14 Feb Attachment – The Tip of the Iceberg
David Stimson – CATS Co-founder & therapist (UKCP)
“Everything in the books has not always worked and is sometimes impractical. Some parenting ‘guidance’ is frighteningly outdated and some of it is, to be frank, destructive”
Five years ago I became a father. We became a family. The obvious next few lines should be ‘It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me’ and ‘Now I understand the purpose of life’ but in truth it’s been damn hard. My little girl is now my world and she’s given me the privilege to witness love and attachment develop from the inside out. With a sly smile on my face I can happily write that my world is now very colourful and my energy much less! The reason I reflect on my experiences is because it’s important that you understand that, although a ‘professional’ and having ‘read all the books’, parenting has been extremely challenging and emotionally demanding. Everything in the books has not always worked and is sometimes impractical. Some parenting ‘guidance’ is frighteningly outdated and some of it is, to be frank, destructive.
The basis of human nature is attachment. Without attachment, we simply do not survive as a species. Attachment is a major factor and influence in all of our relationships, trust, self-worth and world view. If you ever catch my trainings or talks I often reflect on the time just before my daughter was born. We attended an organised visit to the hospital alongside many other parents to-be and had the opportunity to see the wards, ask questions and get some information about the delivery experience. Although it was useful to see the place and be able to visualise how the big day might unfold, I saw the event as a missed opportunity to help many soon-to-be parents understand some basic fundamentals of child development. The word attachment was mentioned not once. Not once! The word ‘bonding’ was used twice, once to explain that ‘breast is best’ and also that immediate skin to skin contact between parents and a new-born child helps to promote bonding. Throughout the years of working with adults, parents, children, social care, schools and so-on, I have come to the conclusion that attachment and the parent-child relationship is one of those ‘taboo’ subjects that we dare not comment upon due to the risk of upsetting or offending another person. Also, and possibly even more emotionally provocative is that we are highly resistant towards looking at our own early experiences and how our own parent-child relationships have been, or still are. Attachment is complex and comes in different ‘styles’ (secure, avoidant, ambivalent, disorganised, which I will explain in a future post). Due to attachment being, in many respects, the backbone of humanity, the concept will feature regularly throughout CATS trainings and articles. Attachment security is not guaranteed, very easily compromised and widely misunderstood. There is no pass plus test for parenting yet there is a ‘pass it on’ effect for both security and insecurity within ourselves and those who we are closest to.
As babies, we are all born premature. Premature in the sense that we have big skulls to hold our big brains and if we grew much bigger we’d be too large to escape our mothers’ womb. Unlike many other mammals we are pretty useless once born. Due to our ‘prematurity’ we can’t stand, walk, run or hide so should a hungry predator pay a visit, we absolutely must depend on the others around us for protection and security. Without this protection, we are lunch. This is why we ‘attach’ to our primary caregiver, our mother. Now, in order for attachment safety to become internalised and ‘secure’, we must as parents meet the needs of our young children as consistently as possible. Without consistent and repetitive reinforcement that our needs will be met, attachment security is unlikely to occur. Unfortunately, an eye-wateringly high proportion of children within our society are not securely attached to their primary care-giver(s). The reason for this, in my opinion, is that the modern capitalist world is simply not designed to support the needs of young children and their parents. We live in a world where work, economy, adult needs/careers, short-cuts and convenience trumps the neurobiological needs of our future generation.
Parent-child attachment is a process that starts pre-birth and is not secured up until approximately the age of three. Yes, three! Rarely is a mother supported to take the necessary time from work in order to help establish the consistent, repetitive experiences our children need to establish attachment security. Within the U.K, mothers are usually expected to return to work within one year (if lucky) with many returning at six months and some much sooner, even within weeks of the child being born. This makes for a confusing and complicated dilemma for a child who will actively seek its mother for nurture and comfort. Although a young child can clearly survive without their mother (or other secure/consistent figure) being with them 24/7, it may come at a price and this price is often attachment security. Equally important is that a mother is not only physically available to their child, they must also be emotionally available. Again, many of our new mum’s and dad’s feel unsupported, lost and may struggle with post-natal issues, including the much under-recognised postnatal post-traumatic stress from the birth experience itself.
As a result, insecurely attached children fill our schools, nurseries and playgroups yet it seems that very few of us are either able or willing to recognise this.
Signs of insecure attachment in young children;
- Inability to settle, over demanding, hyperactive and/or clingy behaviour
- Controlling behaviours
- Anxious behaviours
- Anger, aggression, poor self-regulation
- Avoidant/distant, may not seek comfort from parents when upset/hurt
- Distress at parental separation but not comforted by parents return
- May have no preference between parents or strangers
Despite what we might like to think, we humans are not totally independent self-focused and ‘individual’ creatures. We rely on each other and have needed to do so for our species survival. Young babies can-not ‘learn’ to self-sooth and in order for healthy independence, we must first master total dependence. This dependence allows us to internalise that the world is safe, our needs will be met and that other people are available to us. If we can master these basics then we can carry this information into adulthood and repeat them with our friends, our relationships and our families.
Some valuable questions we could ask ourselves are;
- How have my early attachment experiences influenced my sense of who I am, what I believe and why I do what I do?
- How have my early attachment experiences influenced the way I parent and respond to my children?
- How will my children experience their world though me, and then pass this information onto their children when the day comes?