Secure and insecure attachment styles aren’t good or bad, they simply are. It can be tempting to label these things, but with that can come shame, guilt, and anxiety.
Here to help dispel some myths about attachment science and offer parents strategies for building their own ability to help their child feel understood and safe is Dr. Tanya Cotler.
Together we’ll help listeners learn to zoom out to identify patterns and offer suggestions for deepening the parent-child bond, while factoring in family history, the human brain and body, and the importance of reflective functioning.
Dr. Tanya (00:00:00):
It leads parents to feeling like there is a set of behaviors, there’s a prescribed recipe to how to do this thing. And first of all, it’s wrong. It’s not prescribed behaviors. It’s a felt experience, not a doing experience.
Dr. Sarah (00:00:23):
Whenever I release an episode about attachment science, I inevitably get an influx of DMs and messages from concerned parents listing off a particular behavior that their child engages in. Like they don’t react when I come home from work or they cry when I drop them off at school or they don’t like me to hold them when they’re upset and they worry that this means that their child is insecurely attached. In actuality, it is a much more complex process than this. And here today to help parents more deeply understand these nuances of attachment science is Dr. Tanya Cotler. Tanya is a very seasoned clinical psychologist based out of Toronto. She’s trained in psychodynamic and relational therapy for adults and children, and she has a particular interest in parent-child attachment relationships rooted in mindful attunement, which is exactly what we’re going to be talking about today.
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.
Hi everybody. Welcome to the show. Today we have Dr. Tanya Cotler here. She is a clinical psychologist. She and I both trained in New York, she lives in Toronto now, but she knows so much about attachment. I’m in practice actually how it looks in the therapeutic world. So I’m really excited to nerd out with you on attachment today and just talk about all the things.
Dr. Tanya (00:02:23):
I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Sarah (00:02:26):
Thanks for coming. I always like to start out. Can you introduce yourself a little bit to everyone and kind of help them understand who you are, what you do, how you got into this lot, how you kind of found this specialty in your path to it?
Dr. Tanya (00:02:43):
Sure. I often think of it as, and maybe this is lucky or maybe it’s not, I don’t know, but as I was somewhat born into it, as young as I could remember, I was raised by a human rights advocate father who speaks a lot around human rights and justice and he, he has this very famous line, famous in the sense that he uses it all the time that his parents had imparted to him, which was justice, you shall pursue, but the only way you can actually pursue justice is by feeling the injustice within you. And I was raised on that. And so my father very much was raised on going and seeking justice in communities, cultures, countries across the globe where injustice due to racism, due to homophobia, due to everything we could probably think of, religious, systemic, cultural and so on. I from a very young age was really interested in kind of this minor version of injustice like the micro family version, like the children who didn’t get parents that gave them what they needed, children who didn’t feel seen and understood what happens when that happens.
And I remember as a little kid kind of asking those questions, I understand that the government, but what about if the family, I always had this really piqued interest. And so while I can’t trace exactly what happened from eight years old to 20 something, I grew up in Montreal, Canada and I knew that I wanted to apply to psychology and undergrad I went to University of Toronto, which is in Toronto, Canada, where I had a professor who taught abnormal psychology but from a psychoanalytic lens, which is really quite rare and unique for an undergrad and talk about geeking out. I loved everything part of it because it was this idea that these early relationships were formative and I was like, that’s what I thought. So I got more interested and then I went to a wedding actually, and this is a story I’ve never got to tell, so I’m really excited and I sat down next to Morris Eagle who is a really well known analyst and writes a lot about attachment.
And I was telling him in all my ways about my excited self to apply to grad school. And he had been a professor at the time at Adelphi University, The Durner Institute, which is a small psychoanalytic oriented university outside New York. And I actually think I might have applied to about six but only cared about going there and put all my eggs in that basket and that’s where I wanted to go and that’s where I went and I was very lucky in that sense. And from there did most of my research for my master’s and PhD on the science of attachment, which I’m sure we’ll get into and it’s connection to the building of empathy and emotion regulation and the capacity for reflective functioning and all of that. And on a clinical level, I started really interested in working with kids and kids who had come from kids with troubled youth, kids who had lived through adversity.
Sometimes it was health concerns with their parents, sometimes it was abuse, neglect. I worked in many inpatient units, children and moved through foster care and at one point in my clinical work became really interested in working with the foster parents or the parents or whoever could come in, realizing that I was doing the good work with the children, but there was sort of this missing link and I actually needed to work with the system or the parent. And so I switched gears and started to get all the trainings I could in more adult psychotherapy. And long story short ended up somewhat specializing in both early childhood and adult with a really nuanced focus later on maternal mental health and getting added trainings on that and on parent infant psychotherapy, which is a psychoanalytically oriented approach to working with both parent and infant in the room, the infant being under one, but they’re active participants of the therapy As you build this thing that we might talk about today as you build this reflective functioning capacity in the parent.
Dr. Sarah (00:07:08):
Yeah, that’s so interesting because our paths are slightly different, but there’re so many parallels, so many, especially that piece. I remember so much when I was on internship and I was working with kids and I was like every time I was working with a population had a lot of adversity and a lot of trauma and it was a lot of challenges for this everyone really. But I was working with these kids and I kept having this thought, ugh, if I could just get the parents in the room, I wouldn’t need to see these kids like that. That’s not true for every child case, but in these situations I kept having to contend with the fact that treating this child in isolation from their particular family system is not going to do what I need to do and feeling so frustrated by that. So I relate to this need to move out of treating a child in a silo and looking at that systemic, even if you can’t treat the whole family for whatever reasons, accessibility, whatever, to just have that understanding that it’s all connected.
