“The key to activating maturation is to take care of the attachment needs of the child.”
Breaking the Trauma Cycle:
With all the innumerable challenges of parenting, one perhaps can’t help but wonder how our ancient hunter/gatherer ancestors managed to survive as a species. The answer turns out to be relatively straightforward: The parenting milieu in hunter/gatherer tribes, as shown conclusively via anthropological field research, was in many ways the polar opposite of today. Two fundamental ways in which things differed were the use of instinct over intellect, and the degree to which ancient cultures supported human development.
Instinct vs. Intellect
Much like every non-human species on Earth, humans parented primarily based on instinct up until very recently. Via these instincts, humans “knew” an incredible amount about the developmental needs of children, and how to relate to them in ways that naturally fulfill those needs. Our modern preference for parenting via the intellect – or more bluntly, our insistence that the intellect can “figure out” parenting – has resulted in child-rearing approaches that not only neglect to satisfy the needs of children, but in fact actively work against them.
Hunter/gatherer cultures were much more attuned to the notion of wholeness with respect to human beings, whether children or adults. These ancient societies prioritized cooperation over competition, equality over hierarchy, and the needs of the many over the wants of the few. Hunter/gatherer cultures also supported parents – particularly mothers – in ways that are unheard of in most countries today. All of these things served to support natural child (and adult) development.
Modern Parenting & Childhood Needs
Much like how western medicine treats chronic disease, parenting strategies in our culture are often geared towards treating symptoms rather than causes. The frequent focus on trying to control how children behave is far removed from the reality that undesirable behaviors are the result of underlying unconscious/emotional processes. As is the case with therapeutic work, a bottom-up approach is generally more effective than a top-down one.
What this means, most fundamentally, is having an appreciation of what the developmental needs of children are, and how to honor those needs. The brilliant developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld has identified four irreducible developmental needs of children:
1) Secure Attachment. The quality of the child's attachment with his/her parents is what lays the groundwork – everything else depends on this. A securely attached child is attuned with, feels understood, and feels accepted unconditionally – just for being who they are. Note that this goes well beyond parents simply loving their child (which is generally a given).
2) To Rest. The child shouldn't have to work to maintain or improve the attachment relationship. This includes not having to comply, be good, be nice, or be pretty in order to feel loved.
3) To Feel. Children must be allowed to experience their full range of emotions, without getting the message from parents (either explicitly or implicitly) that certain emotions aren't desirable or acceptable. This is a difficult one for several reasons, one of which being that “negative” emotions in a child often trigger anxiety in us as parents, which then causes us to try to get rid of the emotions in the child. Even well-meaning and seemingly innocent techniques can send such implicit messages to a child, such as immediately trying to make them laugh whenever they're sad.
4) To Play. Children require free play, in large quantities. (Note: Digital devices don't count.) Free play is a fundamental driver of brain development in young children, and is a crucial way for children to find and express their true selves. Our society’s tendency to hyper-prioritize cognitive development at the expense of play reflects a lack of awareness that the latter is a driver of the former.
When the above needs aren't met on a consistent basis, it is traumatic to the child. (Trauma isn't only the result of bad things that happened – it's also the result of what didn’t happen that should have.) This results in undesirable behaviors, frequently referred to as the child "acting out". While we tend to react to the behaviors themselves – often by trying to extinguish them – it's the unmet/underlying needs at the root of these behaviors that really warrant attention.
A key consideration with any parenting intervention isn't the intention behind it, but the message that the child gets. Recall the example above of immediately trying to make a child laugh when they become sad. The intention is noble – to cheer up the child – but the message they're likely to receive is that their sadness isn't welcome. Being mindful of the message that we intend to send versus the one that is actually received is critical, both in parenting as well as adult-adult contexts.
Another important point is that emotional development can't be taught; it's something that comes along naturally when a child's developmental needs are being met – like an acorn that becomes a tree when the environmental conditions are right. When a child’s needs aren't met, however, emotional development will be hampered, in some cases substantially. This will manifest as undesirable behaviors and lack of emotional regulation – what Marshall Rosenberg coined the tragic expression of unmet needs.
Fortunately, natural child rearing approaches based on the above can be put into action at any time – often with immediate results. The specifics will vary depending on the situation, but here I'll just note what's not on the list: being perfect parents, or shaming ourselves for being imperfect. The first is impossible, and the second is not only unhelpful, but fundamentally inappropriate – when it comes to parenting, blame has no place.