Attachment Trauma - How to Heal From Your Childhood to Parent Your Child with Unconditional Love
Childhood is referred to as a "critical" or "sensitive" period of development. This is because the experiences that children are exposed to at an early age have a significant and lasting impact on their developmental outcomes. Children's early attachment relationships inform their developing sense of self, others, and the world around them.
Children who are raised in secure attachment relationships with their significant caregivers:
experience consistent validation, nurturance, and unconditional love (i.e., their survival needs are met);
feel seen, heard, and known for who they are - no matter what they do;
feel comfortable exploring their environments, knowing that they have caregivers to return to if they sense danger or need help;
learn how to acknowledge, accept, and manage all parts of themselves without judgment (e.g., their thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges);
know who they are as separate from others and can effectively express themselves (e.g., values, morals, ethics, desires, boundaries, and needs);
feel confident as they navigate their world by relying on their intuition;
can exercise emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, and interpersonal effectiveness - which all contribute to resilience and success.
Many children are not raised in these ideal circumstances and their attachment needs are inconsistently met or unmet altogether. Some common causes of attachment trauma include:
physical, sexual, physical, verbal, or emotional abuse;
divorce in the family;
parental mental illness;
parental substance abuse;
death of a parent.
When children are raised in invalidating environments, their significant caregivers convey to them (directly or indirectly) that their emotions are unreasonable, irrational, or too much to handle and should not be felt or expressed. Parents may respond to emotions by dismissing them ("stop crying, there is nothing to be scared of"), mocking them ("there she goes, crying as usual"), reacting to them ("I can't handle all your noise, I'm about to lose it"), or punishing them ("go to your room until you're done"). While parents make it clear that emotions are not acceptable, they often don't teach children the skills they need to regulate because they often lack these skills themselves. Rather, parents try to control their child's emotions by using force, threats, rewards, or punishments. Children raised in invalidating environments:
do not feel consistently acknowledged, validated, nor loved for all of who they are;
strive to please others, take care of others, maintain harmony, and/or avoid conflict in order to get their need for approval and acceptance met (i.e., their survival response);
derive their sense of self-worth from other people's appraisal of them;
learn to value themselves for what they can do, not who they are (e.g., striving to know more, do more, be better);
learn to tune out their inner thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges - resulting in emotional immaturity;
may appear easy-going and content on the outside, but often struggle with anxiety, fear, guilt, anger, sadness, and/or shame on the inside;
lack a sense of themselves and the capacity to assert their wants, needs, and desires;
lack effective problem-solving and interpersonal skills, often succumbing to peer pressure;
lack effective emotion regulation skills and show signs of emotional immaturity (e.g., reactive, withdrawn, tuned out);
feel self-doubt, powerless, helpless, and/or utterly alone;
are vulnerable to self-harm, suicidal ideation, and alcohol and substance abuse as a means to cope with their emotional pain.
When parents do not put in the work to prioritize their children's needs and maintain secure relationships with them, children end up taking care of their parents' needs instead. As a result, children's voices become muted, their sense of self becomes diminished, and their emotional development becomes compromised. Many children develop a powerful intellect to compensate for their emotional immaturity. They may go through life relying on their intellect and practical side (e.g., rational, logical, insightful, organized, controlled, responsible, diligent), while dismissing their emotional and vulnerable side (e.g., connected, calm, curious, spontaneous, creative, playful, courageous, confident).
Children who grow up in invalidating environments are by no means doomed or destined for poor outcomes. In fact, many people develop highly controlled parts of themselves that not only ensure their survival, but contribute to their professional success (e.,g., perfectionistic, high standards of performance, relentless determination to meet external demands). However, when these adults become parents themselves, they will likely struggle with their unmet needs from childhood and emotional vulnerabilities all over again. Parents who grew up in invalidating households may one day realize:
they feel alone and disconnected from themselves and their child;
they feel unfulfilled and exhausted;
they move through the world in a reactive state (e.g., anxious, overwhelmed, afraid, on edge, withdrawn, tuned out);
they don't have parents to role model after and don't know how to parent their child;
they don't want to repeat the way their parents parented them;
they know how to "do" (i.e., evaluate themselves with the intention to strive and do better);
they struggle to "be" with themselves and/or with their child (i.e., to exist in the moment, with acceptance and compassion, aware of and responsive to emotions and needs);
they struggle with feelings of guilt ("I did something bad"), regret ("I could have, would have, should have done things better"), and shame ("I am bad").
