TRANSMISSION OF BENEVOLENT PARENTAL INFLUENCES

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INFANT MENTAL HEALTH JOURNAL, Vol. 26(6), 504 – 520 (2005) � 2005 Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/imhj.20071

A R T I C L E

ANGELS IN THE NURSERY:

THE INTERGENERATIONAL TRANSMISSION

OF BENEVOLENT PARENTAL INFLUENCES

ALICIA F. LIEBERMAN, ELENA PADRÓN, PATRICIA VAN HORN, AND WILLIAM W. HARRIS

San Francisco General Hospital and University of California, San Francisco

ABSTRACT: Fraiberg and her colleagues (1975) introduced the metaphor “ghosts in the nursery” to de- scribe the ways in which parents, by reenacting with their small children scenes from the parents’ own unremembered early relational experiences of helplessness and fear, transmit child maltreatment from one generation to the next. In this article we propose that angels in the nursery—care-receiving experi- ences characterized by intense shared affect between parent and child in which the child feels nearly perfectly understood, accepted, and loved—provide the child with a core sense of security and self-worth that can be drawn upon when the child becomes a parent to interrupt the cycle of maltreatment. We argue that uncovering angels as growth-promoting forces in the lives of traumatized parents is as vital to the work of psychotherapy as is the interpretation and exorcizing of ghosts. Using clinical case material, we demonstrate the ways in which early benevolent experiences with caregivers can protect against even overwhelming trauma, and examine the reemergence of these benevolent figures in consciousness as an instrument of therapeutic change. Finally, we examine implications of the concept of “angels in the nursery” for research and clinical intervention.

RESUMEN: Fraiberg y sus colegas (1975) introdujeron la metáfora “fantasmas en la habitación” para describir las maneras en que los padres transmiten el maltratamiento infantil de una generación a la otra, por medio de poner en escena, con sus niños pequeños, situaciones de sus propias -si bien no recordadas- experiencias de miedo y falta de ayuda en sus tempranas relaciones en sus tempranas relaciones. En este ensayo, proponemos que “ángeles en la habitación,” experiencias del cuidado recibido, caracterizadas por un intenso y compartido afecto entre padre o madre e infante, en las cuales el infante se siente casi perfectamente comprendido, aceptado y amado, proveen a éste con un sentido central de seguridad y autovalor al que se puede recurrir cuando el infante se convierte en padre o madre, con el fin de interrumpir el ciclo de maltratamiento. Sostenemos que dejar al descubierto “ángeles” como una fuerza que promueve el crecimiento en las vidas de padres o madres traumatizados es tan vital para el trabajo de la sicoterapia como la interpretación y el exorcismo de “fantasmas.” Por medio del uso de material de casos clı́nicos, demostramos las maneras por medio de las cuales las tempranas experiencias benevolentes con quienes nos prestaban el cuidado pueden proteger aun contra el trauma abrumador. También examinamos la reaparición de estas imágenes benevolentes en la conciencia como un instrumento de cambio terapéutico.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the Coydog Foundation. Direct correspondence to: Alicia F. Lieberman, San Francisco General Hospital, Building 20, Suite 2100,1001 Potrero Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94110; e-mail: Alicia�[email protected]

 

 

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cap height base of textFinalmente, examinamos las implicaciones del concepto de “ángeles en la habitación” en cuanto a la

investigación y la intervención clı́nica.

