We did everything by the book: birthed at home, breastfed over two years, co-slept and wore our babies on our bodies 24/7 — why then do some attached children seem anxious, over-sensitive, angry and even hostile sometimes?
Attachment parenting is probably the best approach to parenting babies that our culture has produced, since the dawn of what we call ‘civilisation’. The new sensitivity to babies’ emotional needs has been a wonderful advance, endorsed by the best research that developmental psychology and neurobiology have to offer.
As a result, more and more of us thought that if we do it by-the-book: natural birthing, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, demand-breastfeeding, child-led weaning, elimination communication, everything would be OK. And yet…why do some attachment-raised children still seem anxious, angry, over-sensitive, even hostile sometimes? We gave them freedoms and attention unheard of in previous generations. Were they not all supposed to be contented, confident and considerate?
Secure attachment has been rightly located at the very heart of emotional health, and at the centre of what drives loving relationships later in life; but core development does not end there. Healthy attachment is essential, but not sufficient. The next stage of development is quite different, and it asks us to re-orient our relationship to the child in some fundamental ways.
The toddler, having emerged from the time of dreamy and adoring symbiosis with Mother, begins to seek a whole new basis for relationship — he/she is now ready to individuate. This new stage of development, equally essential to healthy relationships and emotionality, is about differentiation. Whereas a baby needs you to be an extension of himself, a toddler needs to see you as a separate self, so his own independent self can emerge.
The inner strength of a toddler, his autonomy and self-trust depend on parents who role model emotional ‘realness’. This means allowing all your feelings — your love, your tenderness, your joy, your fun, your tiredness, your sadness, your anger — to be reflected congruently in your words, your gestures, your voice. The most nourishing thing for your child now is getting to see and know your ‘authentic’ self.
The toddler stage
As the baby tentatively ventures into the world of toddlerdom, a new kind of nourishment is needed for his empowerment — symbiosis no longer works. Certainly, the foundation of emotional security comes from meeting the baby’s attachment needs. But this foundation of trust is intended as a safe, inner home-base, from which the toddler begins to discover and explore his own ‘otherness’. Once security is established, the child needs to grow a healthy interpersonal boundary, and a gradual change of tack is required from the parent who thus far has strived to respond to his every need. Now the child gains in strength through the gradual discovery of the parent as a separate person, with his own needs, desires, feelings — and limits!
As long as she isn’t cruelly punished or humiliated, a toddler’s tolerance for disagreement grows stronger and her resilience matures. This allows the parents more space to show her a broader range of their own feelings, to begin asserting more of their own needs and personal boundaries, and to expect some age-appropriate considerate behaviour. The more the parents are willing to be transparent, authentic and emotionally alive in relating to the child, the more she is empowered to find her own separate and unique self. As long as parents modulate their self-expression to what the child can safely understand, this kind of interpersonal contact helps the child to mature.
The role of frustration and disappointment
Increasingly the toddler meets with limits as his power and motility grows: there are limits to running freely in any direction, limits to playing with anything he grabs, limits to screaming out loud in restaurants, limits to pushing away or striking others (such as a smaller sibling), limits to staying in the playground indefinitely when the parent needs to go home. The discovery that others have their own needs and boundaries can make a child frustrated and even enraged.
As long as parents can be assertive rather than punishing or shaming, strong limits actually help the child to feel secure. It is through the parents’ boundary-setting that children learn how to contain their own impulses when they need to.
When a child is given the space and the empathy to safely express his rage (tantrums), his hurt or his sadness, this is very empowering. His right of protest is what heals him; it gives him confidence that when the world is frustrating, this does not damage his core. He can still feel good about himself in the face of frustration, and this is what enables him to move on. The right to protest his disappointments gives him a rich inner core of self-love. This is the very resilience with which he will face the transience of life’s pleasures.
As adults, there are always occasions when we appropriately choose to contain our raw impulses, such as the desire to lash out angrily or violently, our sexual urges, etc. The way our parents restrained us as children sets the tone for how we contain ourselves later. For example, if our parents shamed us, we shame ourselves into inhibition, or if our parents punished us, we punish or sabotage ourselves. If our parents were assertive with us, we contain our own impulses when we freely choose to, without denting our own self-esteem.
The role of conflict
Since children are so unrestrained and exuberant at this stage, it is natural that there will be some conflict with their parents. Far from having to be harmful, this stage-appropriate conflict is both a necessary and rich learning experience. When parents are able to manage these conflicts sensitively, acting as role models for assertive and respectful self-expression, they prepare for their children a base for lifelong self-confidence and natural negotiation skills. This is an optimal time to learn that when it is expressed honestly and constructively, anger can enhance relationships rather than destroy them. These experiences demonstrate to the child that mature love encompasses all feelings, and it embraces opposing points of view. A child learns an enormous amount about respectful relating at this time.
