Understanding attachment theory can give parents an amazing insight into why things are happening in their relationship with their child. But simply knowing this information is one thing—learning the tools we can use to increase the likelihood of our child forming a secure attachment bond is entirely another.
I am honored to be joined today by Dr. Miriam Steele, a pioneer in attachment research who is here to help parents move beyond the theory to understand exactly what to do to raise our children with a focus on emotional wellbeing and mental health.
Dr. Steele will share her story, the basics of secure and insecure attachment styles, and how a term called “reflective functioning” is the key to breaking intergenerational cycles of insecure attachment patterns and of promoting healthy development in our children.
Dr. Miriam (00:00):
As a human species, we’re really resilient. There’s a lot that we can absorb in the not getting it quite right, and in fact, even the securely attached, it’s less than 50% of the time that there’s an attune moment.
Dr. Sarah (00:22):
Understanding attachment science can give us an insight into the reason we make certain choices, and with that awareness, we can start to make shifts and raise our own children with a focus on mental wellbeing and emotional intelligence. So I am so honored to have one of the biggest names in attachment research, Dr. Miriam Steele, joining me today, and she’s going to help parents gain insights into the difference between secure and insecure attachment patterns and how to use this knowledge to help us parent our own children. Dr. Steele is a professor of clinical psychology at The New School for Social Research, and she is co-director of the Center for Attachment Research. Among her many accomplishments in the field of attachment research, Dr. Steele initiated the London Parent Child Project, which was a major significant longitudinal study of intergenerational patterns of attachment. Her work bridges the world of psychoanalytic thinking and clinical practice with contemporary research and child development. So without further ado, here is my conversation with Dr. Miriam Steele.
Okay, so you are listening to a podcast called Securely Attached. So you probably know that a child forming a secure attachment bond to their parent or primary caregiver could be an important predictor of mental health and wellbeing throughout your child’s entire lifetime. But do you sometimes find yourself wondering exactly how do I help them establish that secure attachment bond to me? In my free guide, Four Pillars of Fostering Secure Attachment, I will teach you four simple things that you can focus on in your parenting that will do just that. You’ll learn straightforward strategies to help you attune to your child’s brain and body, and how to use your parent-child relationship as the key to helping your child feel safe, seen, and secure. To get this free guide, just go to drsarahbren.com/secure. That’s drsarahbren.com/secure.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice and confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Okay, so welcome everybody. Today is a very special episode because we have an opportunity to have a conversation with Dr. Miriam Steele. And Dr. Steele, if you are not familiar with her work, is a major pioneer in the field of attachment research. I am beyond honored that you are here to talk to us and to share a little bit of your vast knowledge of attachment theory and how it plays out in real life with families every day and explain it in a way that parents can kind of wrap their heads around it. So thank you so much for being here.
Dr. Miriam (03:36):
Thank you for inviting me. It’s wonderful that you’ve got this podcast with the perfect title of Securely Attached.
Dr. Sarah (03:43):
Yeah. So for people listening who are not familiar with attachment theory and hopefully if they’re listening to this podcast, they’ve heard me talk about it at least a handful of times already, but if they’re new to this idea, can you help parents kind of understand maybe first of all how you got into this work, but also what is sort of the essence of attachment theory and in the terms of how we research it?
Dr. Miriam (04:07):
Okay, great. So I was one of those lucky people who figured out what they wanted to do at quite an early age. My entree actually was when I was about 12 years old, I read a book called Dibs in Search of Self, and it was the story of a mother who had a child who was on the autism spectrum, and she worked with him very closely, and it was from the essence of their relationship that you kind of brought him back more to the world of socializing and connecting with people. And I was somehow that book grabbed me and I from then on knew that I wanted to do something within psychology and specifically within child psychology. So I actually, I did my, I’m originally from Vancouver, Canada and did my undergraduate work at UBC, University of British Columbia, and there was a professor there, elemental psychologist, who was doing work on the transition to parenthood and looking at not so much the way that infants or children attach to their parents, but how does the objective fact of becoming a parent change your own life, your own developmental trajectory or what it does to you to go from someone who’s not a parent to being a parent.
