Good enough parenting



Chapter Two


Water, sunlight, air and nutrients are the core needs for plant life. In the same way, human beings must have their core emotional needs met in order for them to be mentally and emotionally healthy. And just as wilted leaves are the first signs that a plant is not thriving, so, too, there are signs when core emotional needs are not being met adequately in children, leading to a broad range of dysfunctional patterns later in life.


Figure 2.1: Needs of a Plant

Meeting the core emotional needs is not a nice tip for parenting, or a quaint suggestion to improve behavior, but an absolute necessity for raising healthy and happy children. After two and a half decades of working among different cultures, and being parents ourselves, we are convinced that helping children to be able to function and thrive in an adult world comes down to the parents meeting their core emotional needs. If these are not met, children will internalize these frustrating and painful experiences and struggle to cope, which then leads to the development of what Dr. Jeffrey Young calls early maladaptive schemas or “lifetraps”. Young’s theory has led to the discovery of 18 lifetraps/schemas. He developed Schema Therapy to help adults change these patterns which otherwise repeatedly play themselves out throughout one’s life.1 One of the exciting purposes of this book is to prevent active harm-causing lifetraps from forming in the first place!

Lifetraps, Coping Styles and Domains

Think of lifetraps like this: during childhood, we develop certain thinking patterns. For example, the first born child in a family where the breadwinner is struggling to make ends meet might develop a greater sense of responsibility than the last born in a family of four with an upper middle class income. In the same way, a child who has been brought up in a neighborhood which values athletic achievement might develop differently if he moves to a city that places a premium on academic performance.

Unfortunately, influences on a child are not always so benign. A child who is sexually molested by a relative might think that he cannot trust any authority figure. A child who is bullied at school might begin to think she is unlovable. A child who is berated by his parents might begin to think he is worthless or that he will never measure up. These toxic experiences lead to the development of negative patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving; conscious and non-conscious painful memories; and beliefs about ourselves and others that carry over into our adulthood, into our marriage and into our parenting! These thoughts and beliefs are distorted. The stronger our lifetraps, the more distorted our view (see Figure 2.2).

We all develop lifetraps in childhood, partly due to inborn temperament, and partly due to environment. However, the number and strength of our lifetraps increases to the extent that our core emotional needs are not met. Perhaps we tried gaining attention or love from our caregivers. Perhaps our number one goal was to avoid being shamed. Perhaps we had an early sexual experience or were held to a very high standard. If we were abused, abandoned, shamed, or deprived of love by our parents, siblings, or peers, we almost certainly would have developed some corresponding active lifetraps.

Incidentally, these lifetraps are kind of related to each other—they tend to come in groups or clusters. If an individual has one lifetrap, he is likely to have a related lifetrap. In research, these clusters are called “domains”. Research has found that Young’s schemas cluster into four domains; these four domains correspond to our four core emotional needs.

Part of the dysfunction is the lifetrap. The other part of the dysfunction is the way we cope when these lifetraps are triggered. When our core emotional needs are not met as children, we get exasperated and subconsciously develop a way to cope with the pain of the unmet need. The way that we cope (e.g. to run away or fight back) has a lot to do with our temperament. We bring these coping styles into our adult life; they may appear to lessen the pain in the moment, but invariably they perpetuate or intensify the lifetrap in the long run and leave our deeper needs unmet. There are three ways people cope when their lifetraps are triggered: surrender, avoidance, or overcompensation, sometimes referred to as counterattacking. (Eighty years ago, Walter Cannon first identified fight and flight as common responses to stress; combined with fright, these correlate to the three coping styles.2)


Figure 2.2: Lifetraps (Schemas) Distort Views about Ourselves and Others


The surrender coping style is based on a fear of what we believe is the truth the lifetrap tells about us. We react from a negative and fearful place where the lifetrap is in control of what happens to us. The message of this coping style is: “What my lifetrap is telling me about myself is true and I am powerless to change it.”

Children with the surrender coping style believe in their own distorted diminished view of themselves. They then act in ways to confirm this distorted view. If a father says something rude, for example, that the child is ugly or stupid, the child agrees with him in her heart—she really believes that she is stupid. Children who surrender to these kinds of critical messages will have a low opinion of themselves. This causes them to have a distorted view of others, and a distorted notion of how others view them. They tend to blame themselves, comply and give in when something goes wrong. The voice in their heads says, “It is my fault.” Surrendering types (see Figure 2.3) who face criticism and blame usually:

• Feel inferior to others

• Accept all criticism

• Look for events to confirm “it is their fault”

• Put the needs of others before their own.

