We talk a lot about secure attachment on this podcast—which is certainly the best case scenario. But the reality is that not everyone forms a secure attachment bond. So what can we learn about insecure attachment patterns? And are there some forms of insecure attachments that are better than others?
Here to answer these questions and discuss the finding of his research on attachment theory is Dr. Or Dagan.
Whether you’ve never heard about attachment theory before or you’re deep in the trenches of unpacking your own attachment style and working to re-parenting yourself, this conversation where we dispel some of the most common fears and anxieties about attachment theory that have parents striving for perfection (and beating themselves up when they inevitably can’t hit that), discuss the difference between separation anxiety and insecure attachment, and translate the current studies to be simple, relatable and applicable to your everyday life will have you feeling confident and empowered in your parenting!
Dr. Or (00:00):
It’s kind of mind boggling that we are still not talking about attachment network or attachments. We’re still talking about attachment as a single caregiver child phenomenon, but it’s not.
Dr. Sarah (00:16):
So you’re listening to a podcast called Securely Attached, which means you’ve probably heard that we want our children to develop secure attachment styles, but how bad is it really if kids don’t? And how do children who may have an insecure attachment relationship to a parent or caregiver fair in adulthood? My guest this week is a professor of clinical psychology at Long Island University and a senior clinical psychologist and supervisor at Williamsburg Therapy Group, Dr. Or Dagan. Or studies attachment. And as you’ll hear in this episode, he’s finding some rather interesting results in his research.
So whether you’ve never heard about attachment theory before or you’re deep in the trenches of unpacking your own attachment style and working to repair it yourself, this episode will help remove some of the anxiety and fear that is so often perpetuated around attachment theory. And it’s gonna break down the science into simple and digestible nuggets so that it can help guide you in your daily parenting life.
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, I’m super excited to welcome this guest on our podcast today. We have known each other for many years and I’m just really happy. Or Dagan welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Or (02:07):
Thanks for inviting me, Sarah. I appreciate that.
Dr. Sarah (02:09):
Yeah, so it’s great to see you. We actually, our paths first crossed when we worked at Mount Sinai Beth Israel together and now you are doing incredible research on attachment and I was so excited that you agreed to come on the show and share some of the work that you’re doing and what you are finding because it’s definitely cutting edge. And I’m excited to share some of these insights you’re finding with these parents that listen.
Dr. Or (02:37):
Yes. And it’s kind of funny, you and I started meeting by talking about potentially one would say a very different modality of intervention that relies on very different assumptions, potentially, DBT. And it’s just fun to see how things kind of shape up with time and see that you and I somehow ended up or maybe we’re always part of attachment thinking.
Dr. Sarah (03:04):
It’s funny for people who don’t know, DBT is dialectical behavioral therapy and when Or and I were working at the hospital together, I was running the DBT program. I love DBT, but it’s a very behavioral treatment. It’s very, it follows a very specific structure and manualized treatment. And when we’re talking about things like attachment theory, which is so hard to operationalize, we’ve figured out ways to do it. It’s very well researched to actually, but when we talk about relational and psychodynamic models of psychotherapy, it’s a lot harder to measure things. And so there’s less research on it. But I have a really, actually an interesting episode that I did with Katie Lewis who I went to grad school with and we all about the difference between evidence based practices and what that really means and how we can redefine and expand evidence based practices to include, and they do. But I think colloquially in our field, the implication is if it’s evidence based, we’re just talking about behavioral interventions, cognitive or behavioral interventions when in fact you and I both deeply know that relational and psychodynamic models of therapy are very evidence based. It’s just…
Dr. Or (04:24):
Dr. Sarah (04:26):
Which is what we’re gonna talk about today .
Dr. Or (04:28):
And maybe we’ll touch upon it later, but especially attachment theory and intervention which lay itself so well to interventions and evidence based trials because it is reliant also on behavior and maybe we’ll touch on it but it really relies specifically parenting behavior and I think we’ll talk about it a little bit later.
Dr. Sarah (04:50):
Yeah. Well, could you share a little bit about how you got into this research that you do and a little bit about your path to this?