Conflict with the parent is of itself empowering, but this depends on how it is handled. Parents need to recognise the gulf that separates anger from violence. The free expression of anger, if done responsibly — that is: without shaming, blaming or punishing — is a major conduit of love and intimacy. Anger is simply about revealing ourselves to each other, it is a meeting in passion. We should welcome this in our relationships with our kids, as in our intimate relationships with other adults. (I would caution however that the purpose is not to shock or frighten our child with our anger, and we need to avoid explosive or annihilating rage. If our children seem frightened of us, then we have been too overwhelming. They are less likely to feel overpowered by us if we give them equal space to be angry at us, if we listen to and validate their anger. Remember, the object is neither about overpowering nor about capitulation; it is about making contact .
Once my daughter and I were mad at each other — she was six years old at the time — and we were stuck together in arguing about what seemed to be the issue at hand, with lots of dead-end griping such as: ‘but you said..!’ (familiar, isn’t it?).
I decided to short-circuit the whole quagmire by temporarily bypassing the issue. I suggested to her: ‘what if we just show each other how angry we both feel’. She agreed. I helped her up four or five steps on our stairway so we could stand facing each other, far enough apart so she would not feel overpowered by my size. Up higher than me, she could see me eye-to-eye.
And then I helped her to make two fists in front of her, and asked her to scream, just scream without words. It was a shattering, ear-splitting scream; her face reddened, I saw her fury quake through her whole body, aimed at me through her eyes. And I roared back. A half-roar at first to check that she was not afraid. How wonderful to be free to roar together, in perfect safety. We had found a raw and true relationship, with no winners — just two titans, equals, and in love.
My daughter is eight now, and has no compunction in telling me to shut up or even to go away when she feels it. And I have little inhibition in letting her see when I am pissed-off, or tired, or hurt. Sometimes, I have helped her to push against my shoulder or my back with her feet, or to thump against a pillow on my shoulder if she is mad at me or frustrated. This always ends in spontaneous laughter and hugs. My daughter feels her strength with me, and I trust her with so many of my feelings.
The role of parental expectations and demands
From the toddler years onward we need to start introducing our children to some age-appropriate demands and expectations. This is how they gradually awaken to the sense that other people have their own needs and feelings, and thus they begin a journey towards consciousness of the ‘other’, towards respect and empathy. An assertive parent that asks for respect is also the role model showing the child how to be appropriately assertive.
Over the course of the parenting journey you will need to say no a million times to your child, and this is not just a hard reality; it is a gift. Here’s what I mean. Saying ‘no’ is not intrinsically wounding; what makes it hurtful is the feeling and intention with which we say it. Those of us that felt disempowered as children are likely to feel some resentment when our own children ‘get their own way’, and so when we say ‘no’, we can sometimes sound sour and cold. It is the punishing voice, not the word ‘no’ that does the harm.
Otherwise, your ‘no’ is an integral part of how your child gets to know you, your outer boundaries and definition, this is part of how they get to experience you as a whole person. An honest, transparent and non-blaming truth about your limits is actually nourishing. When you are ‘real’, your child feels your essence , your substance, your spirit. This feeds their soul, helps them to know themselves and to grow up.
Saying ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’ feels confusing to your child, even frustrating. It is permissiveness without presence. Say for instance you are exhausted from a long hard day at work, and your child insists on you playing with her. You could try to be a ‘good parent’, over-extend and get on the floor and play. Your presence risks having an ‘as-if’ quality, you are only half-present, inside you’re wishing you could escape. In this instance you might be giving more to your child by being honest, saying: ‘I really don’t feel like playing right now, I want to rest (or be alone, or sleep, or whatever).’
Many parents from our generation have tried so hard to reject the old coercive and authoritarian ways, that we have overcompensated and disempowered ourselves. We need new role-models showing us how to be in charge when this is called for, but in ways that actually empower our children. This does not mean dominating our children compulsively, nor insisting on being in charge all the time — children can’t develop self-confidence if we never let go of control. But often there are situations in which, if we refuse to take command, our children will feel lost, insecure, abandoned.
There will never be a perfect guide on how to strike a balance between stepping back, negotiating, and making strong demands of our children. No book can offer certainty on an issue that is only resolved by parents’ willingness to err, to listen intently, to watch for feedback, to acknowledge mistakes with grace, and to say ‘sorry’ when warranted. But a rough guide for non-negotiable areas of parental authority might be: when the child’s health is at risk, or when their behaviour risks hurting or disrespecting someone else.