Examples of “surrender behavior” associated with criticism and blame:

• Giving in to others during arguments

• Being overly apologetic

• Keeping rules compliantly

• Being drawn to others who are more confident.

There are many other types of toxic experiences to which children surrender (e.g. deprivation and neglect, being excluded from a group, physical abuse) and each leads to its own pattern of beliefs, feelings and behaviors.


Figure 2.3: Surrender Coping Style


The avoidance coping style is based on flight from the pain associated with the lifetrap. We react by avoiding situations and interactions that lead to the lifetrap being triggered. The message of (or underlying belief associated with) this coping style is, “It is too painful and uncomfortable to hear or feel my lifetrap. I must keep myself separate and distracted so I am not aware of this painful truth about myself.”

When their needs are not met or when their lifetraps get triggered, children with this coping style will do anything to escape feeling disappointment and pain. They bypass situations that could be painful and trigger their lifetrap. Sometimes they feel powerless; they come up with ways to delay thinking about the situation. They circumvent conflict and intimacy by distracting themselves. Avoiders are prone to addiction, and often try to forget their pain by drinking excessively, taking drugs, being involved in promiscuous sex, overeating, or other self-destructive behavior. Some will choose instead to immerse themselves in schoolwork or a hobby. They usually do not want to talk about their issues and will make excuses for not doing so. The voice in their head is “I will avoid emotional pain at all costs.” Sometimes they are not able to remember much from the past, and draw a blank when the past is questioned or explored because it hurts too much to remember. Children with the avoidance coping style often struggle with being deceitful, and are sometimes uncomfortable with eye contact. Avoiding types (see Figure 2.4) tend to:

• Be out of touch with their own feelings

• Dampen their feelings with substances (food, alcohol, drugs) or activities (gambling, sex, workaholism)

• Act like they do not have a problem

• Avoid intimate relationships

• Walk around numb

• Avoid confronting problems.

Those who cope by avoiding often spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in the following activities:

• Reading newspapers and magazines

• Surfing the net, shopping online

• Cleaning their room

• Checking social network sites

• Monitoring their favorite sport or team

• Running or playing a team sport

• Watching television

• Drinking alcohol, smoking, or overeating

• Talking on the phone or texting.


Figure 2.4: Avoidance Coping Style


The overcompensation coping style stems from the desire or need to fight what we believe is the underlying truth the lifetrap holds about us. We react by behaving in a way designed to create the opposite effect of the lifetrap. The message, or underlying belief associated with this coping style is, “I must fight as hard as I can to think and act as though what my lifetrap says about me is not true.”

When their lifetraps get triggered, children with this coping style who have been treated harshly and criticized, for example, will feel attacked, and they will attack back in order to prove that the negative feeling they have about themselves is not true. They will lash out in anger and attack the source of the negative message. Those who have been abused will abuse others or fight for justice when they feel unsafe; those who have been deprived of love and affection will convince themselves and others they are tough and do not need others in this way.

Overcompensation can take many forms, depending upon what painful message and/or experience the individual is fighting against. Those with this coping style often overreact to small slights or disappointments and can come across as, for example, rude, insensitive, and demanding or aloof and above it all. Someone who is overcompensating (see Figure 2.5) may:

• View disagreements as a threat, going out of their way to prove that others are wrong

• View feedback as criticism, going out of their way to prove that the opposite is true

• Appear strong, but actually be fragile

• Not care who gets hurt in the process of proving themselves right

• Prioritize protecting their image over intimacy

• Put their own needs first over the needs of others

• Constantly bring up their unhappiness about others’ annoying traits while acting as if they themselves are perfect

• Not wait for a suitable time to talk; wanting it done there and then

• Throw tantrums and abuse others with name-calling

• Make unhealthy comparisons with others during quarrels

• Criticize and have no qualms about getting involved in long, drawn-out fights

• Be an overachiever—unusually driven at work or with projects outside normal working hours.