But then in an ideal scenario, working with the family or the parents or being able to get to the more root issue and to deal with these attachment relationships because it’s so foundational. I always tell parents when they want me to see their kid, I’m like, I could see your kid for 45 minutes a week, but you are with them 90% of their life like you. If I can help you figure out how to support the attachment relationships inside of your family system, it’s going to be more efficient and you’re going to see results faster than me working with your kid for 45 minutes.
Dr. Tanya (00:08:58):
And I loved what you said, even if it’s not practically possible because something, for whatever reason, to either have the child or the parent or the grandparent in the room because the reality is very often it actually, for anyone who’s listening now and might leave, this is probably the most important. The idea is actually more the in mind aspect. And so being able the clinician or the therapist holding the parent and often the ancestors that became came before the parents’, parents in mind the story. And I always say I have a love affair with stories because it’s the stories that we carry and the more knowable the stories are, the less we might carry them forward if they’re not stories we don’t want to pass. And so sitting in the room, whether it’s a child who brings and you hold in mind their parent or whether it’s the parent and you’re holding in mind the child who isn’t there, that ability to increase reflection of the other minds that are part of the story.
Dr. Sarah (00:10:07):
And that leads so seamlessly into reflective functioning, which some people are probably like, so what’s that thing you keep talking about? Can we define that for people?
Dr. Tanya (00:10:18):
So it’s funny, I might have done my doctorate on mentalization and reflective functioning and when asked to define it, I get a low level anxiety like heart flutter. I’m going, I might mess this up, so don’t cut that out because of anybody who listens if they get a low level flutter after I explain it, it’s actually, I think because it’s so simple that you kind of think it should be more complex. That’s my experience because really what we’re talking about is the idea to be curious about open, to think about mental states and so other people’s and your own thoughts, feelings and intentions, beliefs, opinions, being able to hold a mind in mind as it kind of almost literally sounds, and being able to do that in an organized and coherent way is kind of the clincher. That’s my best definition, doctor.
Dr. Sarah (00:11:21):
I love that definition. I think that’s really helpful. I think it’s it, you’re right, it is. It’s almost like, oh, it’s that I already knew it. I know that that’s a thing I just didn’t know. Maybe it was called reflective functioning or mentalization, which I think are pretty much interchangeable at this point.
Dr. Tanya (00:11:37):
I use them and interchangeably and I actually know that they’re not in the sense that I think they’re different in measurement, but I think we can in this podcast safely say they’re the same.
Dr. Sarah (00:11:48):
Yes. I think they were also created from different bodies of research, which is why in measurement we kind of look at different things, but if you look at the definitions, we’re looking at very similar things and for as far as parents need to be concerned, the ability to imagine the internal processes, feelings, opinions, intentions I think is very key of another and of ourselves is that’s the thing. That’s the golden nugget if we can do that. And like you said with coherence, yes. Can you speak a little bit more about the difference between a coherent versus a less coherent ability to do that?
Dr. Tanya (00:12:33):
Well, I think one, maybe the way I would answer that is actually by saying that one of the things that we get stuck on in our society more specifically as I become really not coherent is this difference between attachment parenting or what’s called attachment parenting today and what is attachment science and why I actually am bringing that in and defining coherence is that why reflective functioning is so important is that it’s this ability to be able to make sense of what happened to you in the then and there, but also what is happening in the here and now in a way that is understandable to you and to the person you’re possibly communicating with your child. And that’s kind of proximity in mind. That’s a closeness in mind. You will feel closer to me in mind if I show an understanding of your mind in a clear way that makes you feel understood.
And so maybe that coherence, the other word we can use is understanding it’s linear in the sense that it’s sensical and you can follow it. What the attachment parenting world has done is they’ve used this proximity concept and they use it as a physical proximity. So it’s a closeness in body rather than a closeness in mind. And actually a closeness in body doesn’t necessarily make a human being feel understood or felt by any means. They just feel physically not alone. And so why I bring that up here is I think that’s this whole offshoot that we can talk about in terms of these differences and why it matters so much. Why does it matter that I do this reflective functioning? Why does it matter that it’s coherent and the other feels understood? Well, because that’s actually the experience that leads to felt security or secure attachment as opposed to the proximity word. A lot of people will hear and use in physical space, baby wearing or co-sleeping and so on. Not that those are bad. They may work, but they’re not a one-to-one relationship, whereas a un feeling felt and feeling understood actually really is one of our key tools to building a secure attachment.
Dr. Sarah (00:15:06):
Yes, that’s so important because I think a lot of parents, and I think you’re very accurate in distinguishing that attachment parenting isn’t the same as attachment theory or attachment science. And a lot of people mistakenly think if I don’t do attachment parenting, my child won’t be able to form a secure attachment or because I do attachment parenting, my child will form a secure attachment, which is also slightly different, but equally inaccurate. You can do attachment parenting and your child may form a secure attachment, but correlation is not the same as causation. That’s what’s causing it. There might be things that you do in attachment parenting that can also facilitate that being seen part, but a lot of the functional parts of attachment parenting aren’t required for that. So it’s like there’s lots of ways to create a secure attachment that may be one and not the only one.
