Dr. Sarah (00:02):
Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.
Welcome back to Beyond the Sessions. I’ve got Rebecca and Emily here. We are answering your listener questions, and I have a question that someone wrote in and she says: I don’t have a great track record with my love life. I feel like I have an insecure attachment with men, but my child seems to be comforted by me and I feel like I’m a good mother. Is it possible that my romantic attachment patterns are different from my parent child dynamic? Is that something you could do a podcast episode on? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
So I felt like there was so many interesting directions that this question could take, so I’m just going to throw it out to you. Emily, what are your initial thoughts on this?
Dr. Emily (01:30):
Dr. Sarah (01:34):
Done. Done recording.
Dr. Emily (01:38):
I actually really like this question. I think truly my answer is yes, but I think that there are so many, we can unpack so many reasons behind that, but I do think people who have had some insecure attachments in their romantic relationships doesn’t mean that you’re going to have an insecure attachment with your own child. In fact, you might be paying more attention to your attachment relationship and making sure that it’s a healthy pattern or there are healthy dynamics with your child because you’re attuned to the fact that it was been difficult in your romantic life. So yes, my answer is yes.
Dr. Rebecca (02:14):
Can you stand by it?
Dr. Sarah (02:17):
Rebecca, what do you think?
Dr. Rebecca (02:22):
I think one of the reasons why attachment is so useful as a construct is because it’s simple and straightforward and there’s so much research to back up even the very broad strokes of it, and yet it’s still a complicated and nuanced idea and people’s attachment patterns, although yes, they can be grouped as insecure versus secure, you can subcategorize them many, many, many different ways and people’s attachment imprints or attachment styles can vary with is it a child is an adult? I’ve worked with many clients where it’s a male versus female, they have a really different attachment with their male child versus their female child, and that sort of goes back to their own histories.
I think there’s a risk of mean, so my answer first of all is same as Emily’s yes, but there’s a risk of just oversimplifying all of it and that’s less helpful. It’s sort of like it’s a useful classification system when we think about parenting, and so there’s a reason why it’s everywhere and that’s really important and people are complicated and relationships are complicated, so of course you can. I mean, it’s basically asking can I have a different kind of relationship with my romantic partners than I can with my kid, of course, and with the woman at the grocery store and with your grandma. And so these concepts become very different when we’re talking about an N of one and we’re speaking anecdotally and clinically versus from that research perspective where the goal is to classify using these broad categories.
Dr. Sarah (04:11):
Yeah, no, I think it’s a good point That makes me want to do a super short attachment theory 1 0 1 because I feel like if anyone’s listening, they’re like, what are we talking about here? I think it’s important because I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what attachment theory actually says, and the word attachment gets thrown around so much, especially with social media and all that sort of noise around attachment and what it means. And I say it’s kind of like a game of telephone phenomenon where the message gets distorted the further along it gets on the telephone line. And so I think it’s important when we’re talking about attachment theory. Attachment theory is very, very simple. It’s simply basically says the human species, we are hardwired from birth to create an attachment bond with our primary caregivers to increase our chance of survival. That’s it.
That’s attachment theory. And then we look and pretty much every single person attaches the question is what is the quality of that attachment? Is it secure or is it insecure? And then there’s subcategories of the types of insecure attachments. One of the biggest things, misconceptions I think there are about attachment theory is one that it’s fixed. So if I have an attachment style that is insecure, I’m going to be insecure with all of my relationships for all time, and that’s just who I am and that’s what I’ve got. And that’s not true. Attachment evolves. It changes. It’s different between different like you guys were saying. And that’s the other thing I think people don’t get about attachment quite right is that though we talk about an attachment style, we’re really talking about a series of patterns across relationships, but they’re not always, you may show up securely attached with people who make you feel safe and show up insecurely attached with people who activate that part of you that doesn’t feel safe.
And if you have a blueprint that’s based off of a lot of early experiences with caregivers that left you feeling insecure in their ability to meet your needs, then you might on autopilot kind of default to that mode in the world, assuming most people will not meet your needs. And so you might show up in a way that kind of perpetuates that pattern, but if someone meets your needs and you feel safe with that person, you’re going to show up pretty secure if you can be aware not to go into autopilot. And so to this person’s question, it’s like if you are aware that you have a pattern with relationships, with romantic relationships, you might be able to trace that back to a pattern in early childhood, but your awareness can be the thing that prevents you from having that play out with your child. I think the awareness is the most important piece.