Dr. Or (04:58):
Sure. I think this is one of those things that were always there in the back of my mind. It just took me a little bit of time to understand that it is. And also to articulate what it is. I think all of us, I don’t think I know all of us are having attachment relationships or developing attachment relationships early on in life. And for some of us lot attachment relationships shape a lot of our behaviors and feelings throughout the lifespan. And I got first introduced to this by Miriam and Howard Steele when I was their PhD student at the New School for Social Research and they’re running an attachment lab. And I thought, well it’s a cool theory and I’ll probably take you to the intervention level and I’ll be a clinician and that’s gonna be the end of it and I’ll be happy and I am happy with it.
But there are lots of stuff that I discovered as I went through it that are either misunderstood by me as well as by popular media or still need to be elaborated and clarified also for the scientific community. So I started thinking maybe we have some work to do here above and beyond, just take it and use it with our clients and patients. And that’s basically what will start me going specifically the idea that secure attachment is thought of as really the thing that gets everything good in life going and I just had something difficult in me, maybe it’s my Israeli nature or otherwise I just couldn’t take it in completely. And I started really being interested in whether and how insecure attachment can also not necessarily be bad. And some of the research that I’m doing is exactly on that.
Dr. Sarah (07:00):
And I was so excited by this because one, I think, and anyone who’s listening to this podcast who’s been listening to my podcast previously might be doing a double take. What attachment is not the basis of everything wonderful in the world? That’s what you say, Sarah, that’s the whole thing. And I’m like yes and no. And I think we’re gonna talk about some really important nuances about what is and what is not important when it comes to attachment. And I think that the fact you said it’s not that well known understood by, certainly not by mainstream society but not even by the academic society as well as we’ve sort to knows that’s right. But the results, and we’re definitely gonna talk about the impact is that it makes people really sort paranoid about attachment and very highly pressured to create this perfect environment for this perfect attachment. Which is one, not possible, but two maybe not as important as we think .
Dr. Or (08:02):
Well maybe we can talk a little bit about the anxiety that parents may have around providing the perfect environment in order to develop secure attachment. And that really can be thought about as two things. Number one should it be so much anxiety provoking? And number two how bad things may be if people end up being insecurely attached. And first perhaps let, let’s think about the context in which attachments are developed. Think there may be some confusion about what attachment really is. I think attachment normally, and Sarah please jump in and share your experience with understanding attachment from other people that you are seeing or patients or families. But attachment is thought of often as maybe how much the child loves the parent, how much the parent loves the child how warm you can feel around specific people. And all of this are maybe part of it, but really attachment is developed in a very narrow set of experiences in life.
And these set of experiences are in the context of being distressed early on in life. It can be being ill or something is painful to me, but also emotional, especially emotionally distressed. And so I think this is the one thing that I would want to clarify right off the bat because it’s really anxiety provoking to be a parent and think wow, I have to do so many things for my baby to feel good in so many contexts. And in reality, if we are specifically talking about attachment we are really narrowing down, narrowing it down to a very specific state which is being under distress or under emotional need. Now when we are getting to this context another useful way to think about how potentially not to be distressed as a parent is to think about it as a probabilistic way that children are thinking about their parents. They don’t think that a parent with time is gonna be there a hundred percent of the time. What they are thinking is, and they’re doing it unconsciously at automatically that they’re most probably gonna be there. And that’s enough for children to develop what we call attachment security. So it’s inevitable that parents are not gonna be always there for the kids when they need them. But it does not mean that if you miss it here or there, your child is gonna end up having an insecure attachment
Dr. Sarah (11:01):
I think that that’s so important and we talk about that all the time on here, the good enough parent. Winnicott’s model of the good enough parent and how it’s like if we get it a certain amount of the time, not all the time that that’s optimal. But there’s something else you said that I think is really important to really highlight, which is the way that we form attachments, I often sort of describe if I’m gonna distill attachment theory down to its most elemental piece, I usually will say something along the lines of the theory states that human beings are hardwired from birth to form, get proximity, game proximity to the people in their lives who are gonna keep them alive. That’s kinda it, right? So in times of distress, in times of fear, in times of heightened threat, we wanna be close to the people who are going to keep us alive.
