Does attachment security impact our perception of our appearance and whether or not we have a positive or negative body image? Are mothers, consciously or unconsciously, passing down their own internalized feelings about weight and worth to their daughters? And how is social media impacting the way teen girls view themselves?
These important questions are what Dr. Miriam Steele is working to answer in her vast research in the field of attachment theory.
Teens today are struggling. As parents, being conscious and aware of the scientific findings and strategies we can use to support our children—from childhood into adolescence—is vital for helping them get through tough times and learn to combat feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and depression.
Dr. Miriam (00:00):
And it’s so negative in part because it’s going to like the essence of our identities and especially for adolescents where so much of it is based on physical appearance and social comparison. So those two pieces has meant that social media has just walked right in to the heart of who we are as human beings.
Dr. Sarah (00:25):
Just one episode with renowned attachment researcher Dr. Miriam Steele was not enough. And so I am thrilled that Dr. Steele is back for part two to discuss her current cutting edge research on how attachment theory can impact the transmission of body representation from mothers to daughters and to hear her thoughts on the influence of social media on adolescents mental health. Dr. Miriam Steele is a professor of clinical psychology at The New School for Social Research and she’s for the Center for Attachment Research. She has such a wealth of knowledge about how attachment works and why it’s so important for parents to understand. Adolescents today are really struggling, and in particular teen girls are reporting some pretty troubling statistics. Results from the recent findings from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that a majority of teen girls, 57% said that they felt persistently sad or hopeless, which is the highest rate in a decade. It is so important to me that we are sharing the research that’s happening in the field of psychology as it’s being done so that we can really work to combat this epidemic and help adolescents in real time. So without further ado, here is my conversation with Dr. Miriam Steele.
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 with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Welcome back Dr. Steele. So, so grateful. Thank you that we get to do a part two.
Dr. Miriam (02:24):
Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Dr. Sarah (02:26):
Yeah. So if you were listening to this podcast, if you haven’t already listened to last week’s episode, the part one where I spoke with Dr. Miriam Steele about sort of the foundation of the attachment theory research, how she got into it, her research as well as sort of the 101 on attachment theory and how we measure it and how we understand what it means in terms of the parent-child relationship. Go back and listen to that because I think that that’s a very sort of foundational place to start today. We’re really going to kind of jump from there into how do we take these ideas and apply it to different types of research that are being done, some of your research and looking a lot at the intergenerational transmission of attachment styles and other features that kind of get passed down from parent to child and how that could be a good thing sometimes and also how we can modify it if it’s not adaptive for the family. Great. So can you start perhaps by maybe talking a little bit about your research right now on the transmission of body representations from mothers to their daughters?
Dr. Miriam (03:45):
Sure. So this is one of our, as we call it, front burner projects at the Center for Attachment Research at the New School for Social Research. And this study has very interesting, I think origins in that I came to The New School nearly 19 years ago, and as I was moving here, I was on the board with one of the leading figures to do with bodies eating disorder feminist psychoanalysis, Susie Orbach. Susie and I, we were the board of a psychotherapy center and Susie challenged me and said, I think there’s a connection between the transmission of body representations from mothers to daughters and attachment. It would be great now that you’re going to New York to do a study looking at that intergenerational transmission. So I arrived here and Susie connected me with some of her colleagues at The Women’s Center Therapy Institute, which is a feminist psychoanalytic institute, very much focusing on issues to do with women and their bodies.
And I knew very well how to measure the intergenerational attachment piece using the adult attachment interview and strain situation. But I was at a loss for how do we incorporate aspects of the body, especially if we’re looking at the transmission, which would need a longitudinal study that is looking at babies, baby girls early on, then watching them develop through toddlerhood, early childhood, and then perhaps adolescence to really pick up on the ways in which their feelings and thoughts about their bodies might be related to the way their mothers might be thinking of that. So we got a group together and started thinking about this and I happened to have a very gifted PhD student, Tiffany Hake, who went to hear a lecture by someone called Paulina Kernberg at Weill Cornell who had done a study looking at adolescents and this incredible innovative tool or assessment called the mirror interview where you have individuals stand in front of a mirror and you ask ’em a set of questions about what they see, what do they like about what they see, what do they like, what about what they’re wearing, what do they not like? If their mother was standing here, what would she say if their fathers were standing here, what would he say?
