Healthy attunement or 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, although 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 true 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 passed down through generations. By not identifying what
was painful to us in childhood, we are more likely to repeat the damage.
However, as parents become attuned to their childhood experience, they
often try to heal their own early developmental wounds in ways that
are inappropriate for their children.
....Whether we seek professional help
along the way or not, most of us have come across these times in parenting
where we identify our unmet childhood needs in the cries of our children.
Getting help to sort things out with a spouse, a friend, a relative,
or a professional means you are answering your need to reach out and
depend on others. The following questions can help you reflect on the
role your own projection of childhood pain may have in a situation,
and assist you in sorting out what you believe is healthy attunement
to your child, rather than a wish or desire to heal your own "inner
1. In the present situation, do I feel overly charged about how my child
2. Does it remind me of anything particularly painful that happened
to me as a child? If so, is my child experiencing the same intensity
of this feeling as I did in childhood?
3. Do my child's previous experiences in this area equal the deprivation
or pain of my childhood experiences at the same age? Or is it milder
or not comparable? Do I know the range of what is normal distress in
this situation or am I confused by the reminder of my own pain?
4. What is the meaning of this experience to my child and what does
he or she need?
5. How is my child's experience different than mine? How is it similar?
Be sure to include an assessment of your child's particular temperament
compared to your own, in answering this question.
Contrasting previous experiences of your
child to yourself at that age, the availability of support experienced
as a child compared to your child in the present situation, and the
particular meaning the event has for your child can help you sort through
your past, finding the most accurate attunement to your child.
As research on patterns of child abuse
bears out, parents are less prone towards repeating abuse when they
have become aware of their own past hurt. But we must go beyond simply
identifying our childhood pain to be truly attuned to our children.
When we respond to children as if they bear our own scars we fail to
see them in their own right. The child's needs can become distorted,
leaving him or her vulnerable to misattunement. Finding a neutral path,
one that is not reactive but truly thoughtful and aware, is sometimes
the hardest one to walk......
Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist
specializing in prenatal and family development. She
trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model
and is the author of An
Easier Childbirth, Birthing
Normally and her latest book, Making
Healthy Families. Her articles on family
relationships appear in professional journals and
she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such
as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting.
. She also serves on the
advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.
Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.
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