Understanding our coping style leads to self-awareness, which in turn helps us to have more empathy on our children and be better equipped to meet their core emotional needs. Understanding ourselves better leads to understanding our children better.

Louis Lowdown

Anyone who knows us knows that John is an overcompensator, while Karen is an avoider. Our first-born tends toward an overcompensation coping style in keeping with her temperament; our son tends toward avoidance. The four of us understand that we all cope with conflict and stress differently and we work hard to be sensitive to and navigate our various styles.


Figure 2:5: Overcompensation Coping Style

The Foundation of Core Emotional Needs

Abraham Maslow was the first to write prominently about our needs as humans. He taught about five sets of needs: physiological essentials, safety, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow arranged them into a hierarchy— once the most basic need is satisfied, another emerges, and so forth. He qualified that this does not mean that each need has to be satisfied 100% before moving on to the next need, since most people feel satisfied even when their needs are being partially met—some needs are more unconscious than conscious.3 Physiological and safety needs are more likely to be conscious, identifiable and more easily measured than psychological needs. Physiological needs include, among other things, the body’s effort to remain a constant normal state, such as water content of the blood, salt content, oxygen content, constant temperature of the body, etc. Safety needs include the need for security, stability, dependency, protection and freedom from fear, anxiety, and chaos, as well as the need for structure, order, law, and limits.

Maslow posited that when people live in environments where their conscious needs were satisfied, those conscious needs would no longer act as a primary motivator. However, in the case of an outbreak of war or a natural disaster, people would involuntarily revert back to the conscious needs in the hierarchy, such as physiological essentials and safety, which would again become their primary motivators.4Maslow said that as long as people live in an environment where these basic levels of needs are being met, humans would move up his “hierarchy” and be motivated by the next level of needs, involving love, affection and belonging. These higher needs are neither tangible nor easily measured. When we are hungry, we physically experience the gnawing at our insides and are driven to eat. When we are thirsty, we crave a drink. When subjected to extreme temperatures, we seek relief instantly. But even though the needs higher up in the hierarchy are not as tangible and identifiable, they are every bit as real. For example, if a child in primary school was left out of games during recess and not allowed to be part of a group, the child would probably feel hurt, but she might not be able to identify that she felt pain because her need for acceptance and connection was not getting met. However, that would not make the pain any less real. We have as much of an insatiable thirst and hunger for the core emotional needs to be met as we do for food, clothing and shelter. Core emotional needs are as real as our physical needs. They may have been identified in the twentieth century by therapists and psychologists, but they have existed as long as man has; when deprived of such needs, humans are less healthy. In the words of Maslow, “Who will say that a lack of love is less important than a lack of vitamins?”5

Definition of a “Core Emotional Need”

We adapted the work of fellow schema therapists George Lockwood and Paul Perris and put forward the following as to what constitutes a core emotional need:

• Meeting or not meeting this need should lead to an increase or decrease in well-being, and it should affect not only psychological functioning alone, but also result in an impact on such things as brain function, bodily functions, and family functionality.

• Each proposed core need should make its own contribution to well-being and not be derived from or overlap with any other core need.

• The core need must be evident universally across cultures.6

This desire to have our core emotional needs met began when we came out of the womb. As we grew, we learned to cope in different ways when our needs were not adequately met. As children, we were not able to look at our parents (or others in authority) and think, “Oh, they had a rotten childhood, so I am sure they don’t really mean what they say.” We could not help but take their words (or lack of words) personally. We internalized their messages, so much so that those messages became part of our makeup. We formed distorted views about ourselves and others (lifetraps), and we acted on them. We heard a distorted voice in our head, though there may have been little or no truth in it. This voice may have tried to convince us that:

People I love will eventually leave me.

If they really knew me, they would know that I am worthless.

People cannot be trusted.

Something bad is bound to happen.

I just can’t get close to other people.

Dad was right—I’ll never amount to anything.

Showing emotions is weak.

I should be punished.

This voice sometimes stays with us into adulthood. For many of us, this distorted voice is so strong that it still has power over our behavior and decision-making process. The more we counsel people, the more we have come to realize the power of not having our core emotional needs met in childhood. Both of us have seen the strong correlation between early experiences and current unhealthy behavior and thinking. For some of us, our lifetraps are so prevalent and strong that they become a roadblock to us becoming healthy adults. They also become a barrier in our relationships with others, including our spouses.