Do you ever get the sense that the image that you’re looking at is younger or older than you fatter or thinner? Do you ever get a sense that what you’re looking at is not related to you, that you don’t recognize that kind of image? And so Tiffany brought that back and it felt like I received this gift from the heavens in terms of now finally having some way of empirically that is doing an assessment that could tie in to this transmission of attachment. So with Tiffany, we embarked on a study looking at mothers using the mirror interview and the adult attachment interview to get the attachment representations as well as body representations. And then they brought their toddler daughters to the lab at the new school and we did an assessment where you sit the toddler in front of a mirror and you capture video image of what they see or their response to their own reflection.
And we found a few very interesting features. One of them was that if the mothers were classified as securely attached on the adult attachment interview, and it was important that I rated those and a whole other team rated the mirror interview. So there was independence. It wasn’t that I knew what their responses were to the mirror interview or they didn’t know how I had rated their attachment interviews. So if the mother was securely attached on the adult attachment interview, she was also much more coherent and reflective when she was talking about what she saw in her own image in the mirror interview. So in some ways that’s just very kind of astounding that when talking about your experiences in childhood and how coherent you are in terms of giving evidence for what you say your story hanging together without too much kind of dismissing or idealizing aspects, when you talk about your childhood, you talk about yourself and what you see in the mirror in a similar way into terms of a detailed picture and some kind of flexible accessibility to those.
We also found that reflective functioning was higher when talking about your own body and what you see if you were securely attached on the AAI. So we had that kind of validity check on. There’s something happening there in terms of a relationship between attachment and the body representations. In terms of the babies, we also found something very interesting. It was a PhD student called Kristen Tosi who did the analysis of the toddlers in front of the mirror. And what she found, and she was also unaware or blind as we call it, probably need to use a different word these days, was unaware of the ratings that we use for the mother’s mirror interview or the attachment measure that the babies whose mothers were securely attached in the adult attachment interview. Those babies were able to look at their image and then look away. The babies whose mothers were dismissing were unable to look or looked away from their own image as if they were trying to block that out and couldn’t engage.
And then the babies whose mothers were preoccupied or unresolved with respect to loss or trauma, those babies couldn’t stop looking at their own image as if they were searching somewhere in that mirror for someone to connect with them. So there we found this very interesting intergenerational transmission of not only attachment but these body representations or some connection with the way that their mothers felt and talked about their own body. Then a third PhD student, Esther McBirney-Goc came along and she asked the question, what is it about the mirror interview in terms of this experiential piece? It’s not an easy thing to ask someone to look at their own image in the mirror. As Susie Oreck says, for most women, we walk around from the head up and kind of quite disconnected from our bodies despite being quite obsessed with issues around body size, body image, all of those features.
So Esther wanted to ask the question, what difference does it make to actually put people in front of the mirror and ask these questions? Or is it just the questions themselves being asked in an interview format? So she did a study where she took a hundred undergraduates and half she did with the mirror and half she did the same questions just face to face. And she found something very interesting in that when you are in front of the mirror, your reflective functioning and coherence takes a dive goes much lower, right? There’s something about how kind of disorganizing it is to or how impactful it is to be looking at yourself in the mirror. And that fits in with a lot of clinical data on objectification, women being very concerned with how they’re the self as seen versus the self as felt.
Dr. Sarah (11:41):
Can I ask a question about the second that sort of doing the mirror interview without the mirror and finding that it reduced reflective functioning and coherence, was that separate and independent of attachment style?
Dr. Miriam (11:59):
Well, it was connected insofar that if you were securely attached, you did a little bit better in both cases, but overall as a group, those in front of the mirror did do worse than those who are just being asked in an interview format without the mirror.
