Expanding on Nature as the Third Parent: How the Nonhuman World Supports Early Attachment

As a trauma therapist, I hear a lot of stories about parents.  How they supported us, or didn’t.  How they believed in us, or didn’t.  Modern psychology is rather focused on how our parents made us the way we are, and how their parenting either harmed us or allowed us to succeed.  I’ve heard some pretty horrific stories about how incompetent human beings can be in the ways that we treat each other.  I understand the complexities of trauma and how that is passed through the generations, just as our names and eye colors are. Each of us is a complicated layering of depth, color, and texture.  

When I am sitting with a client, taking her in, exploring her unique ways of seeing the world, I am continually taking note of her strengths and naming the resilience I see in her.  I am asking myself, “What got her through all this?  What about her made her able to survive, move forward, and continue growing as a person in spite of all of these challenges?” Together we unpack what it meant to have that kind of a mother, that kind of a father, and so on.  We nurture and support the adult client’s inner child, and bring a new sense of peace and vibrancy into her current life.

A while back I read an incredibly eye-opening article titled Nature as the Third Parent  and it really blew my mind.  Of course!  Of course nature is the other factor in how we are raised.  And what I have noticed again and again working with clients with trauma is that no matter what their human parents were like, they have this other core relationship with nature.  There’s that one tree they would always climb, there was that one path they would always walk, there was that lake they would look out on.  Everyone has something.  Nature, for many of us, acts as a stable, loving, and relatively predictable presence in our lives- and through our connection with it, we can develop healthy attachment even if the humans in our lives aren’t always supporting us in the ways that we need.  In other words, nature picks up the slack.  

After reading Nature as the Third Parent, I began asking clients about this.  In addition to their parents, who else or what else, particularly in nature, impacted them?  I ask them directly, “What do you think about this idea of nature as your third parent?”  And the feeling in the room immediately shifts- they look off in the distance and start describing in detail the natural places of their childhood, the way they felt surrounded by a loving presence when they were up in a tree, the way they felt free when they were out of the house with bare feet on the hot sidewalk in the summertime.  Everything changes.  The conversation evokes feelings of peace and belonging, of secure attachment.  Simply by talking about nature, they feel more connected to themselves and more whole.