Monday, June 21, 2010

Let's talk about attachment

I talked a while ago about the workshop I attended in Ottawa, led by Gordon Neufeld. The theme was bullying, and what I did not say was that the theoretical context was what we in the field know as Attachment Theory.

Briefly this was first articulated in the 1950’s and 1960’s by a British psychiatrist named John Bowlby. He said that the ‘attachment system’ plays out between child and caregiver (parent), and is as built in as the feeding and reproductive systems. In short, when a child is in distress and cries, the child cannot stop the cry until one of two things happens: parent comes and comforts (change diaper, feed, etc), or child is simply exhausted. When the parent responds to comfort, the child’s brain develops the ability be comforted, leading to the day when the older child comforts him or her self. When the response is no response, or a yell or a hit, the baby’s problems increase. Distress intensifies, and no inner template is developing. And the world is on its way to being a very scary place.

You know people who play this out every day, somewhere on the safety scale (you are one of them). You will see those who handle conflict very well; you will see those who take everything personally, and either rage or cry. You will see those who are unfailingly kind and charitable; you will see those whose only interest is themselves, and getting there first. You are seeing the results of what we call secure and insecure attachment patterns.

Attachment relationships occur in every creature species and across the lifetime. When we become adults, the dependence/ independence dynamic is slightly different, in that it does not characterize the relationship (as in parent-child) but rather situations. I need to be taken care of right now, and I need you for that. When you need to be taken care of, I am there for you.

I attended another workshop on attachment this past week, and as always happens, information builds on what you already know. The presenter was Dr. Diane Benoit from Sick Kids hospital in Toronto. I may refer back to her work and that of Dr. Neufeld from time to time, because parents really need to become experts in this and skilled at it. The neat thing for our work is that parents who do not have the skills, can acquire them.

So, for today, here is Dr. Benoit’s list of parent behaviours that produce a severely affected child:

1. Emotional communication errors: contradictory/ mixed signals; failure to initiate response, or inappropriate response, to infant cues of distress;
2. Role/ boundary confusions: role reversal, sexualized behaviour;
3. Disorientation: parent is frightened or disorganized;
4. Intrusiveness/ negativity: attributing negative motivation to the child; tries to control with objects rather than holding, comforting;
5. Withdrawal: distancing self from child; directing child away from self by using toys

You see what is missing in all these; accurate response to distress, through use of the eyes, smiles, voice.

Out here in the orchard, the animals never holler to their young, “I’ll be with you in a little while.” They never ignore the pleadings of their young, and above all they never whack them over the head when the young are in distress. The young learn from the start that they are safe in their parents’ care.

We humans, are so much smarter, right? And we get it wrong many times every day before lunch.

Perfection is never the minimum. But developing the mindset, the awareness of how this works and how important it is, is the minimum. The skills, if we do not already have them, can be learned.

And a big nod in the direction of our relationship with our Creator. Have you noticed? The attachment system starts right there. Our God designed us to be dependent on him. In return God has total regard for us, will never put us off, will never whack us over the head. Never. When those bad times come along, that is not God doing it to us. On the contrary, God is waiting: when the attachment system is turned on in us, God is right there. How neat is that. You are always safe with this caregiver. Always.

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