Parenting with the brain in mind

Through this webinar from PBS’s This Emotional Life — featuring Daniel J. Siegel, MD, of the Mindsight Institute, moderated by Kathryn Power, M.Ed, of SAMSHA — we learn how the quality of parent-child attachment impacts your child’s:

  • Brain development
  • Ability to form healthy relationships
  • Resiliency throughout life.

We also learn how the incredible importance that we, as parents, must work to become more aware of our own attachment with our parents in order to become more connected with our own children. It is our self-understanding that allows us to be more sensitive and connected to our children.

Check out more videos on API’s YouTube channel

Editor’s pick: Teen cluster suicides begs the question of parenting goals

Effie2 (2)I’ve come to realize that there is one fundamental question in which the answer is the foundation of our parenting approach. It defines how we, parents, raise our kids.

That question is: How do you define success and happiness?

Think about it…

Attachment Parenting International strives to educate and support parents in raising secure, joyful and empathic children in order to strengthen families and create a more compassionate world. Investing in our children’s well-being will lead the way to their bright futures.

Our society has high expectations for our kids and puts enormous pressure on them to excel in everything they do, to achieve more and do more. With this aim, mainstream culture has forgotten to honor who children truly are. Moreover, our society tends to neglect to recognize and appreciate what children need in order to thrive as sprouting human beings. With the ultimate goals of “excellence” and achievement, some parents have been overlooking the value of socialization, choice and perhaps even sanity.

In recent years, the community of Palo Alto, California, USA, has been shaken by clusters of teenage suicides. In this wealthy and privileged environment, teenagers end their own lives at 4 to 5 times the national average. Journalist Hanna Rosin investigated what makes adolescents in this community feel so helpless and hopeless. Her reflective, detailed analysis published in December in The Atlantic following interviews with teenagers, families, educators and clinicians is eye-opening and noteworthy. Palo Alto highlights the growing trend of focus on high performance and academics, along with the subsequent pressures and stresses on kids.

It’s easy to get tangled up in societal norms and pressures and get lost at sea — simply swimming, like a school of fish, following one another, without hesitation or any real sense of direction. There are times when we need to pause, evaluate where we are and where we need to go, and find the path that will lead us in that direction.

Rosin’s article is among other reports that has now prompted the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, according to ABC News, to investigate the troubling cluster suicides in Palo Alto. Hopefully their findings will lead to some answers and possible solutions.

As a parent of a child who will be heading to high school in a few short years, I was saddened to learn in this Psychology Today post that the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s. Yet it is comforting to know that children who experience secure attachment grow into more well-adjusted adults with less anxiety and better mental health. Meeting children’s emotional needs enables the building of a strong bond and trust between the parent and the child — a beneficial ingredient during the vulnerable years of adolescence.

Mental health and suicide are multifaceted issues that can be attributed to various factors. It’s a complex puzzle. Unreasonable academic pressures may be one piece of the puzzle, as Rosin pointed out in her article — and it is one that can be easily replaced.

We need to ask ourselves and examine candidly:

  • Should our children’s self-worth be tied to academic achievements?
  • Are our kids showing signs of being victims of physical or online bullying? Due fear 70% of teens hide online behavior from parents
  • Aren’t success and happiness — along with health, of course — essentially what parents want and wish for their kids?
  • Are we on the right path in our efforts to cultivate success and happiness in our children?
  • How can we support our children in order to create a more compassionate world?

My dark first weeks of motherhood

julia hargerI can hardly believe I survived all the chaos of early new motherhood. At the beginning, I didn’t think I would — at least not with my sanity intact.

For nine months, I mentally prepared to share my life unconditionally with a new being. I also did my best to get ready for one of the most anticipated — and what I thought would be the hardest — moments of my life: labor. Looking back, the physical pain from delivering a baby feels insignificant compared to the hardship of early motherhood, especially the first 6 weeks.

I wondered what I could have done to be better prepared for early motherhood with my first baby. But nothing can really prepare you for this.

Editor’s note: Adjusting to parenthood can be challenging, and the emotions of early motherhood can be difficult to navigate. In-person support is especially critical. Attachment Parenting International (API) encourages all mothers to consider hiring a doula, to be in frequent contact with a breastfeeding specialist and to connect with their local API Leaders and API Support Groups. Additional considerations for a smooth transition to new parenthood are included in the first of API’s Eight Principles of Parenting: Prepare for Pregnancy, Childbirth and Parenting.

For the first weeks, I wondered what would happen to me. I am certain I am not alone here, moms. Not even all I have learned from yoga in the past years were very helpful, I must admit. The beginning of motherhood was a time when I felt completely taken up by my emotions.

I became moody due to the lack of sleep. I felt pain from my body healing itself. I cried when she cried. I thought “Not again!” when, after 10 minutes from falling asleep, I heard that tiny cry all over again. I found myself stripped of any patience, way beyond what I imagined. Indeed, I thought “What did I get myself into?”

