Crossing Adult with Child Attachment Styles — some thoughts

While preparing for an upcoming conference presentation, I created a matrix which crossed the four adult attachment styles (Autonomous, Dismissive, Preoccupied, and Unresolved) with the four childhood attachment styles (Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent, and Disorganized.)  You may recall that each childhood style tends — without intervention — to lead into the corresponding adult style.

From this Vermont therapy practice, I have collected examples to fill each of the matrix blanks — Dismissive style parent seen with Avoidant style child, etcetera.  I don’t have much to fill the Securely attached child column, as they rarely have need of services.  But the other columns are busy.  A brief look at the patterns:

Dismissive style adults seen with Avoidant style children shows a combination in which both adult and child are working hard to avoid relationship and emotional vulnerability.  They seem to benefit most not only from acceptance and empathy, but also from my “speaking for” them to each other.  ”Sorry, Dad, about what happened yesterday — I just didn’t now how to approach you to fix it, so I didn’t say anything…”  That makes sense, as all their practice has been at avoiding sharing their own inner awareness with another person.  ”I’m fine.”

Dismissive style adults seen with Ambivalent style children are another matter.  The adult is trying hard to avoid conflict, while the child is busy seeking conflict in a bid to feel safe through control of the people and objects around them.  They tend to present with the parent intimidated and the child frequently dysregulated.  They benefit most from support for the adult to find their voice, step up to the plate and be in charge again.  Kids need parents (safe parents) and they need the parent to be in charge.  Because of child development realities, that’s the only way kids are going to be okay.

Preoccupied style adults, on the other hand, are looking for conflict, due to so much difficulty resolving issues from their earlier years.  Through no conscious fault of their own, the presenting problem is often one of drama.  One parent who daily clashed with his nine year-old asked me in hushed tones whether I thought that his daughter might need an exorcism.  (I didn’t.)  Unfortunately the dramas are rarely resolved, because they tend to be emotionally founded in unspoken hurts from the past.  Only when this is interpreted do the problems in the present lose their power and people become less stuck.

Combine a Preoccupied parent figure with an Avoidant style child, and you have a chase-and-evade dyad, not unlike some unhappy marriages.  But a Preoccupied style adult raising an Ambivalent style child will be a dyad often in flames — each person trying aggressively to force recognition and appreciation from the other, while both were denied these things long ago.

Not to paint too bleak a picture, the Autonomous style adult can usually make gradual headway with both Avoidant and Ambivalent style children.  Why?  They can rely on their own “secure emotional base”, and their own positive “internal working model” to carry them through long periods of the chid’s dysregulation — while continuing to project their image of the child as capable and important.  That is an important image which children need from adults — a projection of themselves which they can absorb, test, push-against, even reject, but gradually internalize.

The Disorganized style child is usually the most challenging of the childhood styles, due to such children learning to survive abject maltreatment (including neglect) by disappearing — not having a “self” other than what they can generate through immediate chaos.  I will cover the Disorganized style column in a later blog entry.

Feel free to email with any questions, comments or observations — robert@robertspottswood.org

What Can We Do About Lying?

Q.  What can we do about lying?

A.  Often a child’s lying, like cheating, shoplifting, stealing, evasion and many other ‘hiding’ behaviors, is rooted in a felt need to hide themselves.  From a sense of shame about their own worthiness, a child (or adult) might say if they could, “I’m not good enough to be known for who I really am, and that means my (new) parents would get rid of me if they really, truly knew how worthless I feel.  So eventually, when people really see me, then I will have to get my needs met by sneaking.  Under the table.  On the sly.  By hook or by crook.”

With adopted children, this can flow from a nagging fear that what happened once can always happen again — being “given away” because they were “not good enough to keep”.  So they are sure they must practice surviving on their own, under the radar, for when the nightmare of abandonment happens again.  With incest survivors, the unconscious need to hide ones identity from others can feel like life or death.

One time an adoptive mother with her own horrid childhood lied to me in session.  I had suggested some communication exercises for her family.  She replied, “Oh we do that all the time at home, let’s just move on.”

You do?

“Yeah, let’s just move on.”

I’m curious.  When do you do it?

