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Dr. Gabor Maté on the essence of healthy parenting

Begin the new year with the wisdom of renowned physician and author, Dr. Gabor Maté, who guides us through the art of fulfilling our children’s needs, the essence of healthy parenting, and the transformative path to becoming authentic human beings.

On the basic needs of children
“If you plant a tree, the seed alone isn’t sufficient for growth. It requires water, irrigation, mineral conditions, sunshine and so on. It’s the same with human beings. Children need acceptance and a strong sense of attachment, belonging, understanding, and the assurance of being seen and heard. The infant needs that from the mother or whoever the mothering figures are – whatever gender. The infant needs the freedom to be able to experience their emotions and have them understood and validated by adults. Infants need room for free play out in nature, which is important for brain development. Emotionally available, consistently present, non-depressed parents who are attuned to the child, capable of understanding their internal experience – this is the universal need we all share.”

On beginning before birth
“The architecture of the brain undergoes continuous development from before birth into adulthood. The emotional states of pregnant women significantly impact the brain development of the child, as stress alters the child’s heart rate patterns, measurable even in the uterus. Despite my medical education in prenatal care, no one taught me to inquire about the woman’s emotional well-being, her relationships, or her work environment. These questions matter, and support should be provided accordingly. Higher maternal stress correlates with poorer mental health in children later on. Intervention needs to begin before birth.”

On birthing practices
“Our birthing practices in Western culture are deeply flawed. In British Columbia, almost 40% of women undergo cesarean sections, a procedure that, while life-saving in 10 to 15% of cases, is overused. Excessive intervention during birth disrupts the crucial connection between mother and child. By massively interfering with birthing process, we’re compromising the fundamental bonding between mother and baby. How we treat pregnant women, offer support, manage births, and approach parenting are all components of an interconnected process.”

On honoring early childhood
“Parents must remain conscious of their own challenges. In marital situations, it’s crucial for individuals to take responsibility for the relationship so the children don’t have to. When parents don’t take that responsibility, the children automatically take it on. The first step for parents is addressing their own issues, not striving for perfection but cultivating awareness. The second step involves recognizing the needs of the child. Reflecting on my own parenting journey, instead of being a workaholic doctor and building a career, I would have been more present with my kids when they were small. Being physically and emotionally present for your children is the most important thing; that means putting career aspirations on hold for a few years. If we establish a healthy foundation in the first three of four years of life, the rest of it almost takes care of itself. Let’s honor and prioritize those initial childhood years, understanding that while making a living is essential, it doesn’t need to overpower our presence with our children. Some people, due to economic circumstances and social factors such as racism, don’t have much choice in the matter. For those of us that do, let’s put our children first.”

On healthy boundaries
“Parenting isn’t a democracy, nor is it a dictatorship. A two-year-old doesn’t get to vote on going out naked into the snow – the parent is in charge. However, the authority to set boundaries comes from the child’s desire to connect with you. A healthy parent-child relationship encourages the child to respect boundaries willingly; they want to be good for you, and they need you to be in charge. It’s possible to be authoritative without being authoritarian. When we lose our authority, it’s often because our children are not connecting with us, and the relationship is strained. This is when we may resort to unhealthy authoritarian measures. The real question isn’t whether we should set boundaries; it’s how we set them and what kind of relationship we have with the child that grants us genuine authority.”

On healthy anger
“In Hungarian, my native language, health means wholeness, and trauma is a loss of that wholeness. It occurs when painful events cause us to disconnect from ourselves in order to avoid feeling that pain. Healing is a return to wholeness, which requires compassion for the aspects of ourselves that we’ve disconnected from. A common theme in my work is the repression of healthy anger. Children often repress healthy anger to be accepted by their parents. This repression undermines the immune system and makes us more prone to autoimmune diseases. Similar to how repressed anger can manifest as depression or self-hatred, the immune system can turn against us. Our immune and emotional systems are interconnected, impacting our physiology. Why do women have much higher rates of autoimmune disease? Because women are told they mustn’t be angry, so they repress their anger. It’s not their fault, it’s how they’re educated in our culture, contributing to what I believe is a toxic culture.”

On attuning to our children
“To be attuned to your child, you must be non-depressed and non-stressed. Parents facing stress and depression struggle to attune to their children, not due to lack of love but because they can’t connect. This, unfortunately, makes the child suffer. As adults, we can relate to the feeling when a partner or friend doesn’t see or understand us. Now, imagine the experience for a child who is entirely dependent. Making mistakes as a parent is inevitable; we all do. The crucial point is how we handle it. Children are resilient, not fragile. If I recognize that I’ve made a mistake, it’s my responsibility to repair it. Instead of telling the child to return only after an apology, we can say, ‘You can come back and talk to me anytime.'”

On authenticity
“In a book published around twelve years ago by an Australian nurse titled ‘The Top Five Regrets of Dying People,’ the most significant regret was not being true to oneself. People expressed spending their lives trying to please others, suppressing their true selves. Must we wait for a terminal disease to teach us this lesson, or can we recognize now when we’re not being authentic? It’s not that difficult. Reflect on today or yesterday: where did you refrain from saying ‘no’ when you really wanted to, just to be nice? Where did you suppress an emotion because of concerns about others’ reactions? The path to authenticity lies in acknowledging these moments where we’re not being true to ourselves.”

On the beauty of vulnerability
“Vulnerability, derived from the Latin word ‘vulnerare,’ meaning to wound, is an intrinsic aspect of the human experience. From conception to death, we remain susceptible to wounds. Early traumas often lead us to shield ourselves by constructing emotional walls and suppressing our feelings. This defensive stance halts growth because nothing flourishes without vulnerability. Take, for instance, a crustacean like a crab inside its shell—it cannot grow within the confines of that hard exterior. To achieve growth, it must emerge from the shell, becoming soft and vulnerable. Similarly, consider a tree – it doesn’t thrive where it’s hard and thick but flourishes where it’s soft, green, and vulnerable. Vulnerability is crucial for growth. As long as individuals remain in a defensive, hardened state, genuine growth remains unattainable.”

On choosing your pain
“For many, self-discovery often arises during a crisis, illness, or life setback, prompting the question: Who am I, really? What I tell people is this: a pain-free existence is not an option. The question is which pain you’d prefer – the pain of suppressing yourself or the pain of being yourself? Because when you’re authentic, some people in your life may not like it. Your spouse, friends, or family may not like it. Now, you face the pain of potential disconnection or the pain of suppressing yourself for the sake of others. In the long term, the pain of suppressing yourself is much greater. However, in the short term, you have a decision to make: which pain would you rather endure?”

On ending suffering
“Most suffering is linked to the loss of connection with ourselves, a predicament that is worsening in our world. In our society, maintaining this connection to self is challenging because there are so many seductions and forces compelling us to deny our true selves. Addressing this dysfunction on a societal level involves recognizing how we raise and birth children, the care given to pregnant women, the support extended to young families, and the educational approach in our schools. Are emotional needs of children acknowledged, or is the focus solely on facts and information without promoting the healthy development of the human being? To end suffering, let’s explore what is required for healthy human development and establish institutions that actively support it.”

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