Jeffrey Young’s theory is that when core emotional needs are not met on a consistent basis, children experience frustration and will develop lifetraps plus a coping style that complements their inborn temperament.7 Children become exasperated and experience frustration when these needs are repeatedly not met, and when they experience trauma. One of the main purposes of this book is to help parents gain awareness about ways in which they discourage their children by not meeting their core emotional needs. Drawing from our own research and that of others, we have identified four core emotional needs, and then added what we called a “plus one” core emotional need. They are Connection and Acceptance, Healthy Autonomy and Performance, Reasonable Limits, Realistic Expectations, and Spiritual Values and Community. At the other end of the spectrum are the Schema Domains, i.e., the larger groups into which the schemas or lifetraps cluster; these four domains correspond to our four core emotional needs.

Core Emotional Needs

Schema Domains

Connection and Acceptance

Disconnection and Rejection

Healthy Autonomy and Performance

Impaired Autonomy and Performance

Reasonable Limits

Impaired Limits

Realistic Expectations

Exaggerated Expectations

Plus one: Spiritual Values and Community


Understanding needs makes a huge difference in our parenting. Think about young children—they may not know what to say when they are needy emotionally or psychologically. They are aware when they are hungry or thirsty, but what about their unseen needs? Unconsciously, in order to get those invisible needs met, they will act out, and they will not even know it.

We sometimes do the same as adults. We have unconscious feelings and thoughts, unconscious reactions and unconscious behavior. There are times when our automatic reactions take control and moments later we wonder why we acted in a certain manner; we shout or cry, and do not know why.

If parents are educated about children’s core emotional needs, they will be in a better position to respond to their children, rather than react to their child’s misbehavior, end up in conflict, or worse still, deprive them further of having these needs met. If parents do not meet their children’s core emotional needs, their children will be frustrated and traumatized, becoming exasperated and discouraged, and will develop harm-causing lifetraps, plus coping styles in accordance with their temperament.

Throughout this book we will follow the steps listed below:

• Parents need to be attuned to what core emotional needs are not being met when there is a pattern of misbehavior.

• Parents need to see how their children are getting exasperated or discouraged and how this is being acted out.

• Parents need to take steps to meet these core emotional needs as well as they are able.

• Parents need to come up with a routine and lifestyle where these needs are being met consistently.

One caveat—when rushing to meet the core emotional needs, we must avoid extremes. While we need to connect, we should avoid being enmeshed. While we need to avoid exaggerated expectations and unreasonable limits, we cannot go to the other extreme and be neglectful and permissive. Good Enough Parenting is about not giving too much and not giving too little—it’s about meeting these needs in a balanced and satisfactory way.

Many of us grew up on the receiving end of at least one of these extremes. Some of us have been under-parented: our parents were not there for us emotionally or even physically, we were emotionally-deprived, we missed out on the love and guidance we needed and we needed to be stoic to fend for ourselves emotionally. Others of us had parents who were overly critical: we were left with a sense of shame, rejection and defectiveness, and these bad feelings often contributed to a complicated mix of hate, love, gratitude and resentment. On the other hand, some of us were so enmeshed with our parents that we did not know where they ended and we began; this left us feeling, even as adults, that we were not free to go out into the world to pursue our own path and dreams, separate from our parents. All of these extremes cause dysfunction of some kind or another.

The main premise of Good Enough Parenting is if parents meet their children’s core emotional needs adequately, the chance of a healthier outcome is greatly increased; if children experience repeated exasperation interactions, the chance of a healthier outcome is greatly decreased, but even then, if parents make amends, repair and tap into the power of a community, a healthier outcome is still possible (see Figure 2.6).


Figure 2.6: Good Enough Parenting Model – The Interplay of the Different Factors on the Outcome of Parenting

How Marriage Affects Parenting

Many parents believe, “It does not matter if my spouse and I do not get along, as long as we are there for the children.” Parents who have this philosophy often forget what it was like for them when they were growing up with the two people that they love the most in the world not getting along, their Dad and Mom. They have forgotten how it hurt them emotionally, and how much insecurity was bred into them by the lack of stability and the level of conflict in their parents’ marriage. Or they grew up in a harmonious home and rarely witnessed their parent’s quarrel—and did not experience the effects firsthand.