And I was very struck with that study, looking at it from that vantage point. Then I spent some time actually at Hebrew University in Jerusalem with a couple of psychoanalyst, Joseph and Anne Marie Sandler, and they really were very fundamental in my understanding that what I wanted to do was to become a child psychoanalyst. So we spent some more time in Vancouver than I. We did a master’s at Teachers College, Columbia University, and then moved to London, England to work on my PhD. And at the same time my child analytic training. And I took with me at that point, 1985 monograph by Mary Main called the Move to the Level of Representation, which changed everything within the attachment field. And she was the one who really asked very important questions about what goes on in the mind of a parent that gives rise to their child’s attachment. So that had just come out, we, I was working with Peter Fonagy, who at that point in time didn’t know anything about attachment and said, why don’t you go talk to John Bowlby at the Tavistock Clinic. And I was all of like 24, 25 years old. I can’t go talk to John Bowlby and he was like, No, no, no, no, he’s fine. Nobody pays any attention to him. He’s just hanging out there.
Dr. Sarah (06:55):
Yeah, for people who don’t know who John Bowlby is, by the way, he is the father of the theory of attachment. He developed it, like the man.
Dr. Miriam (07:02):
Yes, he is, absolutely. And his trajectory was interesting in terms of having been a psychiatrist adult as and then did some work in child psychiatry during World War ii. One of his jobs was to assess soldiers for PTSD and different characteristics that would help us understand ones who suffered more stress than others given the same constraints. He also did some very important work working with youth who were in a kind of forensic institution really for having gotten in trouble with the law. And one of the things that he discovered there was looking at the history of those boys, they were all adolescent boys, they all had something in common and that was something within their early experiences with their parents, mothers and fathers and faced adversity. So mothers who were depressed, fathers who left the home very early on, and he was the one who connected that outward behavior, including callous behavior that we now often talk about in terms of sociopaths who commit crimes for example, that they had something in common, they missed out on a loving, sensitive, responsive, caring relationship in their childhoods.
And that was the link between that and their criminal behavior. He also did an interesting study with somebody called Jimmy Robertson, who was somebody who was working with Anna Freud. It was during the war and she set up something called The War Nurseries Children who were separated from their parents because of the war, either fully the parents were killed or mothers were going off to help the war effort and fathers were in the military. And so he gathered with Jimmy Robertson some videos of children’s reactions to being in hospital and from there actually changed policy. So I think there’s something as well to note for everyone, the way in which John Boldy and other attachment researchers were very interested in not just having a theory that sat in a ivory white tower but actually got to the people. And so that study changed policy in hospital that parents should stay with their children because he noticed that when there’s those separations, they exhibit behaviors very much like somebody in mourning.
There’s grief, there’s protests, there’s anger, and then there’s a shying away from their attachment figures as a way of dealing with the stress of being separated. So Bowlby did all of that work. He also teamed up with Mary Ainsworth, who was a fellow Canadian who answered an ad in the newspaper because Bowlby was commissioned by The World Health Organization to do a study on the nature of a child’s tie to its mother. At that point, we were talking much more about mothers than both parents and Mary Ainsworth pitched in, and he collected people also interested in ethology and the animal world, and looking at those relationships. So he brought in Robert Hein, who ended up being the PhD supervisor of Jane Goodall who had an expertise in looking at parent-child relationships with mother monkeys and their babies, someone else called Colin Murray Parks, who did work in bereavement and understood at the essence of thinking about attachment.
The flip side is separation being central and the ultimate separation when you lose someone. So it was together with Mary Ainsworth that he formulated these ideas on what is it that allows for a child to have the kind of relationship in which they are seen in which their feelings are expressed and attended to when they are distressed, that there’s someone as boldly put it bigger and wiser than themselves, that offer themselves for protection. And when a child cries out, for example, the parent who can quickly go and attend to the child rather than spoiling the child, which was a fear back then, I don’t know if it’s so much as anymore. We’ve got other issues around helicopter parenting and the other side of the equation, but the quick attending to a child when distress allows a child to then have some trust in the relationship.
