What is Shame?

The antithesis of growth in parenting is fear that we are doing something wrong in how we are interacting with, relating to, and guiding our children. Fear stunts our parenting confidence, which in turn can reflect in our relationships with our children. An antidote to this fear that we are not doing enough or doing the right things as a parent is gaining knowledge so we can make informed decisions.

rita brhelAbout the Author

Rita Brhel, BS, CLC, API Leader, is the Executive Editor and Publications Team Coordinator of Attachment Parenting International. She is also a WIC Breastfeeding Counselor and a freelance writer. She lives with her husband and 3 children near Hastings, Nebraska, USA.

Shame is one of those areas of parenting that can bring on anxiety in even the most experienced mothers and fathers among us. What exactly causes our children to feel shame? How can we avoid crossing the line in how we discipline our children so as to not raise them with self-identifying messages of being “bad,” “wrong,” “stupid,” or any other word synonymous with unworthiness. We don’t want to shame our children, and we definitely don’t want our children to grow up with a sense of shame about who they are and what they do.

We know instinctively that a shame-based view of oneself is implicated in a host of mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, as well as self-harm, eating disorders, addictions, other poor coping skills, and even physical illness. We see the effects of emotional trauma through brain scans that show variations in the shape and connectivity of affected socio-emotional and cognitive areas of the brain,  Adverse Childhood Experience studies, heart function and stress hormone level tests, and so much more in the ever-building body of research that communicates that psychology is an essential feature of parenting.

What is Shame?

Shame is basically a moral sense of right versus wrong, gone awry. We all want our children to make wise choices. How we go about teaching them to do so makes the difference between them being able to learn and grow from their less wise decisions while keeping their self-worth intact, or internalizing self-reinforcing judgement that she did not choose the right way.

It’s important to recognize that child temperament is an often underestimated, but powerful, influence in how children internalize the messages we give them through our interactions with them. Some children are innately more sensitive than others and an experience that may not create a lasting impression of shame on one child could very well do so with a more sensitive child.

A complicating factor is, who decides what is right and what is wrong? Moral standards, set by each individual person, is by nature subjective because each person is unique. So by drawing the battle lines between right and wrong based on our own subjective thoughts, and then reprimanding our children for having different thoughts that may not follow exactly in our thought patterns, could be punishing a child for being who he uniquely is.

It is important to set limits on behavior and it is important to instill within our children a sense that there are wise and unwise choices, but how do we do this without also ingraining shame?

Guilt vs Shame

Let’s first understand that shame is a normal human emotion. It naturally appears, alongside guilt, somewhere between ages 4 and 7, and a key sign of its development is that a child develops the ability to lie. Lying is a self-preservation behavior that children try out — and may learn to resort to — to avoid the painful emotions of guilt and shame.

Guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt is another painful emotion, but it arises out of a feeling that one’s actions have violated her own internal values. Shame instead is a sense that one has violated external values, that of his social group, with his way of being.

Guilt and shame can be closely associated, since humans are social beings and therefore our sense of self is deeply connected with our sense of belonging. We want to belong — it is one of the key 6 stages of attachment to others — and therefore the feeling of social rejection can then extend into how we view ourselves. However, while we may feel guilty for hurting another person’s feelings, we feel shame when we feel that inside we are not worthy of another person’s love.

But Just Because Shame is Normal…

Shame may be a normal human emotion to certain social situations, but it can be a very painful emotion. Shame, unchecked, can easily morph into an unhealthy state felt at the very core of who a person perceives herself to be. By its very nature, shame encourages the person to keep what makes him feel ashamed of himself as a secret from others and that only makes the shame grow.

We want to encourage our children to talk about all of their painful emotions. Shame, like joy, has to be expressed. Painful emotions, like shame, especially must be expressed and worked through alongside a supportive parent or partner in order for the affected person to fully process it and incorporate the experience into their personal story — or else, that experience of shame could be “walled off,” instinctively, in the mind to protect the person.

But not being able to access and work through the pain doesn’t keep shame “walled off” and separated from the rest of the being — rather, it grows and begins to act on its own.

The result of unprocessed “normal” shame is a pervasive and persistent feeling of shame at the core, so much so that it begins to define how the person sees herself. This is referred to as “toxic” shame — a pathological feeling of shame that covers the person’s true identity. It not only covers it, but it can take it over. Think of toxic shame like a cancer of self-worth. It is very difficult to treat, and can be fatal — metaphorically emotionally, literally in the case of suicide.

How to Protect Our Children From Toxic Shame

Because shame is a normal human emotion, all children will likely feel this painful emotion at some point in their lives. It is quite possible that — because all children are unique in who they are, how they think, and how they process emotions — that even the most loving, attached parents will induce feelings of shame in their child, at some point.

It’s important to realize there is a difference between shame and toxic shame. Shame, as a normal human emotion, can be painful but when the child is supported in processing the shaming situation, it is quite possible for the feeling of shame to be simply added to his repertoire of experiences — just as his feelings of rage during a toddler tantrum were — without shame extending into the core of his being.

Toxic shame, on the other hand, is when shaming becomes habitual in his life and is not allowed to be processed with a supportive person — there is no one to help guide him through his feelings, and therefore, there is no way he can know how to process his feelings of shame in a healthy way. Because of this, his feelings of shame are more likely to grow and to encapsulate who he is. He will be less likely to find a way to express his shame and redirect it away from his emotional core.

There are certain ways of relating to and disciplining our children that are less likely to induce a feeling of shame. Positive discipline — indeed all of Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting — are research-backed parenting behaviors behind secure, strong family attachments. Shame, by its very nature being an emotion borne out of a feeling of not belonging, strongly accompanies a feeling of not being securely attached. Strengthening the parent-child attachment will make shame less able to take hold in that relationship — the interactions based on promoting strong attachments simply do not involve shame-based exchanges.

Of course, no parent is perfect. We all have our “off” days and our moments where we relate to our child that does not promote secure attachment. But I encourage you not to be afraid of these moments. Among the myriad benefits of Attachment Parenting is that when a relationship is based on this trusting, empathic, nurturing, peaceful approach to parenting, if we happen to step off the path during an “off” moment of less sensitive responsiveness, it’s so easy to find our way back again. We just follow our hearts — and then be sure to talk through any strong emotions about the experience to help her express and process her feelings of hurt, anger, fear, and possibly shame in a healthy way.

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Core Beliefs Color Your Parenting

Shame was a mainstay of parenting in past generations. Many of us parents can remember feeling shame, probably often, while growing up — along with threats, intimidation, and other forms of coercion. Although parenting trends have made great strides to align with what research shows to be the healthy way to discipline our children, remnants of shame-based parenting still remain.

rita brhelAbout the Author

Rita Brhel, BS, CLC, API Leader, is the Executive Editor and Publications Team Coordinator of Attachment Parenting International. She is also a WIC Breastfeeding Counselor and a freelance writer. She lives with her husband and 3 children near Hastings, Nebraska, USA.

Shame-based parenting behaviors may be subtle, hidden in seemingly innocent messages meant to encourage cooperation from our children, like “You should know better than that,” “Nice girls don’t do that,” “Good boys do this,” or “You already had enough; you shouldn’t want more.” But if you were to turn these phrases around, how would you feel about yourself? These phrases, while not abrasive, are still implying that a child is having thoughts that are “wrong” or “bad,” when actually, anyone can have whatever thoughts they desire — what we as parents really want is for children to be able to discern which behavior would be more aligned with the values we hope to be passing down to them.

Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting guide parents in setting appropriate limits on behavior while promoting a secure parent-child attachment, empathy and emotional literacy, and peaceful conflict resolution.

It’s important for parents to continue working toward knowing themselves better and how this affects their parenting and relationships with their children. Especially for those who were raised themselves with a shame-based parenting approach, becoming stagnant in personal growth can cause regression back to the parenting behaviors they were raised with. Without intentional parenting, the shame-based parenting we experienced as children will be reflected in how we relate to and discipline our children, even if only through words we intended to be gentle reminders or even through expectations we have in mind of how our children are “supposed” to be behaving.

While shame, as a normal emotion, is felt from time to time by everyone — being the result of conflicting interactions within a social group — it generally doesn’t have long-lasting effects on a child’s self-worth as long as the child is able to lean on a supportive, unconditionally loving parent to help him process his feelings. However, there is a distinct difference between a relatively fleeting feeling of shame from unconnected incidences and the long-standing, pervasive feeling of shame at a child’s core that is the result of shame-based parenting. Shame-based parenting instills a pattern of thinking in the child that she is unworthy and, inflicted by the parent, there is no unconditionally loving support person to help the child process her emotions and be able to see herself as separate from the ongoing messages of shame.

Many parents who grew up in a shame-based home may worry that they are inadvertently instilling shame in their own children, despite their best efforts to not do so. It’s understandable where this concern comes from — a parent who is conscious of the emotional wounds in his or her life is also conscious to not want to pass down this family legacy.

Examining Shame-Based Core Beliefs

Healing from a shame-based view of oneself is best done with a professional counselor, but there are various ways that adults can help the healing process along. One way is to examine their core beliefs.

Core beliefs are the messages our brain tells us about our self-worth. Core beliefs “color” how we think about ourselves, how we think about others, and even how we react to situations in our lives. Think about core beliefs as the color of who you are:

Negative Core Beliefs —
I am unlovable
I am not good enough
I am a bad person
I am stupid
I am ugly
I am abnormal
I am boring
I am worthless
I don’t deserve love or good things in my life

Positive Core Beliefs —
I am lovable!
I am good enough
I am a good person
I am smart
I am beautiful
I am extraordinary
I am very interesting to be around
I have a lot of worth
I deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and love

When you have the same situation as someone with the other color of core beliefs, you actually both look at the same situation in different ways. For example, let’s say you meet a mother at the park and think about asking her to go with you to your local API Support Group.

Negative Core Belief: I’m boring, I’m not good enough, I’m worthless.
Thought: “Why would she ever go to the meeting with me?”
Behavior: You don’t ask the mother to go with you.

Positive Core Belief: I’m very interesting to be around, I’m good enough, I have a lot of worth.
Thought: “We might have fun together.”
Behavior: You ask the mother to go with you.

The behavior that results from your core belief reinforces that core belief. If you think the other mother wouldn’t want to be friends with you, and then you don’t ask her to come with you to the group meeting, you will then feel even more like you’re not worthy of having friends.

Of course, there is a possibility that if you do ask the other person to go to the group meeting with you, that she will say no or she may say yes but you find that you two don’t click. This may stir up more core beliefs, but it can also empower you to ask the next person you meet that might be a better fit.

How Core Beliefs Affect Parenting

Likewise, when you encounter the same parenting scenario as someone with the other color of core beliefs, you both look at and react to the same scenario in different ways. However, there is a complicating factor in the case of parenting. It’s all too easy to unconsciously transfer your core beliefs about yourself to your child. People who grew up in shame-based homes, who haven’t addressed their emotional trauma may unknowingly project what they see as the “bad” qualities of themselves on others. This natural act of self-protection is the emotional brain’s way of avoiding the original, unaddressed issue — that the parent himself is “bad.” It’s much easier to continue not feeling the pain of this “realization” by passing the blame onto someone else.

For example, let’s say your 6-month-old baby just started waking up at night several times after previously sleeping through at least 6 hours.

Negative Core Belief: I am not confident in my parenting ability.
Transferred Core Belief: My baby is manipulating me.
Thought: “My baby should be sleeping through the night.”
Behavior: You try cry-it-out with your baby. Your baby may be very distressed, and you may react with anger or anxiety, reinforcing the core belief.

Positive Core Belief: I’m a good mother and a good problem-solver.
Transferred Core Belief: My baby must be waking at night more because of a developmental need.
Thought: “I need to learn about why my baby is waking more at night and what to do about that.”
Behavior: You learn that your baby may be going through a growth spurt, teething, or otherwise needs your comfort at night and adjust your expectations to continue providing a sensitive response.

Let’s look at another example: No matter how many times you have talked to your 2-year-old toddler about “gentle hands,” she still hits when she’s upset.

Negative Core Belief: I am not confident in my parenting ability.
Transferred Core Belief: My toddler isn’t learning from this discipline approach.
Thought: “I need to be more forceful to teach my toddler to not hit.”
Behavior: You yell at or hit her when she hits. She may feel angry and act-out by hitting more, or she may be confused and hurt. You may then react with anger or guilt, reinforcing the core belief.

