A healthy parent is an emotional anchor. Solid and reliable. Firm and constant. Stable and secure.
An anchor keeps a boat in place. Connected by a rope, the boat is allowed to drift only so far in any direction around its center. You, the parent, are that emotional center. You are your son’s and daughter’s secure base. They may not say it and they will fight against it, but your ability to anchor your children emotionally today will allow them to feel secure and confident tomorrow.
The rope that connects you to your kids is always present. It began as an umbilical cord — an actual, physical channel communicating nurturance from mother to child. Birth is every child’s first terrifying and miraculous experience of letting go. A physical connection is replaced by something invisible and intangible and often delayed, but no less nurturing. at invisible connection — the emotional umbilicus that connects each of us to our psychological anchors — grows and changes but persists through childhood and adulthood and even after death.
Don’t ask your kids. Little ones won’t understand the idea of an “emotional anchor.” Older kids might grasp the metaphor but be embarrassed by its implications. Look instead within and ask yourself:
Who are my emotional anchors? The answer becomes evident in times of stress. When life is good — when your belly is full and you’re rested and in good health; when the environment is familiar and safe; when relationships are calm and reliable— we feel free to explore and learn and grow. We test our limits; we try out new ways of thinking and behaving. When life is good, we allow ourselves to float out to the full extent of the anchor rope and then some. We test limits.
But when stress hits — when we experience hunger, exhaustion, illness, or pain; when the world is unfamiliar and relationships feel fragile or threatening — we retreat closer to our anchors. When stress hits, we invest our infinite energies in safety, and at these times we are less likely to explore and grow and learn. Our bodies react reflexively, sending blood away from our brains to fuel the muscles that allow us to fight or flee. We seek out that which is familiar and comforting, safe and reassuring.
Watch any fifteen to eighteen-month-old in his mother’s arms as he encounters an unfamiliar place. He may seem clingy at first, clutching his anchor for safety and support. With time, he’ll first explore the setting visually, studying faces and orienting to sounds. If all is well, he’ll begin to fuss, asking to be let down.
If Mom puts the toddler down — let’s call him Bouncing Baby Billy — he’ll begin to explore. One step away, then three, then ten. Some kids will be bolder, more audacious. Others, more cautious. Either way, at some point every healthy child will check back visually with Mom as they go.
Is she still there? Am I safe?
Then anxiety hits. Stress. A sudden movement. A tumble. Fatigue. Hunger. Baby Billy will scramble back to Mom or land on his bottom crying to be retrieved, learning to associate tears with pick-up. Or perhaps Mom is the one who becomes anxious. A stranger enters the room. The child approaches something dangerous. Mom calls the baby back or scoops him up, soothing and holding him tight. Either way, mother and child are reunited. The baby is anchored again. Reassured even if he is screaming to be let go.
If we could look down from above and make a time-lapse video of parent and child spanning years, we’d see concentric circles. The setting would change from kitchen to bedroom to living room. From carpool line to classroom to church. From scout troop to soccer practice to dance recital. The child would grow and the parent would age. The clothes, the seasons, and the years would all change, but the essential geometry would remain the same: child moves away from parent and then returns to center. Away and back. Away and back. Further and further each time.
The story is the same in infancy as the baby crawls away, looks around, and then returns to center. In grade school, the child discovers peers’ birthday parties and playdates, class field trips and sleepovers. In high school, he discovers and explores summer camp, class trips, and dating; groups, clubs, and gangs. And driving. The radius of those concentric circles centered around the anchor increases by magnitudes when he finally possesses that coveted license.
In young adulthood, the child moves even further toward college and work, dormitories and apartments, best friends and girlfriends. Spring break in Florida. A semester abroad in Europe. Through it all, the anchor rope remains intact. Someday, perhaps, our kids will visit other planets but even then, measuring the radius of their movement in light years, the story will be the same.
Committed adult relationships (with or without marriage) complicate the story. Establishing whether your spouse replaces, or complements, or remains secondary to your childhood anchors causes a great deal of adult conflict. The answer is probably specific to each family and determined in part by culture, but the process remains unchanged. Even as adults, we move away from our anchors and then back, over and over again.
Holding tight and letting go.
And then our kids have kids of their own and become those children’s anchors. This has gone on, generation after generation, for the history of the species. Parents anchoring children who become parents who anchor their children, like so many dominoes in a line.
How do I know?
I know because, like you, when I look in the mirror I see my own mom or dad looking back. When I have a success, a very quiet voice in the very back of my brain wonders what my mom or dad would think. When I’m stressed, like you, I catch myself wanting a parent to take care of me. And, most tangibly, I know because of the things that I wear and the things that I carry.
Excerpt from Holding Tight, Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times. By Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D. Unhooked Books, High Conflict Institute Press.