Ghosts in the Nursery

–by Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP–

Psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg wrote a famous essay in 1987 entitled “Ghosts in the Nursery” that enlightened professionals regarding the powerful impact of early experiences on parents’ relationships with their children.  Most people think of the impact of childhood experiences on parenting as a problem of learned behaviors through role-modeling.  However, observing how our parents raise us is only one way we are influenced by them.  Our emotional and behavioral responses to our children are much more than learned behaviors.  Following are just a few of the ways that you may carry “ghosts” from the past into your present-day life with your child:

#1.  If I did not experience affection or nurturing as a child, I may have “shut down” my own needs for closeness – in order to cope as a child.  I may have learned to stay a bit distant and to be extremely self-sufficient as a way to avoid feeling rejected or hurt.   As an adult, then, I may feel very uncomfortable when my child crawls up on my lap wanting affection.  I may be at risk for pushing my child away physically, leaving my child with unmet needs for closeness.

#2.  If my parents were excessively controlling, I may have grown up with a desperate desire to feel some control and power in my life.  As a result, I may have a strong need to be in control in my home, at my job, and in my relationships.  This need to be in control may interfere with being able to attune to the feelings and needs of my children.

#3.  If I was abused in some way as a child, I may carry a high level of hypervigilance.  The presence of my child may trigger memories of my own childhood, leading to feelings of anxiety.  I may become severely overprotective regarding my child’s safety – or, when my child is angry, I may withdraw in fear.

#4. If I did not feel loved as a child, I may be highly sensitive to feelings of rejection.  When my child acts out in some way, I may take it very personally and react in anger out of a deep sense of hurt.

The first step is self-awareness and insight.  Pay attention to your emotional responses, and notice your triggers.  Use self-talk: Remind yourself that your child has a trauma history, and his nervous system is stuck in fight-flight.  Remind yourself that you child was hurt by attachment figures, and he has difficulty with trust. Self-help groups, work with a therapist, trauma resolution therapy such as EMDR, and therapy groups can help you banish your “ghosts” and give you the freedom to nurture your child and help him heal. Yoga, prayer, meditation, and relaxation exercises can help you remain calm and patient as you interact with your child. A heavy dose of affection in addition to structure and consistency will help your child feel safe, calm, and loved.

It is not too late for you or for your child!


Wesselmann, D. (1998). The Whole Parent: How to Become a Terrific Parent Even if You Didn’t Have One.  Perseus: NY.

Fraiberg, S. , Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. (1987).  Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant-Mother Relationships.  In Louis Fraiberg (Ed.), Selected Writings of Selma Fraiberg  (pp.  100-143.) Ohio State University Press: Ohio.

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