If You Want to Change Your Children, Change Yourself
You go to a workshop, or you schedule an appointment for a therapist, or you do something about working with issues from your past, issues stemming from your childhood relationship with your mom and dad. If you do any of these things, most likely you are a woman. Men often have a harder time with this sort of thing than women do. If you’re what some consider a real guy, then you’re certain this psychological stuff is for sissies, is a total waste of time, or worse. If you are not inclined toward self-help, meditation, therapy, and that sort of thing, then you may characterize those who are so inclined as navel-gazers wasting their time and energy.
“The past is past,” you may say.
Your thoughts on the situation may be captured by the bumper sticker that says, “We all come from dysfunctional families. Get over it.”
We all know people who make us want to pull our hair out because they never get over the past, never stop telling the same story, never stop playing the victim, and never stop blaming the same people for their problems no matter how much therapy they get and how many workshops they attend.
“Get over it,” is pretty good advice, if you can genuinely get over it; “it” being the negative stuff from your childhood.
But we need to be careful before we discount those who are trying to work through their childhood relationship issues with their parents, just as we must be very careful before we assume that we have successfully dealt with the issues from our own childhood.
There is a great deal at stake here.
For years, researchers Mary Main and Erik Hesse at UC Berkeley have been studying how children behave in what is known in the research literature as the Strange Situation, a research setting where a child between three and 18 months of age is observed as the mother or primary caretaker leaves and then returns under varying conditions involving a stranger in the room.
From the observations, the researchers determine an attachment style for the child. The important finding is that the results from this observation of the child in the Strange Situation strongly predict how prone the child will later be to psychological difficulties.
To repeat, the findings from observing the child in the Strange Situation will strongly correlate with the presence or absence of psychological difficulties later in life.
If you are a parent, or soon-to-be a parent, or a teacher, or anyone interested in the well-being of children, then this research is very important for you and the children in your life.
You may be asking a very important question: “What determines how a baby will respond to the Strange Situation, and is there anything we as parents and teachers and concerned adults can do about it?”
The work of Main and Hesse is again important for answering this question. For over 20 years these researchers have been developing and refining the use of the Adult Attachment Interview, a series of questions that must be administered and coded, or scored, by a highly trained professional. The AAI, the Adult Attachment Interview, is administered to an adult, not to a child, and then scored.
The adult’s results on the AAI will have a very significant bearing on how the baby of that adult will perform in the Strange Situation, and the baby’s behavior during the Strange Situation has a very strong bearing on how the baby will fare later in life when faced with psychological challenges.
An adult’s results on the AAI have very important consequences for the mental well-being of his or her children.
“What,” you may be asking, “is the Adult Attachment Interview? What does the AAI ask? What is it trying to discover?” The AAI is designed to “trick your unconscious” to determine whether you have successfully resolved the challenges from your childhood relationship with your parents or primary caregivers. Before you run off screaming, “Aah, the unconscious! Psychobabble! Give me a break! I thought Freud and the unconscious were dead and buried,” consider that the AAI has been researched for over 20 years and its value has been confirmed as a predictor of how your child will behave under the conditions of the Strange Situation.
The AAI has been administered and scored for over 10,000 people. There are hundreds and hundreds of studies looking at the AAI and the Strange Situation. The results are in, and the evidence is very strong.
An adult who is administered the AAI and categorized as not having successfully worked through their childhood relationship with their parents will have a child who is more likely to need help with psychological issues later in life.
How many adults, on average, does the research find have not successfully resolved their childhood relationship to their parents?
About 20 percent; that’s one out of five of us.
I must make something clear. The AAI is a research instrument that must be administered by trained and experienced testers. It will not be easy for you to run out and get the AAI administered to you or your partner as it would be administered and coded in a research setting.
Going through the Adult Attachment Interview is not my point. My point is that one of the best things you can do for your child’s mental health is to make sure you have worked through your childhood issues.
The challenge is that even if you want to, you may not be the best judge of whether or not you have worked through your own issues. In research settings, parents are often observed to be unconscious of the behaviors that are negatively impacting their children.
If you are serious about seeing if you have material that you need to work on, you can look at how your child is behaving.
You can look at how you fare in relationships even before a child comes into your life.
You can go to workshops or to therapy, just like those people you may have once made fun of.
If you’re a guy, you can join a men’s group. (I am very familiar with this, so contact me if you need to know more.)
A good therapist should be able to help you find the areas where you have not dealt with unresolved issues from your childhood. I know that for some of you all this may sound like as much fun as having a tooth pulled—but consider the research findings. If you have children and you want them to change, you may need to change first.
Research shows that with effort and help, people do change, and those changes benefit our children. Though you may have thought that working on stuff from your past was selfish, silly, useless, indulgent, not for real guys or strong women, and very uncool, in fact it may be the best and most important gift you can give your children and yourself.
Happy holidays. And all the best.
I can be reached at email@example.com or (805) 680-5572.