Dr. Tanya (00:16:09):
Yeah, and it leads us, it creates a real dilemma because it leads parents to feeling like there is a set of behaviors, there’s a prescribed recipe to how to do this thing, and first of all, it’s wrong there. It’s not prescribed behaviors. It’s a felt experience, not a doing experience. And so it’s a setup, but also there’s many reasons why a person due to circumstance may not be able to engage in those set of behaviors. And that doesn’t mean that they don’t have an ability to create a strong bond with their child. The other aspect of coherence that probably now fits here is, or reflective functioning that’s important is this kind of flexibility and ability to actually follow the mind of the other. If you’re flexible, then you can follow the needs of the other. This morning I left to work, the best way to describe this is probably in an example, and I have, I’m a mother of three children and I was saying bye to my three kids and my youngest is four and mommy, and she kind of jumps onto me and has one more huggy, one more huggy goodbye.
And I give her three Huggies, and that’s her developmental level need right now in separation is actually physical and she needs that physical. And I know she and I feel my connection to her and I remind her, mommy, he always comes back, my 10 year old sitting there with a book and he kind of like half looks up at me barely recognizing that he is not just he saying bye to me and I’m going work and he is going to school. I’m like, I’ll see you later mom. And it’s kind of like he gives me this, nobody could see me maybe, but gives me this little kind of mild wave and goes back to his book. And that’s the flexibility in my own system to tolerate in some ways the differences of their minds on a developmental level and to understand what their needs are, what their feelings are, what their experiences are and how they are responding to me.
And that’s really important because otherwise, if I was really anxious about my child’s attachment to me, for example, my child barely looking up at me, I go, is that bad? Does that mean I heard in the secure strange situation and avoid an attachment? They go and play with the toy in the corner and they don’t look at the parent? Is that what’s happening right now? And so if we don’t explore the mind of the other and open ourselves up to curiosity about what’s happening with some flexibility, that is flexibility with the developmental level of the child, we can get stuck in our own mind and our own past of what might happen, maybe our own fears, maybe our own attachments and have difficulty seeing them in the here and now, what they’re bringing their temperament, but also just who they are right now. I don’t need three Huggies from you mom anymore. I’m going to see you in five hours.
Dr. Sarah (00:19:12):
And there’s this other piece too, which is your needs and your reflective functioning to be able to say, Ooh, I kind of wish that my 10 year old would come up and run to me and give me three huggies because that’s kind of what I need from them. But that’s okay. I can separate that. I can say he that would be intrusive to him right now, my need for him to give me the three huggies because that’s really what my attachment system is craving in this moment. Yes, that’s separate. And I don’t need to project that onto him. I don’t need to expect that from him. I can perhaps notice that I have that I wish he was four still and could still run and give hugs, but still no and believe he can see me. I can see him. There’s a separateness between the two of you in that moment.
Dr. Tanya (00:20:06):
Yes, a separateness. Exactly. And an ability to hold your own mind in mind there’s in mind and not merge them. And that separateness is really important word when I teach building a secure attachment because people like recipes and that’s why attachment parenting can be as a style of parenting. So followed in a way because it’s a prescription, this is how I do it. Okay, great. Check mark, check mark. If it’s within my control, I feel good because I know that if I do this then and I want it that way. And so because of that, I’ve come up with for our method that quite honestly is not actually a recipe. It is a big way of describing what we’re talking about. And it is essentially what you just said, Sarah. So the first R is at reflection, but it refers to reflection on your own mind.
So you can take a circumstance, let’s take, I’m leaving my children going to work and let’s take my four year old, and she starts to cry in her little lip quivers. And so the reflection would be me, what’s going on with me right now in this moment? It’s your invitation to pause when possible and it becomes that maybe my heart’s beating, I really have to go. Maybe actually I’m feeling awful and terrible and guilty. Maybe it’s pulling something from my past. Maybe I’m noticing inside my body. So I believe the reflection is on both somatic your body, what’s going on in your body, but also in your mind, your thoughts, your memories, whatever might be coming up for you right now as well as your intentions. And so you are reflecting on that for yourself in that moment. The next are our recognition is of the child.
It’s the reflection on the child’s mind. The reason why it’s not reflection times two is that actually for our children, it serves a purpose to narrate or say to them in a recognizing way out loud what your reflection is. So you might say something like, I know you are sad. I can see your lip down. You don’t want mommy to go me naming it. And then kind of offering them some way you’re going to cope, which may include the boundary that’s necessary. Mommy has to go to work and you need to go to school. I know that’s hard. Why don’t I draw a little heart on your hand or put a little rock in your hand or whatever you choose to do that’s going to be your creative moment to help them cope. Why don’t I give you three Huggies, which is our ritual, and I will see you later.
And so those first two hours kind of cover the reflection on you and the reflection on them, what was going on with her? I imagined her belief that maybe it’s going to be a really long day. Will I come home And she’s four. So already the idea that she trusts in my return might be there. But the yearning for me, the wanting to keep me close was all very evident. The sadness of, I don’t like saying goodbye. I don’t want to go to school. And so you name as much of it and I see it as actually a mindful exercise, heavily trained in mindfulness as well. And I integrate it and it’s observing and describing in the moment what you see and feel both in yourself and in your child, but narrating it as best as possible. The other two ares cover everybody who’s listening and going, but sometimes I, I just got to go and I’m just like, stop hugging me.