So that was kind of the essence of what Bowlby and Ainsworth were looking at. The other big thing to say about that partnership is that I think the reason that I’m on this show, on this program or talking to you is because there’s was always an empirical component to thinking about how can we assess attachment because there were many other theories to do with child development all growing up around the same time. But it was the connection with a way of assessing in a valid way, in a valid and reliable way that then allowed us to test out these theories across many different groups across the world at this point. So Mary Answorth, for example, thought of the main assessment for attachment, The Strange Situation, when she was in Uganda observing mothers and babies together. She then went back to Baltimore, did some home visits with families. That’s also important because while our strain situation assessment is about 20 minutes in a laboratory setting, it was actually built on those observations in carefully looking at how mothers and babies interacted with one another including stressful times, which happens quite often with young infants or with small children.
Dr. Sarah (12:47):
Yeah, that’s really interesting too, the piece about Uganda, because I think a lot of people look at attachment theory and they look at, there’s a lot of criticism that it’s, it’s just very western centric and it’s very, it doesn’t take into account different cultures and different socioeconomic statuses. And the reality is that the actual basis for what became the more operationalized research is incredibly multicultural and not western based.
Dr. Miriam (13:16):
That’s right. I mean, I think that’s why I made the point of even talking about Robert Hein and turning to the way that animals relate to one another, that there is something in the evolutionary sequence that all infants are born not able to survive on their own in terms of the human infant and then many in the primate community. So that the turning to the adult and the being able to watch that relationship and see how fundamental it is for the ultimate growth of the individual. And that crosses all cultures, every child. There isn’t a child born anywhere that can survive on their own. So culture comes into play in terms of the flavor of the caregiving, some of those aspects. What’s some of the values about independence or being more part of a community, for example, a collective is important, but fundamentally every infant needs to feel that someone understands them, is there to protect them.
So whether that’s usually from Bowlby’s original writings, it is the caregiving from parents, mother or father or people close to the child who take on that responsibility to care. But the wider community in terms of the extended family also have a role to play in terms of making the feel the child feel safe and that there are people there who care about them. So the Uganda piece is an important one in terms of our cross-cultural understanding as well. As much of the research has been done globally around the world where very similar patterns, sometimes the distribution looks different. So in more Western contexts, for example, in Northern Germany, you see many more children who are violently attached in Japan and Israel. You see children, if they’re insecurely attached, tend to be more resistant or ambivalent, but the proportions are the same in terms of how many secure and how many insecure.
Dr. Sarah (15:17):
Yeah. So could you talk a little bit so parents aren’t as clear because a lot of people have heard this term secure or insecure, and this idea that, okay, we have this secure attachment, sort of the goal we want, we know that that’s predictive of a lot of good outcomes. And then there’s this kind of confusion I think around everything else and what is, because insecure has a couple different subcategories, and I think parents also sometimes are confused about what’s the difference between the different types of insecure attachments and also how do we support secure? And I think a lot of people are like, well, how do I know what my kid is or what I am?
Dr. Miriam (16:03):
Yes. Yeah. So there is confusion and people have taken some of the terminology and used it in very diffuse ways, meaning many different things when they use the same word. So if we start with secure, so that’s about within typical community’s, typical communities, typical populations, that’s about between 55 and 65, sometimes 70% of the population get classified as secure. That’s both for the parents and for the children. We try as hard as we can, not to say that a child is securely attached or insecurely attached, but the behavior that they expressed in one of our assessments, because there’s room for error. It’s not a hundred percent kind of correlation, but there’s a cluster of behaviors that we consider to be fundamental to secure attachment. One of them is when distressed. And so in our assessments we do a situation called the strain situation where we separate the child for very brief periods of time.
These are meant to be the same kind of separations that if you leave the room to go to the door or if you’re in a doctor’s office and you take the child with you, but there’ll be a room full of people they don’t know, for example. So it’s supposed to be what we call ecologically valid, the kinds of things that normally happen to a one-year-old. For the most part, children who are securely attached will show signs of distress. They will, for example, cry when their caregiver leaves the room. The behavior upon separation is important, but nowhere near as important is what they do upon reunion. When you come back into the room, does the child gravitate to you? Do they look at you? Do they make a bit be closer to you? That something we call contact maintenance once they’re with you, stay with you to be able to get refueled is one of the ways that we think about it.
