We all know how important childhood development is, and quite a bit is known about adult development, but parenting as a developmental process is is not as well understood. What I mean is, just as children and adults progress through a series of well-characterized cognitive, affective, and physical stages, I believe people as parents do, too. Parenting as a developmental process has its roots in psychoanalytic theory. As that story goes, “normal” individual development consists of sequential transformations determined by interactions with the environment. But when development goes awry, we get “stuck.” In most cases, we get over it, but sometimes when our own kids’ developmental ebb and flow reminds us of our own early struggles, we become vulnerable to problem interactions. For example, unresolved conflicts about power may predispose a particular parent to problematic interactions with a toddler around boundaries. Furthermore, if the fit between the child and parent is strained for constitutional reasons, these vulnerabilities can be even more pronounced. So given these perils, how do we parents navigate our complex relationships with our kids and also continue to evolve?
Just as some developmental milestones are evocative of our prior struggles, many are not and “good enough” parents take the good with the bad, sharing in their children’s growth, mastery, and independence. As we struggle with, delight in, reflect on, and plan for these milestones, they activate a complex set of associations that facilitate individual and parental development in us. As our children become independent, we learn to tolerate ambiguity and risk, while trusting that our attachments will endure. Thus, the engine of parental and familial development is child development and how we respond to our changing, evolving children helps define an independent line of parental development. I remember meeting a woman on the pediatric consult liaison service, a service dedicated to addressing the psychiatric needs of medically ill children and their families, whose anxieties about her terminally ill child seemed to spill over into her relationship with her other children. Part of my work with her was to help her understand that her tragic loss had to impact her development as a mother, and how to then anticipate and work with that unfortunate fact. This is a dramatic example, but we can imagine how negotiating sleep patterns at six months, feeding challenges at eighteen months, toileting issues at two, and normal separations at three all test the attachments and thus our capacity to regulate responses to our children. When the balance of these kinds of struggles tips toward the positive, we are emboldened and become increasingly prepared for the “bigger problems” that our “bigger children” will pose. Conversely, if we are demoralized by negative interactions, lower self esteem and decreased frustration tolerance can arrest parental development, increasing the risk profile for the development of childhood psychopathology.
Clearly, we parents are on our own developmental pathways, reciprocally impacted by our interactions with our children. As we stand by, participating in and observing the challenges of childhood development, we, too, grow and our capacity to progress along expected adult and parental developmental trajectories is enhanced. Engaging the childhood, parental, familial, and adult developmental stages as they arise, allowing them to impact us and grappling with their historical import can only help parents develop as individuals and stewards of our children’s future.