Dr. Sarah (12:18):
Got it. That’s interesting because as you’re talking about this, I keep thinking about the fact that we talked in our last episode when we were talking about the prevalence of secure attachment in the general population is like 55, 65, sometimes even 70%. When you look at body challenges among women at least, and I would wager to say it’s not exclusive to women, it’s probably similar findings which you did a male population that it’s more than 55% of the population, way more than 70. This feels like something almost like a separate phenomenon too that we have internalized as a culture, maybe even globally, that our bodies are problematic in some way. Looking at them is triggering in some ways or actively. I think
Dr. Miriam (13:15):
One of the key features is that there is an interaction with attachment that if you are securely attached, it acts like a buffer. So you are seeing your body. So yes, we are all impacted by the images from media and the messages from media, especially in these days where social media is so prevalent and from a very young age, but those that are securely attached don’t have those kinds of negative features in terms of body dissatisfaction and poor body image as a result. So there’s something about attachment perhaps being a buffer against those very negative pernicious images or ideas coming from the social media. So it’s not that we’re not impacted at all if we’re securely attached, but not as much there is, there’s something there that is protective.
Dr. Sarah (14:03):
Which is interesting, right? Because that’s kind of consistent with what we see in general around se secure attachment and when you’re looking at in other, in relationship to other things like it, anxiety, depression, trauma, adverse events, it’s not that it prevents all bad things from ever happening to us or all negative outcomes, but it does seem to act as a buffer reducing the intensity of it or the…
Dr. Miriam (14:26):
Yes, and maybe the mechanism of that buffer is being able to metabolize more negative feeling states than those individuals who bring in defenses against painful feelings like those that are dismissing and are avoidant of them or those that are preoccupied to just lean into them too much and that the mechanism around that factor or buffer maybe an approach to the world where you know, have a look at it, you might feel some of it, but it doesn’t necessarily get internalized. It doesn’t necessarily go inside in the same way.
Dr. Sarah (15:05):
Yes, that makes so much sense.
Dr. Miriam (15:07):
But we also, just picking up on the gender issue. So we have a student who’s finishing up his PhD right now, Anthony Boiardo, who’s who did the mirror interview with a group of gay men and looking at aspects of their experience in terms of body masculinity, all kinds of different variations in terms of homophobia as well and how they see themselves in terms of issues around gender. So he’s finishing up that work and another student looked at some of these aspects in a group of dancers, Amanda Arena Miller, wondering whether because of what they do with their bodies, would that have an influence as well and has some very interesting results in terms of dancers. And we have some new studies looking at individuals with physical disabilities, both congenital as well as acquired in terms of how do they feel and see themselves in their body.
Is there a link with attachment? Because of course, especially those with congenital difficulties, the whole attachment relationship would be impacted by extra care and medical appointments and procedures that require the caregiver to be involved in a way that is different and probably longer lasting in terms of development that way. So we’re looking at some very interesting data with that and a new study looking at the bidirectional influences in adolescents and social media use. We’re looking at the consumption of Instagram and we have a way of coding where you look at in Instagram and the kinds of images that you’re consuming and linking that with psychological features including attachment.
Dr. Sarah (16:59):
That is incredible because I mean I know that every parent listening, that’s one of the things that made them click on this episode is like, oh God, all I hear about right now is that teen girls who consume social media are suffering and they’re struggling and they’re scared. I was just at a meeting yesterday with a community mental health organization working with high schoolers and all of it was about how do we understand what the challenges that these kids are experiencing better, how do we support them better? How do we find resources that they’ll accept because they don’t want to hear a grownups telling them what to do and how to do it. And so I think there’s a lot of people kind of trying to figure out how to solve this problem, but I don’t think we fully understand it. This is like what are your thoughts on, I know the research is still on ongoing, but what are your preliminary kind of thoughts around it and what you expect to see?
Dr. Miriam (17:59):
Yeah, so this is a study that we’re just kind of launching and collecting some of this data. So we’re very much concentrating on the coding system where we’ve been able to figure out how to get people to view their Instagram that they normally would be viewing, and then deciding on whether the image images are more body ideals, images versus body functional kinds of images. And so we’re kind of our first step, but exciting for us because we’re at The New School. So we have access to colleagues at Parson School of Design, so those working in the design and technology side. So there’s a very gifted colleague, David Carroll, who’s helping us in terms of unpacking and some of that has made us even more afraid of what’s going on in terms of the algorithms and the motivation of some of the social media platforms to put out their material that is probably or we know is harmful, but it gets people hooked and keep coming back to those sites.
