Securely attached

Sleeping baby creative commonsBabies and parents need each other.   That’s obvious, at least it is obvious that babies need their parents.  But parents, once they have become parents, need their babies, too.  This is particularly true of mothers, whose biological bond is overt, hormonal and behavioural.  Specifically, oxytocin pours through mother’s body causing uterine contractions to sheer the placenta from the uterine wall and mother gazes at this newborn creature.   The baby suckles and more oxytocin flows, causing the let-down reflex for milk to move into the mother’s breasts.  The hormone causes emotional softening, and supports nurturing, contactful behaviour.  It promotes bonding of the mother to the baby, actually, just as the same hormone, released with orgasm, promotes pair bonding in adult humans.

But how do we get to be securely attached?  How does one develop a feeling that all is okay in their world, that they themselves are probably okay, that even if things go wrong they can probably be fixed, and that even difficult, harsh, painful situations can be negotiated and managed?   Scientists who study these things might be getting close to finding out.

First, and maybe this is obvious, those kinds of fundamental ways of interacting with the world represent an intrinsic sense of the world as okay, as safe, as negotiable. That intrinsic knowing comes from the ways that important adults in your life related to you when you were a little one.

So that means that people in your life, adults in your life, behaved in a way that was fairly predictable, helped keep you safe and alive, and responded to you when you expressed your needs.  More than that, those adults also saw you in all your uniqueness…saw your emotions and helped you by labeling them, saw your new skills and pointed them out with delight, joined with you in your joy and sense of accomplishment, and soothed and calmed you in your fear, anger and disappointments.  Whenever possible, these adults…parents, caregivers, whomever, allowed you to take the lead in your experiences.  But whenever necessary, they took charge to keep you safe, help you self-regulate, and monitor your experiences.

With enough of these rich interpersonal interactions with trusted adults, we learn that our world is a good and wholesome place, a place where we belong and a place that welcomes us.   We connect to our adults in a specific and generally positive way, although that certainly doesn’t mean our relationships are without struggle and negativity.

The Circle Of Security is a model of parenting that helps adults to learn how to facilitate this kind of attachment security.  In the COS model, parents support attachment by attending to the child and to themselves in relation to the child.  Specifically, adults who can remember that they are Bigger, Stronger, and Wiser than the child, and most importantly, who can Be Kind, will help children grow secure relationships.  The “circle” part refers to the idea that children are always either going away from the parent to practice autonomy (“I do it myself”) or coming back to the parent to get support, encouragement, connection.  circle_of_security_handout_-_short

The benefits of secure attachment are far-reaching.  Infants and toddlers with secure attachment relationships are better able to cope with stress, and later in preschool they are more inclined to positive peer and teacher relationships.  In elementary school, they tend to have higher academic achievement and fewer behavioural and social problems.    This is not because they are inoculated against stressors by a secure infancy, but mostly because the good care that they got in infancy is probably likely to become good care in later years.

Babies with less-than-optimal circumstances are not destined to a terrible life:  a lot of change can happen if parenting improves early in life.   The Circle of Security research team has shown that teaching parents how to be effective in supporting the growth of attachment really makes a difference for children and their families.

Is there a Circle of Security program in your town?   Most of us can use some support in being parents to very young children;  maybe your own security could use the boost that this program can offer.

Look at a video:

Find a facilitator in your area:

The search for the true self….

The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, has been on my shelf for years.   I am not exaggerating.  It has been there, reproaching me, taunting me with my inadequacy, for at least twelve years.   Now you must understand that this is a thin little book, a small volume that consists of three of Miller’s major essays from the middle of her career as a Swiss psychoanalyst.  But I have been afraid of this book, afraid of Miller in many ways.

Drama of gifted child image


Today, this morning in fact, I finally finished reading this book.   I finished reading and now I sit, both wondering what I was afraid of, and knowing that my own struggles in reading this book come from my struggles to escape my childhood traumas.   What Miller wrote was radical when she wrote it, but that was more than thirty years ago.

