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Making Healthy Families

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

Excerpt from Making Healthy Families
Part Two: Becoming Parents
Chapter 7: What is Good Enough Parenting?

Available for purchase online at Amazon.com

Healthy attunement or over-identification?

Our ability to attune as parents depends not only on the child, but on his or her stage of development and on the emotional legacy of accurate understanding we received from our own parents. The ability to attune also depends on the personality and temperament of the child and how easy or difficult it is for us to relate to a particular child, given our own individual personality traits and family upbringing. Giving nurturance to a child includes identifying with the infant and later, the developing adolescent, enough to have empathy for their situation in the world and the control they have or do not have over it. It is sometimes easy for us to identify with wounds we had as children that we swear we will not do to our children. However, often we can over-identify, and actually be out of attunement with our children, in an attempt to heal personal wounds from our past.

Projecting our own childhood experience is a common pitfall conscientious parents fall into when they have difficulty separating themselves from their own offspring, who have not experienced the same childhood wounds. There can exist a subliminal drive to re-experience childhood through our own kids, but this time to have it "right." In an attempt to heal past pain, we may unwittingly project it onto our child's behavior because it "looks" similar to our pain, although the meaning for the child may be entirely or significantly different. In such cases, parenting reactions that originate to answer our childhood pain miss the real needs of the child who stands before us, a completely different person with a different set of experiences.

Naturally, it is true that we can repeat traumas to our children (such as child abuse) when we are unaware of our own pain. The old adage of "what was good enough for me should be good enough for junior" reflects the attitude in which these painful legacies are passed down through generations. By not identifying what was painful to us in childhood, we are more likely to repeat the damage. However, as parents become attuned to their childhood experience, they often try to heal their own early developmental wounds in ways that are inappropriate for their children.

....Whether we seek professional help along the way or not, most of us have come across these times in parenting where we identify our unmet childhood needs in the cries of our children. Getting help to sort things out with a spouse, a friend, a relative, or a professional means you are answering your need to reach out and depend on others. The following questions can help you reflect on the role your own projection of childhood pain may have in a situation, and assist you in sorting out what you believe is healthy attunement to your child, rather than a wish or desire to heal your own "inner child."

Ask Yourself
1. In the present situation, do I feel overly charged about how my child should feel?

2. Does it remind me of anything particularly painful that happened to me as a child? If so, is my child experiencing the same intensity of this feeling as I did in childhood?

3. Do my child's previous experiences in this area equal the deprivation or pain of my childhood experiences at the same age? Or is it milder or not comparable? Do I know the range of what is normal distress in this situation or am I confused by the reminder of my own pain?

4. What is the meaning of this experience to my child and what does he or she need?

5. How is my child's experience different than mine? How is it similar? Be sure to include an assessment of your child's particular temperament compared to your own, in answering this question.

Contrasting previous experiences of your child to yourself at that age, the availability of support experienced as a child compared to your child in the present situation, and the particular meaning the event has for your child can help you sort through your past, finding the most accurate attunement to your child.

As research on patterns of child abuse bears out, parents are less prone towards repeating abuse when they have become aware of their own past hurt. But we must go beyond simply identifying our childhood pain to be truly attuned to our children. When we respond to children as if they bear our own scars we fail to see them in their own right. The child's needs can become distorted, leaving him or her vulnerable to misattunement. Finding a neutral path, one that is not reactive but truly thoughtful and aware, is sometimes the hardest one to walk......

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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