I skipped showers because of lack of time. I looked really bad. I had my legs hairy all summer, and I had to get used to my new body. I cried out of frustration, “I don’t know what you want!”

There were days when my face did not manifest a single smile. I hated my husband, because he could do anything whenever he wanted — shower, sleep, go for a jog — while I had to plan a whole schedule just to brush my teeth, or do it in 10 seconds. I also resented the fact that he could get back to his normal life straight away, and I was stuck at home.

I felt this extreme guilt of not responding properly to what everyone expected of me as a mother or what I idealized of myself as a mother: that, at the time I held the baby for the first time, a magic would happen and my own needs and desires would simply vanish…that I would be complete and happy straight away, only for being a mom…as if this dark part of questioning, frustrations and pains simply don’t exist.

But slowly, the rewards came. As the days went by, I started to feel happier with tiny feats: when she smiled, when she stopped crying, when she finally slept. I was so thrilled when we could go through a diaper change without a single tear, or when I could put her in the stroller and go for a 10-minute walk to pick up some groceries. I was deeply grateful when my sweet and calm words could soothe her, even if she was screaming her lungs out and could barely hear me.

I also rediscovered joy in the most trivial things: drinking water, having a shower, a tight hug, a quick chat with a friend, sleeping, my mom cooking for me, my daughter’s smile, her smell. I love and value these things so much more now!

Oh motherhood! The contrast between devoutness and empowerment at the same time! My vulnerabilities gave way to strength and resilience as I realized I was capable of all this. I did not know my body was capable of producing something to nourish her so perfectly. My embrace, my arms and my words can transform the loudest scream into a timid smile. My smell, hinting she is safe, changes her face completely.

And, all of a sudden, me again! A couple of weeks ago, I wondered how quickly this phase would pass, but now I hope it does not go so fast. I am anxiously aware that this dependency will someday be gone, and I will miss the time when all she needed was me.

A reason why new parenthood can be hard for fathers, and couples — and what to do about it

A secure mother-infant bond is fundamental to a child’s well-being. Discoveries in the field of neurobiology confirm that a secure mother-infant bond depends on many factors:

  • A natural birth
  • Breastfeeding
  • Near-constant physical contact through carrying infants in-arms or in slings
  • Cosleeping
  • The recognition that babies are social beings who thrive on loving connections.

Of course this is what Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, discovered and many indigenous cultures have always known.

Now, put this together with the fact that most everyone in the Western world born since the 1930s has been subjected to modern child-rearing practices that interfere with secure attachment:

  • High-intervention birth
  • Artificial baby food
  • Pushed about in wheeled carriers rather than carried on the body in slings
  • Left to “cry it out”
  • Left to sleep alone.

Now, here is the piece of the puzzle that many people practicing — and advocating — Attachment Parenting are not aware of: These little boys grow up to be men looking for the mother they never connected with. - agastechegTime comes they believe they have found her, marry her and everything’s looking fine…until baby comes along. Suddenly baby takes center stage, consuming enormous amounts of the mother’s time and energy. He finds his needs are now largely ignored.

Feeling rejected, he is likely to withdraw, get resentful, act out, or turn to substance or process addictions to cope with the pain. The primal fears of abandonment that are wired into his brain as a result of his own unmet infancy needs have been restimulated — big time!

Meanwhile his partner may be blossoming, her needs being met like never before through her physical and emotional connection with their baby. A man can never experience the intimacy born of carrying a baby in the womb or breastfeeding. And in the early months, it can be hard for him to accept the fact that baby is more interested in mom, than in him — no matter how hard he “tries.”

She has no idea what is going on with her man, and no time to tend to him — especially as he is “acting out” in whatever way he may be doing that. Ironically, the better the mother is able to nurture her child, the more likely he will re-experience his childhood wounding because he sees even more of what he didn’t get.

Neither partner has a clue what is going on.

It’s not too difficult to understand then, why a man will leave, disappear — either physically or emotionally.

Much of what is understood in Attachment Parenting circles with respect to “attachment” is the vital importance of infants and children for connection. What is generally not understood is — as John Bowlby, the father of Attachment Theory recognized — the equally primal need of adults for connection. Neurobiology confirms it feels literally devastating on a core level to have that connection threatened.

How Many Couples Experience This?

mohamed riffathMany people are surprised to learn that in the United States, an estimated 14% of men suffer postpartum depression. During the 3- to 6-month postpartum period, the rate increases to 26%. Factors researchers have identified as leading to male postpartum depression include dad feeling burdened at the prospect of caring for a child, burdened with the financial responsibility, and missing — or essentially feeling abandoned by — their wives.

It’s the latter point that is core. And there may be plenty for a new dad to feel rejected, abandoned or jealous about. On top of the attention and affection baby gets — that he formerly got — there’s the attention his partner is getting as the new mom, and the baby’s having near exclusive rights to his wife’s breasts.