There’s an emotional refueling. You took something out of their tank by introducing this stressor of a separation. How do they fill up the tank? And they do that in relation to another person. So for the most part, those secure behaviors are, they can be quite wide. There’s quite a large range of behaviors, but somewhere acknowledging the distress, I don’t like this when I’m here on my own because for a one-year-old, they don’t know that these crazy researchers are going to send their parents back in within 30 seconds for them. This could be life or death. If we think of them being out in a field in a tiger approaching and their caregiver isn’t around to protect them, that could be the aunt. So from an evolutionary perspective, we are built to seek the help and care of someone who is able to protect us. The child who is insecurely attached comes in two flavors.
One of them is avoidance, and that’s a child who when the parent leaves seem not to notice. And then again, upon reunion also seems to be kind of this cool little cucumbers that they say in Britain, stiff upper lip where they seem, oh, you’re back, doesn’t really concern me. And we’ll do things like crawl to the other side of the room to play with a toy that’s of interest. But we know that physiologically they’re quite stressed, been studies looking at cortisol, which is a stress hormone, and despite them looking like, oh, I’m fine. I’m just this independent little soul who’s going off to play with a toy, that their cortisol is raised in a way that the securely attached gets raised for the separation. But once they’re in contact with their caregiver, it comes down interesting. They have confirmed for themselves, yes, when I’m upset I know what to do. I have a strategy. And that’s one of the key features of the secure, that they have a strategy to deal with the stress of the parent not being available.
Dr. Sarah (19:57):
Interestingly though, I would wonder if you would say the avoidant, and I’m sure we’ll talk about anxious too, or the ambivalent attachment, it’s still a attempt to, it’s a defense that doesn’t work as well. The seeking out the caregiver is an attempt to reduce the stress and it actually works to reduce the cortisol. Whereas for the avoidant kid being cool as the cucumber or staying kind of self and self-directed in that moment is a defense, is a attempt to reduce the stress. It just doesn’t work.
Dr. Miriam (20:34):
And it’s the best defense that they could come up with.
Dr. Sarah (20:38):
When it’s probably learned, right? It’s there for a reason.
Dr. Miriam (20:42):
And it’s there for a reason. Usually when we look at the home observations that Mary Ainsworth did and others have repeated those ways of looking, that those are children who’ve figured out when I’m distressed, my caregiver probably won’t come to me or I can’t turn to them. I’m on my own here, so I better get on with it. And I do that by pushing away the pain, that painful thought or those painful feelings, not that they’re conscious, but those painful feelings, what I’m on my own. And so I will defend against that pain by playing with the spinning top or whatever the toy is, as a way of pushing away that painful feeling of what I’m on my own. I better just do this. And so there’s kind of a harsh kind of standing up for yourself, and this happens between nine and 12 months of age.
It happens very, very early. And it’s correlated with or associated with the ways in which the parents have behaved towards those infants. And that’s what we get. But it is an organized strategy, right? It doesn’t work as well as the securely attached in terms of the ultimate goal being mental health. But it goes a pretty denial is a defense that works quite well for a lot of us. And there’s so much information coming at us from many different directions that being able to push aside ones you don’t want to engage with is something that we all do. It’s about the amount that we’re doing this because for that child who is avoidantly attached, they’re actually cutting out of a lot of information that could then be helpful to their development, including a range of feelings from negative to more positive. Yeah, the resistant, should I talk about the resistant attached child or one that gets classified as resistant in the strain situation is a child who kind of maximizes their feelings.
So the parent leaves the room, they often will cry quite loudly. And again, that’s not as important as what happens when the parent returns. And here for the ambivalent resistant insecurely attached child, they kind of fall apart. So they’ll make a motion of wanting to be picked up by the caregiver. Soon as they’re picked up, they want to be put down. Soon as they’re put down, they want to be picked up. It looks quite chaotic, but it too, they too have a strategy. They are trying at least to get near their caregiver to help them with this distress. But again, it doesn’t work so well, right? Because they’re, soon as they’re picked up, you think they’d be emotionally fielded, could return to play so that the whole strain situation or attachment system has kind of two coordinates attachment needs and exploration needs. And if one is peaked, the other one cannot be.