Positive Core Belief: I’m a good mother and a good problem-solver.
Transferred Core Belief: My toddler’s hitting frustrates me, but there must be a reason for her behavior.
Thought: “I need to learn more about what to expect developmentally at this age and what to do about the hitting.”
Behavior: You learn that your toddler is acting very age-appropriately and is still developing her impulse control. The best way to address this is to continue telling and modeling to her to not hit, while teaching her other ways to express her anger.

With this final example, let’s look at a teenager who has side-swiped a mailbox with his car, breaking a headlight and scratching the paint.

Negative Core Belief: I am not confident in my parenting ability.
Transferred Core Belief: Teenagers are careless, rebellious, and irresponsible.
Thought: “He doesn’t care about anything. He thinks he can get away with anything.”
Behavior: You take away his car keys, demand that he pay for the damages, and punish him by taking away privileges. He may act-out. You may then react with anger or guilt, reinforcing the core belief.

Positive Core Belief: I’m a good mother and a good problem-solver.
Transferred Core Belief: Teenagers sometimes make mistakes, as we all do.
Thought: “He needs to learn from this situation, but he also needs understanding and help with problem-solving of how to address it.”
Behavior: You talk with him about what happened and his feelings, and help him problem-solve what his next steps are.

Whether you have negative or positive core beliefs, the thoughts that come from these will transmit to how you feel toward your child and her behavior. Negative core beliefs are linked with shame-based responses.

Turning Negatives Into Positives

If your core beliefs tend to fall in the negative list, remember that each negative has a positive option. If you encounter a situation where you don’t feel worthy, you need to get into a practice of positive self-talk and coming up with positive options other than the negative default that may naturally arise in your mind.

Here are 3 ideas of how to begin turning your negative core beliefs into positives:

  1. Tell yourself that you are awesome! Start repeating positive statements, like “I am smart” or “I am a good mother (or father),” to yourself many times a day. You can try writing them on sticky notes and stick them to your bathroom mirror, your desk, or other places around your house, vehicle, or work space to give you reminders throughout the day.
  2. Turn the negative into a positive. When you begin thinking negatively, take a deep breath and intentionally turn the thought around to a positive. If you make a mistake, when the thought “I am so stupid” or “I am such a bad mother (or father)” comes to mind, tell yourself: “No, I am smart. Everyone makes mistakes, and I can learn from this.”
  3. Join an API Support Group. It is incredibly empowering to be surrounded by like-minded, supportive parents who are all working toward the same parenting goals as you. The opportunity to ask questions to a nonjudgemental group and to receive ideas that are in line with your values and that can apply to your parenting situation is invaluable. There is great positive power in a parenting support group when they can be both a sounding board and a source of validation, while encouraging your personal growth.

It’s also helpful to respond to yourself in the way that you would ideally want to sensitively respond to your child in the same situation. Since negative core beliefs are often grounded in thought patterns from our childhood, such as from shame-based parenting or another emotional trauma, it’s not such a stretch to address the “child you” in your mind — the emotional part of you that is trying to protect itself with the negative core beliefs. That “child you” has to heal for the “adult you” to be able to move forward — toward a healthy self-worth and more confident, positive parenting.

Self-Validation Before Self-Control

A child’s ability to form healthy self-validation is a vital goal of child development. In fact, a child’s capacity for self-validation has everything to do with the development of emotional safety — the overarching developmental goal of childhood.

denise-durkinAbout the Author

Denise Durkin, MA, is an early childhood mental health consultant and self-regulation specialist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, at Our Holistic Kids.

To use the word, “validate,” in the context of relationships, we’re referring to the process by which a person values that which he knows and feels is true and right for himself, and then acts in accordance with his inner knowing in support of his own self and his own needs.

As we raise our children to be intimate with what they feel, sense, and know, and to honor and support themselves in their knowing, we are providing them with this fundamentally valuable tool for successfully navigating their internal and external experiences throughout their life.

Self-Validation Comes from Caregivers’ Attitudes

This is the foundation for a child’s capacity to acquire the more complex self-regulation skills she needs to actualize her potential. It’s the very important task we have of validating his unconditional goodness, and what he feels, thinks, desires, and knows — which then tells him he is “right” in the world, that his experiences are important, and that his dreams are valuable.

It’s we, parents and caregivers, who largely determine how a child comes to validate herself.

Let’s keep this in mind as I describe a 4-year old girl I was called in to a preschool classroom to observe. She was joyful, full of life, and wicked smart. Her preschool teachers and parents consulted me due to her “impulsive, inattentive, non-compliant, emotional, potentially dangerous” behaviors of refusing to sit in circle time and constantly banging into objects — outside with her tricycle, and inside where she would run into and purposefully, though playfully, try to topple both other children and adults. The girl could also be irritable and angry, displaying explosive behaviors when caregivers attempted to redirect her and minimize her complaints.

She had a typical complaint of wanting to do what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it. She argued that she could in fact listen while doing other things during circle time. However, the teachers wanted all the kids sitting “criss-cross apple sauce” on the floor, eyes on them. Because of her complaints, fidgeting, and refusal to cooperate, the teachers made the girl sit in a chair at a table removed from the group and to color while the rest of the class conducted their weather discussions, reviewed the alphabet, and learned the letter of the day.

Although this decision to exclude the girl from circle time appears to wrongly shame her, one of her teachers demonstrated both compassion and insight to see that this form of physical structure — sitting on the chair at the table, with an activity to calm her mind and busy her hands — in fact enabled the girl to participate fully in their discussions and add to it with more intelligent, creative contributions than most of the other students.

It took some prompting in this rigid classroom, but the staff learned to tweak their expectations and appropriately loosen their requirements of the children, who were then given the choice to sit for circle time or not. The girl in question was no longer shamed for being different, and she experienced validation from her teachers that her way of participating in circle time was best for her.

Her teachers’ validation of her translated into her own self-validation for speaking up about what she knew to be true for herself.

In the play yard, we reviewed the girl’s sensory needs that were mistakenly seen as aggressive in intention. The plowing into objects and people instead suggested she was seeking physical gross-motor input in that she displayed no anger at these times but seemed to have a lot of fun doing the plowing. It served her.

In addition to creating safe places for the girl to get this physical input — like jumping onto heavy mats from a not-too-high step during scheduled and play intervals throughout the day — we obtained her mother’s written permission for teachers to give her frequent, deep-pressure hugs and squeezes as a preventative measure to the more impulsive plowing behaviors. We asked the girl to let us know when she was feeling out of sorts and to seek the big, bear hugs that immediately calmed her, as soon as her body began to tell her that she needed them.

Her caregivers at school and home began listening to her more — and began seeing her more clearly as a child who needed their support to speak up about her experiences and needs.

I also made a referral for a physical therapy consult and recommended a nutritional consult, which led to incorporating foods into her diet — and eliminating others — that helped to balance her nervous system so that some of the impulsivity diminished.

Additionally, we built in the time, place, and space for her to enjoy more creative, stimulating activities to express herself, learn, and teach us about herself — how she thinks, feels, senses, and relates to herself, others, and the world.

What worked for this girl is that we were able to see her through various lenses of her holistic health and well-being. By using protocols within the sensory, biology-physical expression, creative self-expression, nutrition, and attachment-relationship lenses, we successfully learned to honor what Sarah knew to be true for herself, and we provided her with more knowledge and supports that she needed to further know and support herself.

Self-Validation: What is Internalized About One’s View of Oneself

The girl in this case learned how to validate herself by internalizing 2 concepts:

  1. “I am someone who needs, seeks, and gets big hugs and squeezes, special play activities, and the best foods to make me feel calm, balanced, and safe.” She knows that these are the right things for her. And because she taught her caregivers that they need to listen to her and to fully see her and learn from her, she was able to internalize an aspect of her identity as a person of value in the world.
  2. “I am valued. What I think, feel, want, experience, and express matters to others. I am worthy of being heard and seen and respected.” She needed us to validate her so that she could further validate her own self and know that she is doing the right things to keep herself in balance and feel safe.

You can substitute just about any example of a child’s life situation here. The experiences and lessons will likely be the same: We want our child to know what it is that he knows, to honor what it is that he knows and, when old enough, to seek the supporting knowledge to inform his decisions further.

How to Teach Self-Validation: Listening and Value Uniqueness

The thing is, we need to really see our child and listen to her. We cannot try to make her fit into an old ideal of how she “should” behave, act, or be. We must meet him “where he’s at” and start there.

Our goal is that we use and teach skills sets containing “ways of thinking and doing” to support children in being themselves throughout the trajectory of their lives.

The Opposite of Self-Validation: Shame & Low Self-Esteem

Children can and do fall through the cracks. If we had continued to ignore what the girl in the story above was telling us, she may likely have developed increased shame, anger, rebellion, and, over time, an attitude of “Forget you, you’re not listening to me. I’ll do what I want and feel good about it.”

She might have someday came to validate herself in other ways that create rage, division, and resentment. She very well could have tied in with peers who not only validate these emotions but, worse, use them to fuel deeper discord, judgment, intolerance, hatred, retaliation, and violence.

To some, this girl’s classroom experiences may seem small. It may seem like the negative outcomes I postulated are a stretch to what actually happened in the classroom. I am telling you, this is so not a stretch. This is how it begins: We do not see our children, so we do not listen to our children and then we try to put them under our thumb. This is not holistic child care. This is not the way we promote secure attachment at home or at school.

In another scenario, the girl above may have other tendencies. Perhaps instead, she withdraws — becoming depressed and later numbing out with drugs, food, and dysfunctional relationships. Are those fates any less happy for her? With another who validates her anger and aggression, at least she feels like she’s accepted and belongs somewhere. In all cases, she’s only simply seeking to keep herself safe.

Attachment Parenting Provides the Balance

Feeling balanced on the inside by people and circumstances who support her and provide balance “on the outside” do this. We do this. Our child’s emotional safety, her happiness, and her success depend on us. The level of peace in the world depends on us.

I’ve seen the outcomes of ignoring kids’ true needs before, and so have you — in the variations of the same tragic stories that we hear about in the media so often we are becoming numb to them. Do you see that this is an epidemic?

Do you see that we can stop violence, and all that goes with it, in our children if we pay more attention to how we see them and relate to them? It is a simple concept — though a complex process that requires work and perhaps new paradigms for teaching teachers, supporting parents, and addressing mental health.

We’ve got to fully wake up and act on how this dynamic works for the sake of helping our children grow up happily, confidently, and peacefully. We have no one to blame if we do not target this now.

Parenting as a Protest Against Hate

Although not a new phenomenon, there seems to have been an increase in incidents of racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, LGBTQ discrimination, sexual assault, bullying, and hate crimes as of late. As an activist, I feel compelled to get out there and help change the world. As a mother of 3 young boys, I feel immobilized in my desire to be an agent of change by my family obligations — or am I?

lauren-gottschalk-scher-vida-leche-amorAbout the Author

Lauren Gottschalk-Scher, a mother of 3 young boys, attended Hampshire College and the Parsons School of Design. After working in fashion design, she became a stay-at-home mother and a devotee of Attachment Parenting. Lauren has combined all of her interests, passions, and personal and professional experiences in her company, Vida Leche Amor, which ethically produces fashionable clothes designed for full-term breastfeeding and beyond.

The first early milestone in developing empathy is establishing a secure, attached, and loving relationship with a parent or primary caregiver.

When you respond to your baby’s cry with empathy, sensitivity, and understanding, your baby not only learns that he is worthy of love, care, and attention, but learns the behaviors that will determine how he will treat others in the future. Understanding that a baby does not yet have the capacity for self-soothing and responding emphatically to a baby’s cries helps him establish a secure attachment and sets the foundation for healthy relationships and the development of empathy in the future.

Breastfeeding on demand, day and night, was important to me in caring for my infants, not only because it helped to establish my milk supply and ensure proper growth, but because it set the stage for healthy emotional development by meeting my babies’ emotional needs. Babies don’t just want to be close to their mothers — they need to be close to them for comfort and safety. I was told several times, “He’s just nursing for comfort,” or “Don’t let him use you as a pacifier,” but I continued because breastfeeding was my babies’ favorite method of soothing, feeling secure and loved, and bonding with me.