I got to leave. And they leave and then they feel bad and they cry the whole way to work on the subway because they left frenetic energy. And so Dr. Cotler’s reflection and recognition really doesn’t help because I don’t always get to do that. Many of us, many of us are moving at a speed that don’t allow for pause. And so the other two R’s are for that. And the other two R’s are for what we also have in the science of attachment, the realness of parenting, which is this idea of rupture and repair. And so I left in speed and didn’t say anything. And it is the reflection you do after what happened in that moment. Why did I maybe yell what might have got triggered in me possibly from my past are or goodbye’s heart for me? Why did my body go into fight or flight?
Whatever might have happened? And being able to actually again in repair, narrate that saying later because there’s always an opportunity for it. Hey, earlier I left really quickly, you asked for one more huggy and I couldn’t give it to you. And you felt sad. Mommy left quickly or Mommy, maybe mommy yelled. And that was scary if that’s what we think. It felt what, and I’m sorry mommy needed to take care of her feelings Next time I’m going to, and this is a process that you can work on yourself with a therapist or yourself even through journaling. What are some things you could do next time to help you not go there, but also giving yourself permission that you probably will? There’s about secure attachment we know is in 55, I think it is, to 65% of the population. And so in that group there is mismatches 70% of the time these ruptures. And so insecurely attached, you’re okay mismatching actually there’s a lot we learn from those mismatches. And so giving yourself permission that there’s tremendous room for repair.
Dr. Sarah (00:25:33):
Yeah, and I always say repair relationships with no rupture, which by definition means no need for repair. They’re pretty surface level, they’re not very intimate, they’re not very deep and really profound and safe and intimate relationships are actually ones that have lots of rupture, followed by adequate amounts of repair. Doesn’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to repair every single time we have a rupture, but if we can get in the habit of paying attention and noticing when we’ve misattuned or had a rupture sounds like, oh God, this thing ripped and it scares parents.
Dr. Tanya (00:26:18):
Yeah. Ed Tronick uses the word mismatch and I actually prefer it, but it didn’t work with R’s.
Dr. Sarah (00:26:22):
Yes, you need the nice little, you know what you call that mnemonic, but it’s like alliterative mnemonic, but yeah, misattunement, mismatch, rupture, whatever you want to call that thing where I missed you, you got missed me or you missed me. I can go back and acknowledge that and just rematch, right match back up again realign.
Dr. Tanya (00:26:54):
And I go back through the same tool or vehicle that we were describing moments earlier, that reflective functioning. So I go back by going, what happens there? What did it feel like for you when I mismatched, when I didn’t align with your mind? And what did it feel like for me? How do I think about it? And the part I tend to add is, and how do I now verbalize that to you so you know are understood? So you see your mind experience, your mind, in my mind.
Dr. Sarah (00:27:29):
Right, there’s that coherence so the other person can experience what we are thinking. So it’s not just staying on the inside, we’re actually making it out loud for them to receive. I think as parents, oftentimes we do a lot of this work, but we do it inside our heads. We don’t share it with our kids. We don’t say, we’ll sit there and rethink it over and over and over and play out a moment that really sucked in our parenting relationship with our kid. And we’ll do some of that work maybe whether we are aware that of that we’re doing it or not. We’ll play it back and be like, oh man, maybe we beat ourselves up. Or maybe we think of other scenarios that we could have done better, something we could have done differently. But that part of saying to the kid, Hey, I noticed that this happened. I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I realize I didn’t handle it the way I wish I did, and I’m sorry. And here are a few things I’m going to try different next time so that this doesn’t happen. We very rarely share that peace with our kids and they really need to hear it.
Dr. Tanya (00:28:34):
They really do. And one of the ways I often help when I’m sitting as a therapist, as a clinician with parents and they are reflecting on their own parenting what they needed and didn’t receive, some of the language they will use is this all I want from my mother, my father, whoever they’re thinking about my grandmother was to have felt understood. They will take it now. I’ll have a grown man in front of me going, I just wish my mother could understand. And they’re just seeking that repair of it even now and how healing it would be for. And I will often say to parents that if it would be healing for you, then you understand that how healing it is for your child because some parents will dismiss it. What is a, going back and saying, I’ve been thinking a lot about it really going to actually do.
I yelled, that was terrible. And I’ll often use the, wouldn’t it be meaningful to you if you felt understood now by that adult we’ve talked about that you felt misunderstood by? And it will be very humbling for them because they will realize, yes, that I still crave that. And for some it’s possible and for many it’s not. But it helps them realize that I can do that Now for my child, I actually often think that cycle breaking, which has become a trendy term, and I refer to it as cycle repairing because I think the way we’re doing it is this repair, the naming, the speaking of mental states and of our reflection on each other’s minds and doing that out loud, something that in our generation we’re explaining is important. And in many of the generations before us, actually, you didn’t talk about it and talking about it is a really big part of how you’re healing.
