Saturday, December 3, 2016

Parenting From the Inside Out

Implicit mental models that cast shadows on our own decisions and the stories we tell about our lives can be made explicit through focused self-reflection. We are active shapers of our own construction of reality. (Siegel and Hartzell, Parenting From the Inside Out). 
If you're reading this blog post, you probably want to be a good parent to your young children or perhaps have issues with adult children you'd like to resolve. One way to view these issues is through the lens of attachment theory.

Childhood Attachment
Adult Attachment
Secure
Distress when mother leaves
Greets mother when she returns
Secure
Comfortable in relationships
Able to seek support from partner
      
Avoidant
Does not seek mother when she returns
Focuses on environment
Dismissing
Greater sense of autonomy
Tends to cut self off emotionally from partner
     
Ambivalent/Resistant
Very upset at departure
Explores very little
Preoccupied
Fears rejection from partner
Strong desire to maintain closeness


A child's security of attachment is strongly connected to parents' understanding of their own early life experience. Whether you had good parenting, good enough parenting, or even traumatic parenting, making sense of your childhood can lead to healthy relationships with your children. The universal cure-all in any personal growth approach is to develop nonjudgmental self-awareness -- in this case, mindfulness of your own childhood dynamics and consequent worldview.

Siegel and Hartzell introduced the concept of mind-sight, the ability to perceive the minds of others as well as our own. Resolving issues with your children means mindfulness about your own personality and mind-sight about your child's personality. Research further indicates that intention, when followed by changes in behavior, can change how our brains function. I'm particularly heartened to know this can be done backwards. No matter how old you or your children are, you can re-live your own childhood and your child's, affecting brain chemistry in a way that heals long-held wounds. 

All personality styles have strengths and challenges as parents, whether you had a secure or insecure attachment when growing up. Barbara Whiteside, in "Seeing Your Child" (September 2009 Enneagram Monthly), gave the example of an Enneagram style Three mother who "had a very easy time with her style Seven daughter because they both had assertive energy and enjoyed lots of activity (but) struggled in understanding her style Four daughter. . . ."

Many of you with grown children will believe you could have done a better job as a young parent. However, thinking If only I'd known then what I know now will be wishful thinking unless what you know is based on deep self-reflection about your own personality style along with mind-sight about your child's, especially if very different. This is a potent exercise recommended by Siegel and Hartzell:
  1. Think of an experience from your childhood when your reality was denied. How did you feel?
  2. Think of a time when you and your child had a different reaction to the same experience. Now try to see the events from your child's point of view.
When my daughter's personality was barely forming, I naively assumed she would be like me. This was long before I learned about the Enneagram, and I had little capability as a young style Nine mother to be present to a style Eight daughter. My poem "Swamp Magic" likens my daughter as a baby to a tadpole, sleeping face-down with knees bent outward, "still swimming in the amnion," ending with these lines:
What could we talk about?
I was brought up to behave,
bewildered by a frog princess
who could be heard for miles.
A ring-tongued, Mohawked 
Tarot reader, a hefty bike babe,
she teaches me computer skills,
and I accommodate the real.
As do all families, we had good times and bad times over the years, but I tended to forget the bad times and reacted defensively when my daughter's recollections were different from mine. then she decided I'd never see the world through her eyes and we became politely estranged. I labeled this as her problem until I finally dropped my defenses and invited her to join me with a mother/daughter therapist duo. Only then did I develop retrospective mind-sight about my daughter.

Among many insights was accepting the reality of myself as an unaware young mother. I could see I'd shown little of the healthy style Nine mother (I encourage her differences from me and we co-create a playful environment), was mostly average (I see myself as nobody special but see my child as idealized. . . not the actual person), and to some degree unhealthy (She needs my full presence and she doesn't have it). Because of my young self's lack of awareness, my remoteness and blindness to the significant differences between us, I truly did not know who my daughter was.

When we first started therapy together, I knew no words would convince her I could be authentically present to her worldview, and I'd only gain her trust by hearing and acknowledging what her childhood was like for her, not what I wanted it to be. During our second session, she was beginning to accept that maybe I'd changed. Then, in a long phone conversation outside therapy she said, true to her personality style, "It's clear you've worked your ass off, Mom." 

Affirming that both of us had matured significantly, we joked about the Work Your Ass Off School of Coaching, a playfulness long missing from our relationship. I hope my story, and Parenting From the Inside Out, will help you get your own you-know-what in gear.
Making sense of life can free parents from patterns of the past that have imprisoned them in the present. By deepening our ability to understand our own emotional experience, we are better able to relate empathically with our children and promote their self-understanding and healthy development (Siegel & Hartzell, Parenting From the Inside Out).   
Also, see Barbara Whiteside's Enneagram Tips for Parents.

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