An overwhelming amount of research over the last 20 years has surfaced showing a correlation between the quality of one’s marriage and the quality of one’s parenting. Cummings and Davies have arguably done the most work on the effects of marital conflict on the child’s development process. They define marital conflict as “any major or minor inter-parental interaction that involved a difference of opinion, whether it was mostly negative or even mostly positive.”8 Based on this definition they wrote about conflicts being either constructive or destructive. How it is handled makes a huge difference to its effect on children. They concluded that conflict which gets resolved “may have relatively benign effects on children.”9

Louis Lowdown

We have been married for over 25 years and while we can’t boast of having less conflicts than most, but we can say we have tried to resolve issues quickly—this has really helped us stay connected as a couple.

One evening after dinner, when our children were about eleven and nine years old, they took me (Karen) aside for a chat. Soon their mission became clear—they suspected all was not well between Mom and Dad and wanted to gather information. I said we were fine, but they would not relent. Finally I admitted we had just “had words” before dinner, but we would solve it easily as soon as we had a chance to speak. I also asked how they knew, since the atmosphere at dinner had been as upbeat as usual. The little detectives explained they noticed we had been speaking only to them, not to each other—I was shocked at how attuned their antennae had been! The conversation continued . . .


What were you fighting about anyway?


Well, the short version is that Dad did something helpful but instead of saying thank you, I blurted out how he might have done it a bit better, so Dad felt disrespected and unappreciated.


Mom! That’s terrible! You shouldn’t have done that!


I know, I regretted saying it as soon as it left my mouth . . .


Well, didn’t you apologize???


Well, yes, but–


What?! You apologized and he didn’t forgive you? He’s a preacher and he tells everyone else to forgive! What a hypocrite!


Guys, hold on here, your Dad didn’t have time to do anything. I said it right after I put the dinner on the table, so there wasn’t time to discuss anything.


Don’t worry Mom, we will talk to Dad first.


That’s really not necessary.


It’s okay, we got this . . .

The kids walked into the office area where I (John) was doing some paper work.


Dad, Mom said she was disrespectful to you.


Yes, but don’t worry about it—we will have a talk in just a minute.


But Dad, didn’t she already apologize to you?


Well, erm, yes, but . . .


So shouldn’t you forgive her? You always say “if someone says ‘sorry’” . . .


You’re right. Thanks for speaking up. I’ll talk with Mom now. I love you.


We love you, too, Dad.

The kids left with huge smiles on their faces, knowing that we would be reconciled. I (John) was full of remorse for not having forgiven my wife immediately. And I (Karen) was full of remorse for having been a know-it-all. After we made up, we all had a nice laugh, and we marveled at our two kids who would never let us get away with anything!

While this is a rather simple and light-hearted example, it does show how sensitive children are when their parents are at odds with each other. They internalize our silent messages to our spouse, and then slowly over a period of time if the tension is repeated and not resolved satisfactorily, their well-being is affected. Mistakes made by one spouse or the other, if repaired quickly will not have much of a negative effect on the children, but a lifestyle of unresolved conflicts between the parents will eventually take its toll on them.

Cummings and Davies also found that extended marital conflicts affect children over a period of time. They wrote:

. . . However, the risk factor operates over time and insidiously, by altering family and child functioning over time.10

The types of arguments that have a more negative impact on the children are those left unresolved over long periods of time, repeated heated conflicts, and conflicts where one parent is being subjugated by the other. These are called destructive conflicts and they include physical aggression, verbal hostility and non-verbal hostility (RR2.1).

There are many ways a poor marriage can influence a child’s well-being, and it begins with destructive conflict. Some might ask, just how does destructive conflict interfere with our parenting? Destructive conflict directly affects the child’s emotional security, which is linked to the child’s confidence in the parents’ ability to handle the conflict and to maintain family stability. In the case of destructive conflict, children become concerned about preserving emotional security, even getting involved in the conflict, as well as becoming emotionally distressed, and almost always interpret their parents’ interaction negatively.11

Destructive conflict also indirectly affects the quality of the parent-child relationship. It is very common for parents who are in conflict to become depressed, which over time affects the attachment quality of their relationship.12 Marital conflict discourages the parents, so that the parents then have less energy to manage their children with adequate supervision, open communication, and enforcement of rules for appropriate child conduct. Marital conflict also negatively affects the teamwork needed for parenting.13

