Compassion Matters

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Helping Parents Distinguish Love from Emotional Hunger

Is it healthy to make our kids our whole life?

The image on Time Magazine’s May cover in which a standing woman breast feeds her 4-year-old son, as he stands on a stool beside her with both staring directly into the camera, has caused quite a stir. Comments have ranged from rolled eyes to accusations of abuse. The subject of the Time article is Attachment Parenting, a style of parenting developed by pediatrician William Sears, M.D. that emphasizes the importance of the connection between parent (predominantly mother) and child. Principles of this practice include breastfeeding until the child is up to 6-years-old, “babywearing” in which babies are kept in close physical contact with their mothers at almost all times, and “co-sleeping” in which youngsters sleep in bed with their parents. Proponents of this parenting style frown upon the use of cribs, strollers, or professional childcare for more than 20 hours a week.

Some argue that the current popularity of Attachment Parenting reflects our society’s unnatural bent toward over-parenting. Many are asking the question, “Is it healthy to make our kids our whole life?” How does parenting at this level affect us as individuals? More importantly, how does this trend affect our children? In my blog, “The Abuse of Over-Parenting,” which I wrote just weeks before the controversial Time cover was released, I talked about the negative effects of over-parenting on kids and questioned how our doing too much for our children hurts their self-esteem, confidence, and capability.

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What I’ve found in my 25 years as a psychologist and researcher is that so much of how we parent has more to do with our needs than those of our children. My father psychologist and author Robert W. Firestone often talks about the concept of emotional hunger versus love. In a book co-authored by my father and myself, The Self Under Siege, we describe emotional hunger as follows:

Emotional hunger may be expressed in anxious over-concern, over-protection, living vicariously through one’s child, or an intense focus on appearances. Parents who behave in this manner exert a strong pull on their children that drains a child of his or her emotional resources… [Parents] often confuse their own intense feelings of need and anxious attachment for genuine love. They fail to make a distinction between emotional hunger, which is a strong need caused by deprivation in their own childhoods, and genuine feelings of tenderness, love, and concern for their child’s well-being.

Parents who are loving aim to meet their children’s needs; parents who are emotionally hungry use their children to get their own needs met. A hug from a parent, for example, is of great importance to a child’s development when it comes from a place of love, a sensitive act of caring from a parent to a child. However, emotional hunger occurs when a hug stops being about giving love or comfort to a child and becomes more about a parent taking comfort from a child to fill something in themselves. As my father wrote in his blog “Emotional Hunger vs. Love,”“If parents are genuinely loving, and attuned they will have a nurturing effect on the child, which has a positive effect on his or her ongoing development. That child will tend to be securely attached, harmonious in his/her relationships, and tolerant of intimacy as an adult. In contrast, contact with an emotionally hungry parent leaves a child impoverished, anxiously attached, and hurting.”

In the stages of development outlined by Erik Erikson, he describes Stage 2 (when a child is 2-3 years-old) as a period that builds “autonomy vs. shame and doubt.” During this time, children naturally move away from the mother, physically taking steps on their own and making choices for themselves. At this point, Erikson states that children need support and encouragement from their parents to develop a sense of autonomy as opposed to shame or doubt, which they will likely carry into later years, impacting each successive stage of development.

When we talk about child development, it’s important to distinguish the current trend of Attachment Parenting from Attachment Theory, a concept developed by Sir John Bowlby, Ph.D. and expanded by Mary Ainsworth, Ph.D. Attachment Theory, which has been well-researched over the past forty years, emphasizes the importance of a strong, secure human attachment from early in life to a person’s well-being and development.

It’s inarguable that our children need love and nurturance in order to thrive. In The Self Under Siege, we explain that “From the beginning, the parental environment has a profound impact on the baby. In an optimal setting, infants encounter attuned responses from caring adults that promote a feeling of safety which in turn facilitate learning and the further development of the sense of self… Ideally, parents would be warm, affectionate, and sensitive in feeding and caring for their offspring and offer them control, direction, and guidance as well.”

For a child to have a healthy and secure attachment, as Bowlby describes, he or she must be able to feel safe venturing out into the world. Part of giving our children what they need means equipping them with the skills to feel confident and resilient, strong and secure as people separate from us with the ability to explore the world as the individuals they are.

On the other hand, if we feel incomplete, we may look to our children or to our role as a “mommy” or “daddy” to complete ourselves and to feel whole, or to have a sense of value. One mother I worked with described how, until she got pregnant, she’d always felt alone. Carrying a child made her feel like she had a connection to someone else, yet once she gave birth, she immediately felt alone again, on her own and like she had “lost” something.

 Several women I’ve worked with experienced a similar emotional reaction when they stopped breastfeeding. Even when their child naturally weaned itself from the breast, these mothers resisted. One would lure and bribe her son to nurse when he wanted to go out and play with his friends. She was the first to admit that her actions were based on her own fear of her son “not needing her anymore.”

Robert Firestone has described the way many parents try to pull reactions out of their children: “Parents who are emotionally hungry act compulsively in relation to their children in much the same manner as an addict. Their exaggerated attention and involvement have an ongoing negative impact on the child's development. These parents often find it difficult to reduce the intensity of their contact even when they recognize that the contact is damaging.”

When we are misattuned to the developmental stages of our children, carrying them when they’d rather walk, breastfeeding them when they’d rather play, we undermine their confidence and teach them to be dependent. An important aspect of healthy parenting is accepting our imperfections and broadening our child’s world. No parent is perfect. We, therefore, do our children a great service by offering them a healthy extension of influences in their lives. This affords them a broad base of security; a condition Attachment Parenting does not support. The mentality that it takes a village to raise a child is one that’s been substantiated through research. Anthropologist Sarah Hardy, Ph.D. has said that one of the primary ways we develop empathy is by having many caretakers in our lives. Child trauma expert BruceD. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. has further concluded that kids need a minimum of five caring adults in their lives in order to thrive.

Expanding a child’s world is also valuable for the parent. Adults should lead rich, fulfilling lives that very much include their off-spring, but do not center exclusively around their children. As parents, we often feel guilty to place value on our career, relationship, or even certain hobbies or interests, all the while failing to realize that we give much more to our children by living our own lives. Seeing parents happy and self-possessed gives our children permission to be happy themselves. It gives them the security to believe that we are responsible for their well-being and not vice versa.

There is no one way to parent, and children can feel loved in all kinds of ways. One essential course of action that always benefits a growing child involves distinguishing emotional hunger from real love. When we do so, we give them the security of knowing that we are responsible for their well-being and not vice versa. We offer our children the most authentic form of support that will help them become the budding individuals they are and that will carry them into adulthood.

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org

Learn more about the new book, The Self Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation

See all upcoming Webinars with Dr. Lisa Firestone

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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