And it’s not very transparent exactly how all of this works. So we’re turning now to the adolescents to engage with us and that’s actually generated a lot of interest in thinking about the body, thinking about social media use. And yeah, I think we’re all just at this stage trying to understand. But it was a PhD student who did a very interesting study. She had undergraduates report on how much Instagram or how much social media they use and they had to use, I don’t know, I think it was over three hours a day or something, and then ran a randomly controlled trial. So that’s kind of the gold standard in clinical science on how to show that an intervention perhaps works. So her intervention, so this brought a lot of envy for those of us who spent a lot of time thinking about how to construct an intervention.
Her intervention was simply to ask these young students not to use Instagram for more than one hour a day, and she measured their body image and body representations before they did this reduction. And then three weeks later where the only difference was instead of looking at Instagram for your three hours a day, you would look at it for one hour a day and their body images increased positively and their body dissatisfaction increased. And the only thing that she introduced them to was to take away just the amount of their scrolling around for these images. So I think we’re building up the obvious piece over, if you look at those kinds of images all day long, it’s going to do something to the way you feel about yourself.
Dr. Sarah (20:49):
Yeah, I mean if you think about it, the way that the mirror interview was activating, looking at the images of yourself in the mirror, the visual, I’m curious, if you were to do brain scans and have the brain light up as someone’s looking at the mirror of themselves and you have a second brain scan of someone looking at Instagram images of other bodies, yes. I wonder if similar places would light up. I could imagine it’s a similar effect of it’s activating those same parts of the defense or fear or anxiety or you fill in the blank.
Dr. Miriam (21:29):
Yeah, no, that would be a fascinating study to do is put someone in a scanner and show themselves images of themselves that whether we could do it with the whole mirror factor. Cause there’s something very important in terms of when you look at yourself at the mirror knowing that it’s you, but it’s also in kind of real time how you move all of that that further goes into connecting that image with you. So that would be an interesting study for sure to do.
Dr. Sarah (22:01):
Yeah, but it’s the idea that if a teenage girl is looking at Instagram three hours a day and looking at pictures of, and it obviously depends, I would imagine the content, but assuming it’s your average Instagram page is posts are about peers or slightly older women influencers showing you all the things that they’re doing because it’s a highlight reel and how just reducing that can make such an impact on how we view ourselves. But then my thought is as a parent, I mean my kids are younger, I’m not yet at the place where I’m having to navigate this. Although I work with a lot of adolescences and pre-adolescence in my practice who are navigating it and good luck. My thought is good luck getting them to say, sure, I’ll just three hours to one. No problem. How do we get our kids to under, I think if they understood, if they could be educated consumers of technology and understand a little bit more of the mechanisms by which they are being manipulated to some degree by these tech companies and the algorithms, but also are being impacted negatively in a pretty profound way by it, that perhaps their motivation would be more accessible.
Dr. Miriam (23:17):
Those kinds of campaigns when we know how negative it is. And then on the other hand, and it’s so negative in part because it’s going to the essence of our identities and especially for adolescents where so much of it is based on physical appearance and social comparison. So those two pieces has meant that social media has just walked right in to the heart of who we are as human beings in terms of developmentally for the adolescent. So much of it is about looking a certain way, having this right pair of sneakers, all of those kinds of features. But it’s about why are you so interested in looking at all these images? There’s something about, well, where do I line up with all of this? Am I bigger, smaller, taller, whatever? All of those kinds of issues, you’re getting access to a huge array of different people to compare yourself with.
And some of that might be fairly positive, but for a lot of people it’s not because there’s the other piece there. Being at The New School, we have access to these amazing students, some of whom come from different occupations and then decide to come and study psychology, but we have a group that studies fashion and so knows about filters. So they’re showing these images like, oh, that one has a filter. I’m like, how do you know that? How can you even tell that? And I’d like to bring in one of those individuals. How do you decide which bit to filter or what is the work there on some of that? Where’s this coming from or how do you do that?
