NB: For ‘parents’ please also read ‘caregiver’, as appropriate.
Our earliest relationships can have a profound and powerful shaping influence over our lives.
As parents we know that our children jolt our world into turning on a whole new axis. From the very moment they appear to us we have that first ‘encounter’ of a relationship with this beautiful and tiny being, which despite their size moves the centre of our universe with all sorts of impacts. How quickly that sets in, and exactly what that feels like can be different for each parent, yet the shifting is profound, often tangible and it’s certainly there.
If what is being built by this relationship for us as parents has the power to shift our world on its axis, surely it also has enormous power in shaping our children’s.
From before birth, and throughout childhood, our children are learning from parents about being-in-relationship through their experiences of relationship. A lot is facilitated in that important parenting relationship, children are dependant upon parents to meet both physical and psychological needs and the state of the relationship is how a child will intuit how those needs are going to be met. How parents provide or not for their children’s psychological needs: to belong, to be delighted-in, to receive comfort when it’s needed, helped to understand their difficult feelings; and, to be supported to grow and explore the world (not an exhaustive list) will be a part of the information about what forms the landscape of the parent-child relationship. Children, particularly in the early years, learn from the day-to-day countless interactions that exist between them and their parents. So it’s in the accumulation of day-to-day interactions, behaviours, attitudes, beliefs and values around relationships that are expressed, permitted or disallowed that patterns emerge. These patterns shape the child’ understanding of what relationship means, and how they are, or are not able, to move around in it: this can be seen as a map of their attachment, made, stretched, compressed, sometimes warped, in that gravity between child and parent.
Over the many decades of research into what’s known as the attachment system, a psychological term for the ways in which we all, humans and mammals, form and maintain key relationships. The evidence has shown that what’s called a secure attachment include a range of relationship capacities to thrive throughout life (empathy, reflectiveness, thoughtfulness, psychological and emotional resilience). Children that gain a secure attachment also grow to, thrive and have more happiness and less anger in their relationships with parents and siblings, are able to turn to their parents for help and solve problems on their own, get along with friends and form lasting relationships, have higher self-esteem, feel confident that most problems have an answer, are able to trust themselves and others, and know how to be kind to those around them.
Having easy access to the psychological capacities that we all learn in our early relationships is going to put us and our children in good health. Such psychological capacities are powerful allies against the personal adversities that sadly befall many of us; equipping us to navigate life pressures – at least in good part – with social and emotional intelligence, thoughtfulness and resilience, and with kindness and compassion. Parenting with an aim to help our children on the path to security is a wonderful and lasting loving gift. Such aims can feel at times overwhelming, especially if we feel we didn’t get much or any help towards security ourselves – it’s not easy for sure and I want to say, welcome to the human club.
However, a difficult past does not determine your future or that of your children. As adults and parents, we have agency and the ability to make positive changes. Sensitive and responsive parenting is a major part of the key to helping our children to secure attachment, what’s also needed is a clear map guiding us to see and understand our children’s real attachment needs, and an understanding of how to meet them.
Parenting interventions like the Circle of Security® can help parents feel equipped to untangle present from the past and illuminate difficult or unclear aspects of their relationships.
By working on ourselves we can help our children to weather the inevitable difficulties and challenges they, our society indeed humanity will face in this century and the next.
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A version of this article was originally published in Apr/May Reconnect Magazine (issue 54)