So we all know those situations where someone close to us is sick or there was a breakup or some source of pain to do with our relationships, not so easy to sit down and get on with work. We’re quite preoccupied. It’s hard to do that. And same for the young infant, the one whose attachment system is satisfied, it works well. They can get off and play and be with other children or engaged in a puzzle, for example. But you can see it very clearly in those children that resisted ambivalent attach, they can’t do very much in terms of that exploration because their attachment system is not settled. And then we have the last group, which is called disorganized attachment, and I think that’s probably the word that gets tossed around a lot and has drifted from its original kind of scientific meaning. And that was a group of children that a student of Mary Ainsworth called Mary Main, discovered children who just didn’t fit into one of those three so-called organized patterns.
They did very strange things in the strange situation. So for example, the parent coming back into the room after the separation and them making a motion to leave the room or stealing or freezing behavior or cowering in a corner. Again, if we remember the evolutionary basis for the attachment system, leaving the room when your parent is coming back doesn’t, is not a good strategy for protection or stealing. Freezing behavior means that your system is really shut down to the point that you turn so far inward. And that can be a dangerous place to be. But again, it’s not a conscious choice in terms of I will adopt that strategy, but it is probably the best choice that was possible for that infant and child.
Dr. Sarah (25:32):
And that my understanding of that is that we understand that disorganized response typically when there’s this such an intense conflict between, I’m both so wanting my attachment system’s activated, I so desperately want you to keep me safe. And I am also so terrified of you that I can’t reconcile those two incompatible truths in this moment. And so my behavior kind of just starts to fall apart.
Dr. Miriam (25:58):
Exactly. So Mary Main coined these three very powerful words, “fright without solution” so that you are in a very frightening place and you don’t know how to get, you don’t know what to do. So they’re all kinds of examples of that that happened to us, to all of us in some larger or lesser degree. But for the infant, it kind of eradicates a possibility for figuring what to do. So it’s a shutting down, it’s a turning inward to that degree. And it can be very brief if you have to have that kind of educated eye to observe what disorganized attachment is. But we do see that it’s floating around out there in a way that is at some distance from the original very clear sets of behavior that we would look at in the observation of the child.
Dr. Sarah (26:52):
And so if parents are listening to this and because I think when you hear this stuff and you don’t understand the whole picture, and you hear sometimes I come in a room and my kid doesn’t want me to pick them up, or sometimes my kid doesn’t even notice when I leave, and does that mean that they’re insecurely attached or that they’re anxiously atta and not do my kids? I think parents sometimes forget that these are things that we are observing in certain circumstances, but we want to look at them in the aggregate when we’re talking about parent-child relationships. Not always will this one particular event mean globally. My child has an insecure attachment style because I think parents, they put so much pressure on themselves, and I’m curious if you hear this too, in your world of being both a researcher and just a regular person in the world with around parents and kids and just what can you reassure parents about in this way when they’re listening to this and being like, I don’t know what to make of this because I don’t know what my kid is doing all the time.
Dr. Miriam (28:01):
So there’s a few things to say. One is that as a human species we’re really resilient that there’s a lot that we can absorb in not getting it quite right. And in fact, even the securely attached, it’s less than 50% of the time that there’s an attune moment that is a moment in which say the infant is looking towards the mother and the mother looks back. And that we learn a lot about our relationships from the misattuned because when you we’re all built to make for those moments of meeting where you feel connected, right? We’re kind of addicted to that as a species because I think it has that evolutionary essence as part of who we are. But when you miss, then the infant is forced to think, oh, wait a second, where are they? That usually works as a way of getting her to come near or do something that I want, how can I do this differently?
How can I bring her back? So Tronick, a researcher in Boston came up with this still face, and there’s all kinds of examples on the internet of these still face where mother and baby are looking at one another than the mother’s instructed to go neutral, a blank face. And you see these young babies kind of reaching out or smiling or yelling and trying to get her to come back. They learn through the mismatches. But if you do too many of those, then the child gives up and then forms these other defensive patterns which are more akin to the insecurely attached. I think this push for perfection, which I see, and a tribute to a lot of what they call attachment parenting out there. And so some of it has some valid ideas, but for the most part, they’re really pushing parents to this idea of perfection, which is not anywhere embedded in the original writings and theories and research of mainstream attachment as delineated by John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworht, Mary Mane and some of the rest of us.
