Written by John Arden, The Science of Psychotherapy
As an infant, toddler, child, adolescent, and deep into our adulthood, we progressively leap to higher levels of adaptation to the world around us and our place within it. The family we have and build around us affects nutrition, physical activity, and attachment style. We are embedded within a particular society within a cultural context. All these factors contribute to our “self”-organization. One means by which the “self”-organizes is through the relationship between child and parent.
The quality of the reciprocity within the parent-infant dyad—referred to as synchrony, matching, coherence, or attunement—offers the emotional nourishment critical for healthy development. The rhythm and timing of the interaction between mother and infant are key for the developing child to build the capacity to negotiate the nuances and subtleties of relationships.
When parents bond with their infants and children, the occurrence of no-attunement, such as with maternal depression, is devastating. Infants with a depressed mother are immersed in a feedback loop in which there is only one way to react: to be sad together so that they can establish coherence to their relationship. They have over-active right hemispheres and underactive left hemispheres and suffer delays in brain growth. They also tend to have lower levels of crucial neurotransmitters as well as higher levels of stress hormones. All these factors contribute to depression and anxiety, which erodes “self”-organization.
Conversely, hyper-attunement also undermines psychological development. Children who receive excessive attention and coddling become spoiled and narcissistic. As adults, they may tend to become pessimistic and passive-aggressive, having been trained by their parents that they can be gratified for no effort on their own to achieve goals or even by simply whining. This passive behavior tends to over-activate their right hemisphere, promoting withdrawal and negative emotions, and under-activate the left hemisphere with its associated positive emotions and proactive behaviors.
With that in mind, what level of attunement is just right? Half a century ago, Donald Winnicott pointed out that moderate affect matching was superior to perfect matching. He argued that perfect is not perfect enough. Moderate matching is “good enough.” By this he meant that generally-consistent but not perfect care-taking builds frustration tolerance for the child. “Good-enough” parenting can prepare your children for the often ambiguous, sometimes stressful life experiences they will later encounter.
This method of parenting may conflict with the instinct of many parents to immediately soothe their child the moment anything upsetting happens. By offering instantaneous soothing, their child may have had difficulty developing the vagal brakes necessary to activate his parasympathetic nervous system, to counterbalance the sympathetic branch during or after stressful experiences. To be quite clear, Winnicott promoted consistent but flexible soothing.
By allowing momentary space for a child to develop the proper resiliency skill-set, a parent supports their child’s success later in life. Good-enough parenting offers moderate matching to bolster the resiliency of a child’s autonomic nervous system, allowing them to rise to the challenge of stressful situations, then calm down afterward to recoup. Good-enough parenting allots time before the parent swoops in to soothe. allowing the child to develop the capacity to self-soothe by activating their parasympathetic nervous system to calm themselves down. Sensitivity in the midrange of attunement is most predictive of secure attachment (Jaffe, Beebe, Feldstein, Crown, & Jasnow, 2001).
When bonding/attachment is enhanced by repairing mismatches, healthy development progresses. Just as Winnicott hypothesized, good-enough parenting offers flexible matching and reparation. Through encountering many moderate, well-coped-with stressors, the child best develops approach behaviors, stress tolerance, and resilience.
Parents who offer low levels of affective matching spawn insecure attachment. When repair does not occur or there are repeated unsuccessful attempts to repair the ruptures, the child develops defensive and avoidant coping behaviors that undermines later relationships. These interactions for approach or avoidance correspond to the ability to differentiate between pleasurable and painful experiences (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2008).
Either the extreme of high or the other extreme of low-sensitivity reparation may promote insecure attachment. Low-sensitivity reparations can occur during long-duration mismatches when infants are constantly overwhelmed with stress, and so fail to develop coping skills. High sensitivity involves intense vigilance, where matching lasts too long, with little opportunity for reparation. Infants not given a chance to confront sufficient amounts of stress with support fail to develop effective methods of coping (Tronick, 2007).
Through moderate matching the infant develops better coping skills and resiliency. The mother, too, has an opportunity to find the midrange of comfort for herself. On the other hand, high or low matching forces the mother into one extreme or the other, blunting her affect or leading to excessive stress.
A good-enough parent is better than one who pretends to be perfect. Your imperfections model the real world. It is how you use your imperfections that determines the quality of your parenting. Using the misunderstandings, conflicts, and points of tension in the relationship as the focus of resolution builds positive outcomes. Mismatches are a plus when resolved.
The reparation of the “messiness,” rather than synchrony, is key to change in therapy and childhood development (Tronick, 2007). Inherent to complex adaptive systems, we thrive as open, curious people who strive to resolve misunderstanding, and this is a messy process. Through self-organizing interactions we become greater than we were before.
The parent-child dyad is a self-organizing system, so too are many of our relationships in life. We continually adjust to one another in a mutually regulated process. Through this process, we identify and make use of increasing amounts of meaningful information emergent from higher levels of shared understanding achieved together.
Keywords; parenting, attachment
Berridge, K. C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2008). Affective neuroscience of pleasure: reward in humans and animals. Psychopharmacology, 199(3), 457-80.
Jaffe, J., Beebe, B., Feldstein, S., Crown, C. L., & Jasnow, M. D. (2001). Rhythms of dialogue in infancy: coordinated timing in development. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 66(2): i-viii, 1-132.
Tronick, E. (2007). The Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology. The neurobehavioral and social-emotional development of infants and children. New York, NY, US: W W Norton & Co.
About the Author
John Arden https://drjohnarden.com/
John Arden, Ph.D., is the author of 14 books including Mind-Brain-Gene (2019, W.W.Norton & Company). He has a background in neuropsychology and is the director of training for mental health for the Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers in Northern California. In this capacity, he oversees one of the largest mental health training programs in the world, operating in 22 different medical centers throughout Northern California. Dr. Arden also practices part-time at Kaiser Permanente in Petaluma and San Rafael, and he served for several years as the chief psychologist at Kaiser Vallejo. He has taught in colleges, professional schools and universities.