child, vaguely aware that you may have some “issues” with assertiveness or maintaining your independence while in relationships. Below your conscious awareness is a belief that if you assert your feelings and needs to the people you are close to, they might abandon you. Your daughter starts to push boundaries, as all kids do, and you are shocked by how anxious this makes you. It’s not that hard, you tell yourself, I need to set limits with her. But when it comes time to say no, you don’t feel like the one who’s in charge. You’re unconsciously afraid that if you are assertive and set limits, your daughter will abandon you. I know, that sounds severe. Of course, she won’t abandon you. She loves you and needs you. But fear is driving this belief, not rationality. This dynamic gives your daughter too much power and threatens your security, as well as hers.
The terms “shark music” and “ghosts in the nursery” have been given to this stirring up of our own attachment wounds in parenting. I think the term shark music (imagine the Jaws theme song) effectively captures the emotional hijacking that can happen when we find ourselves face to face with these fears. You are left wondering why you aren’t able to manage our emotions more consistently. You have no idea that your inability to effectively set boundaries with your daughter isn’t a matter of needing a new parenting technique, it’s a matter of your belief system around setting boundaries and the fears that it brings up.
The really hopeful news is that we can change our programming when it comes to attachment and relationships. We can bring these patterns into our awareness and work to not let them have so much power, especially in our parenting roles. The ability to be reflective and make sense of our own childhood story is an important predictor of our ability to make positive changes. Awareness is the first step. Having the courage to start to make difficult changes in your behavior is the next. As I’ve discussed in a previous blog, our brains have the capacity to grow new neurons and make new connections throughout our lives (not just into our teenage years as was previous thought). These new connections translate into new behavior patterns and possibilities. It’s called Neuroplasticity and its great news!
Research shows that if you did not have a secure attachment to your caregiver as a child, you can learn to form secure attachments in your adult relationships. It even has a name – earned secure. This describes a person who has had a difficult childhood and yet has found a way to make sense of it as part of their life story. One’s ability to form a coherent narrative of their lives (not necessarily accurate) is a strong predictor of how well one can learn to form secure attachments after difficult events in childhood. They have usually had a person, such as a teacher or relative, who has given them a positive (and secure) experience of a caregiving relationship that can serve as a new template for future relationships. The best predictor of a child’s attachment security is their parent’s attachment security – whether earned or from childhood. This means that by doing your own healing you are more likely to have securely attached children, even if your childhood was challenging. Healing can help quiet the shark music, allowing you to experience more joy and connection as parents.
Andrew Bednarzik, MA, LPC, specializes in new dads, transition into adulthood and men's issues.