What happened to us as children is not as important as how we’ve made sense of it as adults. We can’t change our experiences, but when we’re able to step back and view ourselves and our parents with compassion and insight, we form our “life narrative.”
You can form secure attachments with your spouse and children even if you didn’t have secure attachments with your parents.
Even more hopeful, this attachment healing doesn’t need to come from your relationship with a parent. A safe connection with another trustworthy, attuned adult can change your own attachment trajectory. A teacher, extended family member, pastor, or other person who becomes a safe base can make all the difference.
I know a young man who grew up in a profoundly neglectful home. His family history included generations of addiction and abuse. He followed his parents’ footsteps into the world of drug addiction, and like the generations before him, he landed in jail. This was not uncommon for people in his family and came as no big surprise.
While in jail, he reflected on the one stable relationship in his life: the one he shared with his grandparents on his father’s side. They were a consistent, safe presence and his secure base in a tumultuous world. When life at home became unbearable, he moved in with them. When home got better, he moved back in with his parents. This cycle repeated itself many times.
Now, as an older teen, he knew he didn’t want to follow the path of his parents. He wanted a life like his grandparents’. Although they didn’t have a lot of money, there was plenty of food, the utilities weren’t turned off due to lack of payment, and drugs and alcohol were not part of the daily diet.
This young man is an overcomer.
His attachment to his parents was far from secure, but he formed a secure attachment with his grandparents. Over and over they met his needs. They became his secure base.
He is also intentionally creating a different childhood for his younger siblings and, someday, his own children. He desires to meet their needs time and time again, just as his grandparents met his. He plans to be their secure base and is already demonstrating it with his younger brothers.
Just as he is changing the course of his family’s history, we can change the course of ours.
In addition to understanding attachment, we need to be aware of our triggers. Parents often identify their children’s triggers—the things that start a downward behavior spiral. We have triggers too, and sometimes they really get in the way of being the parents we want to be.
If disrespect makes your head feel like it might explode, explore it and be curious about your feelings. What about your child being disrespectful really bothers you? When you reflect on your childhood, do these feelings seem to make sense? Then learn to manage it with healthy coping skills. If you’re adopting or fostering older kids, you can nearly count on a lack of respect.
How about rejection by your child? Are you overly sensitive due to rejection in your own life? Do you find yourself desperate for your child’s acceptance? Or do you turn away because they don’t seem to want your love anyhow?
My child once told me I would never be able to help anyone because I wasn’t a good mom and I couldn’t help her. Her words went straight to my heart, pulling up feelings of failure and inadequacy.
My mind told me it was her pain talking, but my heart felt it deeply. This was a trigger for me. I wanted to back away, shield my heart, and protect myself. But those coping mechanisms don’t lead to connection. Knowing this was a trigger, acknowledging it, and reminding myself of the truth helped me stay present with my child.
There are so many things that can pull us back into our childhood experiences. Our traumas and attachments to our parents or other adults do not have to determine the parents we become. How we make sense of it can make all the difference.
This piece was excerpted from The Connected Parent.
In The Connected Parent, Dr. Purvis offers practical advice and powerful tools to build secure attachment in your family. I demonstrate how I apply these tools in real-life through stories about my family. You’ll gain creative new strategies to add to your parenting toolbox.
May you love your children well and parent them in such a way that they know the steadfast love of God. He is the best Father we could ever have. And remember, you’re a good mom, doing good work.