I also coslept with my babies well into toddlerhood because their nighttime needs necessitated being close to me, both for breastfeeding and comfort. My memories of having extreme difficulty sleeping as a child — and now as an adult — and being excessively afraid of everything, especially at night, made me acutely empathic to my babies’ nighttime needs. Cosleeping until they felt ready to sleep on their own and breastfeeding on demand until they were developmentally ready to wait helped build secure attachment and contributed to their sense of self-worth as people who deserved to be loved and comforted.

Understanding my children’s developmental needs and responding compassionately will lay the foundation for them to grow into empathic children and adults.

Learning From a Parent’s Reactions

The second early milestone in developing empathy is beginning to use social referencing, which begins at around 6 months of age. When your baby is introduced to a new person or situation, he will look to you to gauge your response through your facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, all of which will greatly influence how your baby responds. Social referencing not only gives your baby information about individual people and situations — it helps wire his brain to process the world around him.

To help your baby develop into an empathic person, it is important to receive others with an open mind and to respond with empathy.

As a rule, I try not to rush to judgement or a harsh reaction when other people upset me. Since having kids, this has become even more important to me. Although it’s difficult to imagine that your 6-month-old is affected when you get upset by a cashier’s rude behavior, social referencing at this age helps set a foundation for how your child will interact with others later in life. When I find myself upset by someone’s actions, I try to take a step back, consider what may be going on in that person’s life that may have caused them to inadvertently upset me, and strive to give them the benefit of the doubt and react with compassion.

As a white woman, it has always been extremely important for me to be aware of how institutionalized and ingrained racism, sexism, and discrimination subtly influence our everyday behaviors and work to overcome them. As a mother who strives to raise her kids to be agents of change in our society, this is even more important.

As a child, I vividly remember riding in the car with a family member who locked the doors each time we passed a black man walking on the streets. This behavior instilled a racist fear in me that was also reinforced by subtle and overt racism in our society on a daily basis. As an adult dedicated to ending racism, it is important for me to acknowledge when racist feelings arise, process these feelings, and continue to grow and learn so I can do better going forward.

As a mother, it is important for me to understand that even subtle facial expressions and body language have an effect on how children as young as 6 months old learn to experience and process the world around them. It is important to overcome inherent racism and discrimination as much as possible and to prioritize having positive interactions with many people of different backgrounds to help dismantle these oppressive systems in the future generation.

Development of Self-Awareness

The third early milestone in developing empathy is recognizing oneself in the mirror, which signifies that a child understands himself as a person who is separate from his caregiver. This occurs at 18-24 months of age.

It is extremely important to treat your child as an individual with individual needs and wants from the moment they are born. Your child is not an extension of you or even the same as an older sibling. It is important to get to know your baby by keeping him close, interacting with him frequently, and responding compassionately when he cries. You will get to know your baby’s unique temperament and needs, learn to parent in the way that best suits your baby, and set the stage for your baby to recognize himself as an individual, which will eventually help him to develop empathy toward others.

As a mother of spirited, intense children, I had to recognize that my babies’ needs were different from other babies’ needs, especially at night. I treated my children as individuals and rejected parenting advice that wouldn’t work for my babies. For example, my 14-month-old still wakes up several times during the night wanting to breastfeed and needs to be comforted back to sleep. Because I recognize that he is an individual with needs that are equal to mine, respect that he has a temperament and needs that are different from other babies, and realize his developmental inability to fulfill these needs on his own, I have made the conscious and informed decision to continue to cosleep and breastfeed him throughout the night. I use empathy to imagine how he as a unique and separate person feels and meet his needs compassionately, knowing that I am providing the security he needs to learn to self-soothe and become independent when he is developmentally ready. Although it’s not always easy, I am confident that my efforts will help him grow into an empathic child and adult.

So much of a toddler’s life is out of their control. Understanding the frustration of being unable to control your surroundings is essential in helping your toddler develop a strong sense of self as separate from you. I try to give my toddler choices whenever I can to give him a sense of control. It not only gives him a sense of empowerment that helps build a strong sense of self-esteem and capability, it also helps take the sting out of decisions I have to make for him.

Body autonomy is also extremely important to me in raising empathic children. While my toddler can’t make all the decisions about his body — his teeth need to be brushed and his diapers need to be changed — I let him make non-essential decisions about his body for himself. I love kissing my toddler’s cheeks, but he is not always in the mood for kisses. When he pushes my face away from his, I respect his body autonomy and don’t force him to accept my kisses. I never force my children to show affection when they don’t want to, even if friends or relatives find it disrespectful. This teaches my children that their body belongs only to them, and the same goes for all people.

Everyone gets to choose what they want to do with their own body, and we must all respect other people’s boundaries. When my toddler doesn’t want his teeth brushed or his diaper changed, I try to find a way for him to work with me to accept what needs to be done instead of using physical force. I also find it important to explain to my babies and toddlers what I am doing, especially when it is something involving taking care of their body. For example, I will say, “I am going to give you a bath now. I am washing your hair. Help me wash your face.” This helps my toddler feel like an active participant in an activity instead of feeling like it is something happening to him.

I always use the word “penis” instead of slang words. This helps to encourage body awareness and pride in oneself and one’s body. Using anatomically correct words for body parts and speaking frankly about them without shame has been shown to help protect children against sexual abuse. I also believe that it will help prevent my children from objectifying body parts and/or women in the future. I also believe that breastfeeding my toddler openly in front of my older boys will help prevent them from fetishizing breasts and objectifying women in the future.

Recognizing That Other People Have Feelings

The fourth early milestone in developing empathy is developing a theory of mind. At 18-24 months, a child will realize that just as he has his own thoughts and feelings, other people have their own thoughts and feelings that are separate and possibly different from his own.

To encourage emotional literacy and the development of empathy, I always strive to name the emotions my children are experiencing. In the midst of a tantrum, I may tell my child, “You are mad, because I won’t let you walk in the street.” Giving words to their emotions will help your child process their feelings and explain how they feel in the future.

I also find it important to let my children experience a full range of emotions, no matter how uncomfortable it is for me. When your child is upset about something seemingly small, it’s so much easier to tell him, “It’s really not a big deal,” than it is to support him through his seemingly silly, but real-to-him, emotions. Put yourself in your toddler’s shoes — a green cup may seem small to you, but in that moment, it is really important to him. I don’t always give in to cup color preferences, but I always try to support the feelings surrounding them. I may say, “You are sad, because your green cup is dirty,” and then hold my child while he cries. I try to avoid the phrase, “It’s OK,” when my child is hurt or upset because it minimizes and dismisses their feelings.

Instead of condemning anger, I try to redirect it in an acceptable way. If my toddler hits, I may say, “You are angry, but we use gentle hands.” I let my children cry or yell and, as a last resort if necessary, hit a pillow. I also name my own feelings, especially when I am getting upset by my children’s behavior. It helps them solidify that others have feelings separate from their own, identify and name feelings, and shows them that their actions have an impact on others. When children are fighting and I need to step in to mediate, I make sure to identify how each person is feeling: “You are sad, because you want a turn with the ball. She is mad because, you tried to take the ball before she was done using it.”

A person’s capacity for understanding and experiencing other people’s emotions is directly related to his own ability to experience, identify, and communicate feelings and emotions. Giving your toddler the words to express feelings and the support and space to feel emotions will help lay the groundwork for empathy in the future.

Nobody’s Perfect

I am human and very far from perfect. The strategies I have outlined above are the ideal I strive toward, but I lose it on my kids sometimes. Let’s be honest — I lose it on my kids on a near daily basis. But I am trying.

I own my mistakes, and I apologize to my children. If I yell at them, I will say, “I’m sorry. I was very angry and I yelled at you. That was not a good choice, and it’s not OK to yell like that. I’m sure it hurt your feelings and made you scared. I love you, and I don’t want to make you feel hurt or scared. Next time, I am going to take a deep breath and be calmer. I am going to try to do better.”

Apologizing to my children and taking responsibility for my actions not only shows them that I value them and care about their feelings, it models the behaviors and traits, including empathy, that I want them to develop.

It also empowers and encourages them to stand up and speak out about things that are not acceptable in the future, whether it is the way they are being treated, or the way they see someone treating another person.

A Protest Against Discrimination

I am reinvigorated in my commitment to raising my children to maximize their capacity to feel empathy as personal protest against the rampant discrimination we face as a nation. As a mother, I may not be able to organize and mobilize in the way I feel called to right now, but I can feel confident that I am contributing by raising the next generation to fight hate with love and understanding. And that is potentially the most important job that anyone can be called to do.

6 Tips to Lessen Separation Anxiety

Separation can be sad for children at different ages and with different temperaments, and is often quite difficult for parents– sometimes more so for the parents than the kids!

artyuenspAbout the Author

Art Yuen is the KnowledgeBase Coordinator for Attachment Parenting International (API), a member of API’s Board of Directors, and an API Leader with API-NYC in New York City, USA, where she lives with her 2 children and husband.

Generally it’s healthier to say a clear goodbye so that children are able to work through their feelings and move on into healthy play and engagement without being disrupted by vigilance for the
missing parent. Predictability and certainty, even if sad — with
support to move through it — is healthier than constant vigilance and anxiety that soak up energy better spent learning, exploring, and engaging with another loving caregiver.

The goodbye goal is less about wanting your child to not cry when you say goodbye and mostly about building predictable, warm, comfortable family skills around age-appropriate ways to work through tough, upsetting situations and big feelings.

That said, there are several situations that can affect your child’s comfort with separations, including:

  • Developmental stage
  • Temperament
  • Parental stress or anxiety
  • Past negative separation experiences
  • Prior experience being away from the parent
  • Recent change in routine
  • Pending, active, or recovering illness
  • Inexperience with the caregiver and/or past negative                  experience with a caregiver
  • Comfort with goodbye routine.

Here are 6 tips for separating from your child in a healthy way:

  1. Talk about the routine of you leaving, then work on a comfortable goodbye routine. This can go a long way to help regular separation feel predictable and comfortable, even if there is sadness. Including the caregiver during the separation in this conversation helps everyone involved get on the same page.
  2. Acknowledge feelings, yours and your child’s. Say out loud that the feelings involved, even if strong and upsetting, are OK and are normal.
  3. Talk about what you do when you feel sad and are missing your child. Do you look at his picture or a special object?
  4. Assist your child in processing his difficult emotions. Here are 3 ideas to try:
    • Stories about what you did when you were the same age or in the same situation. Don’t be surprised if you get multiple requests for the story. There are also books that help with processing emotions that your child may love to have you read as well.
    • Drawings about hard situations.
    • Doll or toy play where objects are assigned personalities. Allow the child to lead. Parents should play along but without offering explicit correction, though they may offer scenarios. Read Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen for more information.
  5. Remind your child of her caregiver, who is there to help her through any upsets in your absence and who will help keep you in mind and look forward to your return.
  6. Insert reminders of your return into his daily routine. For   example, remind him that you’ll see him again after bath time or another activity in his day that registers a fixed time for him.  Goodbyes need not be drawn out forever or abrupt. Ending on a “See you soon!” note lends your trust that your child will be OK in the interim.

Keep in mind that nothing you do may produce a happy goodbye until there is more experience to draw on or the current age or developmental stage has passed. Stay in touch with your own
feelings and strive to be as responsive as you can to you and your child in the given situation.

11 Ways to Parent Outside the Box

Parenting is not easily definable. Once we accept that there are no “perfect parents” and we all are in a process of learning and
discovery, we will grow alongside our children’s development.

brooke campbellAbout the Author

Brooke Campbell, MA, RDT-BCT, LCAT, lives in Livingston, New Jersey, USA, with her family. She is a creative arts and drama therapist, and the founder of Creative Kinections.

Here are 11 ways to parent outside the box:

1) Be Present with Your Presence

Parenting is messy and involves a continual process of being
present. Parenthood is an act of doing and a state of being. Being present requires us to feel our own presence. This takes courage as we navigate through the inner landscape of our strengths and shortcomings. Those challenging parts of ourselves that are
difficult to accept need our full attention like a crying infant or
tantrumming toddler. When we neglect or avoid doing the hard “internal” work on ourselves, areas in our home and family life suffer. If we avoid the chaos within ourselves, how can we tolerate our own child’s chaos, struggles, and problems?

Our children are astute creatures and experts at reading our
nonverbal cues. When we are suffering, our children emphatically know and sense it. If we are not able to role model our own set of ways to peacefully problem-solve and use emotional intelligence, how will they feel safe enough to show us their pain? When we are not present within our daily lives, it delivers the message to our children that we are not capable of being able to handle their struggles.