Her point, oversimplified, is that children experience intrapsychic wounding by parents who have not consciously realized their own wounds.  This wounding happens in good families, by parents who mean well and frequently the children of such parents are “gifted:” they are leaders, intellectual, caregivers, compliant and obedient, shining lights in many ways.   The problem, and there is a problem, is that these gifted children have given up parts of themselves in order to be what the parents needs them to be….good, nice, kind, smart, beautiful, athletic, obedient, quiet…whatever it is that the parent must have.   When a person, a child, has to put away parts of herself in order to stay connected to the parent, those parts can go underground for years.  They can emerge as peculiar behaviours, thoughts, or feelings, or show up as an absence, such as when a person feels “nothing” or “numbness” or reports that they feel dead inside.  We are built with a part of us that strives toward wholeness, someone, and we get to a point where it no longer feels okay to live your life as if you are a real person having a real life.  You want to actually BE a real person and actually LIVE.   That means having access to all the parts of you;  the nice, sweet, clean, brilliant parts, but also the dirty, nasty, angry, bitchy, sly and disgusting parts as well.   We have it all but until we can find acceptance for it all, we are only living a partial life.

Miller is a psychoanalyst, so she constructs this process in terms of objects and introjects.   I can see myself in those terms but also more simply.   I can still hear my mother’s voice when I start to rage at myself for my usual internal list of shortcomings (that’s where the inadequacy comes in).   I recognize that part of me that still operates as if striving will get me something.  With striving come harsh thoughts, rigid behaviour and body, focused and energized thinking but only in rigid areas, with tunnel vision.   Even though I don’t consciously feel like I need to be punished, my actions are punishing:   extreme frugality, extreme exercise, extreme dieting, extreme overwork.   When I get that way, now, I know that I have been triggered, something has happened.  In some way I have been reminded of the child that I once was, who believed that she deserved to be punished when she was not “good.”

What I have learned about myself includes knowing that I need  soothing  rather than punishment when I am busy overworking, over planning, and overeating.   Because the range of feelings could not be accepted and accommodated in my childhood, I learned that having some particular feelings was “bad.”  Even now, even as an adult, a therapist, a psychologist, I may react with shock and shame at some trigger.  .  And it may take a bit of time for me to see what happened.

When I notice that rigidity coming over me, I can slow down.  I can remember that my body is locked in the old, old story, not the here-and-now.   I can breathe and remind myself that love is available.  I can take it in, right here and now, feeling my connection to the ground and to the sky.  I can soften my shoulders, relax my jaw, let my eyes rest deeply in their sockets, and remember that I am who I am, a whole person who makes mistakes and poor choices and has messy and complicated feelings, and that I am also more than that.

And I can thank Miller for her book, for her ideas that really opened up how we think about the inner world of children.   I am sorry it has taken me twenty or more years to read this book but that’s just what it took.   And I am grateful that I had it to read now.

Defensive cleaning….or whatever.

I just got home from a long weekend trip.  The trip involved a celebration with a number of family members whom I don’t see often.  The celebration was wonderful, the visits with adults and children in the family were lovely, and I got to see a part of the world that I haven’t visited for a long time.

NOT the house I was cleaning…

Once home though, I found myself frantically busy:  doing laundry, tidying up my things, looking around the house critically and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.   I know when I get like that, something is happening that is a lot more than I have a dirty house.  In fact, the house wasn’t particularly dirty but I was particularly wired up…I went out to run five kilometers and came home to vacuum and dust and wash countertops.  At one point during this compulsive vacuuming, I finally asked myself the relevant question:  what is it that I have to clean up?  What untidiness am I fending off?  What messiness am I afraid of?

I stopped in mid stroke of the vacuum as the answer smacked me in the head.  Okay, that didn’t really happen but the metaphor is apt:  I felt like I needed to smack my forehead.  Of course.  I am busying myself so I won’t feel my sadness at leaving my children and grandchild yet again.  I am pushing away the very real and painful longing to stay close and connected to these people to whom I am powerfully attached.   I am displacing those feelings by being irritated at the dog hair and normal untidiness of a lived-in home.

Yeah, so Freud was right.   We DO defend ourselves against our feelings….our sadness, our anger, our longing, our fears.   Do you know what you do when you are trying NOT to feel something?

Attachment & Connection part two

Have you ever connected with someone quite easily?  You could even connect with a stranger.  As an example,  you might observe a cute child at the grocery store, smile at him, and then meet the parents’ eyes with a smile.  Often you can feel a bit of connection there;  you have some sense of what the parent is feeling, the parent has some sense of what you are feeling, and there is connection.