Dr. Sarah (00:30:32):
Absolutely. And I think speaking of this idea of cycle breaking or cycle repairing, we present a lot of research about attachment on this podcast. We had Dr. Miriam Steele on, she did two part episode (part 1, part 2) about all of her research on how we measure attachment in children and in adults. It was great. And interestingly, I got a lot of people asking questions being like, okay, so I listened to that and I learned all about attachments, an insecure attachment and how you measure it. And my kid definitely has an insecure attachment. What do I do? Or I really have an insecure attachment or I’m super avoidant or whatever, what do I do? And my thought is when I get, first of all, I’m like, Ooh, I don’t know how to answer that in a DM. That’s complicated. But also I’m like, well, there’s two kind of ways I think about how to approach a question like that with when I’m not the therapist and a therapy room being like, Hey, we’ve got some time now to really unpack this and really examine.
But the question my thought goes to, well one, do we know that this is an insecure attachment? What is making you say that? And to normalize for a lot of parents that in fact a lot of things that may one-off look like an insecure attachment behavior, whether it’s an avoidant, dismissive or anxious, preoccupied, whatever, there’s so many different ways of describing it now, but we have to remember, we’re looking at patterns over time. We’re not looking at a single moment, we’re looking at the aggregate, we’re looking at across relationships, we’re looking at so many things.
And so there’s that one piece which I would love for you to speak on, a little bit of normalizing for parents. We can’t just take a behavior and be like, oh no, what does this mean? Don’t, not how to not read too deep into a particular behavior. But then on this other side, which we can get to next is, okay, let’s say we’ve done the assessment and we’ve really looked into it and we’ve gone through the history and we’ve looked at the patterns. And yes, there really is evidence that there is an insecure attachment pattern that is emerging in a child or in yourself as an adult. What do we do? How do we help? And we’ve talked kind of, I’m sure we’ll repeat ourselves because a lot of things we’ve already talked about with respect to building reflective functioning and repair is going to be very much a part of that. But first, yeah, can we speak to that part of that worried parent that’s like, oh my God, I heard one Instagram meme or I saw one thing, or my kid did not look up at me when I came back in the room. What damage have I done? How do we contextualize that for people a bit?
Dr. Tanya (00:33:30):
So first of all, at risk of sounding like a car bumper sticker, the person who is worrying about that, who is curious about that, wondering about their child’s mind, about their mind is already doing well because you’re already asking the whys and the questions and the reflective functioning part of going what happened to me or what’s in their mind, or I’m worried about what they’re in their mind. And so that curiosity is really important. It’s actually what you’re going to use to repair if necessary. And so it’s one leg up to be asking that question. It’s a good thing. It’s hard to get the dms. I get them too. And it’s very hard to answer it, but it’s a good thing. The second is the fear I think is also really human. We want to raise, I I’ve heard, you know, hear happy children. I actually don’t think that’s true.
We want to raise well-adjusted connected human beings who can feel the desire for connection and meaning in connection, not be afraid of connection, not need to depend on themselves exclusively, not be afraid. They’re kind constantly going to lose connection. We know that we want that and we’ve understood or learned if we listen even a little bit, that secure attachment does that. And so we’re really afraid how I need to get that thing I need get that thing that’s going to give me all these positive developmental outcomes. So first it’s just kind of this compassion for yourself that as a mom myself, forget about the therapist and the attachment researcher. Of course, I’m afraid and looking for it and trying to test it myself and don’t do a strange situation in your own kitchen or a drop off at school because those don’t work. It’s not accurate.
And the reason they, to answer your question, Sarah, is you sort of answered it in your question, and I’ll say it again maybe a bit differently. It’s because connection and attachment and what your child is going to be taking and learning is being built over milliseconds. And literally we know it’s milliseconds, through the work of Ed Tronick and Beatrice Beebe, milliseconds to millisecond to millisecond. There’s been so many milliseconds in this last 45 minutes, right? Millisecond to millisecond of interaction they are extracting and extrapolating from. And so that’s a lot of milliseconds to focus on singular moments or behaviors in time they are using in those first three years at least. But then constantly with repair, they are adjusting their blueprint for relationships constantly. And so no single thing, positive or negative, that wonderful moment at the park where you stared in their eyes and you talked about their day and they stared at you or that wonderful breastfeeding moment where you felt so grateful for them and you felt really connected to them, that moment on its own or the moment where you fully misunderstood them, acted in a way you wish you didn’t. They acted in a way they wish they didn’t. They said words, I hate you. That single moment on its own cannot do it. We know that from a research standpoint, but we also have to understand that just as human beings think how much goes into an interaction and how many milliseconds on a unconscious level, you are finding yourself feeling felt by that person, known by that person. And it’s never due to a singular behavior and are research again without getting into it again, unless we want to really shows that.
Dr. Sarah (00:37:33):
Yeah. I think that’s really, really important. And the millisecond, I think amplifies that and illustrates that even more profoundly. I’ll often give this metaphor of attachment, well, just any relationship and it’s knitting a giant blanket. Every single stitch is an interaction. And maybe we even need to say more granular. It’s a millisecond. But this idea is if you drop a stitch and you keep going, if you big a big enough blanket, it doesn’t matter if you’ve dropped stitches, it doesn’t matter if you’ve dropped a lot of stitches.
Dr. Tanya (00:38:10):
Yeah, it’s a grain of sand on a beach. It’s not the whole picture. And we are extrapolating because we are afraid. And so it’s that compassion.
