Attachment Parenting is all the rage these days, despite harsh debate over what it constitutes and how to do it right. Parents everywhere are educating themselves on the benefits of healthy, strong attachment in early childhood through responsive parenting techniques.
Although the medical literature is clear that violent parenting damages a child's developing brain and impairs systems from emotional intelligence to verbal ability, one area many parents overlook is the connection to violence displayed in the home between adults.
The dynamics of the adult relationship directly intersects with the parent-child relationship, not only due to skill set, but also due to expectations of behavior based on a worldview of either respect and harmony or control and punishment.
Put succinctly, no matter how gently and attached a person is as a parent, if a woman's partnership is filled with disrespect, toxic shaming, verbal abuse, or even physical abuse, the foundation of the home can still cause intense trauma and impair skill development despite her attempts to be a gentle parent.
October is Attachment Parenting month. This year, let's bring awareness to the bigger connections by breaking the silence on the taboo topic of violence and dysfunction in parental relationships and how it influences children.
We can already put together how a hot and cold home environment might still create opportunities for trauma, including compounded issues. For example, a recent study looked at parents who physically discipline their children and then attempt to be loving afterwards. What they found is that not only does the loving behavior afterwards fail to heal the wound from the physical punishment, but the change in behavior actually creates symptoms of anxiety in the children. And that's not surprising. Small children, unsure of adult context and intent, watch a loving caregiver go hurting them to loving them over minor issues such as not obeying or not eating vegetables for dinner.
As a parent educator who has promoted non-violent parenting for about a decade now, one of the most common situations I see is a family model where one parent is imbuing disrespect and violence into the home while the other parent attempts to act as a buffer, or otherwise tries to compensate and "clean up" the damage. This might even feel instinctual, to try to jump in to fix things and smooth things over, but it can't overcome a foundation of violence, and frequently leads to confused, unsteady, hypervigilant children trying to desperately guess what will come next. Love or pain?
Parents might be surprised to realize that this family dynamic is an established cycle, often connected to related issues such as personality disorders and substance abuse. Typically, one parent hurts the other parent and the child. Then the other parent goes behind him, cleaning up the broken glass, comforting the children, and lying or maintaining an image to outsiders. Her intentions are good, and her efforts are courageous, but unfortunately, the kindness afterwards does not overcome the violence. It instead creates a synergistic effect that breeds more anxiety.
Going back to that study on spanking with love, the lead researcher confirms: "If you believe that you can shake your children or slap them across the face and them smooth things over gradually by smothering them with love, you are mistaken." It's not a huge leap to go from the parent to the partner, and back again when it comes to surveying the damage of emotional, verbal, and physical violence.
Just as the damage from spanking children has been clearly and consistently shown in the medical literature, so has the damage from witnessing adults fighting and hurting each other. So much evidence is available, in fact, that it would make this article needlessly long if I tried to stuff them all in here. For more information outside the scope of this article, be sure to check out this website entirely dedicated to children who witness violence in the home.
The evidence is clear that whether children witness violence between their parents or are the target of violence from their parents, they experience a variety of negative outcomes, including anxiety and depression, lowered IQ scores, lowered vocabulary scores, increased risk of learning disabilities, increased incidence of high-risk behavior such as substance abuse, and even physical manifestation through chronic adult diseases.
Violence in the home is pretty much the one area where we have the most evidence of harm, and the most evidence of how ineffective it is as raising healthy and functioning people, yet many people are still strongly attached to violent and disrespectful methods in their parnterships and parenting.
At this point, some readers might be experiencing a rising sensation of panic and hopelessness. If you're in a home with episodes of rage, disrespect, shaming, threats and intimidation, physical punishment, etc, you might have sought out resources on attachment parenting specifically to buffer your children. You most likely have pushed yourself to human limits in your attempt to create a small, safe space in an unsafe home. And now you're reading that this isn't working and in fact can create additional problems.
So now what?