Making ‘contact’ with the child vs. controlling the child
A new paradigm for parent–child relationships emphasises contact instead of control . Real and effective contact with our children requires our authentic and responsible self-expression. The idea of authentic contact exists outside the paradigm of control, which forces parents to choose between coercive or permissive styles. In fact, it rejects this polarity altogether. Setting boundaries assertively through authentic contact, is accomplished mainly by making ‘I’ statements to the child. Respectful boundary setting means a clear statement about you, and about how you feel , as opposed to a negative statement about the child . In this way, it’s OK to occasionally be angry with children, because ‘I’ statements express anger in a responsible and non-hostile manner. An assertive ‘I’ statement gets the child’s attention, it compels them to momentarily look beyond themselves (it is stage-appropriate for little children to be egocentric!), and at least momentarily, see you as a person. The focus is not on hurting, putting down, guilt-tripping nor shocking the child. Instead, the goal is to command the child’s attention, to show yourself in a way that compels him to see you as an ‘other’, with your own separate needs and feelings.
It is through showing yourself — your willingness to be emotionally transparent — that your children gradually come to comprehend the feelings of others. Children benefit from open expression of emotions; from seeing when their parents are angry or vulnerable, as well as when they are happy and loving. There is much value in letting your children see you are annoyed, disappointed and even hurt at something they have done. Children learn best when they can see the kind of impact that their behaviour has on the feelings of others. A study conducted at the Barnard College Toddler Centre in New York confirmed that mothers who openly — but appropriately — expressed anger had children who were more emotionally secure.
This means more than just being gentle when trying to make contact with your child. It means being all of who you are. If you feel angry, look and sound angry. If you feel sad or hurt, look and sound that way. Let your child know what happened that triggered off these feelings for you. This is not about blame, it is about connection, about letting them know you and experience you in a genuine way.
How can children learn to have empathy unless they are faced with a parent who is transparent, emotionally ‘real’? When you play the role of authority, you are not being real, but distant and false. Here is what a real person is: sometimes sad, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes irritated, frustrated, elated, loving, angry, tender, confused, afraid, mistaken and uncertain. In other words, not so in-control. And it is your essential humanness that your children want (and need) to get to know. Your humanness is knowable to your children through your openness about your emotions. In this rich soil, their natural latency for empathy and caring can grow solid as a tree. When children are treated empathically, and when they can know their parents as real persons — that is, with their own needs, limits, and vulnerabilities — they mature emotionally. Ultimately, this is what best helps them to become naturally considerate, responsible and empathic individuals, with a strong self-worth and a keen social awareness.
When we show our feelings authentically and appropriately, this is good role modelling for our children. By seeing how we deal with our feelings, they learn how to deal with their own.
Mutual authenticity is the stuff of intimacy, the cornerstone of loving relationships. In this context, when conflict is embraced and navigated responsibly, it helps your child to mature and will bring you closer together.
Frequently when parents feel stuck, they ask ‘what do I do ?’ — when so often it is not about ‘what to do’ but ‘how to be ‘. Many impasses in our relationships with our children seem to dissolve when we show our feelings to them in a way that connects with them. Many difficult or challenging behaviours are our children’s efforts to elicit that ‘real’ connection from us, they want to feel us through our responses.
There are no ‘good’ parents, this is a myth as fallacious as the idea of a ‘bad’ parent. That’s because when it comes to parenting, there is no finished product. As aware parents we are always becoming , it is our own journey of healing that makes us more available for relationship. And throughout life, it is this that heals all wounds: emotionally real connection. The goal of parenting is ultimately not about producing an outcome, such as a ‘happy’ child, a ‘confident’ child, a ‘successful’ child. It is about learning how to connect with our child at each step of the way. Connection is felt when we drop our armour, it comes from our emotional vulnerability, as well as our genuine interest in listening to and learning from our child, and giving him and her the respect and freedom to be themselves. Real connection is what heals, real connection is what causes us to grow, both parent and child.
The Potholes on the Road to Individuation
Most of the things that go awry when our child is trying to tease out a separate self, stem from our unrecognised and unresolved hurts dating back to our own childhoods. Either we over-protect our children in our efforts to prevent them from feeling how we once felt, or we act-out against them in ways that mimic the hurtful ways we were once treated. What follows are some examples of how our unhealed wounds can lead us to overcompensate in ways that interrupt our children’s developing autonomy and strength.
The ‘as-if’ parent
When we over-extend, and try to be giving and attentive beyond our true capacity in any given moment, we risk bringing an ‘as-if’ quality to our giving. Contrived generosity looks and feels quite different to the spontaneous giving that springs from a full heart. Think of a time when someone close to you offered you kindness or support, but something about their demeanour — a forced smile, averted gaze — tipped you off to their ambivalence. How did this make you feel?