So for example, the co-sleeping until the child is five or seven for example. That’s that the, there’s no one-to-one parallel that doing that. You’re going to get a securely attached child. It’s in the little interactions following the child’s lead, letting the child feel that you are somewhere present near them and that you have them in mind is the essence of the secure attachment. And you do that by being responsive, especially when distressed. But all of these kind of cookbook ways of do this, this, this, and this, you will have a securely attached child is nowhere near what we know from the science. Yes. Right? So all of those other being near, it’s also not within our species that we need to just the proximity that’s not does it. It’s the understanding of one another that really formulates the secure attachment from early on. And we have continuity over time, but there are things that happen to any of us that can topple that lawful continuity.
That is if your security attaches as a young child, more than likely you will hold onto that security because you probably have this parents who can adapt across time. So the needs of a young infant are different than the toddler or the child who’s going to school or the adolescent, but the flexibility in the system, which is another word to understand secure attachment, somebody who can kind of pivot and like, oh, this is what needs to be done now. Or my kid likes it when I do this, when I read to them, but now you know what? Now they want to read on their own because they’re able. So how can I support that? Remembering that that’s part of our closeness together, for example.
Dr. Sarah (31:57):
Versus a parent who might be more insecurely attached if their child starts to say, I don’t want you to read to me, I want to read. To me, they might themselves interpret that as a threat and become somewhat, have their attachment systems reactivated, and if they have an insecure attachment style might become either very avoidant of the child or more kind of preoccupied and intrusive with the child. And again, that creates that probably in a more chronic way wouldn’t be optimal.
Dr. Miriam (32:28):
Yeah. So one of the things that Bowlby said is that most mothers can manage and deal well when the child comes running up to you and says, I love you, mommy. They don’t deal so well when the child comes up or in some kind of behavior conveys, I hate you, that ambivalence is very hard for us to take on. And so Bowlby almost defines a secure mother is the one who can manage that and say something to the child instead of, I know you’re feeling really angry with me right now and feel like you do hate me. We all feel terrible things sometimes, but I want you to know that I still love you and leave it there and let the child have that experience of a negative feeling and that you’re not penalizing or punishing them for that negative feeling or matching their rejection with your own rejection.
So somewhere, and that brings us to reflective functioning, that capacity to press pause and to think about the thoughts and feelings, intentions that you have that another person might also have and that they have an impact on you and you have an impact on them in the height of one of those moments when you’re quite upset, you probably don’t have such access to reflective functioning when we need it most. We might not, but to then at some point, revisit, reflect and think about why your child might have felt or thought that way and to not respond in kind that is not respond with the rejection. But even if you do, there’s always a chance to repair. So I was also going to mention that Bowlby was very influenced at the time. There was a British pediatrician who became a psychoanalyst, somebody called Donald Winnicott, who coined the phrase good enough parenting or good enough mother.
And I think that’s such a helpful concept for parents out there that the securely attached mother is the good enough mother who is there most of the time in a responsive, sensitive way, not a hundred percent of the time because it’s not even possible. We can’t be it that just doesn’t work. And rather than being the two good parenting, and I see some of the ideas within attachment parenting going along, two good parenting before the child even has any inkling that they’re hungry or that they want to be picked up, the mother sweeps right in, or the father sweeps right in and gives it to the child. So the child doesn’t learn, oh, how to recognize what? I’m hungry now. I’ll recognize my own internal state, and I figured out a strategy on how to help myself or get someone else to help me. So you’re actually eradicating some of the child’s sense of agency in the world by not allowing them some of the frustrations that happen within everyday typical life.
Dr. Sarah (35:33):
Yeah, that is so important, I think, because I think first of all, I get so many when I say that I study attachment theory and that I have a podcast called Securely Attached. A lot of people will say, oh, this is all about attachment parenting. And I very kindly but clearly sort of separate the two because you can, I, there’s nothing wrong with attachment parenting if that’s good for you. And that works if you have the bandwidth as a parent to do that, that’s not the same as the helicopter or snowplow parenting. That’s that I think moves into a place of real problematic rescuing the child of all their struggle. And then you’re saying you’re bypassing an important process that they naturally need to go through to learn how they feel, how that they can move their environment in a way that gets their needs met on their own.