All partnerships need work. Whether it's a case of disrespectful shaming and door slamming or a case of physical attacks and stalking, both cases are still a spectrum of the same foundation of disrespect. If you're trying to be responsive to the needs of your children through attachment parenting, it's imperative that you extend this way of living and thinking to your own adult relationship. Some might recognize this as the adage of "fill your cup so you can give to others." It is viscerally applicable here. If you are filled with anxiety and resentment, that will impair your ability to be present and calm for your children. If you have your boundaries violated or mocked by an adult, then your children cannot believe you when you tell them their boundaries are important or valuable.
Attachment partnering and parenting go hand in hand, neither can be successful without the other. If any person is being hurt in the home, then all people are being hurt in some way. So even if you're sure you aren't experiencing severe domestic violence, this concept is still an important one for all of us to learn about and to spend time working on in our lifetimes. Just as we are always working to improve our parenting skills, we need to be working on our partnerships.
TherapyTherapy is obviously a common sense step for any situation. The common scenario I hear is that the other partner refuses to attend therapy. If that's the case, then go alone. Bring your children to therapists. If at all possible, look for a therapist specifically experienced in "dysfunctional family dynamics" as not all therapists have the same level of training and might waste your time and money. Go consistently, encourage your partner to go consistently, and create an action plan with measurable progress so you can develop a sense of direction for the situation.
DBT, which stands for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, is a vastly underutilized tool that can help anyone in any relationship, at any age and stage. That includes children! DBT is a multi-faceted therapeutic approach focused on mindfulness and emotional integration. The beauty of this technique is that you can learn about it privately and work on it in your own home. You can even find DBT parenting books, which should be a must read for any parents struggling with behavioral disorders in their children.
For those relationships mired in disrespect that are not tipped into the domestic violence category, a simple approach can turn your ship around quickly. Sit down together for a family meeting and lay out clear standards of respect for all family members. Holding yourself and your partner accountable can have a dramatic influence on your children, and develop a strong sense of trust and respect. Discuss together how arguments can be resolved without hurting others. Establish a code phrase that any member can use to diffuse a situation. For example, "I'm taking the dog for a walk" lets the other person know things need a cool down phase without resorting to withdrawal or rejection techniques. Some families designate the bathroom as a safe space, meaning if someone enters the bathroom, they are not to be bothered or chased down.
Connect the dotsLook for opportunities to model non-violent, healthy interactions to your children. When you and your partner have a disagreement, provide observational statements to your children. Don't hide your situation or lie to your children. "Your dad is upset about the schedule change. He let me know in a respectful way, didn't he? I really appreciate that. Sometimes people make mistakes, including me. When we say things honestly but kindly, we can talk about our issues without hurting each other." One of the frequent ways I connect the dots is when my young sons act violently. "She took your toy, so you hit her. But, hitting hurts the other person and doesn't get your toy back. You know that Mommy and Daddy don't hit you, and we don't hit each other. Let's try a different way."
Appeal to the partnerIn many of the cases shared with me, the partnerships have strongly defined roles. One person is clearly the feeler, and the other person is clearly the thinker. This can cause conflict because one person intuitively feels that disrespect is wrong. But the other person wants proof. Just as you might have had to provide all of the medical literature on spanking to show that spanking is wrong for the child, you can also provide medical literature on the detriments of witnessing disrespect in the adult relationship. Using a therapist as a third party mediator is often helpful in this situation, too. It's important to research issues such as gaslighting and projection because you might need to distinguish between a reasonable request for information versus an abusive tactic to control the situation.
When all else failsIf looking at attachment parenting through the lens of attachment partnering is a catalyst for you, don't shy away from the difficult path ahead. Sometimes, our fierce attempts as mothers to protect our children might also serve as a way to distract us and keep our minds busy. If you begin to see that your home is not safe and cannot be healed right now, then it's time to be responsive to your children on a deeper level by moving them to safety and taking a new path.
Whatever your situation, if you've been interested in or practicing attachment parenting, now is a great time to expand the concept and connect the dots with your adult relationships. And ultimately, all relationships. Feeling safe, secure, and stable in a relationship is vital for human health and happiness. From the inside out, and from the outside in, the more we see the connections, the more we can promote a consistent way of living out our values for our children.
*Please note, the pronouns in this article are set to the largest audience of my blog. Violence in families can and does happen no matter the gender or sex. Also, all of the hyperlinked articles open in a new page so you can access them easily. I encourage you to read every one of them!