Dr. Sarah (25:04):
And I think also the piece of the adolescence, developmentally, this is a really vulnerable time to be exposed to a lot of this content because I think any human being watching all this stuff is going to compare themselves. That’s just natural and it’s a reasonable expectation that that would be the response to some degree. But adolescents developmentally are at a place in their development where their goal, their task is to deconstruct and reconstruct their identity from, okay, I’m a part of this family and I’m in relationship to my parents, and that’s how I figure out who I am and how I move through the world to, I have to rip that open a little bit, move my attention to my peers, move my attention to the world outside of my family, and start to reform a more pseudo adult identity. And I’m using, this is a natural process.
This isn’t a distorted process, but I’m going to use the information from my peer environment and my environment outside my family to inform kind of a second blueprint. If the attachment, early attachment relationships create the first blueprint, the sort of blueprint we start building when we exit the nuclear family in this pre-adolescent adolescent period creates this next blueprint. And that’s really a normal process. But if we’re using all this really artificial information to inform that blueprint and to see not only how other people receive me and respond to me, but how do I compare and show, and how do I rank in the world? Where’s my place that can really distort that blueprint? And that’s dangerous.
Dr. Miriam (26:44):
Absolutely. Yeah. And we also have to think about is this features of our context in a western culture, but are of how do other cultures manage this or how do other adolescents, so the other author of that mirror interview is a close colleague called, her name is Bernadette Buhl-Nielsen in Copenhagen, and she’s done some very fascinating work using the mirror interview with adolescents in Tanzania. And they come up with very different responses. So she has this incredible video of these young people when you ask the question, what do you like about your body? And they can say a few things, well, what do you not like? And one of ’em actually turned around and said, excuse me, didn’t even understand the question. And this young person said to Bernadette, God gave me this body. Who am I to find fault in it? And then Bernadette said, well, maybe there’s some things you like less than others. And so I think the young person said, I guess maybe my teeth are crooked and I don’t like that so much. But it’s a very different starting point than what it is. We feed our adolescents here in Western context.
Dr. Sarah (28:02):
And it really shows. We had talked in our last episode that attachment research has been done all over the globe and in many, many, many different cultural settings. And we still seem to find relatively similar results. It’s a really human species condition. It’s predictable across the human pop population. This sounds like it’s not so much the case. So it’s really interesting.
Dr. Miriam (28:26):
And the culture plays a big role. And when I saw that my heart kind of sank, I was so warmed by that response, but it was kind of like, this is what we are doing to our young people. In contrast, you know, would never get that. I mean, highly unlikely. Would you get that kind of response in a western kind of context?
Dr. Sarah (28:51):
Yeah. And we know that this, we’ve talked about the intergenerational transmission of this body image. How are you looking at the parent to child? Are you looking at how the attachment of the parent predicts the child’s attachment, and are you doing the mirror interview with the mother and the child?
Dr. Miriam (29:13):
So in the adolescent Instagram study, we’re not doing it with the parent. We’re doing something like the adult attachment interview because they’re younger. We’re doing, it’s called the Friends and Family Interview. That’s something that Howard Steele and I developed exploring, not just relationship with parents, but also with peers, knowing that that’s the developmental milestone. That age group 13 to 17 or 13 to 18 is working with as siblings and teachers. So a little bit broader, but very similar kind of features in terms of that we use in the attachment interviews. So looking at coherence, looking at reflective functioning, looking at the degree to which the young person sees the parent as a secure base, someone that they can come back to when they are meeting challenges that are overwhelming as well as do they feel free to explore their environments, even if they are then returning back to parents for some kind of checking in or emotional refueling.