Dr. Emily (07:25):
Yeah, I agree. And I think a little bit back to your talk about the study and the science of attachment theory is also, I guess maybe a little bit reflecting what you’re saying, Rebecca, I just think sometimes this person might not have a problem with romantic attachment relationships. They might have a pattern of choosing making bad choices or choosing people that are ill matched to them, but that doesn’t mean it’s an attachment disorder. I think that there’s a way because as I’m sure if you listen to Sarah’s podcast, you hear this a lot, but attachment has really formed in the very early parts of your life. If you had secure early attachments and then had a slew of bad relationships in your twenties, that’s not the same thing. So I think that it’s an important thing. Again, I think it all boils down to the awareness. I think going back to your point, Sarah, but I do think that that’s a part of this is not overvaluing attachment as something that is fixed that can’t be changed or patterns similarly that you can shift and alter with insight.
Dr. Rebecca (08:36):
Yeah, I think people, because attachment has become a much more common word and construct, and I think that’s overall a really good thing. It’s become just sort of thrown out. We think we did another episode about same thing about trauma. It’s like a word not thrown out, meaning just used all the time and not always used correctly and everything. We talked about the risk of trauma and that losing your temper and getting upset doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going into fight or flight. And similarly, having a couple of unhealthy relationships or being unlucky in love or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t necessarily tie back to early attachment. And it may and still not define, as you said, a fixed attachment style. It might be that, wow, I am noticing I’m choosing partners who do X, Y and Z, and I think maybe that has to do with this facet of my parents and the way that they used to do blah, blah, blah. That still doesn’t necessarily mean even that we have to group it under this sort of attachment idea in this fixed and constant way.
Dr. Sarah (09:43):
I think that’s a very important point of helping people put into context. Are we actually talking about attachment disorders or clinical attachment issues or are we talking about any other host of other things that make relationships challenging, but just so we kind of cover all our bases. Let’s just assume for a second, since you don’t know that much obviously about this writer, the person who wrote this question’s true attachment style. Let’s say for example, this person really genuinely does have an insecure attachment style, let’s say. They’re very avoidant in their relationship across the board, in their relationships, across the board. This is an avoidantly insecure attached individual and they want to make sure that they are not showing up in that way with their child, that they are not passing that along because reality is, I think the statistics are like 60 to 70% of the population are securely attached, which means many are not.
And many of those people are parents. And while we do know that a parent’s attachment style is predictive of their child’s attachment style 70% of the time from a different study, that means that there’s also a large number of children who do not get passed down the same attachment style as their parent. And so what are the things that we can think about if you know have an insecure attachment or you think you might and you really want to be mindful of not passing that down in your parenting, what can you be cognizant of? What are things that you could do to really protect your child from that?
Dr. Rebecca (11:40):
I come back to the idea of attachment as attunement and really being present enough to tune into where your child is at in a responsive way. This person says in the question, my child is comforted by me and I think I’m a good mother and I am a hundred percent the fact that she’s listening to your podcast and so curious and wrote in the question, I’m certain that that’s the case. I’m also a hundred percent sure that plenty of parents who have insecure attachments to their kids would say the same thing because the point is that you’re not necessarily always the best judge of that because this pattern is dictating your perspective. And so I think just this constant coming back to which I would say for all parents of just, can I pause? Can I sort of tune into where am I in my body? What’s dictating my emotions right now? What is my child doing and am I meeting my child with where they are emotionally, energetically activation wise? Am I tuning into that? I think that for me is always, and it means kind of slowing down, it means putting our phones down, not all the time, but just consciously and intentionally noticing what’s going on for our child and meeting them in that place and being attuned in that way I think is the pillar for building secure attachment or set another way, breaking a potential insecure attachment style.
Dr. Emily (13:26):
Yeah, I agree with that in the moment. So much in the moment and so much slowing down and so much tapping into your own nervous system on that. I also think another thing that I found with a lot of families I’m working is also going, having an intentional roadmap about your parenting, like an intentional style or approach can really help anchor some of that as well. Because I think when you’ve had all this an insecure attachment and a lot of the things that come along with that is your reactive in the moment. So I think if we can both to Rebecca’s point slow down in the moment, but also when the iron is cold, take a step back and say, what is my parenting philosophy? What is my approach and how do I want to show up? I think that can be a nice match to this in the moment stuff.
Dr. Sarah (14:23):
I think those are both such important points and I think it’s, so you kind of both already alluded to this, but I think the precursor to either of those things is attunement with ourselves. Because the reality is the reason why insecure attachment styles get passed down so frequently is because when we as a child aren’t attuned to, we don’t learn to self attune. And so we then go grow up into the world trying to figure out who we are and how we’re feeling and how safe we are, but we can’t go inward to get that information. And so then as a parent, it’s really hard to attune to your child because you don’t know how to self attune, and so you don’t like Rebecca, to your point, like an insecurely attached parent might say, I’m meeting my kids’ needs, but not actually be accurate because they’re not really skilled at attunement.
