Attachment, a welder’s view.

In 1976 I became a certified welder.  I was as curious about the external world of connection as I am about the internal world, to understand how we connect both outside and inside as people relate to each other.  Learning about the need for ‘attachment’ in struggling children — to understand those mysterious behaviors that “don’t make any sense” — led back to child development paradigm.  I couldn’t learn enough.

Here is the short version about attachment:

While other mammals are born close to survival-ready, humans are born much more developmentally premature.

As a result we need years of parental closeness, care and attention before our brains finish growing and we can manage our social and physical needs on our own.

What reliable system are we born with that supports our survival while we are so dependent on adults?

John Bowlby, the British psychoanalyst and researcher, wrote back in the 1960s that we are born with an attachment system which seeks interaction with a caregiver — baby behaviors which allow infants to attract and hold the attention of adults.  He surmised that the attachment system was the basic early-survival mechanism of humans.  Back then he was criticized in his field for not saying that attachment is about love.  But his point was that attachment is initially about survival.  It is all babies have to try to get themselves taken care of.

Decades later psychologists Dan Hughes and Jon Baylin connected the dots between the attachment system in the infant brain and a complex caregiving system in the adult brain.  We adults are also triggered to respond when a baby seeks our attention.  Hughes and Baylin’s forthcoming book (2012) explains how, in a mutual ‘dance’ of attuning with each other, babies’ attachment systems and adults’ caregiving systems keep triggering each other, resulting in some of the best moments of “intersubjective” connection for both adult and child.  Dan Hughes has noted that, while adults cease eye contact with each other at socially comfortable limits, “We could gaze forever into a baby’s eyes.”  That is an example of our caregiving brain engaged by a baby’s attachment-seeking brain.

When things go wrong:

For any number of reasons, accidental or preventable, the infant’s attachment system and the adult’s caregiving system may fail to connect. Or after connecting they may taper, get interrupted, or cease altogether. Some parents enjoy attending to dependent babies, but lose interest or feel incompetent when the child reaches toddlerhood, where she begins early efforts at independence and autonomous decision-making.

If something goes wrong with attachment, the child will perceive it as a life-or-death dilemma.  My adult is abandoning me, and I’m just a kid!  I have no plan-B to survive!  Their sense of safety and well-being gone, the child’s learning suffers in most areas — relationship growth, language skills, exploration of her world, her developing sense of self. Skills become somewhat frozen at a very early developmental stage.  The child is putting all of her energy into finding security again — trying to feel safe.  And when directed by a child’s immature thoughts and shame-driven feelings, that can look pretty edgy.  “I told you not to do that!! Why did you do that??!” She really doesn’t know.

Our job — the adult caretakers’ job — then becomes taking the high road. The long view.  Getting help and advice if we need it.  Making sense of her life and her need for help with her overwhelmed inner life.  She is aging with deficits, and we can understand and heal that using our healthier relationship with her.

But that doesn’t mean she will immediately understand and welcome our good efforts.  Then our job is to maintain our own sense of self and supports, at least enough to not take it personally.  Distressed children’s behaviors are — bottom line — about their thoughts and feelings.  If we say to a struggling, acting-out child, “How do you think that makes ME feel?!” it sounds to them like a case of mistaken identity.