State your feelings to your child and the reasons behind the
emotion, no matter his age. Empathy is learned. This doesn’t mean you can emotionally burden your child or use your feelings to manipulate or victimize. Your ability to name and express feelings safely is a powerful teaching lesson for your child.

2) Do Your Internal Homework

Children are conditioned to complete and hand in their homework for a teacher to grade. As parents, we must initiate completing our own internal homework including asking ourselves questions like:

  • Would I want to be parented the way I parent my child?
  • What messages, spoken or unspoken, were sent to me during my childhood from my family of origin? For example, some adults I work with share that they felt neglected, not good enough, ignored, misunderstood, silenced, abused,  controlled, manipulated, or isolated as children.
  • How are the messages I learned from childhood shaping my role as a parent?
  • Am I parenting my child the way I was parented? If so, was this a conscious or unconscious choice?

Your responses will serve as a guide on your parenting journey.

3) Envision Yourself as Your Child

Parenting can be frustrating. A powerful and effective drama
therapy intervention I use involves “role reversal.” When we put our agendas aside and shift our perspective by thinking and feeling as our child, we gain a powerful amount of empathy and insight. Imagining yourself as your child can provide you with specific answers abouther worries, concerns, struggles, frustrations, needs, and wants.

It is then our job to tune into what makes our child tick to inform our decision-making as parents. Instead of being influenced by outside forces such as your own parents, in-laws, neighbors, friends, and parenting books, when you imagine yourself as your child you will gain confidence in knowing what is needed to shape your child’s development.

4) Practice Mirroring to Create Attunement

No matter what our child’s age or stage of development, he will alter negative behaviors, moods, and attitudes when we reflect his body language and speech. Consider times when we become highly attuned during conversations with people we value.  We begin to model their body language, repeat similar themes and words, and may laugh at the same time.

When our gestures, thoughts, and feelings are mirrored back to us, we feel validated. Our children have a deep need to be validated and witnessed by us. It’s our responsibility to do so.

5) Develop a Practice of Action

Our children are always in action, even when they’re still. When we develop a practice of action, we allow moments to occur that bring our focus onto something outside of our child’s behavior and ourselves. Even if your child’s action is slight, such as tapping a fork on the table or looking outside, take her cues so you can follow through with a seamless response. This shows your child you are listening, you understand them, and you care.

6) Bring Creativity and Imagination to Parenting

People nowadays are concerned with how they are perceived and going with the status quo. When we go against the grain, we stand out and as a result may be rejected. Children, no matter the age or stage of development, are wired to think and behave outside of the box because of such intense levels of imagination and ability to express themselves. Children may experience periods of feeling helpless and powerlessness. They can’t make all decisions on their own or be fully independent.

Our experiences of powerlessness and helplessness have a vital need to be expressed. Our expression needs a safe place to land. If this means blowing bubbles in your house, ripping paper up to get frustrations out, enrolling yourself as a clown, or gathering leaves to create art, do it. Your children will smile and thank you because you gave them the gift of expression.

7) Break Out of Your Patterns

Children do thrive on routine, but they also need us to break out of ours in order to witness their needs and challenges. In my 10 years as a drama therapist, I have encountered parents who kept forcing their children to fit into squares when they were clearly circles. This analogy is used to inform us that we need to break out of our patterns of operating, behaving, and thinking to be attuned to our children.

Parenting is not about convenience. It’s about commitment to
positively shaping their development. If our pattern also matches our child’s pattern of operating, then what we’re doing is working. If we are imposing our control on our child to meet our needs at the expense of our child, then we need to make some important changes and make them immediately.

7) Picture Your Child as an Adult

Children grow before our eyes, and I know how challenging it is to accept our child’s fast-paced development. If, for a moment, you imagine your children as adults, what kind of life do you envision them living? Do not imagine how you want them to live. Base your child’s imagined future on his strengths, skills set, personality, and temperament.

How do you picture them as adults? Do they feel competent? Are they independent? Are they happy?

If you have a strained relationship with your child now, how will that affect his or her future as an adult? You are laying the foundation for the house of your child’s life. Is your child’s foundation built on
quicksand or steady ground?

8) Imagine Your Child Writing You a Letter

If your child were to write you a letter about how she experiences you as a parent, what would it say?

The thing is, you know the areas in the way you parent that need work — the parts that you may be ashamed of or feel out of control about. If your child wrote about your need for control, your shame, your fear, your anxiety, and your rage, how would it feel to have someone know your truth?

What changes would you make as a parent now to work through your parenting challenges?

9) Imagine Your Child Becoming a Parent

When your child becomes an adult, seguing into parenthood, what kind of parent will he become? Our children most likely will take on qualities of how we parented them, since our treatment toward our children is a learned behavior.

Yes, we as humans are imperfect beings. Where can we make positive shifts in our own parenting choices to implement a strong framework for our children for when they have a family of their own?

10) Develop Adaptability and Accept Change

A tip for parenting and for coping through life’s struggles is
developing an open approach to adapting and accepting change. Parenting, like childhood, is about fluidity, flexibility, and change — an ebb and flow. When children enter our lives, they metaphorically hold a mirror up to ourselves and encourage us to change just like they transform as they grow. This means we may need to alter our behavior, approach, communication style, actions, and life choices.

11) Take Your Child’s Lead

Children are born innocent, curious, and creative. When we accept that our children have equal rights as adults, you will notice
positive shifts in your parenting approach. Be curious about life, people, experiences, textures, colors, problems, seasons, and so on.
Activate your sense of touch, sound, sight, taste, and smell. When we jump into our child’s world of imagination and curiosity, we heal our emotionally wounded child within and we strengthen our relationship with our child.

The message here is take your child’s lead. Usually when we take our child’s lead, moments transform and negative behavior and moods shift.

What Makes Emotional Trauma? Fear, Disconnect & Shame

Among the strong emotions we feel, shame is among the most painful. It is a feeling that one, as an individual, is not “good enough.”

Shame is different from guilt in that guilt arises from our actions that we believe violate others. Guilt is centered on our ability to empathize with how others perceive our actions, even if sometimes the root of our guilt is more perceived than actual. For example, we may perceive that we are not as good of a parent as another, when in reality, no parent is perfect but it is how we deal with our imperfections that positively influences our children more so than the imperfections themselves.

Instead, shame is an internal feeling of unworthiness or worthlessness. There is little room for empathy in shame, because we are so inwardly focused on our perceived faults. Guilt, when managed in a healthy way, can effectively motivate us to improve. Shame motivates us to hide parts of our emotional selves in an attempt to protect our hearts. Shame is a strong component of emotional trauma, a very uncomfortable and pervasive state of being.

daniela-s-shame-interviewHere to shed more light on emotional trauma — how it happens and how to heal — is Daniela F. Sieff, PhD, author of Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma: Conversations with pioneering clinicians and researchers, a unique and very valuable collection of her conversations with pioneering clinicians and researchers in the area of shame, through this interview with API:

API: Thank you, Dr. Sieff, for this opportunity. To begin, please share about yourself and your background.

Dr. Sieff: Whilst growing up, I was curious about what made us who we are. I was equally curious about the different types of lives that people might live. And so, as an undergraduate, I did a wonderful interdisciplinary degree in which I studied anthropology, evolution, and psychology.

I found the evolutionary perspective particularly exciting. It encouraged me to think about being human in new ways. Keen to do my own research, I embarked on a PhD in which I explored how evolutionary processes contribute to shaping human social behavior.

This research took me to a wilderness region of Tanzania to live with the Datoga, a traditional cattle-herding society. Living with the Datoga brought deep learning, both academically and personally. It gave me extraordinary insights into lives that were both profoundly different to my own, and that had significant underlying similarities.

However, in time I came to feel that the formal world of academia was not for me. I also wanted to start exploring how internal dynamics shape us. In particular, I wanted to understand what I carried inside my own mind and body. My life had been very rich in terms of what I’d done, but my emotional life had often been painful.  Wanting to change that, I committed myself to a therapeutic process, participated in workshops and studied books about trauma and attachment. Bringing together my personal experience with what I was learning through study, is what I mean by having “an active interest” in the dynamics of the psyche.

daniela-bookAPI: So what inspired you to write your book?

Dr. Sieff: My understanding of myself was changed by ideas that I came across, and I wanted to share those ideas in a way that was accessible to a wide range of people.

In particular, I wanted to present the ideas in ways that would connect with people who were trying to understand their own trauma, irrespective of whether or not they had a background in psychotherapy.

I also wanted to help parents, teachers, and social workers learn about the latest research. And I wanted to offer mental health professionals an opportunity to learn about approaches that were different to the ones in which they had been trained.

Interviews seemed the best way to achieve these goals. Interviews are informal, personal, and engaging. Yet at the same time, they can be structured to provide an in-depth and meaningful overview of crucial ideas.

Further, as the interviewer, I hoped I could articulate the perspective of the reader — asking the questions that had been important to me, and that might resonate with others.

Finally, because relationships are crucial to healing emotional trauma, it felt right for the book to have a relational structure.

It took me 8 years to gather the interviews and write this book!

Whilst working on each chapter, I took time to explore what was coming up for me personally. The people I asked to be interviewees had already made a profound contribution to how I experienced myself, and as I approached each chapter my psyche saw an opportunity to work with their insights more deeply.

API: The interviewees in your book come from different perspectives. What drew you to an interdisciplinary approach, and how does each perspective help to understand trauma?

Dr. Sieff: Trauma is a multi-layered phenomenon, and so it is best addressed in a multi-disciplinary way.

Further, each perspective — and indeed each interviewee — helps us to become more conscious of a different aspect of trauma. Lastly, what emerges when different perspectives are interwoven can be very refreshing and exciting.

The 3 perspectives explored are the ones that had contributed most to my own journey:

  • Psychodynamic perspectives explore how trauma affects our unconscious world, our subjective experience of ourselves, and our relationships with other people. The psychotherapists interviewed for this part of the book are Donald Kalsched, Bruce Lloyd, Tina Stromsted, and Marion Woodman. Drawing on their professional and personal experience as well as on myths, poetry, and fairy tales, they invite us into the inner world of the unconscious mind and body, and articulate how it feels to live with trauma. They also bring to life the work required for healing.
  • Neurobiological perspectives explore how the structure of our brains, neurobiology, and hormonal systems are affected by trauma. The therapist-academics interviewed in this section are Ellert Nijenhuis, Allan Schore, and Daniel Siegel. Drawing on professional experience, case studies, and literature as well as on attachment theory, developmental psychology, interpersonal neurobiology, and endocrinology, these interviewees help us see our life’s trajectory within a modern scientific framework. They also help us to understand the biological mechanisms that underlie healing.
  • Evolutionary perspectives explore how our species’ deep past shapes the dynamics of emotional trauma. The academics interviewed here are James Chisholm, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Randolph Nesse. Drawing on studies of hunter-gatherers, western societies, and non-human primates as well as on modern evolutionary theory, attachment theory, and developmental psychology, these interviewees take us into the world of our distant ancestors to show us why we are predisposed to find certain childhood experiences traumatizing. They also help us understand why we respond to traumatizing experiences in the ways that we do.

API: How do you define trauma?

Dr. Sieff: Popular culture tends to define trauma as being the victim of harm, and it portrays trauma as being located in the harmful experiences themselves. This is a problematic misunderstanding that hinders healing.

The word “trauma” means a wound, shock, or injury. Thus, trauma cannot be defined only by the negative experiences we suffer. Equally important is the impact of these experiences upon us. A painful and frightening experience might overwhelm one person and leave them with lasting emotional wounds, but not cause as much damage to another. It will depend on their age, innate sensitivity, unique personal history, and whether they have support.

When we experience pain and fear that overwhelms us, we develop an unconscious conviction that our life is at risk. As a result, survival systems are activated in our minds and in our bodies. These systems have evolved to protect us against dangers that arise both externally — from other people and the world in which we live — and internally: from within ourselves.

With the activation of these systems, we move onto a different developmental path to the one we would have followed, had we not been traumatized. Once on this pathway, we live our lives from inside an altered biological and psychological

I’ve called this altered reality a “trauma-world.” It is the entry into a trauma-world that defines trauma, not the experiences we’ve suffered.

API: What constitutes a trauma-world?