And we do that, that’s right through creating these bonds, these emotional bonds, because we’re very emotional animals. And it’s this idea that if we expect that, I expect over time now after I’ve created this sort of bond that my parents going to reliably and consistently meet my needs when I’m in distress, which is a really, I think that when I’m in distress is I think that point you’re making that’s incredibly important. Not my mom always makes me happy or my dad always is there for every single right moment where it’s not always about that. It’s really when I’m scared, when I’m crying, when I’m hurt, when I’m sad, when I’m afraid. Do I think this person is going to help me survive this moment?
Dr. Or (12:48):
Most of the time.
Dr. Sarah (12:49):
Most of the time, reliably.
Dr. Or (12:52):
And this experience means we have so much as parents, we have so many opportunities to show our kids that we’re gonna be there for them. So when you’re thinking about anxiety well we can potentially lessen this by understanding that.
Dr. Sarah (13:10):
Yes. So this makes me think of something that you and I had been talking about when we were thinking about this episode cuz I don’t know, I’m curious if you have similar experiences, but I get a lot of parents who come to me and are, my child is so distressed when I leave. There’s a lot of separation anxiety. And I think sometimes separation, the distress around separating, which is actually pre developmentally appropriate, gets conflated or gets misunderstood as a sign of insecure attachment. I spent a lot of time trying to explain the nuance of that difference with parents that, and I’m curious what your take on that is or if you have any ways of helping people understand the difference.
Dr. Or (13:55):
I can relate to that a lot both by being a father to a three year old daughter. But also it reminds me what you’re telling me. It reminds me the first time that I was learning about attachment theory and how it looks like in the laboratory and I saw a mom leaves and I saw a child running to the door banging on the door and crying. And I said, Well that that’s an insecure attachment pattern, cannot not that’s a secure person or it’s not a secure individual or baby. And everybody in the room kind of looked at me and okay, this is a novice guy and why that is, Well because attachment really is not necessarily around when the parent leaves and how much the child is distressed when the parent leaves. In fact it’s evolutionary important for children to be distressed when parents are leaving. This is a way for them to signal, We need you back. The question that we’re asking is researchers, but also attachment is emphasizing as a theory is what happens when the parent is back. Yes. What happens to the child internally when potentially there is an opportunity to resolve a distress? Children who are securely attached can use the presence of the parent in order to become soothed quickly.
And if they have that in them enough times, if these opportunities come up enough times and parents are available and sensitive and attentive enough times then next time or where the child is growing up and going to school for example, or daycare and a parent leaves, well the children get carry a representation with them that the parent will be back and I will be able to be soothed even if I’m a little bit distressed right now. So I think this is an important point because children may cry. That’s not a sign of anything negative. I think what we want to try to think about is how fast children can and how effectively children can be soothed once we as parents are back in the picture.
Dr. Sarah (16:16):
And I think it’s also important to note based on that child’s individual ability to sue themselves. So there are individual differences between children that are not necessarily indicative of insecure attachment. So I guess what I’m trying to say is child who has a very sensitive nervous system, who gets very distressed and potentially very dysregulated when their parent separates from them, which is still in that normal response. But if they get really dysregulated when that parent comes back, even if that parent is able to suit that child and if that child does have a secure attachment to that parent, it’s gonna take that child longer to be sued by that parent than a child whose nervous system is a little bit more robust and is able to snap back faster. So I think it’s also very important cause I get a lot of parents who are like, Well my child takes forever to combat down when I seen them, when we reunite.
And it’s not necessarily that that’s your child’s in insecure is not securely attached to, it might also be a sign that their nervous system just takes a longer span of time to reset. But that you are able to effectively, and that what you said, that internal representation, that blueprint has been written, I believe my parent is going to come back. I believe my parent is going to be able to help me feel better. It could take a child two minutes for that parent to help them feel better. It could take a child 30 minutes for them, for that parent to help them feel better. And it could still result in that internalized belief that my parent is gonna help me to feel better. So that’s a important, I think distinction. Cause in a lab got this very controlled environment, right?
Dr. Or (18:02):
You’re raising a very important point, Sarah, which is to what degree temperament and genetics are part of it. Some children are simply harder to soothe they’re more irritable and less warm to the environment and they may be harder to soothe even in the presence of the parent. And for that, I wanna say maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about differences of attachment within a person rather than comparing to other children. Yes, if you are a parent to a child who may be harder to be soothed at the beginning, but with time the child is being soothed a little bit quicker yet it takes it long, it takes him or her longer than compared to other children, doesn’t mean number one that or she has a insecure attachment. It also doesn’t mean that it is bad, it just means that you as a parent are able to be there for the child better than if you were not. So I think genetics by the way have litted to do with attachment with attachment, security or insecurity. But there is a range within children that parents can really play with being there or not being there. So yes, just a thought about this as well.
