Some of my clients that I work with in my private practice have difficultly forming healthy relationships. These difficulties are the result of how their parents interacted with them when they were young. It’s not their fault that they struggle, but it is their responsibility to fix the problem.
The topic I am exploring today is “attachment.” We can have either a secure attachment or an insecure attachment to our parents. 70% of us formed secure attachments with our parents when we were small. The rest of us are less fortunate, to varying degrees.
The desire for connection, or attachment, is hard-wired at birth into the brain of every human being. Attachment is a basic, unrelenting drive. If you struggle to form healthy relationships, you may have reached a point where you think you may as well give up trying. But the moment an opportunity presents itself to connect with another human being, we will seek out that connection no matter how frustrated we’ve felt in the past. It’s just how we’re wired. We all need to form healthy attachments with others because these relationships form the basis for a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life.
The wires in our brains (they’re actually neurons) that tell us how to have healthy relationships can get crossed when the parenting we received when we were young wasn’t good enough. For some of us, that parenting was less-than-adequate at best, and resulted in insecure attachments. For others, it was worse than less-than-adequate. It was extremely bad. When you received less-than-adequate or extremely bad parenting as a child, your sense of self becomes distorted in ways that reverberate throughout all of your emotionally-meaningful relationships. It can also result in an inability to attach to anyone.
Dr. Ed Tronick, Director of the University of Massachusetts Infant-Parent Mental Health Program, conducted research in the 1970s and 1980s. This was a time when society believed that babies couldn’t socially interact yet. Tronick videotaped mothers playing with their 1-year-old babies. He documented that babies are in fact extremely responsive to their mother’s reactions and emotions, and to the social interaction that they have with others in their worlds.
In “The Still Face Experiment,” Tronick would ask a mother to interact normally with her baby. With “good enough” mothers, he captured moments of healthy interaction between the two, with both the mother prompting and the child responding, and the child prompting and the mother responding.
After establishing a baseline for how the two interacted, Tronick would ask the mother to physically turn away from her baby for a moment, and to then turn back and look at the baby with her face completely immobile. He would ask the mother to remain completely unresponsive, not showing any reaction to the baby at all for about a minute.
The baby would quickly pick up on the mother’s unresponsiveness. The baby would attempt to greet the mother and draw her in by smiling, babbling and reaching out. The baby would use all of her abilities to try to get the mother’s attention. Then the baby would give up and collapse in despair. This last part happened quickly.
Tronick would then ask the mother to become responsive to the baby again and to comfort the child.
Even in these short, two-minute experiments, the stress that the baby experienced is apparent. You can watch a poignant and powerful example of what happened to the babies when their mothers failed to respond in a two-minute video, posted in 2009 by Dr. Tronick on YouTube. You can click on the link located at the bottom of this blog post to view a video which shows one of the original mothers and her baby as they participated in the “Still Face Experiment.” The video has received 3.7 million views.
A word of warning. You may find the video difficult to watch. But watching it may give you some hints about what it was like for you when you were small and had a parent that was unresponsive to you. You may feel compassion for the child that you were as you struggled to interact with someone who didn’t respond to your attempts to attach.
Many of my clients lived with this experience for years, rather than just the two minutes captured in Tronick’s video. Their parents didn’t pay adequate attention to their pain. They didn’t magically transform into a parent that saw or cared about their child’s suffering. These clients didn’t experience the love that children that are securely attached experience.
This awful beginning, in which a child is not seen or heard, creates the basis for the problems in relationships that these children can subsequently experience over their lifetimes. When the parent sees the child as a burden that is demanding, frightening, overwhelming, or difficult, then this is the image of the self that the child sees, too, and comes to believe in.
These images of self, which were created before the child had words to articulate them and were encoded in the brain’s neural networks, are often reinforced in traumatic family environments with statements, looks and behaviours that tell the child that she is unwanted, unattractive, unlovable, too demanding, or bad. The parent may further withdraw and treat everything the child does as being about the parent, rather than as expressions of the child’s true self. Any of these responses teaches the child that connections are dangerous, and leave future connections fraught with perceived danger and bad feelings for the child.