Between Mothers and Fathers

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel
June 14, 2010

We are now between the two public holidays honoring mothers and fathers. In the last several months, I've been in a number of discussions with various professors of neuroscience and psychology about the role of parents in development. In the entry of this column before today, we've been exploring the science of attachment and of the brain to focus on what research tells us about how parents and other caregivers can have a profound effect on how a young child grows. The great news, we've already discussed, is that how you make sense of your life -- not what happened to you by itself, but instead how you've come to understand the impact of those experiences on your development -- is the best predictor of how your own child will be attached to you.

In these academic discussions, several issues came up that are highly relevant for parents. Some of the discussion focused on temperament.  "Aren't the findings of attachment research merely the results of the inherited impact of our constitutional temperament rather than how parents impact children?" For some developmental and neursocience focused professors, this type of question raises the issue about to the central role of genes in how we grow.  To provide an alternative view that draws on the research findings demonstrating the importance of parental communication with children, I was offered an hour-long interview highlighting these studies and their practical implications (you can find this on the website under the "press page" area for the Networker Interview).  These scientific studies suggest that parents offer much more than the egg of the mother and the sperm of the father that contain our genes. Mothers and fathers offer the essence of who they are to help shape the developing mind -- and brain -- of the child.

The great news is that who you are as a mother or father is more than just your genetic donor role. You are also more than just the accumulation of your experiences over time. How you have made sense of your past and how you can become open to your child in the present are two factors that enable your child to have become resilient in the future. The studies clearly show a number of key features that are helpful for every parent to know that I'll offer you here.

A child does indeed have a number of inborn features that we call temperament. How your child responds to novelty, the intensity of their responses, the ease with which he or she returns to balance after getting upset, the regularity of cycles of sleep and wakefulness, and if there is grumpiness or an upbeat attitude toward life are some of the elements of temperament that each of us is born with.

A child has a given constellation of temperamental features. And a child has one set of genes. But a given child can actually have two entirely different attachment types with each caregiver. Your son may be securely attached to you but insecurely attached to your spouse. And research has demonstrated that the best predictor, have you've heard from me repeatedly, is each parent's way of having made sense of their life. These findings are of the Adult Attachment Interview and reveal how this "coherence of our lifestory" can predict, even when the baby is in the womb, what the nature of the attachment will be to each caregiver independently. How can one set of genes, or one temperament, explain this ability to have two or more types of attachment?  It can't. And in fact our nation's leading expert on the genetics of personality himself said that while most aspects of our lives have some genetic influence, our attachment types do not.

Another issue is that when identical twins are compared to fraternal twins who do not share the same genes, there is no increased overlap in attachment. This type of analysis is the gold standard of genetic tests; to find monozygotic (identical twins) sharing some feature much more than dizygotic (fraternal) twins indicates that it has a large genetic basis. This was not found for attachment. These findings, plus the important set of studies that reveal that foster kids raised with foster parents who have a "coherent" AAI finding actually do much better in terms of their attachment and their overall development. So even if you don't share genes with the child you are taking care of, how you've made sense of your own life is the best predictor of how your child will do in terms of their development of emotional and social intelligence, how they get along with their peers, and with themselves.

Naturally genes have a large impact on many aspects of our lives, including our mental health. The brain is shaped by experience and by genetics, and attachment is only one component of the many ingredients that shape how we become who we are. If we have genetic vulnerabilities we've inherited -- perhaps for bipolar disorder, autism, or schizophrenia -- we develop these conditions not from our attachment experiences, but from innate factors on our nervous system. But even in the face of having a child with such risk factors, our own making-sense process will better equip us to help our children develop as well as they can. We can help ourselves become more resilient by making sense of our own lives.  This is the essence of what Mary Hartzell and I were offering in our book, Parenting from the Inside Out, which is a guide to making sense of your life.     

And so as we straddle this time between the Days for Mothers and for Fathers, we can be thankful for a host of gifts our parents have given us and we give to our children. From the genes that help form the blueprints of our nervous system, to the attachment experiences that create the interior design and landscape architecture that fine tune our constitutional core, parents offer us essential elements from the inside out. We don't need a formal holiday to honor these gifts...but why not celebrate!  Happy Attachment Day to us all!   

You can read more of Dr. Siegel's work at the Mindsight Institute website.


From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    Dr. Siegel, You are the best!!! Thank you for all your hard work and your clear communication. As a therapist who works from a developmental perspective, I benefited so much from your workshops and books. Now, I have these excellent Savvy Expert articles to recommend to the parents of my young clients and to my adult clients as well. Thank you! Sincerely, Pat E.

    over a year ago


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