Dr. Sarah (30:15):
Yeah, because the reason I ask is I’m curious if mothers who even I grew up, I’m 38, so I grew up in a kind of weird little generation where we both did not have social media, and I was kind of had one foot in both worlds. But I think people who may be a little bit older than me or bypass the social media stuff altogether in their early adolescents all the way through adult young adulthood, they still have body image issues. This is not a new phenomenon that goes birthed by social media. And so, and I say mothers because this is more prevalent, I think among women, but I know this is not exclusive to women at all, but when we’re thinking about our own body stuff and we’re like, I do not want to pass this on to my children, I want to help them to have body positivity, to love their body for what it can do, to not feel like they have to constantly compare and to just have compassion and love for their body, even if maybe I don’t have it or I’m working towards it or it’s something I’ve built, but over a long process of my own work.
If someone’s listening to this and they’re like, how do I keep this from continuing on? Obviously we know the attachment system is going to be a big protective factor. So working on your own secure, you’re building up your own attachment security and helping your child to develop a secure attachment relationship with you is one piece. But what else can we do to prevent this transmission from one parent to a child specifically?
Dr. Miriam (32:01):
Yeah, so it’s a big question. So that’s a tough one because some of this is actually not direct or conscious. There are studies, for example, that mothers feed their baby girls differently than they feed their baby boys. So someone did a study looking at videos of mothers feeding, they’re very young infants, and with girls, they also looked at what they say. And so with girls saying things like, oh, you’ve had enough, you know, don’t want to get too big and pulling the bottle out or pulling the breast out, kind of like that’s enough had enough. Whereas with the boys, you want to drink all of that and get big and strong. So it’s highly doubtful that those mothers had any inkling that they were making those kinds of distinctions or that they were driven somewhere by issues about their own body representations to feed their babies in a different ways is quite amazing.
So there is material out there suggesting things like mothers refrain from publicizing that they’re on a diet or that all of the fat talk or mentioning aspects of their own body. So parents being, or the adults in a child’s world being very powerful figures for imitation and internalizing those kinds of images. So I think for the mothers who and fathers who have some of these challenges with their bodies, somewhere to find a space to work those out so that you’re less likely to pass that on to the next generation. So the parents who feel more comfortable in their bodies are less likely to hand that over. But our culture as well is very much geared as well to making our children more adult versions of ourselves. So somebody told me the other day that they bought, or they know someone who bought thongs for their two-year-olds, right?
Instead of underpants, the two year olds are purchasing those, the mothers think this is just so adorably cute to see this rather sexualized or it has something there to do with the body. So these things are available and there’s a big push for going down that line. And so I think the reflective functioning comes back into play here too. Stopping sitting here thinking about what are the kinds of messages, what kind of person do I want my child to be in terms of comfort with their body? And somewhere making yourself, educating yourself on what are they looking at? What are you looking at and what is that saying about you and how you feel about your body as a starting point to explore some of this so that you don’t pass it down to the next generation. Just saying that you won’t, sadly is not enough, highly unlikely that you’re just like, oh, my mother talked all the time about food and diets and that I was too big and I’m not going to do that with my child. It’s unlikely that it’s not going to happen unless you actually change some of those internal maps as you described so aptly in the beginning.
Dr. Sarah (35:29):
And I think that’s important because a lot of it, I think it’s your point that a lot of this stuff is unconscious. It’s outside of our awareness. Yes, we might be aware that we are going on a diet, we might be aware that we have a toxic relationship with diets. We might be aware that we don’t want our kid to have that similar thing, and yet if we are dieting in front of them, we might mention, oh, I can’t eat that because I’m on a diet. Or Oh gosh, how much fat is in that? What’s the calorie count on that? And it’s not because we’re sitting, we’re not being a bad parent, but we are dealing with something in the moment out loud in front of our kid. That is literally the thing we’re probably in our conscious mind wanting to prevent our child from having to deal with.
So it’s like it’s really hard. It’s very ingrained in us. So it does take a lot of mindful awareness and really being willing to pause and think about it. Is going on a diet even in, is that something I need to or want to do? Do I want to reframe it? If I consider it a diet, what is the implication there? Right restriction and I have doing something bad and I have to do something good instead versus right. Can I reconstruct my understanding of how do I nourish my body and model nourishing my body with foods that fuel me and make me feel good and have energy? How do we talk about that with our kids? In terms of, one of the things I do a lot with my kids, because I actually have history of eating disorder, and I think I’ve ever talked about this on the podcast, but I did lots of work on that, my own work.