Dr. Sieff: That varies from person to person, again depending on our individual experiences and unique disposition. However, 3 systems form the core of all trauma-worlds:

  1. We perceive the world through a veil of fear — We are intrinsically wary of the world around us and mistrustful of other people. We are equally uneasy about what lies inside us.
  2. We disconnect from aspects of ourselves — We dissociate overwhelming emotions, we bury any parts of ourselves that attract disapproval, and we separate from our bodies.
  3. Our identity becomes interwoven with shame — We live with a visceral and pervasive feeling of being fundamentally flawed and inadequate.

Fear, disconnection, and shame distort both our inner and outer reality. They distort inner reality by compromising our relationship with ourselves, and they distort outer reality by compromising our relationships with others.

Moreover, if a trauma-world is created during childhood, these distortions become our “normality,” and we are unable to recognize what we are living. Then, we have little choice but to behave in ways that create repetitive and self-perpetuating cycles of trauma, both in ourselves and others.

Entering a trauma-world does not happen as a result of a conscious decision. It is what human brains and bodies have evolved to do in the face of overwhelming pain or fear. What is more, a trauma-world is not created in the relatively accessible cognitive systems of the brain. Rather, it is “hidden” in the biological systems — muscles, hormones, nervous system, and brain structure — that underlie our feelings and our ways of perceiving and engaging with the world.

API: What kinds of experiences leave us at risk of creating a trauma-world?

Dr. Sieff: The most obvious are those that cause acute pain or fear, such as overt abuse or neglect, [as well as] growing up amongst violence, experiencing war, or witnessing atrocities.

Less obvious, but equally damaging is the insidious, chronic, and ongoing pain and fear of growing up feeling unloved, unvalued, or inadequate. The consequences of what we didn’t have are often hard to identify, but they can be just as wounding as the consequences of what happened to us. From the perspective of attachment theory, this can be seen as growing up with an insecure attachment pattern.

Attachment research also shows us that trauma is triggered in infants and young children when parents or caregivers are unable to attune to them sensitively — perhaps because the caregivers are themselves stressed, depressed, ill, or carrying trauma.

Sometimes, trauma comes to us across generations. When our parents and grandparents carried unresolved trauma, we inherited their fears and distorted perceptions and our trauma-world is built around their experiences. Research is revealing that it is not pain and fear alone that constellate trauma. Rather, trauma is constellated when we experience pain and fear, and there is nobody present to help us process these emotions.

An evolutionary perspective suggests why this might be the case. For our ancestors, being part of a social network was crucial to survival. In the environment in which we evolved, children and adults who had no social support were likely to die. Consequently, we feel safe when accompanied, but in very real danger when alone.  Suffering trauma, and having no support, will heighten our fear and contribute to the sense that our life is at risk.

API: Can you talk about the fear at the core of a trauma-world?

Dr. Sieff: In response to experiencing overwhelming pain or fear, biological changes occur that leave our minds and bodies extremely sensitive to potential danger.

There are many harmful consequences to having a sensitized fear system. However, if we live in a dangerous environment, suffering these consequences is the lesser of two evils, because without being alert to danger, we are likely to die young. In fact, the ability of minds and bodies to become more fearful in dangerous environments is the product of evolution, and exists in many different animal species.

We are particularly alert to danger around the original traumatizing experiences. At the center of a trauma-world is the imperative to avoid retraumatization.  Often, this imperative is held unconsciously, so we don’t know that it is driving us. All the same, it impacts our lives in ways that can cause as much, if not more, pain than the original wounding.

Sometimes, it is impossible to avoid situations that appear similar to the one that traumatized us. When this happens, our old trauma comes back to life — not as a memory of the past, but as a fear-driven, knee-jerk reaction. I’ve called these “trauma-reactions.”

Trauma-reactions are generally built around the mammalian responses to danger: freeze, flight, fight, and submission — though in each of us they will take a unique form.

Trauma-reactions seem to come out of nowhere. That is because of the way that traumatizing events are recorded in our memories. Normally, when we commit an event to memory, a tag is added to the event recording when and where it occurred. When these memories are activated, the tags inform us that the experience happened at a particular moment in our past. In contrast, overwhelming painful and frightening experiences are committed to memory without being tagged with a time and place.

Consequently, when these memories are activated, we aren’t aware that we remembering the past. Instead, we relive the visceral feelings and reactions of earlier experiences as if they were present reality. This kind of memory is called “implicit” or “procedural” memory.

It is easier to get a sense of implicit memory if we think about riding a bicycle: When we get on a bicycle, we don’t consciously remember learning to contract this muscle, or to lean in that direction; rather what we learned during childhood is implicitly written into our nervous system and muscles, and that memory comes alive as a set of lived reactions.

The advantage of implicit memory is that it enables us to react almost instantaneously, and it is easy to see how that is valuable with a skill like bicycle-riding. Similarly, growing up in a dangerous environment, the ability to react virtually instantaneously can save our lives.

However, with trauma-reactions this instantaneous response can also be problematic, because the implicit memory will sometimes be activated when there is no danger. Worse, because we will be unaware that our traumatic memories have come back to life, we’ll be convinced that what we are feeling is happening right now. As a result, we are likely to behave in ways that recreate the very situation we are trying to avoid.

When thinking about childhood trauma, we need to be aware that throughout our evolutionary history, danger hasn’t only come from predators and illness — it has also come from parents.

In fact, anthropologists now know that for our ancestors, the greatest danger faced by infants was being abandoned to die by a mother who didn’t have the resources to care for another child. It could be that the mother already had a nursing child, or she might be lacking in social support, or there could be a famine. Either way, for ancestral human infants, an inattentive mother would have been implicitly terrifying, because it would have indicated that the infant’s life was at risk.

API: Disconnection is the second system that you include in a trauma-world. Can you tell us more about disconnection and trauma?

Dr. Sieff: Disconnection involves cutting off from some aspect of ourselves. There are different forms that disconnection can take. All provide us with some kind of protection, but all are ultimately harmful, because they leave us cut off from our own internal reality and from the reality of the external situation.

Disconnection first occurs during the original traumatizing experience. In the midst of a terrible situation, the release of opiates from within us blocks the pain and fear coursing through our bodies, and we are numbed to the feelings. This is an adaptive response, because it means that if we get a chance to escape, we can take it — whereas escape would be impossible if we were incapacitated by pain and fear.

Once we are out of danger, and if we have enough support, we may be able to reconnect to our pain and fear, and process them. However, without support, our unprocessed emotions remain locked away in our unconscious minds and bodies. This is because we simply can’t function if we allow overwhelming emotions into awareness.

There are many harmful consequences of remaining disconnected from the traumatizing pain and fear we’ve experienced:

First, we are compelled to avoid anything that might bring our unprocessed emotions into awareness. This compulsion to protect ourselves from what was once overwhelming poison in our relationships, creates a desperate need for control and prevents us from taking new opportunities. It can also lead to attempts to sabotage the healing process.

Second, having locked the overwhelming pain and fear in our bodies, we must disconnect from our bodies to prevent these feelings from surfacing. This creates new layers of suffering and difficulties:

  • Bodies that carry unprocessed pain and fear can become distorted. Parts of our body may be chronically frozen, collapsed, tense, or inflamed. Our posture might be off-kilter. Our breathing shallow. We might stutter.
  • We may be at risk of being drawn into addictions, both those that take us out of our bodies, and those which represent our bodies’ desperate attempts to be noticed and nurtured.
  • Needing to understand why we ended up traumatized, it is all too easy to blame our alienated bodies. Thereafter we try to perfect our bodies through compulsive dieting, obsessive exercising, or an endless string of plastic surgeries. In so doing, we become further alienated from our bodies.
  • We lose access not just to the original pain and fear, but to emotions more generally. Because emotions arise in the body, when we disconnect from our body, we prevent all emotions from making their way freely into our awareness. As a result, we may feel flattened, dulled, and lacking in vibrancy. Additionally, emotions evolved to guide our responses to the world, so when we can’t access this information, it is as though we have lost our compass, and the sense of danger that is already part of our trauma-worlds becomes more intense.

Third, in its most extreme form, the drive to separate from the pain and fear of the original trauma can result in a dissociative identity disorder.

Underlying the disconnection that I’ve just discussed is a deep fear of the unprocessed and overwhelming emotions that we experienced during the past, as part of the original trauma. There is another kind of disconnection, too — one which is underlain by fear of being attacked or abandoned in the present. This typically occurs when certain parts of ourselves are unacceptable to our family, teachers, or society. Under these circumstances, we cut off or bury the unacceptable parts in an attempt to protect ourselves from the possibility of being retraumatized.

The parts we cut off might be so-called “negative” emotions like pain, fear, or anger, but we can just as easily bury our joy, passion, vulnerability, sexuality, intellect, ambition, and creativity. We might also disconnect from our need for love and connection, or from our need for independence and self-expression.

Sometimes, we try to bury the unacceptable parts of ourselves using self-control and willpower. Other times, critical inner voices try to shame these parts into submission. Sometimes, the “unacceptable” parts are locked in our bodies, perhaps through clenching particular muscles, and by adopting a specific posture. But often this kind of disconnection occurs unconsciously — we are unaware of what we have lost.

Being cut off from parts of ourselves contributes to the underlying sense of loneliness that is inherent to trauma, because we are abandoning aspects of who we are. It also exacerbates the sense of danger that is built into a trauma-world, because we are not rooted in the fullness our own reality.

API: Shame is the third system that you say is intrinsic to a trauma-world. Can you expand on this?

Dr. Sieff: Shame is a visceral and pervasive feeling of being fundamentally flawed and inadequate as a human being. Shame is primarily relational: Although shame leaves us feeling absolutely alone, its roots lie in an implicit conviction that we are somehow unworthy of having meaningful relationships with other people.

Shame is often confused with guilt, but with guilt, we feel bad about things we have done. With shame, we feel bad about who we are.

Guilt is about our actions. Shame is about our being.

Shame is mediated by the emotional networks of the brain, so although shame is typically accompanied by self-critical thoughts like “I am stupid/useless/fat/pathetic,” it is ultimately lived as an embodied experience that resides deep beneath our awareness and sucks us into the psychological equivalent of a black hole.

Shame is a product of evolution, and it is experienced as a passing emotion in almost everybody. It exists to tell us that we are at risk of losing important social relationships, or that we might be thrown out of our group. However, if we’ve been traumatized, then shame becomes indelibly interwoven with our implicit sense of who we are, whereupon our identity becomes “shame-based.”

There are several routes to becoming shame-based:

  • First, shame can originate outside of us — When we are made to feel inadequate by our family, caregivers, teachers, peers, culture, or socio-political environment, we absorb that shame and make it our own. In this case, being shamed constitutes the original painful and frightening experience around which our trauma-world is built.
  • Second, human infants need sensitive and responsive nurturing from caregivers — When this need is not met, children develop an embodied and nonverbal sense of being inadequate. They also develop an embodied and nonverbal sense of inadequacy around their actual need for nurturing, itself — implicitly feeling that there must be something wrong with them for having the needs.
  • Third, shame can originate inside us as a response to more overt traumatizing experiences — Painful and frightening experiences occur that have nothing to do with being shamed. However, we have evolved a need to understand why these things have happened to us, and for various reasons, we tend to believe that we are at fault. For example, children whose parents divorce commonly feel that if they had been “better,” their parents would have stayed together.
  • Fourth, once we’ve entered a trauma-world, shame can be created in response to our own behavior — There are times when we know we are over-reacting. However, because we aren’t aware that our fear system is hyper-sensitive, we take our behavior as evidence of our own supposed inadequacy. In addition, when we bury parts of ourselves in order to make ourselves acceptable to others, we implicitly sense that we are being inauthentic, which in turn creates shame.

Irrespective of how our shame originates, once we’ve become shame-based, we can’t recognize shame for what it is. Thus, we see ourselves through a distorted lens. As a result, we are likely to experience ourselves as contemptible and feel a victim to our own believed inadequacy.

In this state, we get sucked into a downward spiral of shame. We can become even more desperate to obliterate the parts of ourselves that we believe make us inadequate, redoubling our efforts to shame those parts into submission. However, when we use shame against ourselves, we retraumatize ourselves. Then, instead of fostering change, we reinforce the status quo and fortify the walls of our trauma-world.