Dr. Sarah (00:38:18):
And to your original bumper sticker comment, if you are asking these questions, the chance that you are probably knitting a lot of making the knit work, I don’t know. I don’t actually knit, so I don’t know what you call that, but all the times you’re getting not even right quote, just not dropping the stitch, not having it be something that is a unrepaired rupture, let’s say. Chances are, if you’re thinking about this, that there’s a lot more milliseconds in your life with your child that are related to a sense of safety and being seen and felt and connected to and just overall secure in this relationship than not. It’s, it’s often the people who don’t consider that question in the first place, that may not notice they’ve missed a ton of stitches in time to actually rectify or perhaps they do realize and they have real work to do then to solve it.
And it’s not, again, I want to be very clear, it’s not always because they’re abusive or negligent parents that don’t care. It might be that they had a profound postpartum depression and couldn’t see it, couldn’t connect to it. They were in a fog, they were dissociated, they were dealing with their own traumas. They, if your child has it, and let’s go to that other piece of like, okay, we’ve got this insecure attachment going on. Something has occurred that has led to this, that in and of itself isn’t really a good, bad, wrong value judgment kind of thing because we know, I mean, you and I know as people who work with lots of people with attachment challenges, very rarely is it anybody’s fault. It’s just something that occurred because something else occurred and got in the way.
Dr. Tanya (00:40:20):
And one of the ways I like to think about it is it actually not only is enough bad, it once upon a time was how you survived. It was your strategy to getting that primary goal of connection. And so I’ll say to patients of mine, even when it is true, what you do have an anxious attachment pattern, it’s your pattern of relating. It is your pattern of coping that we will help you develop a new way of coping as you understand why it has developed. And as you make room for a new flotation device when thrown in a lake, but for the person who was thrown in a lake where the way they got connection was possibly by deciding they didn’t need it, kind of a deactivation of their attachment system, which we can call avoidance a I don’t need it, forget it. That might have been their best way of actually getting their needs met.
And for the one who maybe was constantly afraid of rejection and would insert themselves and would sometimes try to get it and sometimes forget, that might have been their way. And there are all kinds of different strategies without getting into them. But if you notice and you’re going, I think I do some of this that I heard on this podcast episode, again, it’s about, and it’s why I said, I integrate mindfulness a lot in my practice with attachment because they, they have beautiful synergy. It’s the kind of compassion non-judgment aspect of yes, but this was your survival technique. This was your strategy of getting and coping with relationships, which you have to have throughout your life whenever they’re coming to you and saying this, and you will learn new strategies. So your awareness is your first step, otherwise you would just maintain that strategy. So you coming in and going, I think I need to change these strategies is a good thing.
Dr. Sarah (00:42:16):
And I think it’s also not to overcomplicate it or make it too many dimensions, but a lot of times parents will be like, my child has an insecure attachment, my child’s anxiously attached or dismissive. And if in fact that is the case, there’s a pretty good chance that, so is the parent, because like you said, it’s like, well, we know that a person’s attachment style is predictive to 70% accuracy of the child’s attachment style. So we know there’s a pretty good chance that if a child has an insecure attachment style, there’s a way in which they’re probably receiving that set of protective factors by watching what the parent does and how the parent also may interact with them or interact with others. So I think it’s important either way, the work’s going to be with the parent, it can be or the parent child dyad the parent child, like parent and infant psychotherapy or with, with older children. There’s lots of ways, but some sort of dyadic, orthotic just means two, a two person group.
Dr. Tanya (00:43:33):
Yes, yes. And I know I, I’ve said compassion three times, but…
Dr. Sarah (00:43:39):
It can’t be said enough.
Dr. Tanya (00:43:39):
one of the reasons I went to into kind of reproductive mental health and maternal mental health was that actually a lot of this attachment science work, I respect many, all of these names we’ve said today from Peter Fonagy to Miriam and Howard Steele to Ed Tronick. And the piece that I felt personally, clinically was sometimes missing was the two sides of the coin, the compassion for both the mind of the parent and the mind of the child that we were almost as a culture getting. And so you asked me twice, but what about the kid? And I answer twice about the parent because we were parents will worry, what if my child has an insecure attachment? And as you said, likely it started with what the parent or how the parent may have responded or what the parent may carry. But careful that isn’t into kind of blaming that is something that you likely didn’t receive what you needed.
And so we have to look at this dynamic where the child comes a world born kind of hardwired to do all these attachment behaviors to cry and to laugh and to coo and to, so they’re pulling for what they need and some will pull less and some will pull more, and that will intersect with who the parent is and what they’ve received. And so it’s this two to tango is the term I use of both coming to this attachment and both working together to create it and both working together to repair it at all times. And so the parent may need to have compassion for themselves on what their postpartum period was, who their baby was, what they expected, what was their fantasy, what was their journey towards having that baby. There’s so much that goes into it that we often leave out when we just focus on this four year old child, looks like he has an anxious attachment, the whole thing falls out. We miss the entire nuanced experience of what happened to that child getting here, but also what happened to the parent getting here.
Dr. Sarah (00:45:49):
Which goes back to what we were talking at the very beginning of this episode of being like, I could work with the kid, but really just give me the parent. Which is, I mean, I say that kind of flippantly and jokingly, and I recognize that’s not the case for every situation, but I found it. I mean I’ve basically built an entire practice on it because, and not because I just thought it was the way it was because every time I did work with a child, it just organically became a conversation about the entire family system, including like you said, all the other ones, all the ghosts and the nursery, all the past parents, all the people who have been participating in sharing this cyclical deliverance of attachment styles over the generations. We carry all that with us. And I think it could not echo, I could not emphasize enough what you have already said, which is that it’s not a blame game. There’s no fault and no, there isn’t really anything good or bad about this stuff. Insecure attachment isn’t bad and secure is good. That’s not really, that doesn’t capture it accurately at all. It’s describing a style, a pattern of behaviors that get elicited and they’re one, they’re modifiable if we have the awareness of the pattern and can do things to shift it. But also, like you said, it’s super complicated, always a reason why things happen. It’s not really like because they’re good things or bad things.
