Sunday, June 6, 2010

Skirball Parenting Lecture on Secure Attachments - A Summary

I spent the day on Saturday at The Skirball Cultural Center at a very interesting lecture entitled "Secure Attachment: Helping Your Child Get the Best Start in Life". The first keynote speaker was Sir Richard Bowlby who spoke on Attachment Theory which was originated by his father, John Bowlby. Attachment Theory, as Sir Bowlby described it, is "the science of family bonds". That is, adults form a bond to babies and children form attachments to adults. I described the central theme of Attachment Theory in an earlier post as "primary caregivers who are available and responsive to their infant's needs establish a sense of security. The infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world". One point Bowlby made early on in his speech was that the term "caregiver" is actually inaccurate as it does not describe the bond. Instead, attachment theorists prefer the term "Primary Attachment Figure" (as well as secondary and tertiary).

It is generally, but not always, the mother who is the child's primary attachment figure. Sometimes it's the father, the grandmother, a nanny and so on. It comes down to, apparently, "who comes when I cry most often? Who comes most and responds most intensely when I smile?" A child's cry or smile is a "nurture seeking strategy" which, in turn, allows the mother (father/grandmother/etc.) to fall in love and bond with the infant. By 5 or 6 months you will begin to notice babies acting differently towards one particular person. That person is their primary attachment figure. Secondary attachment figures are often fathers, grandmothers, nannies, aunts or uncles and so forth. Children feel safe with these people, but are not bonded in the same way. Tertiary attachment figures are familiar people such as the waitress at the restaurant you always go to, or the man at the grocery store you always shop at. Again, there is a sense of familiarity so there is some ease there for the child, as long as their primary or secondary attachment figure is with them as well. 

Although most people do have someone who becomes their primary attachment figure, the big question is whether one is "securely" or "insecurely" attached. If your primary attachment figure is extremely unpredictable (as in, they sometimes come when the child cries, but often times do not. Or if they tell the child to have a stiff upper lip and not allow them to have their feelings and so on) then this child grows up to be what John Bowlby (that's him in the picture to the right) called "avoidant". That is, these children grow up to be compulsively self-reliant and have very strong feelings, but are unable to express them. OK...this is every mother's nightmare. Please don't think that if your child cries and you don't rush to be by his side he will be doomed forever. That is not what Bowlby is saying. It's much more extreme.

Sir Richard Bowlby mentioned that his father, John Bowlby, was raised, in the early 1900's, by his nanny. He literally only saw his mother for one hour a day "after tea time". Thus, for him, that nanny became his primary attachment figure. When she left the family it was, to him, as tragic as if his own mother had died. There was a twin mother in the audience who later asked a question about attachments to a nanny as she was, out of necessity, a working mom and had great fears about not being her children's primary attachment figure. The sob in her voice as she asked the question brought tears to many of us there that day as so many mothers have that same fear and could so relate. Bowlby had a lovely response that I think brought her a lot of peace. He brought up the fact that his father's nanny had actually lived with them and slept in the nursery with him so that she was the one who always came for him when he needed someone. Always. If you are unable to be with your child during the day, remember, he said, that night time is when children tend to be most afraid and most needy and this is an opportunity for the primary attachment figure to secure their role. 

How to help your baby make secure secondary attachments to a nanny/preschool teacher/daycare provider etc:
  1. When you first introduce the baby to a daycare provider (for example), do it at your home if possible. The mother (for argument's sake - but really it's primary attachment figure) and daycare provider should arrange previously that they will embrace in front of the child to give the child the idea that mother already knows this person.
  2. The mother should then visit the daycare with the baby and spend time there alongside the people who work there. This allows your child to feel safe in exploring the environment.
  3. Mother should then begin to hide for short periods; having the daycare providers help the child calm their attachment seeking behaviors.
  4. Then primary attachment figure leaves for slightly longer to let the child use the practitioner when they need soothing. This should be continued over a period of about a month. And by a month, Bowlby means daily/frequently/regularly. The child is then able to form a secondary attachment to at least one, if not more, people at the daycare.
  5. If you must let a nanny go or leave a daycare, please try to make the transition a slow one. It can be extremely hard for some children to separate from people they have formed strong attachments to.
This made a lot of sense to me as it is almost exactly how we made the transition to preschool. And it took me at least 3 weeks, if not longer, before my kids felt at ease there. Thank goodness the school was totally on board with the process! According to this theory, it actually takes people two years to form new neural pathways that allow for attachment to a new primary figure. Studies done where groups were asked who they would call if they were in a plane about to crash show that people in a love relationship of less than two years would call their mother; whereas those in relationships over 2 years would call their partners. Fascinating, no?