Dr. Sarah (19:22):
Yes, I think that’s so important. And I think also another myth or misconception that I think happens a lot around attachment theory is that it’s not always this traumatic thing that happens that disrupts attachment. That really it’s this sort of chronic misattunements and or on the flip side, the establishment of secure attachment is this sort of consistent attunement
Dr. Or (19:54):
Dr. Sarah (19:55):
And then that I wanna talk about the script, that script that people are internalizing. I think that’s super important.
Dr. Or (20:03):
Let’s get a little bit more into this because there are multiple elements to the secure base script to secure attachment that I think we can think about as checking off in behavior. It’s not only appearing there when one is needed. Secure base script can be thought of as really generally speaking as having four elements all in the context of I need mom or I need dad or I need a caregiver or I’m under distress. One is, can the parent be there for me? Period. So when I’m distressed I know that I’m, I’m gonna run for example to mom number two I’m gonna get some sort of instrumental care. If I have a boo boo, I’m gonna be looked at. Mom is gonna look and make sure that it’s not leading. If it is leading, she’s gonna put a bandaid on it. The third element, which is the most important element is the emotional care or the emotional soothing. It’s okay, everything is okay. It might be bleeding right now but it’s not a life threatening thing. You’ll be fine. And then the fourth element is I’m feeling soothed at a child and I’m going back to do what I was doing before. So going back to your examples about a parent living because they need to leave, sometimes there is a distress, but once they are reappearing there can always be a conversation that feels the other elements. For example, I’m now soothing you, I know it was hard, but I’m always gonna be here.
And with time again those representations that you were talking about, the secure based scripts are gonna, with time be consolidated and children are not necessarily need or will not necessarily need a parent to be there for them right away because they know that when they will be there they’ll get soothed and be able to continue with their days.
Dr. Sarah (22:11):
Yes. And that script, that secure based script, I think that that’s a very big predictor of wellness and well into adulthood. And even for parents, like parents when were children, were able to consolidate scripts that when I’m in distress I expect that someone’s going to help me do this, help me through this, help me feel better. And that eventually I will feel okay again. When we hold those scripts as adults, as parents, it gets sort of passed. It shows up in our ability to parent our child in a way that passes along this sort of sense of security.
Dr. Or (22:57):
This is something that we think about that contributes to the intergenerational transmission of attachment, security or insecurity. There is something that with time something about our relationship with our parent that with time get consolidated. Specifically as you mentioned, secure based script gets consolidated and become an unconscious way through which we are there for our children. And this is definitely associated with parenting. It’s still unclear to what degree it’s somewhat associated, but to what degree it’s associated with children ability to be secure attached to their parents. But it’s definitely associated with how parents can parent and be sensitive to the children. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy if you don’t have this script to be there for a child because you are automatically not necessarily knowing how to do that. So it’s something that you need to learn. That brings us a little bit of to the realm of therapy for parents as well and how much important it is to invest in learning this script. Cause once you learn it, it’s kind of hard to unsee it.
Dr. Sarah (24:14):
Right? And the reality is not all parents are securely attached, or have that historical secure attachment with their own parents. I have a lot of parents who I work with that are trying to break cycles of intergenerational trauma and trying to change the script or create a script that’s different in their children that is from what they originally kind of imprinted, which might have been like, nobody’s gonna be here for me when I’m in distress or I’m not sure which parent I’m gonna get when I’m in distress. Is it gonna be the part of my parent that is really, really sort, terrified by my distress and is really kind of smothering? Is it the part of my parent that’s gonna be really dismissive and or angry or volatile at my distress? So if we as parents have internalized a more insecure secure base, an insecure script, we don’t have that secure base script. I think what I’m hearing you say is then if we want to parent with a new script, we have to learn it. And the best way to learn that is through reparenting ourselves and going through that process of actually getting perhaps therapeutic support or building up new scripts, really doing that conscious work of saying, I have to figure out how to feel safe so that I can communicate that to my kid.