“Well…..we really don’t, but I just told you we did so you’d move on to something else,” and she grinned like her teenager whom she complained was compulsively lying.

(From my perspective this was solid gold.)

“You lied to me!” I exclaimed in mock horror, opening my eyes wide.

“No, I didn’t,” she giggled.  “I told you the truth in the end.”  She was 46.

“You LIED to me!  And you ENJOYED it!!”  I played this like a hooked sailfish.

“No, come on, I didn’t LIE!”  (i.e., Finally someone caught me!)

“And now you’re lying about LYING to me!!  Like a TEENAGER!!  WHOA!!!”  At these words she collapsed into giggles.

This playful incident became part of our therapy history.  We referenced it many times as a crucial deepening of our therapeutic relationship: the day she was caught in a lie, but not shamed for it.

"NOW what?"

What would be an equivalent response to a child’s lying?

Dan Hughes once role-played a nice response during a training.  In the role-play he neither shamed the “child”, nor accepted the lie — he found a balance:  “Hey, you’re giving me baloney!  You got any cheese in there?  C’mon, hand it over!”

The message:  1. You’re trying to put one over on me….2. I won’t even PRETEND to buy it….3. And I sure like you!

"Baloney!"

This good message offers the child both a challenge to the lie (I’m not stupid) and face-saving through humor (I still like you).  We can use this formula with teens and adults as well.

An exception might be when the child is lying from within deep depression.  In children this can appear as fierce hostility.  “I never took anything!  (while hiding stolen item behind back.)  I hate you!  Get out of here!  You’re stupid!!”  At those times responding with playfulness will sound to them like sarcasm.  I will cover responding to depressive lying in another blog — it can require some reflection on our part to find the voice we (and they) need.

 

What are the four attachment styles of children? 1978 and 1986

The perplexing relational behavior of alienated children was first demystified by the insightful research of Mary Ainsworth.  Her brilliant Strange Situation study findings were published in 1978 and remain relevant today.  She correctly identified the various responses of different toddlers upon seeing their parent walk out of a room and then return.  Additionally a strange woman simply came in, sat, and went out — at two specific times.

Ainsworth identified three childhood attachment styles, eventually called Secure, Avoidant, and Ambivalent.  Her explanations were later enhanced by Mary Main (1986), who, with her assistant Judith Solomon, recognized that a leftover, chaotic fourth group (10%) had developed no patterns to make sense of themselves or their world: “Disorganized” style.

Knowing the four attachment styles of children does not guarantee an emotional connection — a quick fix.  But it does provide a useful explanation of what may be going on in the child’s head — their inner life of thoughts and feelings.  This in turn lets us parents and helpers feel accurate empathy for the struggling child’s difficult inner life.  (There is empathy, and there is accurate empathy.)  It also allows us to set limits and name our expectations with some degree of confidence that we are doing no harm.  We now know how to understand and repair the child’s shame when it becomes triggered.  The combination of accurate empathy plus safe limit-setting gradually unlocks emotional doors to trusting.  Still, the path to close, intersubjective connection with a child may be easier for some adults than for others.

A dismissive attachment style in an adult

An adult client, a professional man who was several years into his new marriage, came into therapy struggling with “Who am I?”  After a short time I found he would change the subject each time I got close to focusing on his thoughts and feelings.  This is typical of an adult who avoids placing any attention or importance on their own inner life — an adult with “dismissive attachment style”.

In such cases I usually ask whether the client’s partner might join us.  It helps get to core issues when I have a second safe person on board.  He agreed to ask her.  She was a social worker.

Next session the spouse joined us, saying, “I’m not sure why I came today.”  My client started chattering about some other topic — his usual response to anything risky.

Suddenly it struck me that he was avoiding his thoughts and feelings because she was a social worker.  I shared my thinking:  “I wonder if you brought her along so she and I would talk shop and stay safely away from your emotional stuff.”

A home run with that — and it laid the groundwork for future sessions.  Before leaving he warned me, “I might go to my grave without dealing with my feelings.”  I replied, “Yes, but that could get old for her.  Spouses like their partners available to work on issues together.”

Good work followed.