Our modern world can pose enormous challenges for the relationships we rely on most. In this post I want to explore the attachment relationship and what we have learned about the instinctual reactions manifest by children and adults when they perceive these reactions as threatened.
Sunday, 4 November 2012
Here we see the full range of emotional reactions of fear, sadness, anger and numbness in the context of relational states. Very young children may manifest these emotional states in their efforts to reestablish or cope with threats to their key relationships. It is important here to understand that working models of attachment and their connections to emotional states are coded in implicit memory, in the early developing right hemisphere. Therefore the child, and later the adult, is often not aware of the reasons for their emotional reactions to these attachment cues. The older child, when asked why they are frightened or angry will often answer truthfully that they do not know why. At times they will attribute their fears to monsters rather than the loss of the attachment figure, or their anger may be directed at a target other than the attachment figure.
As children react to perceived attachment threats with the range of emotional states that Bowlby first identified, these emotional reactions themselves can increase the challenges in these fragile relationships with parents. Fear and clinging can lead to parental frustration and resentment. Anger can result in defensive anger in parents. Sadness and withdrawal can be perceived as rejection by a sensitive parent or laziness. It is easy to see how emotional reactions can lead to cascading relationship breakdowns in fragile social situations. Unfortunately the remedies health care providers sometimes prescribe can contribute to the problem. These interventions can range from ill-advised exposure exercises in anxious children, to harsh time outs or punishments or cracking down with tough love on an unmotivated youngster. If we do not tune in to the need for restoring attachment relationships, these problems can often escalate. Healthy attachment relationships form the underpinnings of natural parental authority. In "Hold Onto Your Kids", Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate have argued persuasively for promoting parental attachment in a world where peer attachments can easily become all-consuming for young people. We should be careful to not inadvertently undermine our own role as parents by overdoing our promotion of peer activities and ourselves adding to the already existing pressure on youngster's to “fit in” with peers. It is time we developed a better understanding of the relational context of the mental health of our young people. Perhaps one day we will look back on the daycare and school environments we accept as ordinary today with as much disbelief as we do the hospital environments of 60 years ago.