I notice that in our parenting we tend to fall with varying degrees, into one of two camps; distancer or pursuer. Although these are terms traditionally used in the context of couples (it is a universal pattern that in relationship one partner takes the distancing role and the other pursues) I think we also have these tendencies in relationship to our children.
The reason we fall into these dynamics are due to our attachment patterns. As babies if we had enough experience of being able to trust that our caregivers would respond when we needed we would become securely attached. If our caregivers weren’t always responsive, but connection was a good thing when we got it, we were more likely to be anxiously attached; constantly seeking out and reaching for connection. If our caregivers were more frightening than reassuring, we learned to keep our distance from them to feel safe, known as avoidantly attached. If we had a parent who was sometimes attentive and sometimes frightening and we couldn’t predict when, we may have developed a disorganised attachment (meaning that due to this unpredictability we couldn’t rely on an organised strategy that would ensure our needs were met so we swing between anxious and avoidant strategies in a disorganised fashion). As adults we are still governed by our attachment patterns from babyhood. You may notice you have a different pattern with your partner than you do with your kids. We can also vary either with different partners/children, or in different contexts. These patterns are hardwired in us. I’m going to describe these patterns, slightly playfully, with the awareness that even if they seem familiar, I bet you are also offering your kids a lot of responsive, secure attachment as well. This is not offered as something to feel bad about. How we were responded to as babies was not something we had control over and the good news is that we can change our attachment status as adults to become more and more secure in ourselves and for our children. I will offer some strategies for how to do this.
Distancer parents adore their kids, want very much to engage in parenting and be a solid loving presence and yet battle with this on a daily basis. A stint with the kids has them reaching for wine or fantasising about sending their brood to boarding school. Smiling sweetly through gritted teeth at their offspring, they are literally dying inside and counting the hours or days until they can escape from parenting. There is a strong compulsion to turn away, be busy with something else, or be somewhere else and in moments of stress to push kids away, retreat or palm them off on another caregiver. They might use work, spirituality or relationships to hide from stepping into parenting more fully. The hurt for this parent is a sense of longing to be closer to their kids and a feeling of guilt that they aren’t ever able to quite get there. Usually they have first hand experience of a caregiver who wasn’t very present or attentive, so know how painful it feels not to have someone tuned into them.
The pursuer parent is constantly aware of their kids’ needs; their compulsion leans more towards caregiving, often to the detriment of their own wellbeing. They find it impossible to ever get any space. You’ll find them with three children clambering on their head, always at least one in their bed and half the neighbourhood round for constant playdates. They’ll be effortlessly making dinner with a baby on the hip (4 different kinds to accommodate everyone’s particular preferences!). Despite the overwhelm of constant kids and fantasies of alone time, they generally feel panicked when their kids are too far away or they lose connection. The hurt for this parent is usually around feeling like they are the only one carrying the mental and emotional load and feeling a lot of responsibility. They might hide behind their kids as a reason not to take risks in other areas of life and feel unfulfilled in their career or creativity.
We aren’t truly present and available when we are in either the distancing or the pursuing pattern, because the compulsive behaviours are driven by old feelings that take us away from responding to what is in front of us in the here and now.
The good news is according to attachment researcher Edward Tronick, even the best parents are only attuned to their kids about 30% of the time. And thankfully our attachment status can change as we recover from the hurts left unresolved from babyhood. As we feel safer in the world we become more secure with our loved ones and more available for our children. Research shows us that as we work through leftover issues from childhood and we are able to feel fully what we weren’t able to finish feeling at the time, we release the hold of the hurts that drive these patterns.
Start responding to ruptures with repair
Until we get to this place of more secure attachment, neurobiologist Dan Siegel suggests that what’s more important than our attachment pattern is our capacity for ‘rupture and repair’. When we can attend to ruptures in attachment by noticing that we have become unavailable to our children and moving in with presence to repair the experience, it brings the relationship into safety and it’s this safety that fosters a more secure attachment. A repair might involve an apology (I’m sorry, I forgot I can leave the dishes and just be with you’ or ‘Whoops I think I got confused between my need and your need there’) but more likely simply offering your presence instead of the pushing or pulling behaviour will be enough. Our kids are really good at making use of our attention for whatever is most needed.
Work on your life story coherence
Listening Partnerships are a great way of working through this stuff. We know that our level of presence and availability for our kids is related to how much coherence we can develop with our own personal narrative. More on that here.
Do the emotional work on specific issues
Both distancer and pursuer patterns are a strategy to cope with not having the responsiveness we needed as a child. To heal from this, you’ll want to focus on the hurt of separation in your early life. What are the earliest memories of being separated from your caregivers? Or if you don’t remember but you know there was a medicalisation or time when you had to be left, or someone important died/went away, what do you think that might’ve been like for you? What was it like when your caregivers were unavailable to you (either through being preoccupied and distant or through being anxious and smothering)? What did you make that mean about you? I wrote about how I worked on this myself here.
Set little limits with yourself
If you are a distancer parent, notice the places where you turn away from your kids. Explore your conscious narrative (it might be ‘I have no choice but to work’ or ‘I just can’t handle noise and chaos, I need to get outta here’) and see if you can find counters to that. Stretch yourself by letting your kids in just a little bit more and attend to the feelings that arise.
If your tendency is more to pursue connection with your kids, start by noticing the feeling that drives you to reach for them. What discomfort are you seeking to avoid by overidentifying with your kids? Stretch yourself by letting them go just a little bit more and tend to the feelings that arise. These patterns don’t change by will power, but by tending to the feelings underneath and sometimes experimenting with little stretches allow us to access those feelings.
Society is generally more disapproving of distancing parents than pursuers and most distancer parents give themselves a hard time about their default pattern. A really good way of countering any feelings of inadequacy is by offering your kid Special Time. Offering even 2 minutes of 1-1 delighted attention, where you say ‘I’ll play whatever you wanna play’ gives our children an experience of receiving our love that really hits the spot. More importantly, it allows us to feel good about ourselves as parents. However busy we got the rest of the day, we can go to sleep having checked the ‘good parent’ box when we’ve achieved Special Time.
My suggestion for pursuer parents is to swap Special Time with your partner or another adult. You might have a playfight, ask for a massage, share something you’ve created with them or ask for words of affirmation. Or you could even give yourself Special Time. Notice what it’s like either to receive someone’s attention, or to really tend to yourself.
The key with all of this is to be really kind to yourself as you recover. This stuff is no one’s fault, is absolutely recoverable AND it takes time. You deserve really good support from your loved ones whilst working on attachment issues. People tend to respond well to requests for help when you are specific about what you need. Listening Partnerships when used effectively are a powerful enough intervention to free you up from your default pattern. If you need further support, both my Deep Work program and 12 week parenting program will help you completely turn this around.