Attachment in the lab, implications on the couch (and in the brain)

December 15, 2010

In bare bones and admittedly simplified terms, I wish to share some emerging understandings from the cutting edge of attachment research and interpersonal neurobiology.

I am quite fortunate to have UCLA in my hood, and have just returned from a weekend conference there where the world’s foremost experts in attachment research, Mary Hain and Erik Hesse, were down from Berkley and having a highly illuminating love-fest with their former student/spiritual son, and true brainiac, Dan Siegel.

While my inner nerd was thrilled to soak up the technical details of nuances in attachment and to refine my understanding of the hippocampus, insula and dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, I thought a cool challenge to myself might be to put it all in plain speak and see what it looks like—in the hopes that it might spread the word on what helps and what hurts, what heals and what direction a parent (and our wider culture) might head, with regard to security, insecurity and attachment.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in more details on how your mind, brain and emotions impact your life and your parenting you are well-served to read (or listen to) Dan Siegel’s Parenting from the Inside Out as well as his other books.

While the concept of “attachment parenting” may have been under some recent (albeit poorly-informed) attack, the source of attachment parenting theory goes back to John Bowlby, who in turn worked with Mary Ainsworth, who subsequently studied mothers and infants and their relationships in the U.S. and Africa.  Ainsworth developed the famous “strange situation” laboratory method of assessing attachment (mom separated from child then reunified after a few minutes where observers watched and charted the possible behaviors between them).

Mary Hain came along and worked with Ainsworth, refining research on the strange situation and developing (along with Hesse and others) an “Adult Attachment Interview,” which is also a method for assessing attachment security levels, but in adults—and which very strongly predicts the sort of child they will end up parenting (i.e. secure or insecurely attached).

Before we look specifically at attachment styles, it is essential to note that it is the relationship with the parent (and the parent’s level of security and clarity now with regard to his or her own life story, losses and traumas) that determines security and attachment in a child—and NOT genetics, as has been previously believed, taught and reinforced (often to the end of making parents and kids feel stuck and hopeless).

In other words, if you KNOW you have had troubles, you will not particularly mess up your kid; but if you KNOW your kid (and are able to bracket your own issues and attend to that child’s needs) that child is golden with regard to attachment (which will help them have a good, fun, meaningful, well-connected life).

And, rather logically and obviously it would seem, you are shaping your baby’s experience of the world, and whether it is a safe, interesting and nourishing place to explore and participate, or a freak-out zone of terror, disappointment and overwhelming intensity, by the accuracy and attentiveness with which you parent them in the first year or two of life.  In other words, you need to be conscious and present and attentive to do well by your child.  We can repair the damage done, but it’s obviously best, moving forward, to not do the damage in the first place (and this impacts on social policy and not just individual parents and their private experience).

This is science and not “opinion.”  Yet this science is not yet widely accepted nor understood.  And while I’ve been following these things, and finding that they fit with my intuitive understanding of therapy, I cannot say that I have been in the mainstream of thinking in psychology or our culture.  So, fasten your parenting seatbelts, because we may be in for a bumpy transition to new thinking.

The silver lining in all this is HUGE, however:  for one thing, you can have an absolutely abysmal childhood and go on to be a great parent and not screw up your kid.  All you need to do in such a case (as if it were so easy) is to become conscious of your traumas, losses and wounds and come to accept that they happened.  You can know that your past sucked and you don’t need to spin it positive; so long as you are able to be clear about what your own child feels and needs, separate from your own stuff, and attend to those needs and feelings, your kid will form a secure attachment with you.  I know I am repeating, but if you are carrying trauma you are probably coming in and out of following what I’m saying (even though it is not terribly complex) and I really don’t want you to miss it—just knowing it will help your brain and your kid and your overall experience.

Another huge positive emerging from the research on the brain and on attachment is that the brain keeps growing throughout the lifecycle.  Dan Siegel speaks of a 92 year-old client whose whole world opened up when he was able to change his thinking, connecting and thus his very brain.  So we need not give up, despair or think we’re set in our stuckness and pain; we do, however we can find it, need trusting relationships in which to heal (and thus we need to make these things available to everyone who wants/needs them).

Scientists used to think that the brain was fixed early on and further change impossible.  It is very much shaped by early experiences (which is one of the reasons those first years of life are absolutely critical for establishing security), but we grow new neurons throughout our lives in the part of the brain that connects everything together—and it is that deepening of integration of the different parts of the brain (i.e. traumatized and logical; fight-flight and empathic; language/logic and narrative/meaning/feeling) that helps us really heal and to be there for our kids, ourselves and each other (not to mention to flourish, express our true selves, contribute and have fun).

And, by the way, attachment can be secure (if they are accurately understood) with any child with any sort of brain.  For example autistic children may have deficits in their mirror neuron systems (which makes social relating more difficult), however if they are accurately understood and attended to they will form secure attachment (and this strongly protects them from serious mental health and life problems down the road).

