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Understanding Attachment

In this episode, we will give you a helpful overview of where love comes from parent to child and, as adults, partner to partner. This is the critical ingredient to Emotionally Focused Therapy. Our brain is designed for connection, and we seek proximity to others from the very moment we are born. Babies have several behaviors geared to attract others. As they send connection cues to those around them, people respond to those cues and engage with them. The interaction between them and their caretakers develops their brains and affects their physiology. Psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby postulated that humans never grow from this need to connect. He stated that “from the cradle to the grave,” we depend on others to feel secure and protected. In learning these skills, you will deepen your understanding of your connection and be aware of the power of your biological will to attach.

Children can be hurt and emotionally wounded, sometimes even for their entire lives when parents are emotionally unavailable or physically distant. Separations from parents during childhood cause children enormous pain and disrupt their trust in their attachment figures.

Parents, especially mothers, need to protect their children and have them in their sight. Mothers become vigilant when their children are not with them and want to check on them to know they are safe and secure. I was at a gathering yesterday at a friend’s house for the 4th of July, and there was a couple with a three-year-old girl. I told the mother, who said, “I need to know where my daughter is. She saw her daughter playing, and she said, ‘I just wanted to know if she was okay.’” This is the attachment system in action to guarantee the survival and well-being of the child. It acts like a powerful magnet that pulls mother and child closer to each other.

Gwendolyne’s mother might have missed her children and significantly worried about them. She might have been driven by the dream of giving her children a better life than the one she had when she was a child. She did not have a husband to support her and her children financially, and she did not want them to live in poverty. She also dreamed about the day when she could bring her children to be with her. Although she was able to fulfill her dream of having her children with her in the US and give them what she did not have while growing up, her children suffered a great deal and carried scars from those four years when they were in Mexico in addition to their dreadful crossing to the US.

There are two extreme poles in the attachment system, one the caretaker, and another the child. While the parent wants to seek proximity to the child in order to take care of her and guarantee her safety and wellbeing, the child, on the other extreme of the pole also wants to seek proximity to the parent to be taken care of and to feel secure. When the child is away from the mother, she feels extremely vulnerable and in danger. She becomes distressed, sad and she seeks contact.

When the parent is at reach and is responsive, the child’s distress is assuaged, and she recovers her emotional balance. Nevertheless, if the parent cannot be found or if he or she is not accessible, the child feels even more distressed and intensifies her protest. If this situation persists for too long, the brain registers the event as a trauma and the child has an attachment injury that may persist for life.

Children who suffer attachment injury may develop three different types of insecure attachment. The anxious children will seek their attachment figures, clinging to them and demanding attention. They are hyper vigilant and extremely afraid of losing. They will become very triggered to every small sign that they might lose their loved one and will protest. To their attachment figures, they may sound as demanding, needy and critical. They also have great difficulty feeling comforted and reassured.

Another attachment style is the insecure avoidant. The avoidant child will put up a wall to protect herself from suffering. Because of many failed attempts of connecting to her caretaker, and for feeling betrayed from her attachment figure, she withdraws completely. She not only disconnects emotionally from people, but she disconnects from her own feelings. Although she might seem very confident and independent, researchers found out that avoidant children are very stressed. This is not hard to understand since connection to an attachment figure causes the child to feel secure and consequently calm and relaxed.

The third type of attachment is the disorganized one, a combination of the anxious and the avoidant. The disorganized child demands attention but rejects it when it is given to her. Although such rejection of something that she so eagerly wants seems strange, it makes total sense,judged their reassuring attempts considering that she felt betrayed on many occasions. She learned to distrust her attachment figures and judge their reassuring attempts as false.

Based on Gwendolyn’s story, we can notice that she might have the second attachment style, i.e. the avoidant one. She made several statements that showed an effort to suppress her feelings and to avoid getting close to people. She tried to deny the drama she suffered by convincing herself that she had had a good childhood. She tried to forget everything that had happened to her, and she did not tell anyone her traumatic experiences. Even when her husband asked her about her childhood, she did not tell him anything. She told him that she could not remember when she actually did not want to remember. She went to the extreme of not wanting to give her heart to anyone to avoid being hurt. “That’s why I never tried to get too close to anybody as a kid because I feared it wouldn’t last,” she said.

The research in attachment shows that children fair better when they have at least one attachment figure who is responsive, accessible and emotionally engaged throughout her entire childhood. Therefore, the quality and the consistency of the attachment is what will help the child to become an emotionally secure person.

In some cases, the nurturing and loving presence of another caregiver can significantly minimize the impact of the loss. Gwendolyn’s mother left her with her own mother who she thought would be the best person to care for her children. Nevertheless, Gwendolyn’s grandmother stayed with her for a while and asked an aunt to be with her. That aunt also stayed with her for another time to then give her to another aunt. Each one of these separations were registered in her brain as another trauma and the suffering was almost unbearable. It is no wonder that Gwendolyn tried to close her heart and numb her feelings to protect herself from these subsequent losses.

Despite her young age and not having a mature developed brain to make sense of what was happening to her, Gwendolyn told herself stories about the intentions and thoughts of those who cared for her. For example, on trying to imagine what could go on in her mother’s mind she told herself “I think that she really believed that we would be fine, as my aunts and grandmother were taking care of us. It hurt us a lot, though.” When talking about her grandmother stopping taking care of her she said, “when she would get tired of us.” On talking about one of her aunts she said, “she seemed not to like us. She would give us dirty looks and make us feel unwanted. I feel like maybe she was really bothered by the fact we were there.”

Because of these repeated attachment injuries, Gwendolyn developed a negative view of others. She started seeing her attachment figures as unreliable and not dependable. She decided that she would never more depend on anyone as they could abandon her and cause her great anguish.

As I mentioned earlier, insecurely avoidant children feel a great deal of stress as they feel unprotected and in danger. The more a child stops trusting her caregivers, the more unsafe she feels and the more her fight and flight response goes into action. Such children are constantly tense as their amygdala is alert for danger. After living for months or years in this stressful condition, the brain becomes locked in the fight and flight response and cannot relax anymore.

During our childhood, our brain tries to make sense of the people and the world around us through the experiences that we have. The brain tries to learn through these experiences to prepare us for the future. This explains why we develop problems such as anxiety. If we are surrounded by unreliable and abusive people, the brain prepares us to face this kind of people for life. As a result, we become hypervigilant to any indication that we will be betrayed and hurt, and we can never relax.

This makes it hard for them to face difficult experiences as they are already stressed before facing them and not trusting anyone for seeking comfort. They think they have to face their troubles alone and not share their pain with anyone because no one would be interested anyway to hear them and help alleviate their suffering. This is what made it so hard for Gwendolyne to go through the experience of coming to the US for the first time.

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