Developing Emotional Literacy to Disrupt Insecure Attachment Styles

Mother in field holding one child in fabric wrap reaching out to touch hand of other childParenting is no easy task, and most parents likely feel, at least some of the time, as if they are doing an imperfect job. Any number of challenges, from environmental factors such as poverty and health problems to the child’s temperament, can make the experience of parenting—and being parented—suboptimal (Cherlin).

This article will focus on what has been referred to as the “ghosts in the nursery,” or the unresolved emotional issues from a parent’s past that repeat themselves in the present and the ways these “ghosts” often obstruct the optimal parent-child relationship (Fraiberg, Adelson, & Shapiro). This article will also explain how intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP) can help the parent-child relationship by directly addressing barriers preventing the parent from helping the child form a secure attachment, or the inner sense of safety and stability needed for ideal development and maturation (Davies).

The Attachment Needs of Children

Children need attuned, caring, and responsive caretakers in order to develop into well-adjusted adults (Davies). When upsetting events occur, especially events that appear to jeopardize the relationship between child and the primary caregiver, a child is likely to experience intense and complex feelings toward the parent or caregiver “responsible” for the event (Coughlin).

If the parent has the ability to help the child process upset feelings and repair the rupture, the child begins to develop emotional literacy, or the ability to experience and navigate feelings, conflicts, and relationships constructively (Steiner & Perry). Children who do so are more likely to be able to form the secure attachment style so central to growth and human development.

Thwarted Attachment Needs

If a parent isn’t emotionally present enough to help their child process complex feelings around upsetting events, children are likely to begin to avoid both their feelings and the people associated with those feelings (Abbas). Children who shut down in this way are more likely to develop an insecure attachment style, and autonomy and interpersonal closeness typically become difficult for them. If the relational wounds, or attachment traumas, as they are sometimes called, are never addressed and worked through, the cycle of emotional illiteracy tends to repeat when the child becomes an adult and has children of their own.

Said more poetically by Selma Fraiberg, et al., “While no one has issued an invitation, the ghosts take up residence and conduct the rehearsal of the family tragedy from a tattered script” (Fraiberg, Adelson, & Shapiro). In other words, what remains unprocessed and repressed will eventually be reenacted, and whether these parents intend it or not, they wound their children in the ways they were wounded themselves.

What Is the Optimal Parenting Style?

Parenting styles have been broken down into a few categories: authoritarian, permissive/uninvolved, and authoritative. The general consensus is that the authoritative style, which is emotionally supportive yet firm and clear about limits and boundaries, tends to be the most helpful in aiding children to develop into conscientious, caring, and autonomous adults (Baumrind).

A central ingredient in authoritative parenting is the ability of the parent(s) to deal with their own feelings and needs in ways that place the best interest of the child first. In order for parents to act in the best interest of their children, they typically need to have worked through at least a portion of their own unresolved emotional and attachment issues, or “ghosts” from the past.

When Defenses Get in the Way of Heartfelt Relating

When a child’s caretakers fail to repair the ruptures in their emotional bonds, insecure and avoidant attachment styles often form. These often hinder the child from growing into an adult who is able to readily form secure attachments with others. Unprocessed feelings resulting from relational ruptures can create a defensive structure that greatly restricts the insecurely attached parent’s ability to relate to their children in a genuinely attuned, caring, and responsive manner (Davies).

If relational wounds, or attachment traumas, as they are sometimes called, are never addressed and worked through, the cycle of emotional illiteracy tends to repeat when the child becomes an adult and has children of their own.

The insecurely attached and defended parent may remain “stuck” behind internal barriers that create a certain amount of self-absorption. Even if the parent intellectually understands the need to do various things for their child—attend sporting events or theater performances, for example—when these actions are done from an emotionally disconnected place, the child will likely notice the lack of warmth and emotional presence. Children can sense when parents are making only a halfhearted effort or simply going through the motions of “doing the right thing.”

There Is Hope

When an insecurely attached person manages to work through their unresolved attachment issues to a certain degree, they can be said to have “earned” a secure attachment (Davies). Since there appears to be a correlation between insecure attachment styles and the aforementioned suboptimal parenting styles (Power), it stands to reason a secure attachment style most readily lends itself to authoritative parenting.

Given that insecure attachments tend to form when children have not had the help necessary to process feelings around relational ruptures and disappointments, the “earned secure” attachment necessary for parenting authoritatively is best achieved through processing these unresolved emotions, or facing and expelling the “ghosts” of the parental past (Fraiberg, Adelson, & Shapiro).

This is where ISTDP comes in. ISTDP specializes in helping people gain access to previously blocked emotions through highly individualized interventions tailored to their individual and particular needs and capacities.

What makes ISTDP somewhat unique is the real-time feedback the person in therapy receives. Theoretically, most people can acknowledge when certain of their behaviors and tendencies are not helpful, but this experiential method highlights these blocked areas, while therapists provide direct feedback, free from sugar-coating, to help highlight what the person receiving treatment might be doing to block themselves from reaching their goals. An example of this feedback might be, “If you continue to detach from your feelings in this way, that will impact our relationship and the work we are doing, and your problem of feeling disconnected from your children is not likely to improve.” These types of interventions, when skillfully executed, are believed to be able to help individuals receiving treatment find the inner strength necessary to overcome inner barriers and face and work through previously avoided emotions (Davanloo).