And when I was pregnant with my first, a nutritionist that I was seeing gave me the book, Ellyn Satter’s book, Child of Mine, Feeding With Love and Good Sense. And Ellyn Satter’s, amazing nutritionist, dietician, she’s done a lot of research. She has this idea that she talks about called the Division of Responsibilities with food. So it’s the parent’s job to decide what goes on the plate and when the plate is served, it’s the child’s job to decide how much they want to eat, what of those items on the plate they choose to eat and when they’re done. And the idea is to allow a child to develop their own relationship with their internal body cues of hunger and fullness, and that the parent isn’t projecting that onto them and putting pressure on them that maps onto what the parents perceive they need in that moment.
And my nutritionist literally gave it and said, this is a really helpful way to become more aware of how to not pass this ideas that you might have had ingrained in you from a young age down to your kids. And so I found that really, really helpful as a tool just to understand how do children form healthy relationships to food and how as a parent we can interrupt that inadvertently with the best of intentions because we also, yes, we want to feed our kids, and so we want to say, no, you got to eat that. We want our kids to be healthy, so we have to say, you want to eat that before you eat that. We also don’t want our kids whining at bedtime that they’re starving. So we want to say, you have to finish everything on your plate. I don’t care if you’re hungry, four more bites. I mean, I don’t care if you’re full four more bites, so that’s normal. But to look kind of zoom out and say like, well, what is the bigger impact of that? Potentially? What is that displacing perhaps? Is it displacing an internal connection to your hunger, fullness cues that might in the long run not serve so much the child?
Dr. Miriam (39:14):
Yeah, no, exactly. So all of those, and having someone, so you had the nutritionist, other people might have a therapist or some kind of mental health counselor to go over as a way of having a catalyst to actually thinking about all of these issues as on route to perhaps changing some of your mindset, which will then change some of the behavior.
Dr. Sarah (39:43):
Yeah, yeah. And again, like we talked about in our last episode, we know that things like reflective functioning can be enhanced through interventions like therapy or self-work too. But you know, really have to have someone to help you with that process and a lot of modifying your relationship to your body image and to your relationship to food, and to reestablishing that connection of I can trust my hunger, fullness cues that requires reflective functioning. And so working with a therapist in a way that whether it’s much more globally, I’m just working to better understand all of my blueprints and my attachment, early relationships and my defenses, and I’m just working on that mark globally, or if you’re doing it very targeted by, I’m specifically working on my relationship to food and by body either way, the goal is to become more aware, more reflective. Right, more self-compassionate. More flexible.
Dr. Miriam (40:55):
Dr. Sarah (40:56):
Which is all the stuff that you study.
Dr. Miriam (40:58):
Yes, exactly. It’s all quite interconnected, the whole mind body piece. And so then it’s interesting that those two are then connected within the relational piece that is interactions we have with others, especially children early on and through their development with someone else where a lot of this gets formed and then maintained, but there’s always the possibility for change later on, especially if it goes off the rails in one way, that we have a very strong self writing capacity as human beings. And so wherever we can get that help to put us back on track, and then at the same time, we know there’s a lot of suffering out there as well.
Dr. Sarah (41:47):
And I know a lot of parents don’t want their kids to suffer, and so sometimes our fear can get in the way of our reflective functioning, and then we kind of repeat the cycles inadvertently.
Dr. Miriam (42:01):
Exactly, exactly. Yeah. Fear is, I think we’re becoming much more familiar with it every single day in terms of how it manifests with Covid introduced all kinds of elements of fear and changed a lot of things for a lot of us. I think we’re still at very early stages of seeing how that’s all going to play out, but fear was a central part of that as well.
