Although we strive to do our best for our children, parenting is not easy, and every attempt at parenting is worthy of respect.
It cannot be stated enough that paradoxically, in order to be attached, our child has to be a separate individual. Consequently, there is always a dynamic of tension between how attached they are and how separate they are. This is exacerbated in adolescence, where the need for individuation, separation, and autonomy becomes more prominent and where the brain development starts to create the opportunity for introspection and for the comparison of abstractions. Thus, the sense of needing to have a comfortable view of one’s own self in relationship to others becomes a developmental need. In the face of this, our children need a secure base in order to practice autonomy. Our family can be, and often is, that secure base.
All of us have attachment needs, and each one’s attachment needs compete with the attachment needs of others. As we attempt to meet our attachment needs we move together and move apart. Over the lifespan we change our behaviour to meet our developing attachment needs.
Although we may seek balance in our relationships, as our children and we attempt to meet our attachment needs the attachment seesaw fluctuates between the urge to attach and the urge to separate. The conflict between the urges guarantees there will always be pain in our attachments, along with the joy.
ATTACHMENT & THE DEVELOPING BRAIN
We build the neural structure of our brains that we use as we relate with others, from our earliest experiences through the process of attachment.
Templates for our rules of attachment are encoded in memory that is outside of our conscious awareness. These rules shaping our perceptions and determining our attachment behaviour may keep us stuck in old patterns of relating and make it difficult for us to develop new relational behaviours.
Fortunately, the neuro-plasticity of our flexible, ever-growing brains provides the possibility of new neural circuitry to overcome maladaptive attachment memories. The practice of Interactive Mindfulness aids us in bringing our attachment behaviour into the present, where we are able to make new choices and adapt and grow from them.
The neuroscience of attachment has extraordinary implications for parenting, which we will explore further.
For the most part our particular pattern of parenting is unconscious and automatic, and emerges from our own experiences of being parented. Unless we become mindful of our parenting interactions with our children, reflex behaviour, referred to by Bargh as automaticity, guarantees the transfer of the parenting patterns we have acquired from our parents, to our own children, since, in reality, parenting skills are not deliberately taught.
Automaticity can be a useful mechanism for dealing with routine events that don’t have a relational component, ensuring that we don’t have to spend time re-learning and reconsidering everyday tasks. Cleaning the house, attending to morning rituals, and making our way to work are appropriate activities for reflex behaviour. But when we respond to our children in habitual and predictable ways, our attention is predicted from past events and not focused on the present circumstances, which causes our communication to suffer.
When we are mindful we reduce the automaticity that occurs between our children and ourselves. Our attention becomes focused in the present moment. It is conscious and purposeful. At that point in time our pattern of parenting is grounded in attachment.
SITTING IN SILENCE & SITTING IN CONFLICT
‘Sitting in silence’ is a way of saying that often the conflict is such that silence equals respect. When we don’t say anything and remain in proximity to our child, we give them the message that the conflict is tolerable. This allows the space for communication to occur later when trust, safety, and respect have been established.
If we think that when we are sitting in conflict and in silence nothing is happening, we have missed the significance of this shared experience, because sitting in conflict and in silence is a conscious and active piece of behaviour.
Sitting in conflict and in silence, we are focused on being in the moment, while with our child. Words can get in the way of doing that. As we sit in proximity in silence, our respect for our child and their process will become highly visible to them.
The silence indicates that we are being mindful. We connect mindfulness to silence, first of all, by being mindful of self. The silence gives us the room to be mindful of self.
We cannot simply do this intuitively. We need to assert conscious control over what we are doing, because inevitably, if we are not mindful we will try to impose our choices on our child. If we are not mindful of our own process, there is no way to be mindful of theirs.
Despite our best efforts, when we cope with the demands upon us, we cannot have our attachment needs met all of the time, and we cannot meet all of our children’s attachment needs. The title ‘perfect parent’ is not attainable. As Winnicott pointed out, though, as we attempt to compromise and meet whatever needs we can, we are ‘good enough’ parents.
THE JOY OF SEPARATION
There is grief attached when we leave someone or lose him or her through distance, the process of growth, illness, or death. When we experience loss the balance between two steps forward, one step back; the balance between joy and pain; and the balance between connection and separation come into play in a major way.
Sometimes we protest a separation. We may struggle with the idea of our child maturing, exerting their independence, and seeking their own autonomy.
Sometimes we leave a relationship to serve our attachment needs. Sometimes we stay in terribly dysfunctional relationships because we cannot tolerate the idea of being abandoned. The opposite is also true – sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to enter into relationships because we’ve been through the experience of separation through the death of a loved one, or some other end to a relationship, and we don’t want to do it again.
Although painful, a separation when seen through an Interactive Mindfulness lens marks an acceptance and a celebration of a life process.
We separate at the beginning and at the end of life. We were conjoined with our mother, and then set adrift in the first separation, and then opposite to that, when our mother leaves us by dying, we will sever that cord and feel that loss.
When we are mindful of attachment in the experience of loss, we are able to view life as a series of transitions from one developmental phase to the next. Separations are marks of transitions, marks of moving forward. The process exposes us to joy and pain, and the amount of risk we are willing to tolerate.
Withdrawing, separating, growing, and in whatever way leaving another is a healthy process. It acknowledges, “I’m going to go on with my life, you’re going to go on with your life, and I have every faith we will both be okay.”
We may allow ourselves to tolerate the discomfort, as well as celebrate the relationship. That celebration is a celebration of the process of caring about someone and of them caring about us, and continuing with the process of our lives.
We will carry memories of the other with us as we move on to something else.