At the same time, we try to cajole ourselves into success, believing that if we can force ourselves to become more than we are — or ideally perfect — then the gnawing pain of being shame-based will abate. However, if we are shame-based, then no amount of success will be enough. No matter what we do, we are never enough.

Being shame-based doesn’t only poison our relationship with ourselves, it also poisons our relationships with others. When we are shame-based, we will be terrified that if others get to know us, they will see us as the inadequate person we believe ourselves to be, and in an unconscious attempt to prevent that from happening, we may put up barriers, push people away, and sabotage relationships. Alternatively, we may try to control others, hoping that we can prevent them from doing anything that might bring our shame to the surface.

We are generally not conscious of what we are doing, or indeed why we are doing it. However, we are left with a murky feeling that our relationships lack authenticity, trust, and intimacy. As a result, we feel increasingly isolated.

Also, because human beings are such a profoundly social species, when we don’t have meaningful relationships, we feel sub-human, and that, in turn, exacerbates our shame.

In short, shame creates more shame. Shame also generates isolation and fear. And shame reinforces the need to disconnect. Ultimately, shame keeps us locked in our trauma-worlds.

API: How can a person heal emotional trauma? What is the process?

Dr. Sieff: One of the challenges for healing is that although trauma-worlds are created in response to external events, once established, they form rigid and closed internal systems.

Locked inside these systems, our behavior sets us up to be retraumatized by other people. Additionally, the ways that we behave toward ourselves are invariably retraumatizing. Trauma-worlds are self-perpetuating.

Locked inside these systems, we also struggle to see trauma for what it is. That leaves us little choice but to focus on the visible symptoms and the chronic, deadening pain they create. These symptoms include the fear, disconnection, and shame that lie at the heart of a trauma-world — also depression, meaninglessness, addictions, self-harm, rage, and unexplained physical pain and ailments. Additionally, we are likely to struggle in our relationships and to sabotage things we care about.

Focusing on such symptoms, we — as individuals and as a society — put our resources into trying to alleviate them, perhaps through short-term therapy or psychotherapeutic drugs, or by pinning our hopes to something like success at work, a new romantic relationship, losing weight, or cosmetic surgery. This can give us temporary respite, but it won’t free us from the internal systems that were set up in the wake of the traumatizing experiences, so in time we fall back into our suffering.

Even when we can see beneath the symptoms to the underlying traumatizing experiences, we are unlikely to recognize the trauma-worlds in which we are living, so our first port of call is to blame whoever, or whatever, caused the original wounds and look for retribution.

That is a valuable first step and a necessary part of the process, for we do need to recognize what happened to us. We need to validate the experience and understand that it was not our fault. However, focusing on the traumatizing experience or on punishing the perpetrators is not enough by itself to bring deep healing, because that won’t change the embodied systems that form our trauma-worlds. It’s akin to being hit by a drunken driver and having our leg broken. Focusing on the accident and jailing the driver won’t heal our leg.

Healing trauma requires the courage to recognize that ultimately our lives are compromised not by the original traumatizing experiences themselves, but by the trauma-world that is created by our own minds and bodies as a response to those experiences. And we need to recognize this reality without blaming and judging ourselves — we need to understand that creating a trauma-world is what human beings do to survive.

At the same time, we have to take responsibility for our healing, and for moving out of our trauma-worlds.

API: Can you share on what you mean by “taking responsibility for our own healing”?

Dr. Sieff: Developing a cognitive awareness of the original traumatizing experiences, and of the systems created in their wake, is a good start to the process of taking responsibility for our own healing. But it is not enough.

To create lasting change, we have to enter into our emotional minds and bodies and slowly become aware of what we carry from the inside.

That means opening to the original traumatizing pain and fear, learning how to tolerate it, and integrating it into our sense of who we are. It is only when we find ways of relating to our buried pain and fear that our lives are no longer organized around the imperative to avoid anything which might trigger what we carry in our depths. However, this is an extremely challenging process: We need to do it slowly, taking one small step at a time.

Equally crucial is that we work with the fear, disconnection, and shame that form our trauma-worlds:

  • First, we must enter into these systems and become conscious of how we feel in both our minds and bodies when they are active.
  • Then, we have to challenge our shame, reconnect to the exiled parts of ourselves, and learn to live with our sensitized fear system.
  • Finally, we need to develop new, and healthier, ways to protect ourselves.

It is hard, daunting, and arduous work. Our trauma-worlds were created to survive overwhelming pain and fear. When we try to transform them, we are besieged with the conviction that we will be annihilated. That conviction leaves us at risk of sabotaging the healing process. Thus, we need patience, perseverance, determination, and courage. It is also imperative that we have support and guidance from those who have been through the process themselves.

To heal trauma, we not only need an embodied consciousness of what we carry from our past, we also need new experiences. Real change happens in the present moment through lived experience.

This need for new experiences is one of the many reasons why we can’t heal trauma alone. Emotional trauma arises because something has gone awry in our relationships, so a healing relationship is crucially important if we are to learn how to connect to other people and to ourselves in healthier ways. Similarly, we need support if we are going to approach the unprocessed pain and fear that was once unbearable, and we also need guidance if we are to transform the fearfulness, disconnection, and shame that lie at the heart of our trauma-worlds.

A healing relationship can be provided by a therapist, counselor, teacher, social worker, spiritual guide, or healing group — the label doesn’t matter. What does matter is that whoever is accompanying us has worked deeply with his or her own trauma. Healing trauma is akin to learning to speak a language like Chinese: It is not enough that our teacher has a theoretical knowledge of the grammar and that she can recognize the characters when they are written on the page; rather she must speak the language herself.

API: What does it mean to be healed?

Dr. Sieff: When we embark on trying to heal trauma, we typically imagine that we will reach a place where our lives are free from the suffering that arises from our wounds, and where trauma no longer has any effect on our lives.

That is not what happens. We cannot change our past. Our trauma remains part of us. What can be changed is its impact. To achieve that, we have to find new and healthier ways of being with the pain and fear embedded in the traumatizing experiences, and just as importantly, we have to transform the trauma-world that developed around them.

It is a challenging process. It takes time. Many people, and indeed most public health services, look for an easier and faster route. But there is no easy route. To address trauma in a meaningful way, we need to commit ourselves to this challenge. And I believe it is vitally important that we make this commitment, not only to help ourselves, but also because when we carry unaddressed trauma, we have no choice but to relate to our children, family, neighbors, and colleagues in ways that are likely to result in them becoming traumatized.

In contrast, when we transform our trauma-worlds, we break that spiral and start relating to ourselves, other people, and the world around us in much healthier and more nurturing ways.

API: Thank you so much, Daniela, for your wise words and insight! Your knowledge surrounding shame and trauma is certain to change lives and has the potential to change the world.

Interview by Rita Brhel, API

How to Heal Attachment with Your Teen

I sometimes think of the teenage years as an “attachment test.”

As I reflect on my own 6 children when they were teenagers, I assumed that if I got the attachment part right when they were babies and toddlers, then we were set for all the years ahead. After experiencing life with a teenager who was defensively detaching, I can tell you that living with a teenager is wonderful when the attachment is deeply rooted — but a nightmare when it is not.

ShoshanaAbout the Author

Shoshana Hayman is Israel’s Regional Director for the Neufeld Institute. She and her husband have 6 children and live in Israel, where she is the founder and director of the Life Center: the Israel Center of Attachment Parenting, through which she translates and publishes evidence-based books and workshop curricula in Hebrew.

First of all, to understand what “deeply rooted” means, it’s important to know about the 6 roots of attachment that need to be cultivated and preserved. In the same way that you nurture your relationship with your spouse throughout the years of marriage, so too you nurture your relationship with your children as they grow up. Just as importantly, you need the power that secure attachment gives you to influence your teenagers as you did when they were younger, and be their guide and consultant when they struggle with issues about their schooling, social integrity, and moral consciousness.

Insight into the 6 roots of secure attachment is one of Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s greatest contributions to the attachment puzzle. Synthesizing the many theories about attachment, he distilled to the essence what secure attachment looks like and how we can harness this process.

1st Root of Secure Attachment: Closeness

You are probably most familiar with the first root: connection and closeness through the senses. In their first year of life, the only way babies can hold their parents close is through touch, sight, hearing, smelling, and tasting.

Babies cannot bear to be apart from their primary attachment figure (usually the mother) for very long before they need to be filled up with attachment again!

As babies begin to crawl, walk, and explore their world, they need another way to hold you close.

2nd Root of Secure Attachment: Sameness

He wants to be like you.

When your 2-year-old plays with your phone, shoes, or eyeglasses, imitates your gestures, eats food from your plate, or pretends he is you, he is holding on to you by being like you.

3rd Root of Secure Attachment: Belonging

When your 3-year-old declares “My Mommy” or “My Daddy” and tells the world you are the prettiest, strongest, or smartest, you are seeing the unfolding of a third root: belonging and loyalty.

Now your child has another way to hold on to you by feeling he possesses you, and he will feel jealous of others — such as his siblings — who come close to you.

Becoming Attached

These first 3 roots are shallow and do not allow enough room for growth.  With only these roots, the child can’t become his own person if to have his attachment needs met he has to be physically close, the same as you, and loyal to your opinions and ideas.

When we cultivate these roots, then healthy development provides the deeper roots of attachment. Without deeper roots,  teenagers will be constantly occupied with seeking closeness, sameness, and belonging and loyalty — usually with their friends instead of their parents.

Teenagers need richer and deeper roots in order to be freed from this incessant pursuit of attachment, so they can focus on their emerging identity, value system, and future goals.

If your relationship with your child develops as nature intended, the next 3 roots can be cultivated. These roots create a connection at the heart level with parents while at the same time give ample room for the child to emerge as his own person.

By the time a child is approximately 6 years old, he should be attaching through all 6  roots — although it’s important to continue to nurture these roots well beyond early childhood.

4th Root of Secure Attachment: Significance

The heart connection begins to grow at the fourth root, when your child feels he matters to you and he is a significant person in your life.

Deep in his brain’s limbic system, it will register that you think the world of him, take delight in his very existence, put him first in your life, and will move earth and sky for him.

Every parent will convey this in his or her own unique way.

5th Root of Secure Attachment: Love

The root of significance opens the way for the fifth root to grow when your child can give you his heart for safekeeping as he “falls head over heels in attachment with you.”

When this happens, your child unabashedly lets you know how much he or she loves you. Your child is filled with expressions of love for you, wants to marry you, and stay with you forever.

Now he can be away from you and still feel attached. Your relationship can now become eternal — transcending time and space.

6th Root of Secure Attachment: Understanding

Psychological intimacy characterizes your relationship when the sixth and deepest root takes hold. Your child feels compelled to confide in you and share his innermost thoughts and feelings with you.

At the same time he is developing a deeper relationship with himself, he is developing a deeper relationship with you.

From a Securely Attached Child to a Securely Attached Teen

You can imagine how easy it would be to parent your teenager if he wanted to be like you, express your values in his own life, and felt drawn to confide in you and take counsel with you. Nature intends for these roots to grow and deepen, as long as the parent takes responsibility for cultivating and nourishing these roots. In Dr. Neufeld’s words: “The provision must be greater than the child’s pursuit.”

Your child is not conscious of this spontaneous growth of relationship taking place, just as an unborn baby does not have to worry about the uterus stretching larger to make more room for him.

You must claim the alpha position to provide these roots through the years, making it easy for your teenager to remain securely attached to you. This is the context — the psychological womb — he or she needs in order to discover and explore his or her own thoughts, feelings, opinions, values, ideas, and plans. It is, in fact, this very heart connection that will enable him or her to think independently and realize his or her full human potential.

The Emergent Self vs Teenage Rebellion

We have come to think of teenage “rebellion,” — a casting off of parental values and lifestylen and sometimes even of the parents themselves — as normal, because it is so pervasive. But nature never intended this aberration to occur.

In normal teenage development, the adolescent comes to form his own ideas, beliefs, opinions, and goals — not to reject those of his parents — but rather in respect of his parents. He can integrate these sometimes seemingly contradictory sets of ideas, beliefs, opinions, and values and be true to himself while living in harmony with his family. He can do “separateness” and “togetherness” at the same time, neither losing his self nor losing his relationship with his parents.

During this process of individuation of the teen, parents make more and more room for their child’s expression of himself while continuing to nurture the secure attachment roots. By doing this, they are giving him 2 invitations:

  1. To exist in their presence, and
  2. To bring his whole self into relationship with them.

The miracle of maturation unfolds in this context of secure and deep attachment.

