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  • Writer's pictureDr. Maura Ferguson

Unlocking the Secrets of Conscious, Attuned Parenting: A Journey into Psychoanalytic Wisdom

How contemporary psychoanalytic wisdom can help you become a more relaxed and effective parent.

No matter how you become a parent, whether through adoption, biological parenthood, surrogacy, or egg or sperm donation, parenthood is a transformative journey almost unparalleled in the depth of changes in lifestyle, identity, and internal mental change.

Through my experience as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, as a parent and as a clinician who has worked with many people on their path to becoming parents, I have experienced and observed the overwhelming feelings evoked by being a parent. I have also completed a doctorate in psychology and have benefited from how psychoanalytic thinking has influenced my experience as a parent and my work as a clinician. There is much that theory has to offer parents in terms of understanding, clarity, and compassion that can increase a sense of self-awareness, confidence and ease in a challenging role. With the proper support and space, becoming a parent can be a time of incredible self-discovery and growth.

Psychoanalytic theory has come a long way since the early days of Freud and his contemporaries. Modern-day psychoanalysis is more focused on human capacities to relate to other people and to experience trusting mutually interdependent relationships and attachments to friends, colleagues, romantic partners, managers, parents etc.; modern-day psychoanalysis is far less focused on the drive theory that early psychoanalysis began with. It is difficult for us to imagine nowadays that prior to Freud, people made little to no connection to how early childhood experiences continue to affect us in adulthood in either beneficial or dysfunctional ways. Contemporary psychoanalytic approaches concentrate on bringing awareness to covert motivations and relationship dynamics and encourage a holistic understanding of parent-child and family dynamics.

Psychoanalytic theory also focuses on increasing a parent's self-reflective capacity to reduce automatic and reactive responses and increase authentic empathy, connection, attunement, and attachment in relationships that support overall well-being.

Many, if not most, parents have found themselves repeating something that they heard their parents say when they were children. This experience can be disorienting, as they may be repeating a phrase or behaviour they don't necessarily endorse or believe in while simultaneously feeling powerless to do anything else and frustrated with the result. This type of experience represents an unconscious script repeating itself.

Psychoanalytic theoreticians such as Donald Winnicott, Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, Anna Alvarez and many others have studied and conceptualized a child's inner world in a deep and nuanced way.

Donald Winnicott was a renowned British pediatrician and psychoanalyst. His writings are a treasure trove for parents. Among other things, Winnicott proposed that children develop a true self, which represents their authentic feelings, desires, and experiences. Alongside this, children also create a false self, a facade they present to the world to meet others' expectations. Understanding and supporting the development of the true self is crucial for fostering healthy emotional growth in children.

Winnicott also introduced the concept of the "good enough" parent, emphasizing that parents do not need to be perfect. Instead, they must provide consistent, loving care that meets their child's basic needs and allows for growth and exploration. This approach encourages parents to embrace their imperfections while striving to create a nurturing environment for their children. Anyone fearful that psychoanalytic approaches will always blame and shame parents may find that the concept of "good enough" can be helpful and even liberating from internal or external expectations around perfection.

Winnicott also emphasized the concept of a "holding environment," which refers not to a physical space but to the emotional and physical support provided by caregivers. This environment creates a sense of safety and containment for the child, allowing them to explore and develop an understanding of self-confidence through play and creativity.

Winnicott and other psychoanalysts emphasized parenting approaches involving active listening, reflective responding, empathetic validation, open communication, setting firm but not rigid boundaries, and encouragement of expression through play. Winnicott's approach was something other than what could be tacked on or faked. It is an approach that parents or caregivers would need to embody themselves and develop through being held by their own families, communities, and mental health providers that can increase their capacity to reflect on themselves.

Attuned parenting is a capacity that can be developed in parents who may lack it. It can be further refined and supported by people who find this approach comes naturally. Embracing what psychoanalytic practitioners and theoreticians have learned can make parenting easier as parents learn to develop trust in themselves and their connection to their children. If you have found this blog post helpful, let us know and stay tuned or subscribe to our newsletter for upcoming posts on applying psychoanalytic wisdom to everyday life. Please share this post with any parents you think would find it helpful. Thank you for participating in this post, and all the best on your parenting journey.

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