As parents, it is entirely possible for us to do all the ‘right’ things by-the-book: co-sleeping, full-term breastfeeding, baby-wearing, etc. But if we don’t ourselves feel loved and supported, or if we carry deep, unattended emotional wounds from our own childhood, our gestures risk being mechanical. Our giving can have a flavour of detachment, even resentment or exhaustion. Parents are better off striking a balance between being ‘real’ — that’s when their presence is truly nourishing — and fully achieving all the touchstones recommended in attachment-based or natural parenting handbooks. Remember, your presence is nourishing to the extent that it is congruent .
As so on as you begin to feel drained or irritable when you are caring for your baby or child, this is the time to ask others for emotional or practical support, or to let someone else who loves the child take over while you replenish yourself. Your emotional depletion might also signal the need for more loving attention to the parts of you that have been wounded. Notice how much more pleasurable, joyous and easy parenting can be when you are feeling nourished, loved, supported, healed.
The softly-softly approach
Many of us have been so hurt by the authoritarian methods of the last generation — the ‘do-as-you’re told’, punish-and-shame approach — that we have sworn we will never treat our own kids that way. It is very easy to overcompensate in the effort to avoid sounding like our own parents. When setting boundaries with our children, we try to use a sweet, sing-song tone, a sugary voice. The effects on our children range from confusing to grating, to infuriating.
Parents who don’t strongly assert their own needs and boundaries with their child, who don’t express ‘negative’ feelings and always speak softly disarm the child as a way to avoid conflict. Children have a keen sense of the authentic; they know if our efforts to sound gentle are incongruent with how we really feel inside. This frustrates and irritates them quite considerably, and can contribute to endless whingeing, whining, or tantruming.
Parents who are afraid to say ‘no’
The fear of saying ‘no’ is another example of overcompensation, driven by parents’ memories of having felt neglected or deprived as children. To keep saying ‘yes’ compulsively well into the toddler stage and beyond risks producing an over-indulged child, who struggles to find a real reason to respect others. Compulsive permissiveness can also prevent children from developing healthy ways of dealing with the daily realities of frustration. Ultimately this is very disempowering.
The self-sacrificial parent
Some parents appear to almost never have their own needs for space, for quiet, or they appear to have little or no personal interests beyond servicing the needs of their kids. They cling to their children and become enmeshed in their lives, stuck in a martyr-like role. Often this is because they themselves felt emotionally or physically abandoned as children, and cannot bear to allow their children to forge an independent identity. Alternatively, this is a parent who was herself over-protected by possessive parents, and was not given the freedom to separate out, to explore the world beyond her family nucleus and develop her own perspectives. Her own parenting style may be affectionate and loving on the one hand, but overindulgent and smothering on the other.
Parents who are afraid to seem angry or annoyed
If we were victims of punishment, threats and shaming at school and at home, we associate anger with hurt and humiliation. When our parents, teachers or peers were angry with us, this was usually followed by some kind of punishment, humiliation or attack. As a consequence, we confuse anger with hostility, not realising that the two are quite different. Few of us had good role models who showed us how to express anger responsibly; free of blaming and shaming. Not knowing how to express anger safely and without attack, we hold back our feelings. Yet it is entirely possible to be angry without being hostile, to command a child’s attention without threat or accusation. Usually, it is also possible to communicate strongly and assertively with our children without the need for anger in the first place.
How these dilemmas impact on the child’s behaviour
When parents do not set boundaries, when they do not express their own needs and feelings, they seem ‘unreal’ to their children. This makes it difficult for children to find themselves, they remain enmeshed and dependent, and they don’t learn by example how to express their own needs respectfully.
The parent who neglects his or her own needs and feelings seems to lack definition or solidity, and to the growing toddler and child this can be extremely uncomfortable. Some children react by poking and prodding, they behave provocatively in search of some spontaneous reaction that feels authentic to them. Their behaviour might seem irritating, whining, or directly vexing. This is not because they seek ‘negative’ attention. It is because they need their parents to seem ‘real’ to them, they need to experience a ‘real’ connection. They want to feel met.
Example: a toddler wants a toy, her mother says ‘no’ because it happens to be another child’s turn to play with this toy. The toddler screams at her mother and hits her. The mother responds with a gentle, soft voice: ‘please don’t hit Mummy, that’s not nice’. She is refusing to appear unpleasant, and overprotecting the child from conflict. This makes the child even angrier, because she feels as if her mother is not really with her . Because she is not reacting to the invasion, she does not seem solid or present. The child feels frustrated, the mother’s syrupy response feels like no response at all. She lunges at her mother and attacks her further. The more her mother tries to be placating and sugary, the angrier the child gets, till finally she melts into a full-blown tantrum.
These themes are developed more in-depth in Robin Grille’s book: Parenting for a Peaceful World (Longueville Media, 2005). Find out more about Robin’s book at:
Published in byronchild/Kindred, issue 18, June 06