Falling Out of Attachment

Just as you “fall in love” or “fall in attachment,” you can “fall out of love” or “fall out of attachment.”

If your child faces too much separation from any or all of the roots of attachment, the relationship goes into reverse, roots are severed, and remaining roots become shallow. If your child is denied a generous invitation to exist in your presence, if he feels he is different from you, if he senses he does not belong or that he has been betrayed or that he doesn’t matter to you or you don’t really care about him or that he is not loved the way he is or that you don’t understand him, these feelings become too much to bear and he will instinctively back out of the attachment relationship.

This is not determined by choice but rather by the way our brains work to protect us from emotional wounding from  separation that is too much to bear.

This is the brain’s way of defending the child from painful feelings:

  • The attachment instincts go into reverse.
  • Instead of bringing out the instincts to cooperate, respect, listen to, defer to, accept help from, and seek to be with, the instincts to be uncooperative, belligerent, rejecting, secretive, and disrespectful are engaged.

Like a magnet, attachment is polarized — attracting at one end and repelling at the other. When your teenager detaches from you, he or she repels, disrespects, annoys, opposes, rejects, and ignores. Parenting becomes a nightmare, because you lose your authority and influence. You are dealing with a child whose attachment instincts have gone awry, and instead of seeking you out and emulating you, he distances himself and is filled with disdain.

From personal experience, I can tell you that finding yourself on the other side of the attachment magnet is painful, and it takes great yearning, patience, and courage to restore your relationship and re-create the context your child needs to grow. You must start again from the beginning to cultivate the attachment roots, and find the way back to your child’s heart. This is finding your way through the maze with your heart and your head.

To whom or to what is your teen attaching? Who does he seek to be with? Who does he want to be like? Who is he loyal to? From whom does he seek comfort? Where does he feel most at home? Who does he tell his secrets to?

If you discover that you are not his answer, he is most likely trying to satisfy his attachment hunger through attachment to friends. The attachment can also be impersonal, such as attachment to sports figures or other celebrities, clothing, digital devices, or obsessions and compulsions. These superficial relationships can never be truly fulfilling and give your child the psychological rest he needs in order to emerge into his own personhood. Instead, they send your child into an addictive pursuit of closeness that is never satiated, causing a build-up of frustration, which leads to aggressive behavior and even addictions.

Believe You are the Answer

Parents have the power to prevent these defenses in their children from being triggered. By taking responsibility for providing and cultivating the secure attachment roots on a daily basis, teens can safely continue holding on to you and feeling the satiation from having their attachment needs met.

In the same way that you continue providing nourishing meals for your family, you must continue providing the attachment nourishment that your growing children need every day.

Our lives are easily cluttered with activities and responsibilities, and so we need to take stock frequently of our priorities and create the space in our lives for nurturing these secure attachment roots. Our teenagers’ lives, too, are often bursting with plans and programs, and we need to lovingly entice them into relationship with us and create oases of warm, nurturing, peaceful, and loving interaction.

We, as parents, need to believe that this is essential for their well-being and that we are their truest answer for healthy maturation of the emergent self.  I love how Dr. Neufeld encapsulates this: “You don’t have to know all the answers, but you have to believe that you are the answer.”

It comes as good news that parents are more important than friends for the fruition of human potential.

Restoring Attachment with Your Teenager

The good news is that it’s never too late  to restore secure attachment with your child, and attachment can be cultivated at any time. When you begin to cultivate the roots of secure attachment, there’s a good chance your child will spontaneously respond and depend on you for the fulfillment of his attachment needs.

There are no formulas or prescriptions. Your patience and faith sustain you as you walk this maze. Your heart leads you in this intuitive process. The warmth of your compassion and love melt your child’s defenses, so he can feel at home with you and experience the comfort of your presence once again.

The first step in this dance is to create the context needed to soften your teen’s heart, so his brain can let go of the defenses that have been erected and are numbing out his vulnerable feelings. These defenses can melt spontaneously as soon as the brain feels:

  • It is safe for your teen to experience the vulnerability that is inherent in human relationships,
  • It is safe to depend on you, and
  • He can be comforted by you and hold on to you, metaphorically speaking.

You will need to ignore his habits or behaviors you find irritating and objectionable, until the right context of relationship is restored. You will need to refrain from making requests or expecting results that you know will not be honored.

You will need to move into the dominant place in the relationship of providing proximity and closeness, sameness, belonging and loyalty, a sense of mattering and significance, love, and understanding –just as you would with a young child.

This is heart work — led by your intuition — spontaneously, trial and error, paying attention to what your teen can hold on to.

One teen, age 16, had not had a real conversation with his parents in 2 years. His mother had “consequenced” him so much during his growing up years that her betrayal of him and what was important to him became a separation that was too much to bear. He was indeed in defensive detachment from her: He had retreated from the relationship because of too much hurt, and his instincts to seek closeness, sameness, belonging, significance, love, and understanding had gone into reverse.

This boy then broke his leg and had to be hospitalized for 2 weeks, making it easy for his mother and father to once again become his answer. They brought food, kept him company, and made good guesses about what they could bring him that would cheer him up. His heart began to thaw out.

This was only the beginning, for then they had to continue cultivating the relationship out of the hospital and be aware of avoiding the triggering of the defenses again.

With my own daughter, I took a different direction. I created an invitation for her to exist in my presence, no matter what she did to reject me, and I made room for all of her in our relationship. I paid attention to her needs and played a part in taking care of them without her expectation of my help.

Activating the Attachment Instincts

Collecting is a very important part of this dance. What I mean by “collecting” is to frequently seek out your child, make warm eye contact if possible, smile and convey delight in her very presence — making it easy for her to depend on you for comfort, warmth, and a place of rest.

Sometimes, it’s difficult. Sometimes, it’s painful. Sometimes, it’s discouraging. But eventually the heart softens more and more, and the dance becomes more natural and flows intuitively. Collecting your teen’s eyes and smile and conveying your delight in her presence throughout the day sends her brain a powerful message — that it is safe to attach to you.

Since we cannot be together all the time with our children, bridging separations is an important part of the attachment repertoire. At bedtime, before leaving the house during the day, and before traveling for business or pleasure, the separation can be bridged by talking about the next connection with your teen: “I’ll see you in the morning,” “I’ll call you when I arrive,” “I’ll send you a message,” “We’ll have dinner together when I get back,” are all ways of building a bridge from one connection to the next one and keep the attachment brain of the child connected to you.

Keeping Our Own Hearts Soft

To restore and strengthen attachment, we need to keep our own hearts soft. We need to bring our own defenses down by finding our tears over all that did not work, all that went wrong, all that did not go as we had planned.

Your alpha place — the provider of attachment needs — in your child’s life must come from a soft place, a caring place, and a place of compassion. Your rules, boundaries, ideals, and values must come from this place, as well.

There’s no such thing as “tough love.”  If it’s tough, it’s not love and it will only keep the defenses tough.

You will most likely need to stretch yourself to come to this place, but the bonus will be your own growth and maturation as your heart becomes softer and bigger, and your relationship with yourself deepens — as does your relationship with your child and with others. This takes courage and determination, but we parents all have this capacity within us, waiting to come to fruition.  Our children, even our most prickly teens, give us this opportunity to grow and become more.


Engagement vs Redirection in Positive Discipline

It’s often said that children’s negative behaviors occur due to either the child is hoping to get something he or she wants, or the child is hoping to avoid something he or she doesn’t want.

denise-durkinAbout the Author

Denise Durkin, MA, is an early childhood mental health consultant and self-regulation specialist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, at Our Holistic Kids.

Because I believe it’s so important to increase our collective psychological literacy, or “PsychQ,” as I call it — a measurable intelligence — it seems helpful to examine more closely the underlying psychological dynamics of child development in instances of any number of behavioral challenges.

Understanding human behavior at its deepest core levels is vital for increasing our own insights into dynamics within ourselves and our families. The knowledge deepens our own levels of patience and feelings of compassion, and it broadens our collective skills sets for essentially increasing harmony in our family, school, and community cultures. The insights that psychological literacy have created and continue to help create in our current culture can extend way beyond childhood for our children as they internalize the same ways of thinking and doing that help root them in peace and empowerment.

Being in Balance

That said, it is often overlooked that when a child becomes upset, it is very often — if not always — because not only is he not doing things his way, but also because at this deepest core level, he is not feeling the homeostasis, or balance within himself, that he needs to in order to feel his best: his most safe self. This is no small thing.

It is important to state that emotional safety is the overarching developmental goal of childhood. I don’t think we need empirical research to prove this assertion. Feeling safe includes being wholly accepted for who we are and what we feel, like, and do. It is a precursor to self-worth, self-respect, and personal pride that makes up a child’s idea of who he or she is. This counters shame development, which highly factors into capacities for self-regulation.

What Causes a Child’s Lack of Emotional Safety?

There are many reasons for a child’s lack of internal balance — this lack of emotional safety — on the part of a child who withdraws or acts out.

I’ll begin with a story. It is an example of why a child’s external environment of relationships — his or her parents, teachers, extended family members, and other caregivers —  needs to be balanced in order to help him or her feel safe, and if it is not, how to use a few specific steps to begin to increase that external “relationship” balance, which so greatly factors into our relationship with a child and his or her compliance to our requests.

In this, as in all of what I write, the words that I use are not used in judgment, but to make specific the best examples for creating healthy versus unhealthy relationships. We all do the best we can with the skills and awareness we have at any given time.

I’m recalling a situation for which I was asked to consult on a common problem for many families and classrooms, in which 2 caregivers with very different relating styles are attempting to “handle” a 3-year old boy whose behaviors are “off the hook.” Noncompliance, aggression, and attention-seeking behaviors are the norm on any given day, at any given time.

First Look: Attachment

The first, most apparent problem was that the 2 caregivers were relating to him in very different ways. If I could bring insight into this imbalance to both adults, and if they both began using the same methods of relating to the child, we’d likely have more success at helping him to feel more safe and secure in context of this “continuity of care,” meaning he’d likely feel safer because there would be more consistency in how he was being treated.

Working from the perspective, then, of emotional safety being the overarching developmental goal of childhood allows us to recognize that the safer this boy feels as himself — in his body, within his environment — the less likely he would be to act out, since his acting-out is a call for an intervention to help him get what he needs: an internal sense of balance and security the adults could provide by themselves being balanced and consistent in how they relate to him. Step one.

One caregiver has an inconsistent approach and inconsistent emotions she displays to the boy. She seems uncertain of what to do much of the time. During a particular observation, when the boy is non-compliant, she attempts to redirect him from across the room: “Put the books back on the shelves, OK?” He does not listen and, in fact, begins throwing books her way. The caregiver is exhausted from dealing with him, so she ignores him and begins reading a story to another child on the floor. “He doesn’t listen anyway, so what’s the use,” she tells me. Next, the boy is on the couch behind her dropping heavier and heavier items onto her head. Finally, she yells at him out of frustration and he acts up more than before: throwing more items across the room, running, and knocking objects around.

Enter the second caregiver. She is confident, consistent, firm, and warm with the children. She addresses any issues by approaching the child personally and kneeling to their level, speaking eye-to-eye with them, being sure to use non-shaming tones and words. She uses inquiry and humor, sets limits, and uses role modeling to teach the skills the child has not yet developed. Her own consistent, balanced, respectful state of being and relating — which translates into her perception, approach, and management of him — is what Adam needs to feel safe: He trusts that she will continue to be balanced and safe for him. So it is easier, far easier, for him to have the willingness to comply with her directives when he has this trusting relationship that makes him feel secure: meaning emotionally safe.

The boy’s non-compliance, aggression, and attention-seeking behaviors are lessened at the moment due to this method of engaging which this second caregiver provides. But because this method is not used by the first caregiver also, the boy continues to act out in this environment overall. The adults’ methods of perception, approach, and management of children are not in sync at all, and the boy’s behaviors are — to a significant degree in this environment — the outcomes of that inconsistency.

What went on for this 3-year-old is true for many children: His negative behaviors are signaling that he is not feeling the balance in his internal world — within himself — in large part because his first caregiver does not have the skills set to be the external source of balance in how she relates to him. Being a balanced caregiver is a piece to helping him acquire this internal balance. This aspect of the child’s relationships falls under the domain of “Attachments/Relationships,” among the multiple domains of health and well-being requiring balance — each prerequisites to self-regulation.