Dr. Tanya (00:47:31):
And I guess for the listeners who said, okay, I geeked out on the science and now I’ve listened to the two of you and what do I do?
Dr. Sarah (00:47:43):
Dr. Tanya (00:47:47):
You think about your thinking, you think about your triggers, you think about where you came from, you think about what you needed and you didn’t get, you think about your child and who they are and what they need. And now you see them separate to you and as often as you can, you say that out loud to yourself and to them honestly, that’s the first step. And when that’s hard, you seek help.
Dr. Sarah (00:48:18):
It’s hard stuff, but it kind of is like that is, that’s it. If there are iterations of that, we get better and better and better at that. We build skills around supporting that. But that’s really it. Like when I do therapy with families, specifically looking at how do we repair attachment ruptures, how do we rebuild a sense of safety in relationships? That’s what we do over and over and over again in different forms.
Dr. Tanya (00:48:50):
And if you get stuck, that’s when you go to therapy. People say, when do I go to therapy? Well, when I’m trying to think about where I came from and what I needed and when I’m finding it hard to respond to what my child needs, I feel stuck. I often say you stuck is a word that helps you say, maybe I need to mourn, maybe I need to grieve. Maybe I need to name what was not named. Maybe I need to speak what was not spoken. And then I go to therapy and I know I’m saying it to an American psychologist as a Canadian psychologist, but currently I think we’re suffering from similar inaccessible concepts around that. And so I say it with sensitivity, I recognize that’s not accessible to everybody. And that’s why I said what I said before, if it’s not accessible to you to do it with someone else, you can start it yourself. Journaling around those concepts is actually going to allow you to at least begin to process.
Dr. Sarah (00:49:48):
Because it builds reflective awareness.
Dr. Tanya (00:49:51):
Because it builds reflective awareness.
Dr. Sarah (00:49:52):
And I also think, you know, use the word stuck. And I think so I hear that so much, not just in terms of I feel like I, I’m trying to understand something and I can’t understand it. I’m stuck there. But I think it also comes out in parents will often say, I’ve tried all the things and nothing works. I can’t stop yelling even though I know I don’t want to. So it’s like I’m stuck in a behavior loop that I can’t get out of. I’m stuck responding in a way that no matter how much I try to do it differently, it keeps coming out this way. That’s kind of what I think you mean. Certainly what I mean when I say stuck, when you are trying to do it different and can’t, it’s like you’re in some sort of quicksand or a rubber band that keeps snapping back.
Dr. Tanya (00:50:49):
And it becomes compassion again. It becomes compassion again for I am, because maybe whenever I hear, no, let’s use an example, my child screaming, I scream. Some of that is beyond your conscious control. This is where I integrate a lot of polyvagal theory because I specialize in trauma. This is where your nervous system, if your nervous system is going right into fight and your’re, not quite aware. So again, reflection and it’s immediate. Maybe there were loud noises. Maybe you grew up in a home where there was a lot of screaming, what happens in your body? And it’s before you can pause that maybe you scream back or maybe you actually even freeze. And learning that that’s what you do and learning when you do what you do that you feel stuck in. And then learning ways to actually allow your body to release that differently.
And trying things with somebody who screams, I say to them, can you push really hard against a wall because it’s a fight response. You can actually, and you’re doing it, but you’re not hurting anybody. And you could do it in the room, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in wherever you are. And so it’s learning some tools of actually releasing what happens to you in your body where you feel second and you can’t change the pattern. But that has to come first from the awareness that and the reflection that there are these moments that I get stuck in patterns of relating and patterns of being that I don’t want to do or be in it anymore.
Dr. Sarah (00:52:27):
Yeah. And I think you spoke about this earlier too, this idea that when we are trying to build our reflective awareness, yes, about our thoughts and the thoughts of others, but also about the somatic, our bodies and the body and then our nervous systems and the body and the nervous system of the other. So is my child in fight or flight right now? Is their body showing me yes, that they are in a physiological state of threat response that where they can’t process words, so don’t go to words like this is that attunement piece. If my child’s body is showing me that, and this is where a little bit of training I think is important for parents to understand the cues. They don’t teach this when you get your baby in the hospital, they don’t say, by the way, their nervous system is going to show you certain things and you should know what to look for.
You have to know to be educated in that, which is a lot of what this podcast is about. But yes, your child screaming at you, well, it’s important to then notice if it makes you want to scream and all the fight response that gets kicked up in your body. If you have that awareness, you can regulate that. And then you go and you say to your child and start talking at them, all of these things about how they should be calm and how they’re va. I get so many parents that are like I say all the things that everyone says I’m supposed to say, but my kid just wants to, my kid melts down more. And I’m like, yeah, I think your child may be in a state of complete threat response, amygdala, activation, whatever you want to call it. I think language is probably pretty stimulating to them in those moments. Maybe don’t talk, but just sit and breathe next to them, which is attunement to the child’s nervous system. So there’s a lot of ways to attune, but it’s not always linguistic and it’s not always in the thought in our head. Sometimes it’s body to body.
