Bizarre celebrity parenting techniques seem to be a popular topic in entertainment news. Practices such as “premastication”, which is a parent pre-chewing food for their children, grab headlines and raise eyebrows. Inevitably, the term “attachment parenting” is unfairly linked to the newest celebrity parenting craze.
As with any concept or belief, people can distort it from its original form. Cockeyed renderings of attachment theory aside, learning the basis of attachment theory and how it applies to our lives can be very helpful in creating healthy, functional relationships.
Today the Relationship Helpers are pleased to welcome Dr. Jesse Gill to the podcast. Dr. Gill is a Christian psychologist and author of “Face to Face: Seven Keys to a Secure Marriage.” He uses attachment theory as a basis for helping couples overcome harmful communication and behavioral patterns creating secure, healthy marriages.
Aspects of Attachment
Dr. Gill explains how attachment theory is about bonding and how babies connect to their parents. Fifteen years ago, attachment theory began to come alive for Dr. Gill as he saw how important it was when working with couples.
Along with Dr. Carmen Morrison his mentor, Dr. Gill learned how powerfully attachment theory can be applied to broken relationships.
Attachment to Our Heavenly Father
These sacred moments that occurred in marriage counseling sessions helped him to see how attachment theory applies our relationship with our heavenly Father. Dr. Gill pored over scripture. He studied the language God uses to speak to us, to establish relationship with us.
Attachment Theory Speaks to Our Deepest Longing
We long to be connected. We long to be in relationship.
We are not alone. We’re safe, we’re protected, secure. We know this when we know God and his love for us.
Attachment Theory for Therapists, Attachment Theory for Couples
Dr. Gill’s book is helpful reading for therapists and couples alike. Therapists can use it as a tool to help prevent counter-transference; that is to prevent a therapist from bringing his or her own attachment issues into the counseling process, interfering with the progress of therapy.
Couples will benefit from the book because they can learn their attachment styles. They can see how their style influences the way they communicate, and then make the appropriate changes.
History of Attachment Theory
British psychologist Dr. Henry Bowlby is the founder of Attachment Theory. He is a pivotal figure in helping us to understand love and connection. He studied orphaned children post-World War 2.
Many European children lost their parents during the war. Bowlby wanted to learn why some people bounce back from hardships and why some people do not. Why are some people resilient and why do others struggle?
He identified that children who had significant separation from their caregivers sustained a lot of emotional damage. These children struggled with this for the rest of their lives.
He was one of the first researchers to study psychological theory in “live time.” Before, most psychologists learned through situations that occurred in the past. Bowlby studied how children handled hospitalizations in real time.
Bowlby’s father was the King’s physician in Great Britain, leaving Bowlby in the care of a nanny. He did not have much time or connection with his parents.
When he was four, his nanny died. This probably shaped his curiosity for studying emotional connection and relationships.
Today’s Science Corroborates With Bowlby’s Theories
Today, brain imaging technologies and brain chemistry studies back up Bowlby’s theories. He was prophetic and cutting edge in his field. We are wired for attachment.
Parts of the brain do not grow when we do not have connection with parental support early in development. The bond we have with our parents helps to develop the “calming centers” of the brain. These calming centers then take the lead in moments when we need to cope.
If there is a disruption in our attachment with our caregiver(s), then our ability to self-soothe is hampered. The empathy centers and the verbal centers of our brains also hinge on our connection with our caregivers.
The gazing and sharing we do with our parents early on is essential to our brain development and influences how we interact with people later on.
After the fall of communism in Romania, hundreds of thousands of children were left orphans. The orphanages were overwhelmed with children and there were very few caregivers. These children did not have people holding them, looking at them, loving on them. Irreparable brain damage occurred to so many of these children because the window of time that they needed connection the most was filled.
Study of Juvenile Delinquents
In the 1950s, Bowlby studied juvenile delinquents. He compared them to children with emotional problems who had not committed crimes.
Those who committed crimes did not seem to have a conscience. Bowlby found that these children experienced profound maternal separation experiences.
Their empathy did not get created. They did not develop consciences. They did not have the capacity to think of the needs of others and were very much in survival mode.
They basically operated in fight or flight mode because the areas of their brains needed for empathy were not developed.
Study of Hospitalized Children
In 1952, Bowlby studied children during their hospitalizations. Parents, at that time, were encouraged to drop off children and leave them, during their hospital stays.
It was a misguided recommendation to prevent germs from spreading. Of course, now we see the error in traumatizing an already sick child.
Bowlby observed and videoed the children’s responses to being left at the hospital on their own. Three distinct stages occurred when they were separated from their parents: Protest, Despair, and Detachment.