Engagement vs Redirection

So how to understand a more systematic approach to providing the balanced attachment that acting-out or withdrawn children are seeking? Let’s now look at the caregivers’ approaches to discipline: engagement versus redirection.

We can define redirection as a simple, short statement of what you want a child to do differently. You’re basically saying, “Put the books on the shelves; it’s time to (fill in the blank).”

Engagement requires more time and effort, and is a mechanism for developing a positive emotional attachment with a child based upon mutual warmth, respect, and trust. It occurs over time and is the foundation for a healthy relationship. Once this relationship is developed, redirection can be used more successfully. However, inherent in this dynamic of compliance is our need to be sensitive to the different types of children’s needs, including their intelligence and transition needs.

How to Engage

If you recognize your own need to be a more balanced caregiver, perhaps using the following example about the 3-year-old boy in the story will help you develop a personalized system for your perception, approach, and management of his behavior:

First, approach him personally and engage. We walk over to where the child is and get down to his level, calmly and respectfully addressing what he is doing, feeling, his desires, and/or what we think his body needs, such as to express energy.

Second, realize your 2 goals. Our first goal is the “activity goal” — to get the boy to pick up the books from the floor and put them back on the shelves, so setting limits. Our second goal is the “relationship goal” — to develop a better relationship with him, meaning strengthening our attachment to him.

This means we avoid saying anything that will put him on the defensive and not want to talk with us, like “What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you listen like the others?” However, sometimes we unwittingly communicate the same with anger and frustration, and this can set a child off. So, it’s worth repeating that it pays to be in check of how we present ourselves.

To make or improve that emotional connection, we try engaging him in a pleasant conversation about his activity, and also address how he seems to be feeling. And then set limits.

Primarily, we show him that we are interested in him and that he matters by being intentional in our approach. When I do this, I kneel down, look in the child’s eyes, and with patience and warmth, I’ll say something like, “Hey (child’s name), I see you’ve been looking at some books. Which are the ones you like best?”

The goal of using these intentional specific steps is to help the child establish a positive schema — or concept — for who he believes himself to be. The emotions of warmth related to feeling respected, interesting to someone, and of being liked help to develop his emotional schema for his self-concept. In other words, the emotions he is feeling translate to unconscious messages of “I am of interest to this person/respected by her/worthy of being listened to. She enjoys/likes me, so I must be of value; therefore, I must be good for her to relate to me this way.”

Think about it. What do you feel and perhaps unconsciously process in a similar adult situation? Can you imagine it for a very small child? How they come to develop self-pride or shame? It’s important to understand the idea of how an emotional schema for “I am liked, I am wanted, I am good,” can be developed and nurtured. I cannot overstate this importance.

There are many things going on here, in this story, within the 3-year-old’s awareness, however conscious or unconscious — and they are affecting the way he views himself by virtue of how we are viewing him. Therefore, they are affecting the way he feels about himself, and us. We are showing him respect by approaching him, getting on his level, and making kind eye contact.

We are not accusing him, rather we are inquiring as to what he is doing and what he likes. This makes him feel good, and puts him at ease, and this is the right track.

Third, identify things about him. We say, “Out of all these books, which are your favorite? Oh, one about boats, one about trains, and one about flying in a plane! You really like things that move, don’t you?” By asking him to show us his favorite books, we continue to create a sense in him that what he likes matters to us and this really helps him begin to feel a positive emotional connection to us.

In his mind, because what he likes matters to us, he must matter to us — this message is no small thing. In pointing out that he likes things that move, we are further helping him to see himself through the lens of what he likes, and this helps to shape the idea — or cognitive schema — he has for who he is. He is now considering himself as someone who likes things that move.

This may not seem like such a big deal to us, but to a 3-year-old, it’s the very building up of his self-concept! He’s internalizing a more cognitive validation of who he is, and this — along with the building up of his emotional schema — helps him gain a clearer picture of himself as a person in the world that makes him feel good.

Fourth, go for the activity goal. By investing time into inquiring about him as a person, we began to make our relationship goal. If that feels like a solid foundation — and it is likely to, especially over time — then we go for the activity goal: “Let’s put these books over here and bring them to circle time, so we can show our friends what you like. But first, let’s get the rest of these books on the shelf.”

We don’t ask him; we tell him. If he begins to melt down, we provide more choices to help him gain a sense of control: “Do you want to put the books back first, or take your books to the circle area first?” “Do you want to get the other kids together for circle when we’re finished, or should I do it?” Here we are skillfully attempting to expand that positive connection, which ideally will both lead us to the next activity, and gain his compliance with returning the books to the shelves in the meantime.

So that is the goal, process, and ideal result of engaging a child. These are the foundational factors to “being the balance” for a child.

Redirection Without Engagement and Fear-Based Tactics Miss the Mark

Redirecting a child, say, from across the room when we do not have a warm, trusting, and — in his eyes — safe relationship with him is less likely to produce compliance, although some children comply out of fear. Threatening, manipulating, shaming, or otherwise instilling fear to get a child to do what is wanted may work in some cases, but we know it is not the foundation for a truly safe, warm, and loving relationship. Do we want our kids to use those kinds of tactics on themselves or with others? Of course not, because this is where bullying can start and other maladaptive ways of relating.

Remember that our goal is to help the child develop “right relationship” with himself. This is the prerequisite for developing healthy relationships with others. As we use warmth, humor, and inquiry as a process of engagement, we teach the child to be warm, easygoing, and engaging with himself and his peers.

Also Helpful: Realistic Limits, Consistency, and Addressing Own Emotional Drama

In addition to using engagement to develop healthy emotional bonds with our child, we need to be mindful of setting realistic limits based on realistic expectations of his or her age and developmental stage. We should not expect, for example, 2- and 3-year-olds to sit for however many minutes of circle time, or even older children if they are bored. Recognizing each child’s unique intelligence, needs, and skills sets is key in every situation.

The other piece is being consistent with how we handle the part when they don’t comply — so our “follow-through.” We want to be present for the child and really listen to him, really see him, and we want to keep our own emotional dramas out of the equation and be consistent in our manner so the child learns to trust us. This requires our own ongoing commitment to being vulnerable to objective, kind, non-judgmental self-insight.

What is Normal, Healthy Infant Sleep?

I’m awake writing this during the biologically normative and healthy stages of first and second sleep. Research has revealed that right up until the advent of electric light, humans normally experienced two distinct segments of sleep.

artyuenspAbout the Author

Art Yuen is the KnowledgeBase Coordinator for Attachment Parenting International (API), a member of API’s Board of Directors, and an API Leader with API-NYC in New York City, USA, where she lives with her 2 children and husband.

Factory work, made possible with light, further compressed and consolidated work and sleep hours in industrialized nations. Normal sleep biology has been affected by these modern trends, so it should be little surprise that millions of adults now rely on medicated solutions for sleep to accommodate modern concepts of productive time.

It’s also little surprise that to achieve our quota of sleep, our babies must go along with these modern trends. It’s no longer acceptable for babies to literally sleep like babies. Most parents can attest that this phrase is an ironic fallacy, but nevertheless, there is a distinct infant and young child sleep pattern that fosters health and our society has co-opted that, too: Instead of allowing infants to sleep like they should, our modernized society has notions about the way infants “should” sleep.

The infant sleep-training industry has been happy to “help” parents train babies to adapt to this biologically foreign sleep pattern, just as we parents have adapted to our own unnatural sleep habits.

Are Modern Sleep Patterns Healthier?

It would be interesting to discover a study that investigated possible links between infant sleep-training and later adult sleep difficulty. To date, there are no studies that have examined this. Are we literally setting ourselves up for maladaptive sleep patterns from birth?  Maybe not — we can’t know, with the lack of research into this matter — but since we’ve had 100 or so years to adapt as a species to this new sleep pattern, we can and should ask how successful it’s been for us: Has sleeping become more healthy over this time?  Of course, GDP has been strong and we’ve been productive — and destructive, waging a few massive wars — but are we all healthier for it? Is our sleep healthier, or even healthy, as a result? Is anyone even looking at it?

Examining trends that qualify under the creep of cultural normalcy is like trying to examine the tip of your own nose without a mirror.  Our perspective is never perfectly clear.

Consolidated sleep is a cultural adaptation that’s hard to examine with sufficient perspective, because it is not obviously something we would think to examine. We take it for granted.

Adaptations are not all necessarily good or healthy ones, and there are several examples of the way we’ve accumulated unhealthy habits that don’t seem to be immediately connected. Direct and immediate connections are not the only evidence that “normal” actions are “OK.”

As a nation, we’ve suffered untold illness — much of it related to our abundant food supply and our taste for sugar. It’s hard to wrap our heads around how this happened when many of us would argue that there has “always” been this much sugar in our foods. Yet looking at food over a few generations reveals the truth of our diet shifts that match the health curve.

Not all adaptations are beneficial, nor then, are they instantly or clearly maladaptive. This is a difficult challenge.

The Dependence of Healthy Infant Sleep Patterns

If we take a holistic view of the sleep question, we have to ask how successful and beneficial it is when we discover the “normal” situation of medicated sleep and the reach of adult sleep difficulties into so many lives. Is it “normal” that we should let our babies cry to sleep at a point when they most need short-interval feedings and physical contact with us to stimulate growth hormones? What’s the cost to them when we force them to adapt to our needs versus us to their needs?

Infants are notorious for explosive growth and, as most parents know too well, developmental stages are each marked by  corresponding, changing sleep patterns. Like the children they are a part of, no 2 sleep patterns are identical.

Healthy infant sleep patterns — like teething, crawling, bipedal movement, and language acquisition — are the very biological developments that unfold independently over time.

Being helpless, infants necessarily must adapt to their environmental conditions. Their dependent state is augmented by a nifty alarm system they use effectively to call for help: their cry. Ignoring a crying baby is akin to letting the battery go dead in a smoke detector. What would be the point? It’s true that the reason for some cries for help is not as urgent, but our response should never be that we give up looking for smoke.

Babies have their own unique sleep needs that change and respond to their unique needs in a period marked by the most rapid biological growth and development across the human lifespan. Why would we dream of forcing them into our own inappropriate sleep patterns for the sake of our own cultural maladaptions?  What is lost when we do?

Combining Adult Structure With Infant Sleep Needs

Adult structure helps by recognizing and providing the time, space, and conditions for an infant to sleep and rest, but doing any more would be akin to trying to force teeth to appear in different places in the mouth at different times.

Cross-cultural studies of sleep have demonstrated time and again what we already know about biologically normative infant and child sleep patterns.  Why do we continue to ignore it? Cosleeping and breastfeeding have been species-biological norms from time immemorial.

Light bulbs, alarm clocks, factories, and offices are new cultural inventions that require a whole new sleep-industrial complex to maintain. Taking it all into consideration, there is no question of adaptation. Listening to our babies causes us to take pause and ask ourselves: At what cost to our health and well-being do we continue to believe that our sleep is adaptive, and at what cost to our child’s health and well-being are we forcing them to do the same?  What growth do they forgo?

Attachment parenting resists a one-sleep-fits-all solution and instead offers a multitude of potential sleep solutions that can accommodate working parents and infant development. All-inclusive sleep solutions with an infant will necessarily change and will necessarily be unconsolidated if we remain responsive to our babies in a healthy way.

The Sticking Point for Parents

Often in our culture, it is true that parents find themselves in the very difficult place of making sleep-deprived family sleep choices without support. It is also true that in defending their choices that run counter to what is culturally prevalent, parents respond and react more defensively.

But if we follow evidence-based normal human development, early independence is a fallacy. We find instead that parents and infants are designed to be in close contact, breastfeeding and sleeping in intervals that begin at 2 hours and then slowly stretch out over time. If this were somehow maladaptive or unhealthy, we simply would not be here to tell the tale.

This fact leads us to grapple with our culture, our beliefs about it, and the parenting choices we make. Looking again cross-culturally, we can still find cultures that honor biological sleep needs and, perhaps as a result, have less need for infant sleep-training. I wonder if the sleep medication rates differ there, as well? Either way, a good night’s sleep need not be cookie cutter to be beneficial.

API Responds to 2016 AAP Statement on Infant Sleep: Infants and parents benefit from breastfeeding and sleeping near one another, reducing SIDS risk by 50%