Have you ever wondered how people with bad parents go on to be good parents themselves? Where do they learn to be loving and responsive, to laugh, wrestle, or comfort after a skinned knee if their mom and dad never did?
For decades, psychologists have studied how parenting style transmits through generations. Not surprisingly, there’s no easy formula. Factors like genes and temperament, behavioral modeling, and life experience all play a role. But one assessment tool called the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) — a measure well known to researchers, but rarely talked about in parenting circles — speaks volumes about how this all works. It’s a set of 20 questions that, when given to an adult, predict with roughly 80 percent accuracy the type of relationship a child will have to that adult (current or later on). The catch is, even though the questions are about family history, the results are not concerned with what actually happened to you as a child. Instead, the interview focuses on how you tell the story of what happened to you as a child — this is what best foretells your future as a parent.
To back up a bit, turning the tide of parenting is kind of remarkable when you think about it; on a fundamental level, we learn to parent by being parented ourselves. We absorb the basic patterns and emotional tone of the first years of life. Psychologists call this our “internal working model” — a mental, largely unconscious representation of the social world coded deep in our brains. We get it when we’re small, and it’s the operating system we use in relationships down the road, including with our kids.
This bears out in research, too. Children from high-conflict families often go on to be high-conflict parents. Attachment researchers see basic things like the level of uncertainty and chaos or nurturing and warmth in a person’s family of origin reflected in their relationship to their children later on. In one early study, moms were interviewed to find out how accepted or rejected they felt by their own parents, and those factors almost perfectly divided how secure or anxious their own babies were.
But we all know that’s not the whole story, because people from similar backgrounds can wind up as very different parents. In a sense, the AAI explains how this happens. The interview is an adult-to-adult conversation that is taped, carefully transcribed, and coded. Repeatedly, researchers have seen that how an adult classifies on this measure (as autonomous, preoccupied, dismissing, or unresolved) predicts the security or insecurity of their baby, preschooler, school-age kid, and even young adult’s relationship to them later on. Questions include:
To which parent did you feel the closest, and why?
When you were upset as a child, what would you do?
In general, how do you think your overall experiences with your parents have affected your adult personality?
Why do you think your parents behaved as they did during your childhood?
If you had three wishes for your child 20 years from now, what would they be?
While the person answers, researchers listen not so much for the details of their childhood, but how the person makes sense of those details in the recounting. The key is coherence: adults who are able talk about their childhoods (positive or negative) in a coherent way are classified as “autonomous.” People with coherent narratives tell the story of childhood in a clear way, with thoughts that flow logically together. Alan Sroufe, a leading child development researcher who has been working with the AAI for many years, explains that a coherent narrative is a sign that a person sees and understands her past (not necessarily that she had a good one).
People with incoherent narratives, on the other hand, tend to “wander away from the question or get lost in a detailed recounting of parental shortcomings — they’re unable to carry through an organized thread in the tale.” Rambling, going off topic, not having many memories, being unwilling to share, or still being embroiled in anger are all signs of incoherence. As is insisting on an all-good past. “No one’s parents were perfect,” says Sroufe. When people describe their parents in totally and extremely positive terms, it often means they’re blocking out one side of the story or can’t see in shades of grey. He explains that inconsistency usually gives this away, in that broad claims often can’t be backed up with specific remembered examples that match.
Why does coherence make for good parenting? Researchers say that carefully listening to how people answer the personal questions of the AAI gives them a window into the mind — to see whether life experience, memories, thoughts, and feelings are stitched together in a cogent, reasonable way. If they are, the person is more likely to be available and responsive to their little one, and to interpret their child’s needs correctly. Incoherence can be a sign that the parent has unfinished business in their past that affects the way they see or act toward their child. Sroufe gives the example of a “dismissive” parent interpreting a baby that wants physical closeness as being hungry or contrary. (Indeed, in one study, when moms watched a videotape of their infant in distress, those classified as dismissive were more likely to interpret their baby’s behavior as negative or spoiled). “Preoccupied” parents, who tend to still be enraged at their own moms and dads, get sidelined and overwhelmed by the questions, have trouble seeing their own role in things, and often misinterpret or overreact to their own child’s behavior (for example, feeling terribly rejected by a child who just wants to be held by the other parent). “Unresolved” parents — many of whom experienced trauma — become disoriented or flooded with emotion and memory during the interview. As parents they’re more likely to disconnect from or frighten their own children.
None of this is permanently fixed, though, and a person’s childhood does not make their parenting destiny. Remember that autonomous parents haven’t necessarily sailed through with picturesque holidays and summer camps — but they’ve figured out a way to understand their lives and see their own parents clearly. Autonomous adults who had tough childhoods are sometimes called “earned-secure,” denoting that they’re conscious of the past and have worked to move forward. Sroufe says that people who had a sub-par model for parenting often get the support and security from their partners instead and become more autonomous as life goes on. His research has found three things that help turn difficult childhoods around: at least 6 months of therapy in childhood, an alternative caring adult in childhood, and a supportive relationship partner in adulthood — a theme, as he puts it, of “caring relationships transforming negative histories.”
No one comes to parenting with a clean slate. Nor would we want to; our personal experiences, quirks, and flaws are what make us who we are. Knowing our vulnerabilities seems to be the important part, and just admitting you have them is probably a good start. Actually, if you were reading this article with any amount of curiosity about yourself as a parent, I’d say it’s a good sign you’re already doing the best by your little ones.
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