Three Stages of Separation:
Protest: (Days 1-3) The child is very upset, inconsolable and angry. They are “pitching a fit”. They are displaying a lot of emotion and energy.
Despair: (Days 3-5) The child has become emotionally tired and is sad and mournful. The intensity has come down and they feel that their parents aren’t coming back.
They are more subdued. They still long for connection.
Detachment: (Days 5-7) The child re-engages with the nursing staff, but when the parents come back, the kids are strangely detached. At this point they have become mistrustful of connection and focus on being self-sufficient.
Dr. Gill describes Proverb 13: 12, “hope deferred makes the heart sick.” These kids hearts have become self-reliant and have hardened their hearts towards others.
The Follow Up
Bowlby followed up with these children a few weeks later and found that most of the children had “perked back up”. The takeaway from this study is that if short-term separation has this short-term effect, imagine the impacts of significant separation and trauma.
Bowlby found that children that had prolonged hospital stays and/or numerous stays struggled more. They had experienced getting attached to several different caregivers only to lose those caregivers. Their hopes had been dashed often. Unlike the children with short-term stays, those with the traumatic experiences fared worse.
Bowlby learned from this study that disconnection is bad. When we feel disconnected from a loved one, we act out. Depending on how early on we are in the sequence, some of us are stuck in a protest mode, others in a despair mode, and yet others are in detachment mode.
We’re created for connection—attachment. Dr. Gill finds that there are three ingredients needed for secure attachment, denoted by “Face-To-Face TV.”
Children need “face-to-face” time with their parents. This means parents need to look into their faces and track their eyes.
The “T” is for touching them and holding them, responding to them when they are in distress, as well as cuddling with them and playing with them.
The “V” is for vulnerable sharing of emotion. These are parents that are in tune with their child’s emotions and are able to engage them on an emotional level. This means being able to identify the child’s feelings and put words to them out loud. This could sound like, “Oh, I see you’re sad right now, come here and I’ll give you a hug.”
Secure attachment is established when children receive this combination of parental involvement and caring. Children and adults need to know that they are loved and that someone “has their back.” This develops confidence, and they can face the world. They are more likely to take the necessary risks that are needed to grow.
The Strange Situation
Similar to Bowlby, Dr. Mary Ainsworth studied attachment in children. She led experiments that were more short term. These were called “The Strange Situation.”
She studied how children would respond to being away from their mothers in three minute bursts. A room was set up with a mother, her child and a female graduate student. The mother and child would play a few minutes and then the mother would leave.
Psychologists behind a one-way mirror observed the quality of play between the mother and child before she left, and when she returned. A certain level of protest was not uncommon in the children when their mothers left.
For the securely attached child, he had such a nice play sequence with his mother before she left that he responded by having little protest. He was able to settle back down. When she returned, he was happy to see her.
Children with insecure attachments, those who were protestors, had a different experience. Even with the mother in the room, these children were clingy and unsure that she would really be there for her.
They weren’t good when she was in the room, and they are even worse when she’s gone. It’s kind of a tug-of-war. They don’t know whether to hug her or clobber her. They don’t know where they stand consistently. They are concerned about abandonment.
Attachment In Marriage
Insecure attachment in childhood influences someone’s sense of security in adulthood. This is why learning about attachment theory is important when it comes to marriage.
Clinginess, and controlling and demanding behaviors are rooted in insecure attachments. Dr. Gill explains this is why some people don’t feel good even when they are with their loved ones. They don’t know when they will be abandoned again. Anxiety is at the core.
Protest behaviors manifest as controlling and demanding behaviors. This person may have a hard time sharing their spouse with other people, because they are afraid of being abandoned.
During the “Strange Situation” study, Ainsworth found some children who were aloof with their mothers prior to their mothers leaving and remained this way when she returned.
These children are shut down. They don’t show emotions. These children have concluded that it does not matter what they say or do – no one is going to respond.
These children have learned that they have to go it alone. They are avoiders. They do not bring their hopes and needs forward. They are internalized, low energy at times.
The gold standard is secure attachment. Unlike someone with protest tendencies, the securely attached person is able to cope with the absence of their loved one in an emotionally connected way. This is different from the detached person who copes with the absence by avoiding their feelings.
Secure attachment is in the middle of a continuum. Protest is at one end and detached at the other. Protestors are clingy, demanding controlling and are on one end of the spectrum and detached people are avoiders who are internalized, shut down and low energy. Securely attached people receive, explore and ask.
Join us next week when we talk more with Dr. Gill about how you can learn how to develop a securely attached marriage!