When adults have not resolved their childhood needs and have children of their own, they tend to struggle to meet their children's need for consistent validation, nurturance, and unconditional love. They lack the awareness, skills, and vulnerability needed to show up for themselves and for their their child with consistent presence, patience, and compassion. As a result, these children are vulnerable to experiencing the same invalidation and emotional challenges that their parents did. This is what is meant by repeating an intergenerational cycle of attachment truama.
As human beings, we are all capable and resilient. We can fall down and get back up again. We can feel broken and heal from our pain. But first, we need to acknowledge our struggle and be willing to work through it. If you can relate to parts of this article and want to feel better and do better - for yourself and/or for the sake of your child - know that you can. You can gain new insight and strategies to relate to yourself and your child with more openness, compassion, and acceptance. When it comes to healing childhood wounds, I love this quote:
"We are born in relationship,
we are wounded in relationship,
and we can be healed in relationship"
- Harville Hendrix -
It reminds me that we cannot conquer some of our larger relational struggles on our own. Counselling or therapy is always an option. In the safety and privacy of a confidential therapeutic relationship, you can begin your journey toward healing with someone who is knowledgable, skillful, and trained to support people travelling the path that you are on. When you feel acknowledged, validated, and accepted for how you show up in counselling - you can begin to learn how to hold yourself with gentle compassion and how to relate to your child with unconditional love. Reach out to a counsellor, therapist, or psychologist if you:
are afraid that you are failing your child;
judge yourself harshly for your lack of clarity, skills, or capacity;
react to your child, more than respond to them from a place of calm authority;
lack a sense of clarity, confidence, vigour, and vitality when it comes to parenting;
feel overwhelmed, defeated, lost, and/or discouraged;
believe that you and/or your child deserve better;
want to do better and feel better for yourself and/or your child;
are willing to open up and invite someone into your darkness to support you toward more clarity, connection, presence, compassion, and confidence.
With the right support, you can begin to better understand how you move through your world - mentally, emotionally, and relationally. You can see how you developed certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving - and learn how to experience yourself, others, and the world with a greater sense of awareness, presence, and connection. In counselling or therapy, you can:
understand that you are the result of your upbringing and stop blaming yourself for things that were never your fault;
grieve the loss of your ideal childhood and accept the childhood that you had;
learn how to show up for your childhood self and reclaim abandoned parts of yourself with openness, acceptance, and compassion;
learn how to tune into all parts of yourself with curiosity and nonjudgment (e.g., your body, feelings, thoughts, urges, images, wants, needs);
become more aware of, accepting of, and responsive to what your body is telling you;
develop a more coherent and integrated sense of self;
begin to trust yourself, take risks, and follow your inner wisdom;
learn how to effectively communicate your feelings, wants, and needs to others (e.g., be assertive and set foundations);
cultivate a more expansive, inclusive, and empowered sense of self characterized by presence, patience, clarity, compassion, and acceptance;
parent your child from a place of emotional availability, attunement, and engagement;
tap into your spontaneous, creative, and playful side;
respond to challenges that arise with calm authority and purposeful intention - as opposed to reacting without conscious thought.
Being a child and being a parent are dynamic interpersonal processes that involve other people that you cannot control. In these relationships, we can experience the most profound joy and the most profound pain this world has to offer. If you were not privy to the experience of unconditional love as a child, it was not your fault. Many people who did not grow up with consistent validation, nurturance, and unconditional love struggle with how they relate to themselves, other people, their children, and the world around them. You can develop the self-awareness, understanding, and compassion you need to heal from your pain and feel whole again. As you begin to show up for yourself to meet your unmet childhood needs, you will simultaneously tap into your capacity to parent from a place of calm presence, emotional connectedness, spontaneity, and confidence. Emotional wounds are brutal, isolating, and heart wrenchingly painful. You have what it takes to reflect, heal, and grow from your past toward a brighter future. And you're not expected to do this all on your own. Talk to someone you trust - whether someone personal to you or a professional. You are not alone.
"I am not telling you it's going to be easy,
I'm telling you it's going to be worth it"
- Art Williams -
- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -