ANGELS IN A TRAUMATIC PAST:
IDENTIFICATION WITH THE PROTECTOR
The traumatized parents and children that we treat manifest a broad range of reactions to their life experiences. Some of the parents grimly reenact the troubled experiences of their past with their own children. A large number are empathic with their children despite the hardships they have endured. As postulated by Fraiberg and colleagues (1975), many of these empathic parents have access to memories of painful early affect, which makes them attuned to their child’s fear and sadness and motivates them to change the child’s life for the better.
This sequence, however, is not always in place. Many parents vividly describe abusive and neglectful acts perpetrated against them and retrieve memories of the intense terror they felt at the time, but this does not lead to improvements in their parenting of their child. The affect, while not repressed, does not serve to enhance parental emotional resonance with the child’s affect.
In such cases, the child may instead come to represent ﬁgures from the parent’s childhood on whom the parent projects unacceptable and disavowed feelings of hatred and rage (Lieber- man, 1997, 2000; Silverman & Lieberman, 1999). Particularly during affectively charged in- teractions, the parent does not see the child as a separate person whose behavior is motivated by individualized internal states but reacts as if the child were a participant in the parent’s memory (Fonagy, Target, Steele, & Steele, 1997). In so doing, the parents limit their ability to adapt ﬂexibly to the child (Cicchetti & Tucker, 1994). The child, in turn, becomes frightened by a parental response that is incompatible with his or her own inner state, and is left ill- equipped to understand and modulate feelings or to empathize with others. This process may set in motion the ﬁrst steps in relationship disorders and the perpetuation of psychopathology from one generation to the next.
Our review of clinical interviews and narrative notes of child – parent psychotherapy ses- sions suggests that traumatized parents who can mobilize themselves to alleviate their child’s fear and pain tend to have access not only to their early feelings of vulnerability but also to memories of feeling cared for and protected by a benevolent attachment ﬁgure. These early nurturing experiences alleviated terror, offered hope, and provided an alternative model of intimate relationships as a source of comfort and security. Instead of having no recourse but identiﬁcation with the aggressor to feel secure, these parents could model themselves after “angels in the nursery” perceived as both powerful and benign. This process resulted in a health-promoting “identiﬁcation with the protector.” The child’s internalization of the care- giver’s qualities that evoked feelings of being loved and valued is instrumental in breaking the cycle of maltreatment. The following example illustrates this process.
Susan, 2 years old, and her mother were referred for treatment after the mother, Lisa, left Susan’s father following several incidents of severe domestic violence. Lisa reported that her mother was an alcoholic who was frequently gone for days at a time, forcing Lisa, who at age
6 was the oldest of six children, to care for her siblings. Lisa had ready access to the affective experience of her childhood, and she trembled with tears and rage as she described scene after scene of drunken rages, maltreatment, and neglect. Despite her early history and subsequent experiences of domestic violence, Lisa’s care of Susan was sensitive and loving. When the therapist asked how she had learned to be such an attentive mother, Lisa replied, “My mother wasn’t always drunk. Before my ﬁrst sisters were born, she spent every minute with me and took me places. I remember when I was sick once, she held me on her lap and hummed this little lullaby while she gave me ginger ale to sip from a cup.” As she spoke, Lisa held Susan tenderly and stroked her hair.
This recollection of a severely impaired parent as also having the capacity to provide experiences of deep emotional connection and well-being is a recurrent ﬁnding in clinical work with traumatized children and adults. It also helps to explain the frequent research ﬁnding that although a majority of abused infants and toddlers form insecure attachments, a proportion of them are securely attached (Cicchetti & Barnett, 1991; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Although there is a tendency to highlight the prevalence of insecurity among maltreated children, it is important to acknowledge that this outcome is not inevitable. Maltreated children who are securely attached may be able to register simultaneously the “bad” and the “good” parts of their parents, showing a capacity for integration of affective polarities that is one of the building blocks of mental health.
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