Dr. Or (25:44):
Exactly. And you said two things that I think are important. Number one is learning the script and number two is feeling the script. If you give a parent just a script, I doubt that with time they’ll just be able to internalize and eat and act by it. They need to start feel what it means to be in the world and feel secure enough to go to someone that can also so them. And this is something that in the therapeutic world is called corrective emotional experiences. And it’s not easy to have if this by and large has, if he didn’t have those experiences, you hadn’t had those experiences. And so I think without advocating too much for it, but investing in one’s own therapy is a long term investment because it really influences your ability to parent a child that may feel better later on.
Dr. Sarah (26:44):
And I say advocate all way because or advocate way because I do think, sure, you and I were biased, we’re psychologists, we want people to be in therapy. But I don’t think it’s because we know we’ve seen what it can do not just for our patients but for their children.
Dr. Or (27:09):
It’s funny how sometimes when I see parents they’re thinking so thoroughly about where to invest the money in terms of with school to go what extracurricular activities to go. And they’re very they think twice before going to long term therapy. But I think really if we think about it from an attachment point of view and how it can influence parenting, this may be a really good investment off time. Not only financial investment.
Dr. Sarah (27:38):
Yes. Yeah, I mean literally that’s basically what my entire career on is helping parents become really truly healthy so that they can raise healthy children. I see parents in my practice, I treat kids but almost exclusively work with parents. And so the reality is I deeply believe that this family system is an entire interconnected unit. And so if I treat the parents and I help the parents feel safe and I help the parents build this sense of security internally, they will be more equipped to create secure attachments with their own children. And it’s just gonna have this domino effect
Dr. Or (28:32):
And I think one thing also to remember is that I think you touched upon it before is what happens when we fail to be that secure base for our children? I mean, what are the consequences of that? And I think the general idea is that it’s gonna be disastrous. Now I don’t get me wrong, I do think that it’s always preferable to be securely attached. Also research wise, I mean we know that it confers better socio-emotional health on many categories throughout the lifespan, but it’s not all that bad all the time. I think attachment is something that is very important to think about as an adaptive behavior. Insecure attachment is not a lack of attachment, it’s simply a second best strategy.
And when you think about it in that way and again you mentioned before about being anxious. And we will talk more about how it may be to be insecurely attached, but it’s not predicting bad outcomes all the time. In fact, we know that sometimes if in a specific age range, for example adolescents or adult, we know that those who are insecurely attached in a dismissing subtype, I think sometimes it’s referred to as avoidant subtypes. Those who tend to not necessarily go to people or even if they’re close to them when they are in need, those who don’t necessarily tend to share much keep to themselves, they don’t tend to report much depression and anxiety compared to security attached children. In other words, is it all that bad to be insecurely attached at adolescent and adulthood? One subtype of it?
Dr. Sarah (30:39):
Cause let’s explain the two subtypes quickly cuz I think there’s confusing, there’s a lot of different types of ways of describing it. So you have insecure attachment and then there’s two different types of insecure attachment. There’s a fourth, but we don’t really get into disorganized as much.
Dr. Or (30:59):
I think the easiest and simplest way to think about it and more in a way that one can think about it about in different context would be kind of hyper activating and deactivating attachment patterns. Reactivating attachment is referred to excessive proximity seeking behaviors at times of need excessive as opposed to simply find someone and be sued. Excessive meaning those adults or adolescents or children as well that would not be sued by the proximity to a caregiver or proximity to a friend or proximity to someone they trust. They would keep signaling I need help even in the presence of someone who they trust. And then there is the deactivating attachment. Those who rarely show any signs of proximity they keep to themselves. They don’t ask for help even if they’re offered, they reject it. And I think thinking about those two types can help us understand a little bit attachment on the continuum rather than categories. Some of us are a little bit more hyper activating and seek proximity more excessively. Those of us who text everyone when we need help, even those who we don’t feel necessarily that close to. And also the other side of the continuum, we have the deactivating attachment patterns. So this is kind of a general understanding of attachment on the continuum.
