The Rise of the Two-Dimensional Parent

Are Therapists Seeing a New Kind of Attachment?

Ron Taffel

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 3.14.58 PMAs 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.

Topic: Parenting | Aging

Tags: brain imaging | diet | emotion | kids | learning | meditate | parents | secure attachment | TED | teens

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Sunday, September 14, 2014 8:07:03 PM | posted by Matthew Leary
I really appreciated this article. I especially like how the author talks about the ways in which parents can start to treat their children like they are trying to build a car on an assembly-line: add in this much x, that much y, these three zs, and you've got a happy, well-adjusted, socially apt child. As a group, I think, with all the medicalization and focus on neuroscience in our field, I see people less often attending to social and cultural influences on behavior and experience, and I appreciate this author bringing these issues to light again.

However, I also think the idea of "parental instincts" is a little problematic. To my mind, our parental instincts are born out of attachment history, values, social and cultural beliefs that are implicit in conversations & media, etc., and a lot on our own history of being parented. So, our "instincts" are often unconsciously shaped and often do not reflect our self at best. For example, I know that I have an "instinct" to yell when my kids question my authority or ignore me - is it really helpful for me to act out of that instinct most of the time those parenting situations happen? With my clients, and with my self, I have found it helpful to inquire: "Who is the parent that I want to be, given my personality?" Calibrating between values, aspirations, realistic expectations of oneself, educational information out there, mindfully slowing down and being present, and one's own history has helped parents become more integrated, three dimensional, "good enough" parents that they can be proud of.

Saturday, September 13, 2014 1:54:57 AM | posted by Don Goin
I hope readers will carry away the core,of this piece, which is great stuff. Sadly, this too will pass as a fad. I remember in my personal analysis in the 70's, the big thing was the Oedipal Cnflict, which in retrospect was but one more interpretaiton of the human dance. We, as psychotherapists, are all in Plato's cave, trying to make some sense of the shadows. In our efforts, we finger paint, some more creatively than others. Few of our efforts are masterpieces. Oh God, that I could come up with a new disorder or better, dream up another MMPI The DSM grows thicker and the ribbon of normalcy on the bell curve shrinks to a whisper. More and more disorders. Why are they called disorders in the first place, these abberation of normal behavior?
We have no absolute realities. When I was growing up during WWII, I had no doubt the Allies would win because God was on our side. I can recalll national leaders praying together. How would that be:: Obabm calling a prayer meeting with congress?
Yes, I am a Christian, an old one.My walk with Christ helps me trmendously in myclinical work as does my understanding, such as it is, of psychodynamics. I think The Psychotherapy Networker is the best thing to come along in a long time. I have been a subscriper for about a year, so I don't know if the interface of religlion and psychotherpay has been broached, but would like to know. Sorry to wonder astray from this inis excellent work. . .

Friday, September 12, 2014 11:32:23 PM | posted by Roger Lake
Great article. Certainly picks up the contemporary experience of the anxious and often isolated parents who do sometimes depend on experts like us and the theoretical worlds we too often promulgate in the name of science and it's darker henchmen, money and fame.
But what I liked most, was your own sense of having become more "real" as a therapist in a way that was hard to imagine when we were vulnerable to the experts we sought help from in guiding families. I still think of this as a funny story: I remember a family therapy training somewhere around 1985, where a supervisor, in allegiance to his model, described saying to a trainee from behind the mirror, "if you ask about her feelings one more time, I'm going to wash your mouth out with soap." I thought he was a smart guy who knew more than me and took him seriously, at least for awhile.

In my mind, the developmental dynamic through which we encounter something like "parental instincts," while modulated in profound ways by attachment processes that influence agency and empathy, is also an aspect of culture and needs to be thought about in terms of economics and social justice. When we are unconsciously compelled to pursue certain ends with means that don't work, we might begin to question the larger values assumptions influencing personal choice. Even securely attached individuals are capable of horrendous interpersonal behavior.
I think that the issue, particularly for the adolescent to adult transition is about knowing the right thing to do, and I agree that the loss of face time in family life is a substantial problem, but I suspect that it often has to do with aspects of the social brain that aren't so much based in attachment. Our historical focus on the parent child issue has been problematic in exactly that way, going all the way back to "schizophrenogenic mothers."

Friday, September 12, 2014 5:10:33 PM | posted by +2-D PARENTS | Stop the Storm
[...] BTW, Psychotherapy Networker’s email to me today included a VERY interesting article: Psychotherapy Networker » The Rise of the Two-Dimensional Parent [...]

Friday, September 12, 2014 2:48:14 PM | posted by Brenda McCreight
So excited to read your article -as a therapist specializing in behaviour disorders and adoption, as well as being the adoptive parent of 12, I am constantly concerned with the focus on *therapeutic parenting* for children with attachment challenges. While I understand the need for adoptive parents to learn a fairly unique set of parenting skills in order to deal with issues such as fasd, attachment disorder, conduct disorder, etc, I have observed, over the many years I've been in practice, that adoptive parents are pushed to ignore their natural instincts and behave like treatment home staff. And, I agree with the author that even genetic parents are raising their neurotypical children from a theoretical perspective rather than from the heart. Certainly all of these parents love their children and want the best for them, but something is going amiss for all of us. Great article.