Where does a healthy sense of self and feeling whole come from and how do parents help instill these qualities? What are the long term implications and how do these attributes affect relationships in the future?
Research suggests that attachment styles originate in the relationship between mother and child. Infants and toddlers are dependent on their caregivers, not only in their ability to sense the child's needs and emotions, but also in making sure their needs are met. This process is essential in order for the infant/toddler to sense themselves and feel whole. In a healthy relationship, the mother mirrors and reflects back to the child what they may be experiencing, which then begins to aid the infant in their development of the self.
A mother's ability to be attuned to her infants nature is only as strong as the mother’s empathy and regard for her child's needs. Studies have shown that strengthening a mother's attachment and attunement to the toddler can help prevent a host of childhood issues such as anxiety, attention issues and peer/relationship difficulties. To an infant or toddler, emotional or physical abandonment whether through neglect, illness or divorce threatens their very existence. Difficult life experience impact the toddler so that their intimate relationships will be affected as adults. This is why, for instance, break ups or separations in intimate relationships later in life can be experienced as painful - because they trigger the reminder of earlier losses.
How does a mother's sense of self (which is impacted by her own childhood) affect her parenting? If a mom lacks wholeness and self-esteem, rather than being able to be attuned to her child, there is a greater possibility that she will view the child as an extension of herself and as an object to meet her own needs and feelings. In this way, the mother may have difficulty seeing the child as a separate self. Unfortunately, this can cause a child to grow up believing that in order to be loved, they need to sacrifice their own needs in favour of others needs.
The Solution? Understanding Yourself.
“In the absence of reflection, history often repeats itself…Research has clearly demonstrated that our children’s attachment to us will be influenced by what happened to us when we were young if we do not come to process and understand those experiences.” - Dan Siegel
What most women do not realize is that the main obstacle preventing then from (1) developing a positive sense of self and (2) healthy attachment to their children, is the mother wound.
The road between a child and their mother is supposed to be a one-way street with support flowing consistently from the mother to the child. It goes without saying that children are totally dependent on their mothers for physical, mental and emotional support. However, one of the many faces of the mother wound is the common dynamic in which the mother inappropriately depends on the child to provide her with mental and emotional support. This role-reversal is incredibly damaging to the child, having long-range effects on their self-esteem, confidence and sense of self-worth.
Alice Miller describes this dynamic in “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” The mother, upon having a child may unconsciously feel that finally she has someone to love her unconditionally and begins to use the child to fill her needs that were not met in her own childhood. In this way, the child begins to carry the projection of his or her mother’s mother. This puts the child in an impossible situation to be responsible for his or her mother’s well-being and happiness.
The young child then has to repress his or her own developmental needs in order to accommodate the emotional needs of the mother. Instead of the child getting mirroring from mother, the child is expected to be the one doing the mirroring. Instead of being able to use the mother as a secure, emotional base for exploration, the child is expected to be the secure emotional base for mother.