The Power of Parental Love

April 15th, 2010

The Power of Parental Love

By Billy Kaplan, LCSW
HCC President & Clinical Director

With Mother’s and Father’s Days approaching, I want to take the opportunity to thank each of you who are, or have become, the healing parents for children and youth with attachment-related problems. You are the parents they need and deserve. Your devotion, unconditional love, skills, and astounding energy make a significant difference in their lives, and are humbling to those of us who partner in their healing.

I was reminded of how critical your healing power is when I read The Irresistible Henry House, by Lisa Grunwald. I was just amazed that a piece of fiction could so accurately illustrate problems associated with a lack of a healthy attachment in early childhood. As Grunwald writes: “Expounders of attachment theory would suggest that permanent damage could be done to any infant who was denied the chance to form one reliable connection, even in just the first year of life.” Wow! An author who gets it! (Although, as a clinical social worker working to help heal those early developmental wounds, I disagree with the notion that the damage is permanent; it’s just very complex to turn around!)

Henry House is raised in the 1950’s by college women in a “practice house” as part of a Home Economics class. For a year, a different student cares for Henry on a rotating basis one week at a time. Then Martha, the house mother, decides to “keep” him and raise him as her own. The story is about how she raises him, and his reaction to her child-rearing. While Henry clearly shows attachment-related problems, he does not display the extreme symptoms that many of us living and working with children/youth with attachment-related problems see. Yet one of the other “practice” children in the story does display those extreme behaviors: poor boundaries, cutting, running away, and experiences of abuse and exploitation. The amazing, and horrifying, thing is that these “practice houses” actually existed on college campuses throughout the country as part of Home Economics departments! Can you believe it???!!!!

I really appreciated how, in the beginning of the book, Grunwald lays out the argument about early attachment:

“The winter before last, Martha had seen a documentary called Mother Love in which a psychologist named Harry Harlow stated his belief that touch was more important than food in the forming of early attachments. His experiments showed that the rhesus monkey babies clearly preferred cloth surrogates they could cuddle to wire surrogates that gave milk. When they were frightened, the baby monkeys shook and shrieked if they had only wire surrogates, but they ran quickly to the cloth surrogates for what Harlow called ‘contact comfort.’ […] At one point Harlow had declared that a cuddly cloth surrogate could be every bit as comforting as an actual birth mother. But now, Martha read that even the cloth-mothered monkey babies had eventually gone mad. In the absence of a single, consistent, living mother, they rocked ceaselessly, banged their heads, and chewed off their own fingers. Some of them shrieked and shouted. But others simply fell silent.”

This isn’t news to many of us. We know that there is no substitute for the essential love and presence of a caring person acting in a primary parenting role during early childhood. However, we also know that a committed, therapeutic caregiver in later childhood, coupled with a “village” of partners in healing, can help change the fate of children and youth who would otherwise seem doomed to an existence of angst and pain. And so, in honor of Mother’s and Father’s Day, I extend my appreciation and admiration to all of you who tirelessly continue to love and care for children who are among the most emotionally wounded. Your child may not yet be able to articulate it, but know that your presence, love, patience, devotion, and gift of yourself are the true source of healing.