So really I think the work starts with getting better at going inward and accurately. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings and get some practice in naming them, noticing them and naming them, practicing tolerating them, practicing not that reactivity to Emily, your point slowing down, Rebecca, to your point, but to yourself, and maybe this is work you do with a therapist, maybe this is work you do with a coach, maybe this is work you do with a journal. There’s lots of ways to do this, but you kind of have to build that muscle with yourself first for you to then be able to stay regulated enough to notice your child. Because realistically, and this is another thing that people sometimes miss about attachment theory. Attachment theory is based on threat response. Our attachment style is what gets activated in a threatening situation, not in a calm situation.
When we feel safe, we feel safe. When we don’t feel safe, our attachment system gets activated to get us back to safety. That’s a function of the attachment system. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s activated by a threat response. That’s why the strange situation, which is the laboratory experiment that we use to identify a child’s detachment situation, it’s the strange situation. It’s supposed to elicit a threat response in a child. There’s a forced separation obviously in ways that are not going to traumatize a child, but they create a scenario in which the parent leaves the child alone in a room with a stranger and they observe how the child reacts, and then the parent comes back and they observe how the child responds upon the parent’s reunification. And there’s a couple other steps in between, but we’re measuring threat response. So we have to kind of figure out how to manage our own threat responses.
And a lot of things in parenting trigger our threat response when our kid is having a really hard time. That’s usually when our insecure attachment styles come out because our kid is eliciting in us a threat response and activating our attachment blueprint that may not be so secure, which then kind of creates this cascade of problematic responses and lack of attunement to the child. We are flooded. So in order to attune to your child and order to even after the moment reflect and have an intentional parenting philosophy and approach and be able to apply that approach in a hot moment, we have to really learn self-regulation skills and we have to kind of work on our own attunement and regulation to be able to then not pass down the insecure attachment. I think that’s so critical.
Dr. Emily (18:14):
My last final thought, which may be spinning off in a different direction, but you’re not the only, typically, you’re not the only one helping your child form attachment relationships. There’s often two parents, there’s grandparents, there’s other important individuals. So I think it’s also a lot of pressure for this writer to put on themselves, I’m responsible for making a child. Just my relationship with this child is the one thing that’s going to make them have a strong attachment. I think there are a lot of factors and a lot of people that can also help. So if you are triggered and you’re having a hard time, maybe you have a partner who steps in and that’s part of a partnership in parenting, and you can take a minute to self-regulate and your partner steps right in. So I think that there’s a little bit of an illusion of there’s just this one relationship and I think moms put a lot of pressure on themselves around that. And I just want to dissuade that just a little bit. Of course, it’s important, but I also want to note that a child can have an secure attachment and a secure attachment profile with multiple people, and they can still have some less ideal in the mix, and it’s okay, and it sort of is more of a balance.
Dr. Sarah (19:31):
Yeah, yeah. Attachment is not as fragile as I think we’ve been made to believe it’s a robust, yeah, this is interesting. I love talking about this with you guys. I don’t know, I’d like to geek out on attachment stuff, obviously, but I think it’s, we all work with parents, women, mothers, kids, families, dads, with all kinds of attachment related challenges, and so I think it’s interesting to see how do you as clinical psychologists, obviously this is going to inform a ton of how we work with people. We also tend to see people who self-select to come to therapy, barring very random the off scenario of court mandated therapy, but usually you have someone who’s saying, I’m raising my hand. I want to look at this stuff. But the people who don’t raise their hand, who don’t look at this, Rebecca, you were sort of speaking to this, right? Just by being interested in these topics, by reading about them, by listening to podcasts about them, by trying to learn more about them, you are increasing your awareness and therefore increasing the likelihood that you could shift this intergenerational transmission of attachment style. And then there’s a whole section of the population who are not aware and will never be aware and aren’t interested in becoming aware, and it will be harder for them to interrupt that cycle.
Dr. Rebecca (21:07):
Yeah, I mean, again, we don’t know what we don’t know, and so if you know that you have a particular way you want to parent your kids and a particular way you were parented that didn’t work well for you, you’re already hugely ahead of the game.
Dr. Sarah (21:25):
So if you’re listening, you are doing great, keep it up. You are halfway there, or maybe even further along. All right, thank you so much.
Dr. Rebecca (21:37):
Bye guys. Bye everyone. Thank you.
Dr. Sarah (21:42):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.
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