It is true that some destructive conflicts may have a benign effect on children. There are children whose temperaments are able to block out these negative effects. The poor quality of their parent’s marriage may have minimal impact on them. Some children have resilient temperaments that also cushion the blow.14

However, this is more the exception than the norm. When the quality of our marriage is poor, with patterns of destructive conflict, we are putting our children at risk of being negatively affected. Many parents erroneously assume since they were not affected by their parents’ quarrels, their children will not be impacted by theirs. This view does not take into account that their children might have a more sensitive temperament and, therefore, be more susceptible to damage by the same type of conflict. Parents need to realize that the way they conduct themselves during a conflict is important and that reaching a satisfactory resolution will go a long way to reducing the child’s level of distress.

So what do we do when there is tension between parents? Cummings and Davies point us toward forgiveness and reconciliation (see Chapters Nineteen and Twenty), because children’s anxiety levels will be reduced to the extent that the parents’ conflicts are resolved satisfactorily. This means that conflicts between moms and dads need to be genuinely resolved at an emotional level, not just at a rational level. Children need to know that their parents resolve issues in a healthy way—this has obvious benefits to both children and parents! However, if one parent is subjugated to the other during the “make-up” session and the kids notice a “forced-submissive” kind of resolution, they will feel that one parent is “winning”; this will not sit well with the kids.15 The resolution between parents has to be genuine and complete at an emotional level, not white-washed or faked, or with one parent always capitulating and the other always getting their way. Children can tell the difference between genuine and superficial reconciliation. (We feel that teens can ‘smell’ hypocrisy and insincerity!)

When parents resolve their conflicts constructively, they are modeling healthy conflict resolution skills for their children, who will hopefully learn how to handle such conflicts themselves.16 On the other hand, parents who do not get along are sending the message that using hostility, aggression and withdrawal are valid solutions for overcoming problems.

But we’ve only begun to scratch the surface—the latest findings show that marital conflicts cause all sorts of other problems for children. They diminish children’s school performance, and affect their emotional security and the quality of their peer relationships.17 Marital conflicts also cause disruption to children’s sleep, physical ailments, depression, anxiety, “introvertedness” and acting out.18 Difficulty controlling and monitoring children’s behavior is the most sustained parenting problem faced by divorced mothers.19 (RR2.2)

We end this portion on marriage with an analogy by Cummings and Davies, who compare a healthy marriage to a strong bridge:

When the marital relationship is high-functioning, a secure base is provided for the child. Like a structurally sound bridge, a positive marital relationship supports the child’s optimal functioning in the context of potentially threatening conditions, fostering explorations and confident relationships with others. When destructive marital conflict damages the bridge, the child may become hesitant to move forward and lack confidence, or may move forward in a dysfunctional way, failing to find the best footing in relations with others or within the self.20

So far we’ve been introduced to the new concepts of core emotional needs, coping styles, and schemas/lifetraps, and domains. We’ve learned how important a healthy marriage is to parenting, and we have only finished the second chapter. At this point, we would encourage you to take a time-out for some self-reflection. Dr. Jeffrey Young and his team were able to identify a total of 18 lifetraps, in other words, 18 different kinds of unhealthy thinking patterns and beliefs. It would probably be helpful for you to investigate which unhealthy thinking patterns are affecting you negatively, and what your predominant coping style may be, and how these all developed in the first place. If you learn how to attack lifetraps with the goal to weaken them, and if you can lessen the intensity of your coping style, you will be happier and healthier as an individual and as a parent. If you wish to fill out a schema inventory, visit for more information. We would also encourage you to go through our marriage book, I Choose Us21. As a companion to this book, I Choose Us contains exercises and journaling tools that will help you to identify and begin working on your own harm-causing lifetraps, weaken your coping style, and, if you’re married, move toward Love Connection with your spouse.

As you journey through this book, you will be better equipped to break unhealthy cycles, prevent your dysfunction from passing down, and meet your children’s core emotional needs, with the goal of raising a healthier generation. And hopefully, in just the same way that computers and phones are always being “upgraded”, your children will be, for the most part, the new and improved version of you!