Also, keep in mind that being “warm” (while nice enough) is NOT predictive of having a secure kid—it is accurately understanding and attending to your child’s needs and feelings that does the all-important trick.

So, now let’s look at attachment styles of parents and the implications for kids (and what to do to tweak things where needed).

While there are finer distinctions to be made and had, in broad terms a parent can be in any of four general bins at a given moment:  secure, dismissive/distant, preoccupied/clingy, disorganized.

The first three are generally stable styles of relating while the fourth, “disorganized,” is like a pocket of tranced-out disturbance that flits into and out of the scene, often out of conscious awareness of the parent.  This one is very important and we’ll look at it more in a moment, after we touch on the typical three.

Secure: If one has had a secure childhood, or come to conscious terms with ones losses and traumas, one is secure with regard to attachment, and one’s kid will be secure because that parent is able to pay accurate, consistent, good enough attention to them.  This parent truly knows their child… and all is right as rain in the attachment world.

In the lab, this is the parent whose kid comes to them for comfort, then goes off to play and explore.

Dismissive: If one has been burned by busy and/or disinterested or depressed parents, and one has not resolved this, one is likely to not value attachment very much.  Such a parent is not terribly available to their child as a comfort and so that child comes to cope with that unavailable comfort, attending to toys and things more than people.  This sort of parent may be perceived as bossy, controlling and possibly intellectualized; kids may later follow suit.

The kid of such a parent doesn’t go to them for comfort—why bother?  They just keep playing with their toys when the parent comes in for the reunion moment.

This isn’t much fun, but the kid of such a parent can cope with the world (although they may grow up to make spouses feel neglected and hurt and children to feel themselves dismissed, not good enough, etc.).  This is not secure attachment, but can still lead to high achieving (but never being satisfied).  Here we have a bit of a “rosebud” sort of picture in Citizen Kane, or maybe Scrooge (the poor guy lost his mum and all; but maybe those ghosts of Christmas past and future help him come to a more coherent narrative and voila, he becomes more secure, and thus able to give—once he resolves his trauma).

Preoccupied: If one has had losses, rejections, abuse, trauma, violence or other challenges to security such a parent may grow up to be preoccupied with past relationships.  This is a trickier sort of problem, as the parent may seem warm, but if they are not able to accurately understand their child (and thus differentiate the child’s needs from their own needs, wants and fears) the child is likely to develop an insecure attachment that is clingy and anxious.

This child runs to the parent and doesn’t let go, or pushes away and fusses and then still doesn’t explore or play with the toys.  This sort of kid may be dramatic.  This sort of mom may be harried and overwhelmed.  Their kid may be fussy, tearful, inhibited—and all the while the parent keeps over-protecting, engulfing—the parent means well, we all mean well, but they cannot soothe or protect the kid because they don’t really get the kid.

This needs empathy and compassion for the parent (and many of us are this parent); but this sort of parenting is NOT attachment parenting, and it is precisely the sort of thing that has given attachment parenting a bad name (maybe here we mean “over-attachment-parenting, and here we want to help parents come to terms with their past so that it no longer pre-occupies them).

If you recognize yourself in the preoccupied parent bin, deepen compassion for yourself and find some way to become fully aware of, and at better peace with, the past that still haunts you.

I hope that secure parents (natural bred secure or “earned” secure from dealing with the stuff of the past) are read this blog, and if they are I urge them to just keep giving, loving, exploring and enjoying—as that helps the rest of us.  Part of becoming “earned secure” includes coming to “rueful” recognition (and, ideally even, some humor) about life as we have led it, dirt we have tasted and then gotten back up.

And while I very much doubt that many dismissive parents are reading blogs like this (it’s a bit too touchy-feely for those who don’t believe in attachment, but good for you and welcome if you are, or have been, dismissive—I know I have been in my earlier life), you as a reader may well be married to a cold fish of dismissiveness; if so, take a little responsibility for choosing that person (Was mom or dad a little like that?  Are you really aware and resolved about all that?  If not, meet me in yoga, or do a little therapy—always a great gift to your child to work through your own issues and get happy).  Beyond understanding yourself, if you love a dismissive person, I counsel compassion, compassion, compassion.  They were not cuddled, but more importantly they were not understood.  Often such a person is dismissive of needs for closeness because they idealize the distant parent who was too busy being important (or maybe just too busy being drunk) to pay attention to them.

Disorganized:  Again, I’m keeping things relatively simple here, but a parent in any of the three categories above, including secure, can exhibit flashing moments, often quite subtle to detect (and here Main and Hesse have made great breakthroughs for science in recognizing them) of “disorganized” thinking, feeling and behaving—in plain speak I might call this pockets of craziness, or out of context weird behavior.

This “weird behavior” can range from freezing or trancing out during feeding one’s baby, to making weird noises in response to nothing at all, to showing fear of a child for no apparent reason, to micro-expressions of, perhaps, snarling at a child in the midst of singing or story time.

