Healthy Attunement and the Pitfall of Over-Identification
Our ability to attune as parents depends not only on the child, but on his or her stage of development and on the emotional legacy of accurate understanding we received from our own parents. The ability to attune also depends on the personality and temperament of the child and how easy or difficult it is for us to relate to a particular child, given our own individual personality traits and family upbringing. Giving nurturance to a child includes identifying with the infant and later, the developing adolescent, enough to have empathy for their situation in the world and the control they have or do not have over it. It is sometimes easy for us to identify with wounds we had as children that we swear we will not do to our children. However often we can over-identify, and actually be out of attunement with our children, in an attempt to heal personal wounds from our past.
Projecting our own childhood experience is a common pitfall conscientious parents fall into when they have difficulty separating themselves from their own offspring who have not experienced the same childhood wounds. There can exist a subliminal drive to re-experience childhood through our own kids, but this time to have it "right". In an attempt to heal past pain, we may unwittingly project it onto our child’s behavior because it "looks" similar to our pain, though the meaning for the child may be entirely or significantly different. In such cases parenting reactions that originate to answer our childhood pain miss the real needs of the child who stands before us, a completely different person with a different set of experiences.
Naturally it is the case that we can repeat traumas to our children (such as child abuse) when we are unaware of our own pain. The old adage of "what was good enough for me should be good enough for junior" reflects the attitude in which these painful legacies are past down through generations. By not identifying with what was painful in childhood, we are more likely to repeat the damage. However, as parents are educated to the ways in which this is true and become attuned to their childhood experience, it is often the case that the appropriate healing for the past is projected inappropriately onto the next generation in an unsuccessful attempt at healing.
For Example: A 35 year old mother complained about her four year old child’s persistent tantrums. Sally was a stay-at-home Mom who spent most of the first 2 years at home caring for Elia, and had put him in very part-time daycare in the last 2 years. Though he spent plenty of time with her, he seemed extremely unhappy to be separated from her, though he played very well and happily once she left. Elia would not let her leave him without major distress and had difficulty sleeping at night, crying profusely to have her stay with him in his room. No amount of being with him or attempts at soothing activities or objects satisfied him or caused him any greater ability to fall asleep on his own. Sally and her husband were desperate for sleep and to answer their child’s needs. Yet no matter what they did to comfort him before bedtime, he screamed and cried relentlessly for one of them to sleep with him each night.
Sally had experienced very little emotional attunement to her needs as a child, particularly around getting appropriate help and support from her parents. She had been left to fend for herself in many ways, including being given money to go out and buy herself a wardrobe at age 10. She was told that she was indeed loved, but both of her parents worked outside the home full time once she began school, and did not have time to attend to her needs, particularly with the "trouble" her brother was causing them. Her mother left her cakes and other sweets to show her affection, and Sally ended up battling bulimia in her later adult life, partially an expression of the anger she could not express directly in her role of "good girl" in the family at the time. She resented being forced into independence at such an early age, and felt sadness and anger at not having received more guidance as a child. Instead, she had been lost in the role of the "good" child, while her parents spent most of their energies dealing with her older brother who earned himself the role of "trouble maker". Sally had worked through these feelings with her mother to a great extent, and enjoyed a positive relationship with her as an adult. Still it was hard for Sally to observe the way in which she had projected her own unmet childhood needs onto her son.
Sally and her husband Sam finally sought some brief term counseling for their son, frightened that he was in some distress that was not resolving. Following a thorough evaluation, their counselor assured them that their son was actually quite independent and capable when he was at preschool. He had no trouble traveling a distance to the bathroom facilities by himself. He could be with friends or play by himself with ease. Elia was clearly not in distress of abandonment! Sally came to understand that she had projected her own intense fears regarding any distress that her son might have, to such an extent that he had learned a pattern of getting what he wanted by increasing his demands, which indeed became distressful as his parents were unable to assure him that he in fact would be just fine in his own bed. He had somehow internalized the idea that he should never be left by his mother, or left alone at night. Though most of his development progressed smoothly, transitions involving separation became highly charged between mother and son.
Throughout Elia’s life it had been difficult for Sally to differentiate normal stress from distress when the two of them separated. Naturally, this became more problematic as her son grew older and needs for dependency and developing independency clashed. Both mother and son were caught in confusing normal, healthy separation with abandonment. Elia’s father, who was not in a primary caretaking role and had his own abandonment issues, was not able to intervene effectively to break the pattern of over responsivity that Sally showed Elia at these times, and it had grown into a viscous cycle; a virtual battle of wills with enough drama to wrench the heart of any parent. But within a short time, when her son learned his parents would not respond to his demands because he really was ok, he was able to sleep peacefully by himself, and the extreme tantrums upon separation diminished.
Attunement to Elia, who had not suffered forced independence too early, meant a genuinely confident and realistic expectation that he would be able to soothe himself and fall asleep on his own. Elia needed his parents to guide him in this way, but it had been difficult for Sally and Sam to separate normal stress of inevitable separations from Sally’s fears, based on her own consistently unmet needs as a child. With the guidance of a counselor she did answer her own need for reassurance which she could then pass onto her son with confidence. The realignment of the couple relationship was also helpful, as both parents learned and bonded from the experience of helping their son enjoy more independence. It left more room for couples’ relating. And Sally learned to rely on Sam to help her sort through her feelings as a parent, while Sam learned that he had much more to offer as a vital part of the parenting team!