RÉSUMÉ: Fraiberg et ses collègues (1975) ont été les premiers à présenter la métaphore “fantômes dans la chambre d’enfant» pour décrire les manières dont les parents, en reproduisant avec leurs enfants en bas âge des scènes de leurs propres expériences inconscientes relationnelles d’impuissance et de peur, transmettent un mauvais traitement d’une génération à l’autre. Dans cet article, nous proposons que les anges dans la chambre d’enfant, des expériences de mode de soin caractérisées par un affect intense partagé entre le parent et l’enfant durant lequel l’enfant se sent presque parfaitement compris, accepté, aimé, offre à l’enfant un sens fondamental de sécurité et d’estime de soi qui peut être retrouvé lorsque l’enfant devient parent, pour interrompre le cycle de mauvais traitement. Nous pensons que le fait de découvrir ces anges en tant que forces de promotion de croissance dans les vies de parents traumatisés est tout aussi crucial pour le travail de psychothérapie que l’est l’interprétation et l’exorcisme des fan- tômes. En utilisant des cas cliniques, nous démontrons les manières dont de bonnes expériences précoces avec des modes de soin peuvent offrir une protection contre les traumas, mêmes les plus accablants, et nous examinons la réapparition de ces êtres bienveillants dans la conscience comme un instrument de changement thérapeutique. Enfin, nous examinons les implications du concept d’«anges dans la chambre d’enfant» pour les recherches et l’intervention clinique.

ZUSAMMENFASSUNG: Fraiberg und Kollegen haben 1975 die Metapher: Geister im Kinderzimmer ein- geführt, um die Art zu beschreiben in der Eltern – indem sie mit ihren kleinen Kindern Szenen der Hilflosigkeit und der Angst wieder inszenieren –, die aus den nicht erinnerten frühen Beziehungserfah- rungen stammen, Misshandlung von einer Generation zur nächsten weitergeben. In dieser Arbeit schlagen wir den Engel im Kinderzimmer vor: Betreuungserfahrungen, die sich durch intensiv gemeinsam em- pfundene Gefühle zwischen Eltern und Kind auszeichnen bei denen sich das Kind fast ideal verstanden, akzeptiert und geliebt fühlt. Dies gibt dem Kind ein grundlegendes Gefühl der Sicherheit und Selbstwert auf das zurückgegriffen werden kann, wenn das Kind selbst Eltern wird, um den Zyklus der Misshandlung zu unterbrechen. Wir behaupten, dass die Entdeckung von Engeln als Wachstumsfaktoren im Leben traumatisierter Eltern ebenso in der psychotherapeutischen Arbeit lebenswichtig ist, als die Interpretation und das Exorzieren von Geistern. Durch Verwendung von Fallgeschichten demonstrieren wir den Weg in dem frühe, hilfreiche Erfahrungen mit Bezugspersonen sogar gegen ein überwältigendes Trauma schützen können und überprüfen das Wiederauftreten dieser hilfreichen Figuren im Bewusstsein als ein Instrument der therapeutischen Veränderung. Zuletzt untersuchen wir das Konzept der „Engeln im Kin- derzimmer“ im Hinblick auf Forschung und klinische Intervention.

 

 

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A grandfather observes from a distance while his son, a young father, attends tenderly to his own new baby. The joy he feels in watching them brings back a scene from long ago, when a surge of happiness washed over him as he looked at his wife playing lovingly with their then small son. Finding himself thinking at once about the present and about the past, he muses: “There are angels that pass on from one generation to another, but they are seldom noticed or talked about” (Harris, personal communication, April 23, 2003).

In reliving this moment, the grandfather came to the deep realization that his son’s de- lighted ease in ministering to the baby carried the imprint of the loving parenting his son’s mother had herself received as a child. The scene had evoked for him the memory of his wife’s tender mothering of their son and then led him to reminisce about the deep bonds between his wife and her mother. In this sequence, the seemingly unremarkable scene of a father caring for his baby becomes the carrier of the profoundly important protective intergenerationalinfluences that foster the healthy development of children everywhere. In being observed, the scene also shows us four generations coming together, each with a very special role, in celebrating parent– child relationships.

In the spiritual tradition of many cultures, angels are benevolent spiritual beings who mediate between heaven and earth, acting as messengers from the divine and often serving as protective guardians (Murray, 1971). We propose that from a psychological perspective, angels emerge from childhood memories deeply connected to the phenomenology of care-receiving experiences that are characterized by intense shared affect between parent and child and provide the child with a core sense of worth and security. These messages of intrinsic goodness and unconditional love constitute the essence of the angel. As they enact scenes from their own past, parents unknowingly carry forth the angels from their childhoods into their babies’ nurs- eries. In this way, the message of the “angels in the nursery” is transmitted to the next generation in the form of benevolent influences that guard the course of development.

