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How Adapting to Stress Can Make Us Better Parents

I'm going to tell you something that is hard to believe. Psychologists can predict what kind of parents we'll be by how we talk about childhood.

Attachment between parent and child refers to the pattern of communication and quality of relationship in which a child feels safe and secure and believes that his or her needs will be met. Secure attachment impacts a child's ability to self-regulate and to make less risky decisions when he's older. The more that a parent-to-be has developed the ability to be resilient to life's setbacks and has been self-reflective enough to work through their own childhood experiences, the better parent he'll likely be and the less behavioral problems his children are likely to have. Parents who understand their own past are more capable of taking steps to foster the resilience needed while raising their own children. (See the steps I recommend below.)

The adult attachment interview, developed by a team of psychologists in the 1980s, is a one-hour interview about an adult's childhood experiences. The interview questions aren't so much geared toward what happened to us growing up -- we've all had some sort of struggle -- but rather our ability to tell a coherent, authentic narrative about our own childhood. Basically, whether or not the words match the music.

The interview questions are fairly innocuous, but revealing. For example, can you list five adjectives that describe your relationship with your mother? Did you ever feel rejected as a young child? An adult's ability to describe how she experienced childhood challenges can predict whether she will have secure attachment with her unborn child when it is an infant!

Say, for example, Mary was injured in a car accident as a little girl, and her mother was overprotective as a result. Mary later starts her own family and transfers all of her fears to her daughter, who becomes so terrified that she avoids going to school. If Mary had been able to understand the source of her childhood fears -- her mother's constant worrying -- her own daughter may have thrived.

What this all comes down to is a word that's been championed in psychological circles in recent years, and for good reason: resiliency. Eighty percent of children who have experienced trauma-- abuse or neglect, for example -- will have disorganized attachment, which occurs because the very person they're relying on to keep them safe actually produces contradictory emotions of dependence and fear. This means that they don't have a predictable pattern of relating and can be easily hurt or angered by relatively minor insults. As these children grow up, they often struggle with self-regulation and impulsivity, and they're not resilient.

This does not mean that parents who have had setbacks will not be able to make their kids strong. I'm not suggesting that your children's behavioral problems are due to your lack of a coherent narrative of your own childhood. Rather, I'm encouraging us as parents to be reflective on our own experiences as youths, to be vigilant for when we may be overreacting and to look for those opportunities to teach our kids the resiliency skills they'll need to grow up. This doesn't have to be done in a psychiatrist's office, but it does take self-awareness. For example, I lost my mother to suicide when I was 4 years old and wrote a memoir about the experience as an adult. I sometimes think that the process of writing In Her Wake was an extended attachment interview or an effort to make a coherent narrative as a mother and daughter. It helped me as a mother to have written my own narrative.

Below are some tips to being resilient while teaching your children resiliency strategies:

1. Watch out for transference. Countertransference is when something from one's own life clouds the ability to see a child for who he or she is. All of us have, as Selma Fraiberg described in her landmark paper, "Ghosts in the Nursery," unrememberd experiences of our own childhood that may impact who we are as parents. Often, this divides parents on how to deal with the child. Something as simple as your child failing a class or not wanting to play soccer can be very evocative. Classic signs of transference include one parent being overly protective while the other is furious; a parent believing he's the only person that can help the child; or a parent being harder than she wants to be or finding herself giving long-winded lectures. If this sounds familiar, it may be a red flag and time to step back and consider the source of this behavior. If you figure out what baggage belongs to whom, this clarity will allow you to be more helpful to your child.

2. Don't be a helicopter parent. Involvement is good, but make sure you're allowing your kids room for mistakes and not doing everything for them. It is incredibly valuable to be supportive while your kids figure out how to problem solve, but also empathize with their feelings and allow them choice. Kids learn resiliency from experiencing setbacks and discovering that they can turn things around on their own and that difficulties are often temporary.

3. Pay attention to ensuring your child has tools to manage anxiety. A way to fortify your child is to make sure that he or she has exposure to the skills needed to manage anxiety. Parents want to be aware of the avoidance trap (any of us who've had to scramble at the last minute to file our taxes understands this). Procrastination makes you feel better in the short term, but if you can get over that initial avoidant reaction, anxiety usually subsides. Children need to have some self-calming strategies in their repertoire, such as distraction, positive self-talk, the ability to recognize negative thought patterns and the initiative to ask for help and accept it. If you've protected your kid for so long that he doesn't know how to handle even minor pitfalls, this can be a problem. You want to find a balance of optimal frustration where your child has the opportunity to gain confidence, but doesn't get so frustrated that he is immobilized. Compliment your kids on their effort, rather than the outcome, and don't treat your kids like wounded birds.

4. Think PLACE parenting. PLACE was coined by child psychologist Dan Hughes and stands for "Playfulness, Love, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy." You can read more about it here. I find this idea to be particularly relevant when parents are in a crisis with their kids and want them to be reflective about their behavior, whether it's stealing, kicking a best friend or always feeling criticized. The underlying notion is first to pause so you're not reactive, yet to be playful at a time when tensions between you and your child are high. A moment of surprising humor may give your child the space to recognize that he or she has crossed a line. When you accept your child's inner life of thoughts, feelings and wishes, your child is more likely to share his experiences. By staying curious and asking questions to understand why your child is thinking, say, that it's a good idea to get a tattoo or date someone, you may have better luck setting limits once you understand the process of the decision. And finally, if you convey empathy for how much something means to your child, he or she will be more likely to accept your decision if you have to set a limit on behavior.

5. Have a support network. Parenting is a hair-raising, joyous rollercoaster, isn't it? To stay present to meeting the needs of your child, it is so key to nurture yourself. Meditation, yoga or any form of self-care is crucial, as is date night with your partner. Over the years, I have seen that what allows our children to thrive is the support we can mobilize to keep ourselves energized to sustain devotion, reflection, and loving limits.

More from Nancy Rappaport M.D.
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