But even just the attachment parenting piece of that works for some people, but it really doesn’t work for all parents because it’s a tremendous amount of bandwidth expected on the part of the parent, but it’s also not, it’s one way of interpreting the theory of attachment. And it’s, I think parents misunderstand that the only way to have a securely, securely attached relationship with your child is to do those things. And then if we don’t, then I guess we’re not going to focus on that. I guess we won’t have that, or I can’t guarantee that I’ll have it. And I think that’s so unfortunate because it’s actually really innate, I think for people to create secure attachment relationships if they have the tools to do it themselves. And so looking at your own attachment systems is actually the best way I think, to inform how to support your child to have a secure attachment with you.
Dr. Miriam (37:21):
And that was one of the features. So when I did go to John Bowlby all those years ago, it was with this idea to do a study looking at the intergenerational patterns of attachment that is the way in which you were raised or your experiences during childhood with your parent or parents being the best prognosis or the best way for us to understand how you’ll parent the next generation. So that monograph that Mary Main came up with in 1985, the move to the level of representation initiated, gave the world this incredible assessment, this interview called the Adult Attachment Interview, which is like that strain situation in terms of stressing the attachment system by asking some very challenging questions and looking at the way in which the individual responds, what’s their strategy for thinking about attachment? So we did the adult attachment interview with both mothers and fathers.
So that’s another important piece of our work in terms of attachment that we included fathers all the way through as much as mothers. It still remains in developmental psychology, a very mother centric field, which is a little crazy. There’s more research daycare providers than on fathers. So we have a lot of work to do with that. But I interviewed the hundred mothers and Howard Steele, my husband and collaborator in this, interviewed the a hundred fathers who were expecting their first child in their last trimester of a first pregnancy. So that was important because I mentioned that some of this work started in following this colleague at University of British Columbia that was doing the transition to parenthood. So we had embedded in it wanting to think about how does having your own child cause you to think about your own childhood experiences differently than once you become a parent?
So we interviewed them all before they had their babies, and then when the babies were 12 months of age, we brought them to a laboratory setting at University College London where we did the strain situation with mother and then did it 18 months with father. And we found this incredible connection that is the way that an individual talks about their childhood experiences even before the baby was born, we could use that to predict the type of attachment the baby had 12 months with mother, 18 months with father. So we brought those results to John Bowlby who was astounded and said something very British when you can’t even predict the weather that we could predict something as nuanced, as sophisticated, as complex as the nature of a baby’s tie to its parent was amazing. And it’s still amazing for us to think about that piece, that there’s something in the way the parent talks about their experiences.
And one of the things we figured out was that some of the individuals faced adversity. They had experiences, for example, of a parent being in hospital for physical or a psychological issues and the parent wasn’t in the home or being part of a family where their resources were low, low socioeconomic status or fathers being, especially at that point, parents being unemployed for longer than three months, all kinds of different stressors. And we divided our sample up into in terms of those who had those adversities and those who didn’t, and then we looked at their adult attachment interviews, and here’s where we found the way to break the cycle of insecurity being passed on from one generation to the next. Those parents who could talk about their experiences in their childhood in this particular way referring to mental states, thoughts, feelings, intentions of their parents trying to understand what was going on in the mind of their parents when they were raising them.
If they could do that, they had a significantly higher chance of having a child that was securely attached, parents who faced adversity but didn’t have this competency or skill. The vast majority of them had children who were insecurely attached to them. So it’s not so much what happened in your childhood, but what you make of those experiences and the flexibility in being able to think about different scenarios in your head, why people behaved as they did, and to do so in a coherent way. So the two words that go with secure attachment are flexibility and coherence. Does your story have a beginning, middle, and end? Does it make sense when I ask you some of the challenging questions of the aai, does it hold together or are you thinking, oh, you said your mother was loving, protective, wonderful. But then when I ask you for examples or incidents that reflect that, you talk about the school building or your garden. So there’s a mismatch between your kind of overall organization of what you think happened in your attachment relationships and the specifics.
Dr. Sarah (42:29):
Yeah, that’s so interesting. And I think most, to me, the most hopeful thing about that is we know, I mean as a psychologist who treats people all the time, I know we can build reflective functioning that is a buildable skill. So if you’re saying that a person’s capacity to have this reflective functioning, both of their own inner experiences and the inner experiences of others, including their children and their parents, that is more of a predictor of interrupting the intergenerational transmission of a more insecure attachment style, which means if we amplify someone’s skillset around their capacity to reflect and regulate their emotions enough while doing so that they can stay in that reflective space without the threat response taking over, that we can potentially help a parent shift out of repeating the cycle.
