This post is about attachment theory, a theory that talks about how we learn to connect in our closest relationships. Within attachment theory, there are four main categories for which we might fall:
· Secure, about 62%, have a history of responsible, reliable caregiving, trust others to be there for them
· Avoidant, around 15%, looks like nothing fazes them, do not cry when mother enters or leaves the room, does not mean they are unaffected, “dealing but not feeling”, really these individuals are experiencing things under the surface (like increased heart rate)
· Anxious, about 9%, children who are constantly drawing attention through yelling, screaming, crying (these of course present differently in adulthood), “feeling but not dealing”, “Unless I make a scene, no one will pay any attention to me,” even if mom is around will get little comfort from her
· Disorganized, about 15%, can be very affectionate with strangers or could also trust no one, “fright without solution”, caregivers are needed for survival but also a source of fear, no one to turn to
In a study with children who were mistreated or not, the non-abused children trusted in an essentially good universe and felt protected and safe in their families. They felt loved by at least one parent, and all of this impacted their desire to engage in schoolwork and to learn. Within attachment theory, it’s said we all have a need for a safe base from which to work. That safe base is typically a child’s primary caregivers. This continues into adulthood, where we STILL want to have a safe person from which we can return to. Having a secure person to trust and turn to is love (at least one definition of adult love.) So, within young children, you might notice that they cry or change in their behavior the minute you stop paying attention to them. You might be watching them and they are happily playing, checking that they have your attention, and the minute you turn to the person next to you to engage in conversation they become upset. This is actually a sign of a secure attachment! Children want to know that they have the attention of their safe base. When they have a secure base they feel secure to go out and explore the world around them.
Children who are securely attached learn when they can succeed on their own and when they need help. They have the ability to explore on their own, even “fail” on their own, then return to the safe base for help. A secure attachment grows and develops with emotional attunement, having caregivers pay attention and validate emotions. This does NOT mean caregivers have to become over-involved, trying to take away emotions or control situations so their children do not feel sad or upset or angry, but they DO offer support and care when those feelings show up. I want to really emphasize this, because if you take on too much consistently it could end up leading to a child feeling inadequate and having low self-esteem, feeling like they can’t function on their own. On the flip-side of this, when children don’t get what they need physically they shut down any type of feedback they get from their bodies, numb it out. The problem with this is it shuts down the area of the body that can teach about pleasure, purpose, and direction. Please take note, and small lapse of attunement will not make or break it for your child. As parents, we just need to be “good enough,” because it’s an overall pattern we are looking at, not an individual day or individual moment where we feel like we didn’t live up to being a “good parent”.
If we are “good enough,” as parents, that creates a secure attachment, which forms a template for all future relationships. Our relationship maps are implicit…knowledge about them is not enough, but experiencing something new is what’s needed. We must experience people around us that are trustworthy, don’t write-off emotions, can understand boundaries…if that’s something we never experienced. If someone has a fear of connection, that could trace back to many things. One example might be that they had a mother who was depressed and could not offer connection. A parent who is dealing with trauma can be a source of disorganized attachment, so always take time to care for your own needs. If a child is put into a role of caring for their parent, even if it means taking on their mom’s emotions in an unhappy marriage, it can lead to problems down the road for the child. Children are not meant to deal with adult problems. Give them the opportunity to be children and get support for anything that’s going on with you from trusted others.
I am reminded of the John Mayer lyrics in “Daughter”…
Fathers be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters too
As parents we lay the groundwork for how our children parent, love, and function in their own lives! What a wonderful role to have.