How complex attachment can look like divide and conquer!
When a baby has early experiences of regularly and relatively calmly having their emotional and physical needs met through kindly interactions both physically and verbally, consistently and without too much stress then they can relax and get on with growing their brain and enjoying new experiences and people. However, if mostly they get no response when they are having an emotional wobble or are cold, scared, hungry, thirsty, tired, or get an angry or an overly enthusiastic erratic response this this will cause them stress and ultimately they will experience it as trauma.
Attachment and Resilience
Attachment is the relationship and bond a child has with a caring adult or adults. Levy & Orlans (1998) tell us,
Attachment is a deep and enduring connection established between a child and caregiver in the first several years of life……Attachment is not something that parents do to their children; rather it is something that children and parents create together, in an on going reciprocal relationship.
With regard to children being ‘resilient’, Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz (2006) sum up what I have often heard repeated over the years;
…the prevailing view of trauma at the time – one that persists to a large degree to this day – is that “children are resilient”.
(Perry & Szalavitz 2006)
However, I feel that this is often something adults need to believe in the face of being aware of the traumas a child has lived through as there often at best needs to be a sense of hope, and at worst a blame for their guilt if they have been party to the abuse or neglect.
What I know and have witnessed about resilience and attachment:
Many families I supported post domestic abuse and other traumas frequently had the experience of professionals initially being understanding, even kind, but when, as it did for most of them, their own or their children’s ‘difficulties’ were extensive and lasting there was a sense that the patience wore thin as there was a growing sense that as things had improved they should all be “coming to terms with it” and “moving on” especially the children.
Indeed, it can often suit adults to believe that children can just ‘bounce back’ from adversity and trauma. Of course there are adult examples of individuals who, in spite of exposure to childhood trauma, do make amazing contributions to our World, Kate Swift, Luke Rodgers, Jenny Molloy, Lisa Cherry, Lorraine Pascale, Jahmene Douglas and Oprah Winfrey to name but a few. However, their journey will not have been an easy one and will have undoubtedly benefited from contact with key people, or attachment figures, along the way.
What research tells us:
Graham Music (2011) sums up resilience as;
..the ability to remain positive in the face of adversity, which is not the same as not having distress or denying it.
The belief from extended family and sometimes form professionals, that children just ‘get over things’ in time because they are ‘resilient’ is still something adoptive parents, foster and kinship carers and survivors of domestic and other abuse tell me that they regularly encounter and battle against. Indeed in my work I have found that without an influential attachment figure and relationship along the way children do not progress well into and through adulthood. When I meet adults who have come through abuse of any kind and who seem to be functioning well I always take the opportunity to gently explore with them what, and most importantly who, made the difference to their onward journey through life. On reflection most of them can identify a foster carer, family member, teacher or other professional with whom they had a positive attachment relationship, one which enabled them to experience a sense of connection and to feel that they mattered to someone.
It is interesting that Music (2011) talks about us having two emotion systems in the brain, the “defensive system” and the “appetitive system”.
The negative emotion system is often called the defensive system, and is concerned with avoiding danger, and its activation leads to more pessimism, more worry and its motivation will be to seek safety and security….the appetitive system…leads to interest, pleasure, hope, is linked with moving forwards…and aims to increase good feelings, and not just avoid negative ones.
So, for a child helplessly living in domestic abuse, or with carers who drink heavily, or suffer with mental illness, then their brain’s defensive system will be more regularly activated as the child may feel frequently frightened and under threat from chaotic care giving, aggressive handling and lack of someone to emotionally connect with. Attachment figures are unlikely to consistently respond in a way which establishes a sense of safety and closeness for a child and repeated activation of the defensive system will trigger the brain’s survival system to release stress hormones far too often and at high levels which do not easily subside.
A fascinating paper on resilience by Hunter (2012) from the Australian Institute of Family Studies presents the finding which suggests that it is not just about the correlation between attachment and resilience:
Secure attachment with at least one adult is seen as one of the most common protective factors found in resilient children (Kim-Cohen, 2007). Although there is crossover between these theories, resilience differs in that it involves protective factors beyond the attachment relationship, such as those within the individual child, the family and the wider community.
Resilience is not a fixed ‘thing’ but is dynamic and likewise is not something which is simply a characteristic some possess and others don’t. Resilience develops within a reciprocal nurturing relationship over time. Likewise attachment is something which develops securely if the social environment for the child is right and meets their emotional needs. Both attachment and resilience need acceptance, emotional connection and a sense of safety in a nurturing relationship and support from the wider family and community so they can evolve and flourish.
However, the most encouraging quote I know of which gives us hope for all children and those supporting and caring for them is:
“Neuroscientists now tell us that in the presence of a ‘good enough’ other – for example, a foster carer, and adoptive parent, a therapist, a mentor, a teaching assistant – that new and more sophisticated neural pathways can be formed in the child’s developing brain, and new patterns of relating and behaving can emerge.” Bomber (2007)
Jane Evans is a trauma parenting specialist, trainer, speaker, writer and blogger (also mum, step-mum and step-nana!), fortunate enough to learn about raising children from those she has worked with and nurtured.
Jane’s book for children impacted by growing up with domestic violence in their early years is a useful tool in building attachment and finding names for feelings.
How are you feeling today Baby Bear?