That connection, which is a bit like empathy, probably comes from the action of your mirror neurons.  You and the parent are probably actually experiencing something similar, as you both reference the cuteness of that baby.  This can happen without words, and in fact, is not a verbal process.

So we can connect, albeit briefly and not deeply, with strangers, in a moment of interaction.  But that is not attachment.

An attachment relationship has particular qualities.  Specifically, when we are attached to someone, we seek connection with them (proximity seeking).   We notice and often miss them when we are separated from them (separation distress).  And we can use the other person for support when we are stressed or distressed (safe base or safe haven).   If you have all of these things going on in your relationship, then you are attached.

Attachment is abiding.  Attachment goes deep;  usually it goes so deep that you cannot feel the whole of it, no matter how you sit with the experience.  Attachments, though,  are not always optimal.  Secure attachments help us to function with peers, in school or the workplace, and to step out and take risks that help us to grow.   However, some attachments  take different qualities.  For example, you can be attached to someone who mistreats you.  We all know of the phenomenon of children crying for the parents who abused them.   This is a dramatic example, but a less dramatic form, it is very common.   Attachments are not always warm and fuzzy;  they can be ambivalent. They can be downright challenging on every level.  They can be anxious in form.  They can be so disorganized that you don’t know how you feel about a person, or you don’t know how to act with that person, but you know that you are attached.  You know that from deep inside of you, and also because you have emotional connections to him or her.

When children have an anxious attachment to a parent, they will often protest loud and long upon separation. They will often appear ambivalent when the parent returns, clinging and sometimes hitting or pinching the parent.

When children have an avoidant attachment, they appear not to notice when the parent leaves, and markedly turn away from the parent upon his or her return, focusing on toys.  However, this child may make good contact with a stranger while avoiding the parent.  So it is clear that the child is attached.  It is also clear that the child isn’t deriving a lot of comfort from that attachment.

Children with disorganized attachments may freeze or still upon the parent’s approach, or may be alternately clingy or angry.

When you think about the people in your life, you can think in terms of your attachments.   If you are still caught up in thinking, for example, about your ex, having internal conversations where you explain and s/he finally GETS it, you are not unattached.  You are still attached but your attachment isn’t working.  If you have a family member whom you actively avoid, that is a kind of attachment, too.  People to whom we have no attachment….well, nothing is attached to them.  We don’t have thoughts, feelings, memories, reactions, desires, disappointments…..none of that it attached to those people.

credit Ellen Whitehurst

Attachments – our powerful, enduring, transforming, deep and abiding relationships –  are what make our individual worlds go around, at least for most people.   There is not much that is more important than our attachments, even if we don’t see or talk to those people regularly.  Our attachment history predicts a lot about our adult relationship history.  You might ask if we can rewrite history?  That’s a topic for another post!

Attachment & Connection…

How do you know when you are attached to someone?  How do you know if a person is attached to you?   Psychologists have special meanings for a lot of words, but our meaning for the word “attachment” is pretty much like everyone else’s meaning.  Attachment is a mutual, reciprocal relationship with a particular other person that transcends time, distance and space.    When I stop to think about it, that definition means a LOT.

First, the relationship is mutual and reciprocal.   A young teenager cannot be attached to Justin Bieber.  She might be infatuated but  not attached, because he is not involved with her.

Next, the relationship is with a PARTICULAR other person.  Attachments can’t be transferred.  We certainly can be attached to several people and most of us are, but the attachment you have to one person cannot just be moved over, like you transfer your phone contract.      So, for example, when a little guy, a toddler or baby, changes caregivers at the daycare, or gets a new babysitter, he is not transferring his attachment.  He actually has LOST one attachment and has to create a new one.

The relationship transcends time, distance and space.   Wow.  That means that it persists even in the face of those barriers.   When young adults leave for university, they and their parents have to work out their connections.   But the don’t stop being attached because the young person has left.  Similarly, we don’t lose our attachment  to loved ones who die.  We lose our connection, because the mutual reciprocity isn’t available, but the attachment stays.

Attachments have many qualities.  Some are warm and secure.  Others are ambivalent, with some sense of insecurity and distress.   More on that later.  In the meantime, can you sit with the question about your attachments?  Feel into your connections with important other people and see if you can sense the qualities of those attachments.  What is it like in your experience to be attached?

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