As we move slowly beyond the great recession, today’s young people are the first American generation in a long while expected to be less well off than their parents. So we have a paradoxical situation, in which the pressure to produce successful kids has never been more relentless or harder to achieve, especially with mass culture suggesting that if kids do fail, it must be because mom and dad failed in some way. Thus, it’s easy to understand how parental focus can shift from the child to the child-as-product, underlining a kind of premeditated parenting with calculated ends in mind. If you’d asked any of our own parents why they said goodnight or read us a bedtime story or grounded us for the weekend, they’d have been hard pressed for an answer beyond “that’s what everyone does” or “because I’m the parent.” Certainly, they wouldn’t have had a psychological agenda in mind, much less a strategy to “build strong attachment bonds” or “improve emotional adjustment in life.”
It’s striking to consider the attachment implications when parental behavior isn’t really about what it seems to be about, but is in service of a whole other agenda. Yet this is exactly what I hear from diverse groups with statements like “I give my child a hug when he does something well because kudos build self-esteem” or “When she bumped herself, once I realized she wasn’t really hurt, I let her cry because she needs to develop grit” or “We’re strict about keeping schedules because rituals instill emotional security.”
To try to raise a child “by the book,” or according to the dictates of thousands of experts (like me) gabbling away, is like trying to determine a good diet by following food fads. After all, butter was once very, very bad; now it’s good—sort of. Both are enterprises doomed to fail, or at least to create unintended consequences. So we have earnest, committed, caring parents trying their best to follow an almost infinite number of often contradictory prescriptions to produce a perfect commodity with greater market potential. What could possibly be wrong with that?
A lot! The usurpation of parenting instincts has serious attachment consequences. For one thing, as brain imaging one day will show, kids can tell the difference between authentic, three-dimensional connection and a two-dimensional parental processing that passes for the real thing. It’s not easy to describe this subtle kind of relational shift, but I believe that the problems so many young adults bring into therapy are related to the contextually-driven dilution of parental connection into something not quite fully there—a parental attachment facsimile.
This pseudo-connection has deep implications for the clients we see. We live in a culture immersed in emotional dysregulation—a kind of nonstop, excessively stimulating too-muchness. This is all fine, as long as you have the ego strength and stability to absorb hyperstimulation without being undone by it. But, as we’re learning, people need secure attachment, along with the luck of a good genetic and temperament draw, to develop a sturdy sense of self. And this is exactly where the long-term erosion of effective parental hierarchy, and now the diminution of unself-conscious parenting, create many new shades of pseudo-attachment. By the time teens and young adults reach us, they’ve spent years seeking out intense attachments in the second family of the peer group and pop culture; yet for all the relational good that happens between kids every day, these are often dysregulated bonds, fraught with techno-driven highs and instant-feedback lows.
Given the subtle but pervasive pseudo-attachment between teens and their parents, my goal is to help them differentiate and at the same time become closer, or—to use a decidedly nonclinical term—more three-dimensional. That means along with limits, I strongly focus on creating points of connection, encouraging things frowned upon in the glory days of family hierarchy: mutual caretaking, greater companionship, sharing of confidences, and becoming partners in fun and relaxation. As a central part of that, I try to allow myself to be a fuller, more spontaneous person in the consulting room than I’d ever have imagined myself to be earlier in my career.
Ron Taffel, PhD, is Chair, Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in NYC, the author of eight books and over 100 articles on therapy and family life.