The Parents of Stranger Things

As an avid series and movie watcher, I am fascinated by the relationship between pop culture and psychology. I’ve written before about other series and the psychological content that one can read into it. But, I never expected a sci-fi series to bring out such important material.

“Stranger Things”, similar to many sci-fi series, has a man vs technology/nature type of conflict, in which a group of pre-teens fights an evil force trying to destroy their hometown. In this adventure, they discover that there is an alternate universe, which they name “The Upside Down” – where everything is dark, gloomy and dangerous. Yet, what has captivated many of the viewers is not so much their mission, but the setting and character development found in the show. 

One of the many aspects that seem to attract viewers is how it effortlessly taps into 80’s nostalgia. In a recent article in The Guardian, Hadley Freeman writes “Stranger Things, rather than being hamstrung by its 80s templates, realised that what people love about 80s movies is not the plots but the feelings they provoke….and Stranger Things, like all the 80s-inspired TV shows and pop culture, has a pan-generational appeal.” 

But, what exactly are these feelings that evoke? More importantly, what can we learn about the human mind from these characters? While the children have been the focus of the series, I want to write about the portrayal of parents, and what we can learn about the important role they have in the socio-emotional development of children. 

Good-enough parenting is good enough  

As in real life, there’s a wide spectrum of parenting techniques portrayed in Stranger Things. For example, Mike’s parents, who are blissfully unaware of what their children are up to. Or Dustin’s mother who, bless her heart, still hasn’t realized her little boy is now a pre-teen. Or, Lucas’s parents, who are there to give that great piece of parenting advice we very much need during the season’s unexpected series of events. Or Joyce, the mother who, like many parents, is doing the best job she can do. 

Donald Winnicott, a renowned English psychoanalyst and pediatrician was the first to introduce the term “good-enough mother“. With this term, he helped clarify two important aspects of motherhood. The first one that a healthy degree of frustration is beneficial to the socio-emotional development of children. And the second one that a “perfect” parent is an unattainable goal – which helps ease stress for those perfectionist mothers who think they aren’t doing a good job.  

When we look at Joyce, she is far from perfect. She is anxious, overprotective (and with good reason – it’s not every day your child is taken hostage by unknown evil forces) and all over the place. But also, she is the perfect example – irony included – of a good-enough mother. 

In my experience as a child psychologist who works closely with parents, it’s compelling to see the magical effect of the words: “you’re doing a good job”. The concept of a good-enough parent is one that all mothers, fathers, and guardians should adhere to. Perfection is unattainable, but a good-enough parent can be accomplished. 

There is hope after emotional trauma 

Hopper is another great example of good-enough parenting. And, during this second season, we were able to witness how the bond with Eleven was beneficial for both of them. Especially in the way it helped heal El’s emotional trauma. 

We know now that there isn’t one way to show love, and not everyone feels loved in the same way. In fact, according to Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages unless you speak the proper language, your message of love won’t be heard. This theory is applicable for both couples and parent-child dyads, which is why I find the dynamic between Hopper and Eleven’s so interesting. 

While Hopper struggled to put into words how he felt for Eleven, he found a way to make her know he cared.  He met her needs and spoke her love language. Parents need to understand that each child feels loved in a different way, and it is their responsibility to find that love language and attempt to speak it as fluently as possible. 

Eleven came into Hopper’s life with severe emotional trauma. This is why this pairing was mutually beneficial. This father figure – who also came with his own trauma or losing his child – could only show so much affection, which was enough for this girl who had gone through great emotional grief, as well. 

The groundbreaking research on neuroscience has shown how early trauma affects childhood development. Thankfully, discoveries on the neuroplasticity of the brain have shown us that there is hope for neurological rewiring.

Dan Siegel, a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, has established in his book The Healing Power of Emotion that “…just as emotionally traumatic events can tear apart the fabric of family and psyche, the emotions can become powerful catalysts for the transformations that are at the heart of the healing process. We are hardwired to connect with one another, and we connect through our emotions. Our brains, bodies, and minds are inseparable from the emotions that animate them.”

Her time spent with Hopper could symbolize a period of healing. She healed the wounds set by her previous parental relationships through her bond with him. His limit-setting environment, supported by the flexibility for Eleven to do as she wished within their home, was exactly what she needed. In fact, I am certain that it was this humanity which gave her the necessary tools to make good choices further in the season. 

When you think about it, parenting is a lot like “The Upside Down”. It’s dark, scary and mysterious. You never know what it’s like until you dive in. And sometimes you’re faced with a (or several) Demogorgon(s), where it can feel as though you have no other choice but to get on full attack mode. But, with the right equipment, the right crew, the ability to draw connections and think before you act, it can also be an unforgettable adventure.

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