Dr. Sarah (42:27):
Yeah, that’s an interesting point too, because I feel like, and maybe this is just, I don’t know if it’s empirical or just my perception of things, but it feels like there’s more talk in the world of psychology and just in the world of parenting that more kids are having body image issues than they did before. More kids are having anxiety than they did before. We know that things are not going great right now in the world of teenagers, and I am very confident. A huge component of that was covid and just that two and a half, three years of just everything being completely disrupted and different and fear infused, and just the isolation, which led to a lot of kids turning to devices as their way to connect. Because if you’re stuck in your house and you’re 12, 13, 14 years old, and every cell in your body is telling you seek peers, that’s my developmental task right now is to move towards those external relationships outside of my nuclear family. But I’m stuck in my room and I can’t go anywhere all day, every day, and the only way to stay connected to friends is to do it by a phone or a computer, and then we get into that rhythm and that those behaviors get really, really, really ingrained. And now we are coming out of the need to be dependent on those devices for socializing, but we can’t just turn that off.
Dr. Miriam (44:05):
Exactly, exactly. Yeah. No, it’s not in easy times in all kinds of ways.
Dr. Sarah (44:13):
And I think I would say just as much as that’s true for teens is true for parents. I know over the last three years I’ve become more addicted to my phone because it’s just become so, I used it so much more, and now that I need to be out and about and more present, I’m always like, oh my God, I keep reaching for my phone. It’s just such an automatic, automatic habit, and it’s really hard to break, but it’s definitely something I’m working on because I know it interferes with my parenting and my mental health.
Dr. Miriam (44:46):
I mean, it is interesting these days to go a playground and see all the moms looking down at their phone. We all, to some degree do that. But if you put yourself, which is a reflecting, reflective functioning kind of activity in your child’s shoes, and think about what that experience might be for them in terms of tugging on mom’s jacket or whatever, that they want something, and mom’s looking at their phone, how many more times that they know that they have to do that or that they have to do it louder or in a tantrum-y kind of voice or all of those kind of features and have figured it out in terms of, oh, when mom’s on her phone or dad’s on their phone, I have to do it this way. All kinds of pieces.
Dr. Sarah (45:36):
Yeah. It’s like a separation in a weird way. It’s almost like, yes, attachments.
Dr. Miriam (45:40):
There’s this famous still face experiments that Tronick does where the baby’s looking at the parent and the parent has a neutral face and not smiling and not engaging with the child. Well, people on their phone often look like that too.
Dr. Sarah (45:57):
Yeah, yeah. I often give the example of when I try to explain what a secure base is and what it looks like in real life, I will often give people the example of next time you go to the playground, pay attention. Your child will typically go off, do some play, and then they’ll come back to you, and then they’ll go off and do some play, and then they’ll come back to you and it’s like this loop, I can go as far as I can go until I start to notice that I’m far away from you, and then I come back into refuel, and then I go out again. And a lot of times it’s not just I physically come back to you sometimes I’m just, I look up and I see that you’re there and I keep playing, but if all the parents at the playground are on their phones, I wonder what impact that has to that natural sort of rhythm that children go through to explore.
Dr. Miriam (46:44):
Dr. Sarah (46:46):
I’m going to have to think about that next time I’m at the playground with my kids. Put that phone in the car.
Dr. Miriam (46:52):
Yeah. Well, that’s hard though, right?
Dr. Sarah (46:54):
Yeah, it is. But we can do hard things.
Dr. Miriam (46:58):
Yes, we can. We can. Yes. We’re pretty resilient overall as a species.
Dr. Sarah (47:03):
Yes. Well, thank you so much for sharing your research. This is super interesting. I know people are going to have a lot of great things to think about after listening to this, so I really appreciate it.
Dr. Miriam (47:17):
Dr. Sarah (47:23):
I loved being able to spend two weeks with Dr. Steele. If you missed last week, don’t forget to go back. Check out our first interview, and if you want to get a simple cheat sheet that will walk you through how to use the principles of attachment science to help you parent with attunement and trust, check out my free guide, The 4 Pillars of Fostering Secure Attachment. You’ve heard just how important secure attachment is for our child’s healthy development and mental wellbeing. And by focusing on these four aspects of your relationship, you can work towards helping your child continue to form a secure attachment bond. To download this free guide and learn four pillars of fostering secure attachment, go to drsarahbren.com/secure. That’s drsarahbren.com/secure. Until next week, don’t be a stranger.
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