In ideal circumstances, self-affirming influences move silently in the lives of children, wrapping each successive generation in the security that comes from being loved, accepted, and understood. In darker moments, these “angels in the nursery” square off against their more famous siblings, the ghosts (Fraiberg, Adelson, & Shapiro, 1975), doing battle with them to keep intact the protective shield of parental love that surrounds young children and endeavoring to repair the damage when malevolent influences from the past break through. Ghosts and angels coexist in dynamic tension with each other, at times actively struggling for supremacy and at other times reverting to a quiescent state that allows the person to temporarily inhabit a “conflict-free ego sphere” (Hartmann, 1939) where adaptation to the external world takes prec- edence over intrapsychic preoccupations. Their host may or may not be consciously aware of their presence or their meaning because emotional states and frames of mind are usually felt in the moment, without reference to their origin in the person’s past experiences.

In this article, we examine the chiaroscuro of ghosts and angels in the nursery moving together to shape the development of children, and argue that the uncovering of angels as growth-promoting forces in the lives of traumatized parents is as important to therapeutic work as the containing, taming, and exorcizing of ghosts. Our clinical experience indicates that the recovery and integration into consciousness of early experiences of safety, intimacy, joy, and

 

 

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cap height base of textother pleasurable experiences can promote a more nuanced appreciation of early relationships

with primary caregivers and encourage a greater sense of self-worth and emotional investment in developmentally appropriate goals. This enlarged therapeutic perspective is relevant to the treatment of traumatic stress, which currently emphasizes a therapeutic focus on traumatic reminders and other triggers that blur the boundaries between remembering a traumatic event and reliving it (Marmar, Foy, Kagan, & Pynoos, 1993; Pynoos, 1997; Pynoos, Steinberg, & Piacentini, 1999). We propose that the parallel identification of “beneficial cues” (Harris, 2004) can hasten recovery from trauma by placing the traumatic cues within the larger perspective of nurturing and growth-promoting experiences. Our goal is to create a counterbalance for the prevailing tendency of relationship-based interventions in infancy to either focus primarily on current parent–child interactions or to explore the parent’s early experiences of pain, conflict, and alienation from caregivers (see Osofsky, 2004; Sameroff, McDonough, & Rosenblum, 2004; Stern, 1995). When the emotional polarities associated with early conflictful and benev- olent experiences is brought to consciousness, object constancy can be attained and results in increased emotional integration and tolerance for ambivalence (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975). The recovery and full reexperience of loving early memories is an indispensable first step in this process.

In developing our thesis, we begin by reviewing Fraiberg et al.’s (1975) formulation of ghosts in the nursery. In the sections that follow, we expand on the parallel concept of angels in the nursery, first exploring the ways in which parents recover a connection with these beneficent forces in their early lives. We then describe the ways in which early benevolent experiences with caregivers can work as protective forces even in the face of overwhelming trauma. Finally, we examine the reemergence in consciousness of these benevolent experiences as a powerful instrument of change in the therapeutic process. We conclude by examining some implications of the concept of “angels in the nursery” for research and clinical intervention.

The clinical material was gathered from child–parent psychotherapy with an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse sample of children aged from birth to 6 years and their parents. The children were referred because of symptoms associated with witnessing domestic violence, phys- ical abuse, or traumatic bereavement. All the parents were exposed to traumatic stressors as adults, and for approximately half of the parents, the traumatic experiences began in childhood. Parenting difficulties in this group were pervasive and took the form of severe conflicts in the child–parent relationship (Lieberman, 2004; Lieberman & Van Horn, 1998). We reviewed clin- ical charts containing narrative notes of therapeutic sessions and assessment protocols that in- cluded transcripts of the Adult Attachment Interview (George, Kaplan, & Main, 1996), a quas- iclinical interview where responders are asked to describe their childhood experiences with their parents. In the course of forming a therapeutic relationship, we asked parents to reflect on their early years, their relationships with their parents, and their thoughts on how these experiences influenced their hopes for their children’s future. We examined parental narratives in assessment instruments and clinical notes to identify early experiences of love, care, and nurturing that might stand out as sources of strength in the parents’ sense of themselves and ability to care for their children. In the course of the study, some of the clinicians were moved by the image of angels in the nursery to write down their memories of personal experiences evoked by this concept. All the examples have been modified to protect confidentiality.