The brain holds our past and then layers new memories and experiences on top of the old stuff. There can be scar tissue from past trauma (literally or figuratively), but humans are born to repair. Think of how many cuts, scrapes and broken bones you may have lived through! Attachment theory isn't a therapy, it's an insight. Once you understand your attachments, or lack thereof, you decide what to do with that information.  

After Bowlby's lecture we broke for lunch sponsored by Milk + Bookies", a wonderful organization dedicated to empowering teen and college students to earn community service hours, and learn the importance and impact of peer-bases philanthropy. At lunch, 5 round table discussions were set up with topics like "raising an only child", "attachment and discipline", "attachment and the special needs child" etc. 

The next keynote speaker was Mary Hartzell, who is a child development specialist, parent educator, and co-author with Dan Siegel of the amazing book "Parenting From The Inside Out". She is also the director of the nationally recognized, Reggio-inspired First Presbyterian Nursery School in Santa Monica, and has taught children, parents, and teachers for more than thirty years.

Mary spoke about self- understanding and relationships. She began by reminding us that we have a template in our minds of how to parent, based on how we were parented. Whether you look at your childhood as terrible or wonderful, it is important to remember that parenting is an opportunity to re-parent ourselves.

Memory is a fascinating thing. We all have both implicit and explicit memories. Implicit memories are ones that we can't actually recollect when recalled; these include behavioral, emotional and perceptual memories. Thus, they effect you, but you are not always sure where the effect is coming from. Explicit memory develops during the 2nd year of life and there is a sense of recollection. This includes factual and autobiographical memory.

To me, the most interesting thing about this is that if you don't process things, trauma gets encoded in implicit memory. A difficult childhood (or even difficult moments in an otherwise "normal" childhood) is alive in the mind in unprocessed feedback loops. Implicit memories are often what are at work when people say something "triggered" them to behave in a way unlike their normal selves (like when I get all my buttons pushed by my kids & lose my temper). In those moments a person is unable to make good choices and is actually behaving as their "child-self". 

Mary told a really interesting story to illustrate this. She would take her boys to the shoe store when they were younger and she would anticipate it being a great experience for them all. But every time she would find herself being terribly anxious and end up ruining their time together. Finally, one of her boys triggered her memory about her own experience shopping for shoes as a child which was always extremely stressful and disappointing. Once she was able to connect to the memory and process it, she no longer experienced shopping for shoes with her kids in such a negative way. She had made an implicit memory, explicit and was no longer operating in a way that she was triggered by something from her past.

If you are having struggles with your child (and who doesn't), remember: every child is doing the best they can in the moment to get their needs met. Meet your child where he is at to allow him to feel valued, seen, heard and understood. For a child, this means "I love you, just the way you are". Being heard is what gives someone comfort. Haven't you ever said to your husband "I don't need you to fix it! I just want you to hear what I'm saying!"?

Attunement is matching the state the child is in. Do not simply say positive things; listen in a way to mirror back to the child. You will be meeting your child where they are and allowing them to feel "felt" and attuned to. When you first return home after work is a wonderful time to attune to your child. You may wish to first change your clothes and get a glass of wine (the latter, especially, if you're my husband) and being greeted at the door by an excited toddler wanting you to read them a book may be the last thing you want to deal with in that moment. You may say nicely, "in a minute honey. Let me change my clothes (get a glass of wine)" and you will be greeted by wailing and stomping feet chasing you down the hall as you try to get out of your work clothes. Now you have irritated mommy, frustrated/sad child and no one is getting what they want. Instead, if you chose to reconnect with them for even 15 minutes of 100% focused time when you come in you will see a huge difference in their ability to let you, then, do what you need to do. As you sit with your children be sure to say out loud "I really like being with you".  

After the keynote speakers we broke off into workshops. Every workshop sounded so interesting, and I chose to attend Betsy Brown Braun's lecture on "Triangular Attachment" which was about the attachment of multiples to each other and to their parents (or primary and secondary attachment figures). Betsy is mother of adult triplets, a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant, and best-selling author of a book called "Just Tell Me What To Say".  She has also just written another called "You're Not The Boss Of Me: Brat-proofing your 4- to 12-year-old child".