Dr. Miriam (43:27):
Absolutely. Absolutely. We’ve got a toolbox to do that, and there are many variations of attachment based interventions. We actually had an edited book called The Handbook of Attachment Based Interventions and all of them, and it could be the case for any intervention where it’s an attachment based or not, has at its core this training or focus on thinking what was going on for you? How are you thinking and feeling about whatever event that happened that perhaps is upsetting you? What do you think was going on for the other person and how to understand that back and forth, the reciprocity, my actions have an impact on you and your interactions have an impact on me understanding and articulating them. Putting words to those feelings are the way of capturing feelings that otherwise sit within us and exert a very negative influence and cause us to strike out or get angry or avoid or pick arguments with other people. So it’s that capacity to understand yourself in this particular way that is so important to mental health.
Dr. Sarah (44:37):
So if parents listening and is like, okay, I want to be a cycle breaker. I see myself losing it with my kid and I don’t want to, but I can’t, sometimes it just happens or I see myself shutting down and kind of going blank with my kid because I’m so flooded and I just have to check out, I know I’m doing this. I don’t want to keep doing this. What is one or two things that they could consider doing to try to move more towards that place of both? I think we’re talking both mentalization or reflective functioning and also regulation. Being able to stay out of that fight or flight response just long enough that you can activate that reflective functioning capacity. So what can someone do to stay calm enough to notice this and then reflect instead of act?
Dr. Miriam (45:27):
So I think there’s probably a group of people that could do this on their own by becoming familiar with some of these basic ideas within attachment while they veer away from the huge amount of attachment therapies, noise that’s out there. So there is a way of learning how to observe yourself. I think that’s one of the keys, especially being alert to understanding what some of those triggers are. The ability to think about what it was in you that made you feel so upset, so sad, so angry in relation to this thing that you thought was going to be a nice moment. So to pull back a little bit, reflect on understanding where it might have come from your side, but also from your child’s side maybe for right now, it’s okay that they don’t join you in that moment of gratitude.
And so the shouting back nowhere near saying that shouting is a good mechanism or is a good way to behave with your child, but apart from anything that we would consider abuse, I think the stepping aside is often even for 30 seconds saying, you know what? Mommy’s really upset right now. I’m just going to take a moment, is another way of alerting your child. We all have our tantrum-y moments or times that are tough for us as well, that we’re not superhuman. We’re not able to keep an even keel all of the time, but knowing that there is a strategy, you can deal with it, and then the help of someone to help you do that observation, a clinician who either does work with you and your child together or just with you to help you figure out what the patterns are. We are pattern generating creatures, and the whole attachment system is around those patterns that are very tied to the regulation of feeling states. Those things, you could almost interchange them anywhere you see attachment, you could say affect regulation because fundamentally that’s what it’s about. That’s why these patterns are important.
Dr. Sarah (47:38):
Yes, this is amazing. This is so helpful I think for parents to recognize, one, you’re not alone in having this struggle and there’s ways to modify it. And also you don’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be good. The good enough parent is so critical, I think, in our perception of our identity as a parent. But this has been such a really helpful conversation for me. I know anyone who’s listening is going to have gotten a lot out of it. So I am so grateful for you coming on, and thank you so much.
Dr. Miriam (48:18):
Thank you. I love talking about this stuff, and I love the idea of getting some of the ideas from the theory and research out to parents.
Dr. Sarah (48:32):
What an honor it was to have Dr. Steele join me on the podcast. If you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did and you want to learn more about attachment science, you’re going to want to check out my free guide, the Four Pillars of Fostering Secure Attachment, and that’s going to teach you how to use the principles of attachment science to help you parent with attunement and trust by focusing on these four simple things. You can work towards helping your child form a secure attachment bond, which is a predictor of so many positive aspects of mental health, including self-esteem, independence, healthier relationships with others throughout their lifespan, better academic and workplace achievement and lower reported instances of anxiety and depression.
(49:12):To download this free guide and learn four pillars to help you foster secure attachment, go to drsarahbren.com/secure. That’s drsarahbren.com/secure. And as always, thanks for listening and don’t be a stranger.
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