Dr. Tanya (00:54:34):
I love that you said that because a little earlier I mentioned articulating and naming and observing and describing, and in some way I stand corrected. And that’s exactly right. There are times when you’re in that second R, the recognition of them that the recognition’s not going to be linguistically or verbally articulated. It’s going to actually be articulated. Your body is going to be articulated through them feeling felt, feeling presence, feeling your calm while you wait, that they complete that emotion curve. And so I will draw that. I draw on so many curves and my career where you know, draw that top of the curve. And here we don’t verbal because at that point you cannot be heard and then you will feel like you are failing because a great Instagram post that said, for observe and describe what they said, I know you feel and why don’t we?
And I said all those words in a perfect way that’s on my fridge. And it failed. And it didn’t fail. It was that in that moment in time, developmentally going back to the flexibility developmentally, your child needed something different. And so it’s kind of a lot of the time it’s watching them. There’s a therapy named Watch, Wait and Wonder, and it’s really perfectly named. It’s a dyadic therapy. A lot of the time it is watching, waiting and wondering what is going on in them, what do they need right now? What can I say or what can I do? And sometimes you won’t know. And I’ll often say to my patients, those are the moments. If you can calm yourself, check in what you need, what is happening in your body if you’re getting activated, if you can breathe or push on a wall, if actually you’re feeling angry, it will help them because they’re going to feel your shifting in your nervous system, which they will borrow from eventually.
Dr. Sarah (00:56:31):
Yes. And then when they’re calm, you can go back and say the words because it is important to do that too. I don’t think you were wrong in saying that at all, it’s just knowing when.
Dr. Tanya (00:56:45):
Yeah, absolutely. And all this, I love that you said, I wish that it was taught because it can feel so often this can play right into, as someone who specializes in postpartum depression and anxiety, it can so often play into that failure or I don’t know, or what is wrong with me narratives or depressive ways of thinking. And in many ways, this is stuff that is not taught and is not known and actually needs to be learned. And you are not wrong if you’re listening to this going, oh my God, I didn’t know this. Most of us don’t even, some of us who have been trained don’t because certain training programs didn’t teach it. And so that’s okay. Knowing what you don’t know is the first.
Dr. Sarah (00:57:35):
Absolutely. And I think as psychologists, it’s our responsibility to not gate, keep this information because I think historically our field has sort of done that. And I think that’s changing. And I think this is a step in helping that change, disseminating this information. But I think, I know there’s a lot of psychologists and therapists that listen to this podcast. So if you’re listening, share this info, let parents know whether it’s this episode, you could share this episode, but in general, share resources for understanding this stuff. Because like you said, not having the information and then feeling sort of like, you can’t do this. Nothing makes sense. I’ve tried everything. I try everything and it still doesn’t work. What the next thought is, what’s wrong with me? Or what’s wrong with my kid? And those are the questions that just cause suffering. There’s nothing wrong with you or your kid. You don’t understand what’s happening and we can help you understand what’s happening. And then from there we can improve things or make things function better or feel better.
Dr. Tanya (00:58:50):
Dr. Sarah (00:58:52):
So much hope. This is a very hopeful conversation.
Dr. Tanya (00:58:57):
I think that if there was one thing that I aspire to do or why I do what I do, that’s the word. So I’m glad that that’s how it feels, because I think we’re in a generation where we have so much at our fingertips and there’s so much available and there’s so many parenting strategies and books and Instagram accounts and it can feel really overwhelming. And while it’s all coming at you, it actually can often, I think for many people, at least from my experience, clinically be more detrimental with so much information coming in that is sometimes not digestible and understandable or accessible and everything feels like something you’re not doing. And actually there’s so much room for so many reasons that we said today for mismatch and error and imperfection and good and enough parenting, which is secure attachment parenting. And so, yeah, hope is a good place.
Dr. Sarah (01:00:03):
If people want to get in touch with you, work with you, learn more about your work, where can they find you?
Dr. Tanya (01:00:12):
I can be found on Instagram (that I just said is not a good place. It is also a good place, depends) @drcotler. I have a website, tanyacotlerphd.com, and I have found and own a clinic if anyone who is in Canada or the Toronto area called Renni, R E N N I, which the meaning of it, I’ll say based on this podcast is the inverse of inner. It is a reflection of inner, oh my God, I love that is Renni. And so reni.ca is our clinic where we are a team of both body practitioners, massage, acupuncture, yoga and psychologists, all with a trauma-informed background in practice. And that’s kind of our subspecialty as well as this attachment is our subspecialty here.
Dr. Sarah (01:01:04):
That’s amazing. Well, thank you so much for being here and sharing your wisdom and your hope.
Dr. Tanya (01:01:10):
Thank you for having me.
Dr. Sarah (01:01:17):
I love talking about attachment and I’m so glad that Tanya was able to share her wealth of knowledge so parents can use attachment science to feel empowered. If you want to learn more about attachment science, you’re going to want to check out my free guide, The 4 Pillars of Fostering Secure Attachment.
This guide will 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. To download this free guide and learn the four pillars of fostering secure attachment, go to drsarahbren.com/secure. That’s drsarahbren.com/secure. And as always, thanks for listening. Don’t be a stranger.
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