She began by discussing the nature of attachment of multiples and broke it down into four different types.
  1. Proximity Seeking: child wants to keep their co-twin as close as posssible
  2. Separation distress: difficulty separating from each other.
  3. Safe Haven: multiples put a high priority on taking care of their co-twin
  4. Safe base: multiples see one another as a fall-back when psychologically separated from the mother.
Because there is such a world of fantasy about twins and their "special bond" it is very important, as the parent, to remember that each child's attachment and attunement to each parent is more important than the twins' attachment to each other. Remember, it is quality, not quantity when it comes to attuning to your children. And if you feel overwhelmed it is impossible to meet anyone's needs, let alone twins'. Betsy likes to refer to "the rotating pill position". At any given moment, one of your twins is going to be needy (thus: being a "pill"). There is always the possibility to give each the attention they need and it all equals out.

Factors to promote attachment in your twins
  • Accessibility. If mom is not available, your child will choose their co-twin for support.
  • Shared background experience. This is yet another reason to make family rituals, outings, customs a priority.
  • Temperament of the entire family. As pointed out in the twin lecture at UCLA, mis-matched temperament can be difficult to get past.
  • Types of multiples. That is, in general, identical twins or same sex fraternal twins will attach more readily than boy/girl twins. 
Factors that can get in the way of healthy attachment:
  • In higher order multiples (quads, quints etc.) the attachment to each other gets diluted. 
  • In b/b/g or g/g/b triplets, the odd man out may spend their life searching for that "best friend" to replicate the bond of their matched sex co-triplets.
  • If your twins' identity from birth is as a part of a pair. For example, if they are constantly referred to as "the twins" or only see photos of themselves together they may grow up feeling as if they need to be together in order to matter. This can cause, among many other things, resentment.
  • They are burdened with expectations of how being a twin "should be".
Types of twin attachments
  • Unit Identity: twins are merged. Each thinks of self as 1/2 of a whole personality. Separation is extremely difficult.
  • Interdependent Identity: twins are best friends and each other's primary support. Their outside relationships replicate their twin bond. They are truly friends and have a symbiotic relationship (ie: one is bossy and the other needs decisions made for them).
  • Split Identity: The children define themselves as polar opposites (one is the "good" twin, the other the "bad" twin). Yet, each twin feels that they, themselves has some of the other's qualities. Thus, the overvalued twin can feel relief at being separated because he/she gets rid of "bad" qualities. Not so great for the undervalued twin, is it? Remember, these values are placed by the children first and then may be echoed by others.
  • Idealized Identity: being a twin is the most important part of their identity. They take great pride in their relationship. Separation may be easy, but can be viewed as dangerous as their identity is as a twin. This situation is at it's most extreme when fueled by a parent.
  • Competitive Identity: Twins have a strong empathetic bond with each other. They are proud of each other's achievements and accepting of each other's skills and talents. This type of identity has the most potential for growth outside of the twinship.
  • Sibling Attachment Identity: similar to having a close sibling, as opposed to a twin.
Encouraging individuality in your twins

There's often ambivalence on behalf of the parents about this as it does make parenting harder. It's much easier to have one doctor appointment, one play date, one parent/teacher conference etc. But you want your children to be close, not dependent. As Betsy said at the end: "you are the mirror that your twins see themselves in". It's your job to inform the world how you want your multiples to be seen. You want to reduce the expectation that they will always be together and allow them separate identities.

All in all, it was a wonderful day. The Skirball Center is a lovely place to spend a day and they did a terrific job of providing plenty of opportunities to discuss and learn. They have many lectures, but this was the first that was focused specifically on parenting. Let's hope they have another one again soon!

Thanks for reading!
The Twin Coach

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7 Great Comments Made By Clicking Here!:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for posting! What great info. I appreciate you taking the time to share it with all of us!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. So thoughtful and insightful. I loved it! Can't wait for the next one.

Jackie said...

This is fascinating! I was blown away by it. Incredible how much our childhood bonds effect us as adults.
Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to share, Gina!

Christina Simon said...

Hi Gina, just visiting your amazing blog. What a great post!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to recap what you learned. For those of us who couldn't attend, we appreciate your time and care. Plus, we love you! chandy

Joan said...

Just as I imagined - an amazingly clear, concise, and well written account of complex material. You are the best Gina!

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