Menu Close




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 intergenerational influences 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’ nurseries. 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

other 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.

* * *