`Ghosts in nursery' haunt new parents

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"GHOSTS" in the nursery are wrecking relationships between parents and their children, according to new research. They are born along with the baby when parents vow not to make the same mistakes their own parents did. But they often still do.

Far from starting from scratch, all kinds of echoes from their own parents and further back influence new parents, however much they think they can improve on their own experiences.

Nursery "ghosts" can appear in habits as simple as saying to a child "You're just like your father!" or in more subtle, deeply-ingrained patterns of behaviour.

One mother was "haunted" by the fact that her own father had died when she was six. Because her father was not there when she was small, she was unable to understand that her own child might miss her when she was away. When she went off for the weekend, her little daughter would run into her room and tearfully search the bed for her mother.

"The idea of the missing parent wasn't anchored in the mother's mind," explains Tessa Baradon, child psychotherapist and manager of the Parent and Infant project at the Anna Freud Centre in London, an internationally recognised centre of excellence in the field of child development. This particular ghost has been exorcised: the mother will now say to her daughter: "I'm going away. But I'm going to miss you, and you're going to miss me. And I'm coming back."

A joint team from the Anna Freud Centre and University College London has been monitoring a sample of parents and children for 12 years. The clinical implications were discussed at a parent-infant psychotherapy international study day held last week at the centre. The findings are already proving useful in helping health care professionals assess young children, and are being used in training courses.

Identifying ghosts in the nursery, explains Dr Miriam Steele, child psychotherapist and lecturer at UCL, was adapted from techniques first developed in the US to investigate the ways that parents' relationships with their children are affected by the way they themselves were parented. "We assessed people before they had their first child," she said. "We were able to come up with three different types of parent. Around 70 per cent had been able to come to terms with adversities in their own childhoods, evaluate them and move on; around 15 per cent minimised and pushed aside what had happened to them; and around 15 per cent were still quite enmeshed in the past and preoccupied by it. They were bothered and angry, and couldn't move on."

Dr Steele and her team found that they were able to predict the quality of parenting in the parents they interviewed with 80 per cent accuracy, based on their own attitudes to their childhoods. "All kinds of patterns and strategies that people unconsciously use to deal with painful feelings are reflected in their babies," Dr Steele said.

Tessa Baradon said: "Most parents want to do well by their children, and while some things are within one's conscious control, some occur outside our awareness, which is why patterns are repeated."