At the same time they are feeling deprived of quality time — or any time — with their partner, most new dads at some time feel scared: frightened that they feel helpless, frustrated even angry when the baby won’t stop crying, frightened they’re going to repeat the mistakes made by their own father. Sleep deprived, they can’t think straight.

Of course, the new mother faces many of these issues, too, but men — especially at this time — are expected to “be strong.” On top of that, men are expected to know what to do.

None of this is to say it’s harder for dads than for moms, but that it’s hard for dads, too.

Depressed, men are likely to be irritable and aggressive. And when dads appear this way, most women will turn their focus even more toward their child. Many will be feeling they have “another baby” to take care of.

While some people argue male postpartum depression is due to the father’s feeling displaced — a “needy, greedy child” — what is not factored into the “needy, greedy” diagnosis is the attachment perspective that recognizes that our need for connection, as adults as well as children, is primal.

As a man feels himself to be not only incompetent and superfluous but also rejected and abandoned, he distances himself from home and family. It’s not that he doesn’t care, but the practicalities of “being there” are just too difficult. Many give up and leave — emotionally, if not physically.

What Can Expectant Couples Do?

There is so much we can do. It does not need to be said that being parents today is a hugely demanding endeavor that, more often than not, puts unanticipated stresses on a marriage. The more prepared a couple can be, the smoother and more joyful the transition can be:

  1. Being informed about the dynamic is in itself huge. Recognize that having a baby almost inevitably puts a couple’s relationship at risk. No one can assume, “It won’t happen to us.” I would surely have been guilty of believing that.
  2. Recognize that fathers, too, have very legitimate and distinct concerns and needs that need to be addressed at pregnancy, birth and postpartum.
  3. Recognize becoming a parent as an opportunity to heal the wounds of your own childhood. While this may be a lifelong journey, it begins with awareness and small steps. So ideally prior to conception, parents can reflect on their our own birth and childhood to identify unresolved issues that may be re-stimulated. While parents pore over books and DVDs, and attend parenting classes to learn how to care for their child, this crucial area is rarely addressed.
  4. Recognize the significance of Attachment Theory to adult love. Recognize that adults crave and thrive on connection just as infants and children do. Reframe dad’s selfishness or immature neediness as re-stimulated unmet childhood needs for connection. And don’t rely on each other exclusively to meet those needs.
  5. Prepare for the postpartum period prior to the birth of a baby. Organize support — physical and emotional. Don’t try to go it alone.
  6. Promote an awareness of the need for local community as well as social, economic and political policies and practices that support families — and dads. In Norway, promoting men’s early involvement with infants and children is seen as a potential tool for reducing domestic and other violence.

Researchers have identified depression as often being the result of a dad being disabled as an involved parent, with the most depressed dads having wives who are “over-involved” with their baby.

And while a growing number of men want to be more involved in caring for their children, mothers often unwittingly discourage their partner’s involvement. I found this fascinating, and I have seen it again and again, now that I am aware of it.

What Can Couples Do Once Baby Arrives?

the-sepia-version-of-the-baby-1523574Men who feel supported by their wives in finding their own way of doing things are less prone to depression and develop a strong connection with their infants. We tend to overlook the fact that competency of fathering, as with mothering, is learned through the day-to-day, hands-on care of a child. This is perhaps truer today than every before, as so many of us have had very little to do with caring for the very young — unlike a generation or two ago. Yet, fathers typically spend almost no time alone with their babies — not because they don’t want to, but because it’s virtually impossible for a working dad, as most dads are.

Dads need to be encouraged and supported in being key players in pregnancy and birth, and their different styles but equally significant roles as parents needs to be acknowledged — by their partners but also by society.

I strongly urge couples who find they are floundering to get support — sooner rather than later. Don’t try to do this alone. Seek the support of a wise and seasoned person, a counselor or therapist.

With a whole-hearted commitment to their partnership and family, to a strong focus on working as a team, and on appreciating and supporting each other in loving and learning, a tremendous amount of energy is generated that serves both the individuals, the marriage — and the children.

Attachment Parenting is Making a Difference

merynI imagine that many of you begin Attachment Parenting like I did, so full of enthusiasm. And that’s wonderful. But this needs to be tempered with the realities that we are not continuum children. We do not live in a continuum culture. I see so many parents beating themselves up, because they feel they are not good enough moms or dads. I would like them not to be so hard on themselves. It’s not good for them, nor for their children. Self-acceptance and compassion for themselves in this time of huge transition is to the good of all — without exception.

I believe that everyone who is practicing Attachment Parenting to whatever degree they can, is making a difference. It’s a huge shift from the way past generations were raised — and we are really paving the way for our children, and the generations to come.

Peace coverRead the full interview with this author on Attachment Parenting International‘s “Nurturing Peace” issue of The Attached Family.








*Second photo source: Free Riffath