GHOSTS IN THE NURSERY: IDENTIFICATION WITH THE AGGRESSOR

The image of ghosts in the nursery has become a metaphor of unsurpassed power since Selma Fraiberg coined it nearly 30 years ago to describe the parents’ excruciating enactment with

 

 

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early experiences of helplessness and fear (Fraiberg et al., 1975). The ghosts, representing the repetition of the past in the present, acquire corporeal form through punitive or neglectful caregiving practices. The parent fails to recognize the meaning of the child’s signals of need, either ignoring or misconstruing them as evidence of the child’s inherent badness and respond- ing with anger and rejection. In these instances, the immediacy of the parent’s visceral reaction takes precedence over the baby’s developmental needs. As the recipient of the parent’s negative attributions, the child progressively internalizes a sense of self as unworthy and undeserving of love that can derail the course of healthy development (Bowlby, 1980; Lieberman, 1997, 2000; Silverman & Lieberman, 1999).

In her seminal work with mental health disorders in infancy, Fraiberg (1980) attributed the havoc caused by the ghosts of the parental past not to the actual events but to the repression of the affects associated with terrifying early memories. She viewed repression and isolation of affect as providing “motive and energy” for the enactment of punitive caregiving patterns that represent “identification with the betrayers and the aggressors” (pp. 134–135). When enacted between parent and child, identification with the aggressor is formed to protect the vulnerable ego from external attack by acquiring the feared characteristics of the attacker (A. Freud, 1936/1966; Pynoos, 1997). The abused becomes the abuser because perpetrating pain is used as a protection against feeling it.

While providing the basis for influential clinical interventions, this theoretical model leaves unaddressed the question of why many parents do not repeat with their children the patterns of abuse and neglect they were subjected to while growing up. As expressed by Fraiberg (1980), the “unresolved mystery is why, under conditions of extremity, in early childhood, some chil- dren . . . do not make the fateful alliance with the aggressor” (p. 135). In the quarter century since she posed this question, the challenge of pinpointing how individual differences account for the vast variety of responses to similarly traumatic circumstances remains a lively area of exploration. In our clinical work with children and their parents traumatized by exposure to various forms of interpersonal violence, we have observed a broad range of parental response, from anger at the traumatized child to an exquisite attunement to the child’s suffering and determination to restore the child’s emotional health. A similar range of parental responses has been reported in nonclinical settings where the plight of traumatized children is brought to the attention of the authorities such as law enforcement (Osofsky, Hammer, Freeman, & Rovaris, 2004), the child protective system (Smyke, Wajda-Johnson, & Zeanah, 2004), and the courts (Osofsky & Lederman, 2004; Van Horn & Hitchens, 2004).

Parental anger at the child in need can often be understood in light of the “ghosts in the nursery” model. But what are the influences on parents who, despite their own childhood traumas, protect their child from a repetition of the past? We hypothesized that if we were able to identify these influences, we might be able to incorporate them into the repertoire of ther- apeutic techniques that enable maltreating parents to find empathy with their children’s vul- nerability and to discover their crucial role as the child’s protectors.

ANGELS IN THE NURSERY: THE TRANSMISSION OF NURTURING EXPERIENCES IN EARLY DEVELOPMENT

The pivotal role of human relationships in shaping the sense of self, beginning at birth with the mother–child bond, has been extensively elaborated. The importance of caregiver emo- tional availability and empathic responsiveness in helping the infant and young child to regulate affect and organize internal experience is a recurrent theme in these investigations, and efforts to describe the specifics of these processes have yielded terms that have become the coins of

 

 

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