Some might say the ISTDP therapist’s interventions seem confrontational or overly forceful, but proponents of the modality believe it to be what people in treatment truly need at a certain juncture of treatment. When people see the ways in which their defenses may be hurting the self as well as others, what might otherwise be perceived as a forceful approach on the part of the therapist might instead be seen as an expression of compassion and faith in the inherent agency of the person in therapy and their ability to change.

Summary

Unresolved emotional conflicts from the past can create a negative cycle where parents, often without meaning to, inflict psychic wounds similar to the ones they experienced at the hands of their parents. Generations of “emotionally illiterate” individuals spring forth, continuing the cycle, and parents, wounded by the shortcomings of their parents, ward off associated painful emotions through defense mechanisms, which can limit their ability to be emotionally present with their own children.

The defense mechanisms can help the parent tune out the severe relational cost of maintaining the psychic walls and defensive postures, which is why ISTDP can be such a powerful tool—the ISTDP therapist aims to build up a person’s strength to the point where the individual can begin to confront their walls, take them down, and face what was previously too painful or frightening to face. This process might also include grieving past hurts and losses so as to once and for all move on, end the cycle of emotional wounding, and show up to the tasks of parenthood in empowered and loving ways.

Acknowledgment: ISTDP was founded and developed by Habib Davanloo, MD, emeritus professor of psychiatry out of McGill University in Canada. ISTDP is the result of Dr. Davanloo’s life’s work. I was fortunate to get to meet with Dr. Davanloo twice, and though I have received fairly extensive training in the model from a very experienced therapist who was in training with Dr. Davanloo for several years, I consider myself very much a student and a learner. I am grateful I have learned enough about ISTDP to be able to share some information about the treatment modality, but to be clear, Dr. Davanloo alone is the expert on the method he devoted his life to developing.

References:

  1. Abbas, A. (2015). Reaching through resistance: Advanced psychotherapy techniques. Kansas City, MO: Seven Leaves Press.
  2. Baumrind, D. (2008). Parenting for character: five experts, five practices. CSEE.
  3. Cherlin, A. (2010). Public and private families: An introduction (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Davanloo, H. (1995). Unlocking the unconscious. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.
  5. Davies, D. (2011). Child development (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  6. Della Salva, P. C. (1993). The significance of attachment theory for the practice of intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy. International Journal of Short-Term Psychotherapy, 8, 189-206.
  7. Dewar, G. (2017). The authoritative parenting style: Warmth, rationality, and high standards. Parenting Science. Retrieved from http://www.parentingscience.com/authoritative-parenting-style.html
  8. Flanagan, L. M. (2011). Object relations theory. In J. Berzoff, L. M. Flanagan, & P. Hertz (Eds.), Inside out and outside in: Psychodynamic clinical theory and psychopathology in contemporary multicultural contexts (3 ed., pp. 118-157). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  9. Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. (2005). Ghosts in the nursery: A psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. In J. Raphael-Leff (Ed.), Parent-Infant Psychodynamics, 87-117. Philadelphia, PA: Whurr Publishers.
  10. Fredrickson, J. (2013). Co-creating change: Effective dynamic therapy techniques. Kansas City, MO: Seven Leaves Press.
  11. Power, M. (2011, November 17). Attachment and parenting styles influences on adult relationships. Retrieved from http://www.personal.psu.edu/bfr3/blogs/applied_social_psychology/2011/11/attachment-and-parenting-styles-influences-on-adult-relationships.html
  12. Steiner, C., & Perry, P. (1997). Achieving emotional literacy. London: William Morrow.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Johannes Kieding, LMSW, therapist in Tucson, Arizona

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • Carmela

    Carmela

    August 18th, 2017 at 7:55 AM

    My parents were both very emotionally distant so I went the opposite direction and wound up getting too emotionally involved in my children’s lives.
    I don’t know which one was worse. I would have to say that at least my kids knew that I loved them and that I always had their best interests at heart. I never knew if my parents ever even wanted us, that’s how distant they were.

  • Johannes Kieding

    Johannes Kieding

    August 19th, 2017 at 1:27 AM

    Dear Carmella,
    Thank you for sharing what sounds like some pretty painful realities you’ve been living with. My take on what children really need is that they need emotionally attuned caregivers. That might be different than an emotionally involved approach, depending on what to you mean by that concept. The attuned parent leaves space (not the same as distance) and can adapt his or her approach to the child based on perceptions of what the child really needs moreso than reactivity and compensation in regards to the parents’ own past.
    Typically in order for a parent to have this ability they either were fortunate enough to have attuned parents themselves or they managed to work through at least a portion of their own unresolved emotional conflicts.
    Thanks again for your sharing.

  • Max

    Max

    August 21st, 2017 at 7:21 AM

    We all do our best to toe that line
    to achieve that perfect balance of letting our children do a lot of fun things but also drawing the line and not allowing it to get too much out of control.
    I think that it is best to be a parent first. Friendship with your children comes along later.

  • Johannes Kieding

    Johannes Kieding

    August 22nd, 2017 at 5:37 AM

    Thanks for your input, Max!

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