These behaviors are often out of the parent’s conscious awareness, and this is why they are so insidious.  But they can strongly help explain why a high-functioning and generally nice, normal, loving parent might have a disorganized child who is both insecure and who breaks down dramatically under stress or pressure (as in the strange situation after separation and reunion with the mother).

Such a disorganized breakdown is heartbreaking to see in a child, and is often entirely perplexing to child-experts, parents and teachers.

Without delving too specifically into the brain basis this sort of thing (which is fascinating, and again I defer to Dan Siegel who you will find a brilliant guide to all of this) when a caregiver is both a comfort to a child and scares the child it freaks out the baby brain and plunges it into a non-sense place of overwhelming disintegration; the pre-verbal mind just implodes, and security in attachment is trumped by complete confusion: what Main and Hesse call danger without hope of comfort or escape (and what Kafka called life… and how sad he couldn’t have met these attachment folks).

About this sort of trauma to the brain, firstly we’re talking about first year or two of life, and not teens who we snarl at when they make us crazy; secondly, if we snarl or lose it in response to something logical that actually happens, we may cause our kids to be insecure and avoidant, but not disorganized.  Again, the golden key here is making the unconscious conscious, at least with regard to trauma—not to discover your unconscious wish to kill your mom and sleep with your dad, but to understand how your own overwhelmed and terrified bit of baby mind may be still showing up from the shadows of your own non-conscious self (and may now be haunting your child with your own self unaware).

So, we become disorganized when the instinct to attach or approach, and the instinct to flee, happens in response to the same person and this approach avoid happens at the same time.  Circuits implode:  disorganization.

Think of it like this:  if a parent has non-conscious, or unresolved, loss, trauma or fear, it is like a pocket of madness in a sea of normal.  It makes me think of a client I had who had been severely abused at ages three to six; they described themselves as locked in a metal ball with no way out.  Imagine if there are bits of trauma in the mind that are not remembered, or understood or filed in any normal way; if there is no narrative to connect them to the past, to make them safely filed in the brain, they live on as threats happening in the living moment (like the war veteran diving for cover when a truck backfires in the safety of suburbia).

If and when those moments, or pockets of madness, get triggered, the parent is flashed back to a living moment of dread, a still-living experience of being flooded by fear with no escape—thus the parent suddenly leaves the building of their mind and, of course, the kid gets freaked out (transmission of the terror experience, and now the kid shows the problem that was never healed in the parent).

And the horrid irony is that the kid who is in no way being overtly abused, ends up malfunctioning as if they were being abused.

The good news is that if such a parent can realize that they are traumatized, and can then work with someone (preferably someone who understands the workings of the brain and who doesn’t trot out some old-school destructive and wrong concept such as the parent’s unconscious wish to hurt the child) to understand, connect, build trust and compassion—not only will the trauma resolve and the ghosts go away, the brain itself will generate new connections and be all the more resilient and integrated for it—and, perhaps best of all, the child will be also able to repair the fear and trauma in the context of more safe, consistent and attuned relationships with their caregivers.

As I have often mentioned, mindfulness meditation (including yoga) are excellent tonics for helping the brain become more connected and resilient against stress; taken in tandem with growing conscious understanding about ourselves, and awareness of the nature of our brains (where a therapist can help you move things from free-floating terror to narrative memory) via psychotherapy, bibliotherapy (i.e. reading all about this stuff), or just deepening trusting relationships in which we can talk and listen with compassion and trust about what really hurts, scares, shames or confuses us, are all likely to help heal the brain, the mind, our kids and our planet.

Finally, we all love our kids.  If your kid has moments of completely losing it and you cannot figure out why, consider going to the therapist yourself before you take your child.  There is a world of difference between blaming parents, and supporting them to heal and grow into their best Selves.  Guilt and shame are not useful, we all do our best; we must be here for each other to become our best Selves.  And by the way, in normal populations of parents, one third show pockets of disorganization; this is three out of ten of us, so we are far from alone if this plagues us.

From a wider social context, and given the mounting research, if you have anything to say about shaping our world (any muscle in the debate), consider the importance of supporting parents to heal (i.e. making mental health services more widely available to a wider group of people; and keep in mind that healing serious trauma is not a six or ten sessions sort of therapy); supporting parents to be able to be present to their kids in the first couple of years supports secure attachment that will carry a child through their lives.

Perhaps in blogging, caring, talking we are wiring up in new ways with each other across previous divides of nation, age, gender, education, religion, etc.  And the more connected we all become, the more “integrated” and stable our collective consciousness may become.  When we are connected in this way we get more secure as a world, then we are not fragmented, we are less likely to disenfranchise our collective children much less promulgate wars that turn out to only freak out and disorganize our own collective babies (who grow up to do the same).  When unconscious destruction is finally not acceptable to the group, then we will treat each other as our selves, as our children, and we will have attained health as a planet.

Thus our seatbelts are fastened for the ride (at least the caring and optimistic prefrontal cortex me chooses to say) and we are on our caring, connecting and healing way.

Namaste, Bruce