Dr. Sarah (32:31):
Yes, I love that. That’s a really helpful way to visualize it. I think
Dr. Or (32:37):
And those who are deactivating on that continue those who don’t tend to necessarily seek help all that much in adolescents and adulthood also don’t tend to report more anxiety and depressive symptoms compared to the securely attached individuals. Of course the question is why, and we’re not quite sure they may also be under reporting. One of the ways we think about it is maybe that they don’t tell you as a researcher here we are depressed or anxious because this is another person who we don’t want to share our feelings with. But it can also be the case that by the time they reach adolescents in adulthood, they’re so used to being insecure or deactivating in their attachment if they’re so used to take care of themselves that they’re simply not in touch with those feelings, even if they have them. And they really are managing them quite okay.
Dr. Sarah (33:34):
So there’s not distress around the unmet need. There’s like a comfortableness with unmet needs.
Dr. Or (33:41):
Exactly. It may be the case it it’s still kind of a black box for us. But if you look at only on the level of symptoms, they simply don’t report as much. Now if you look at the hyper activating adolescents and adult, they report excessively high symptoms. Again, it might be over reporting, but it also might be that they’re very much not only in tune with how much distress and anxious they are, but really they simply may feel way less secure and way more alone in this world. Cuz no matter how much they seek support, nobody is gonna be there for them. At least this is their experience even in the presence of others.
Dr. Sarah (34:22):
And that’s something really important is I think when you have that kind of anxious insecure attachment, it’s like there’s holes in the bucket and so you can fill the bucket but it doesn’t ever feel full. And it versus nobody is filling my bucket actually. And if they did it would be full because there’s a solid bucket. And so I think a lot of the work with anxious attachment is helping those individuals start to plug the holes of their bucket, start to feel like their bucket is actually sturdy enough to receive help in a way that fills them up and is enough. And that’s another episode, a whole other episode on how we treat that. But I think that that’s a really beautiful way of describing this. So that one is de-stigmatizing, but two helps parents realize, okay, even if I can’t get this right enough of the time to help my child be securely attached. I’m not dooming them necessarily to a life of pain and suffering.
Dr. Or (35:35):
Dr. Sarah (35:37):
And I think that’s very helpful, especially for parents who maybe themselves are children of chaotic lives and traumatic experiences or chronic misattunement from their parents where they really weren’t given the opportunity to develop secure attachments. They want to create an environment for their children where they’re set up for their best chance, but they themselves struggle sometimes with being able to meet every one of their children’s needs. Maybe they’re too depressed sometimes to meet their child’s needs or maybe they’re too anxious or maybe they’re too reactive and even if they’re working on it, it’s still really hard to know that.
Dr. Or (36:14):
Dr. Sarah (36:16):
One attachment style is not necessarily fixed. We can change it through therapeutic interventions.
Dr. Or (36:23):
Dr. Sarah (36:24):
And also even in situations where things don’t quite go the way we would like them to, it’s not necessarily the only option is bad and pain.
Dr. Or (36:36):
And more than that which brings me to another thing that I think is important to mention. We talk about attachment. Attachment to whom? Often case oftentimes is the case that people think about attachment to moms for the most part. Some of us also think, well dads too, but not many of us think about moms and dads and potentially other caregivers that we know children develop attachment to independently for one another, but also simultaneously. And I think for the most part of the history of attachment theory and research, this has been the way that attachment was conceptualized. Are you securely attached or insecurity attached or have attachment this organization for that matter with your mom and maybe for some rare researchers with your dad. But I think the combination of both are known today to be important to children’s mental health. And give an example we have talked about attachment security to moms as predicting for example, depression and anxiety in childhood.
But what happens when you insert attachment security or insecurity to dads at the same time to the equation? What happens when you start thinking children are either secure, secure to both parents or secure to mom and insecure to dad or insecure to mom and secure to dad or maybe insecure to both parents? That’s a different way of thinking about attachment. And we see that it does, it’s very important for children on that level to be securely attached to both parents. Cause once you are introducing insecure attachment to the other parent, you start seeing, you start seeing more depression and anxiety symptoms, you start seeing even less optimal language competence and mastery skills. I mean interesting. It’s starting to be different. So you are talking about Sarah, about sometimes I’m depressed, sometimes I’m sick, sometimes I’m not. Well I’m not there for my kid. You do wanna make sure or at least try to think both of the clinician but also as a parent, what’s going on with the other parent when I’m down. Those who are normally worse off are those who are insecurely attached to both parents in the put yourself in the point of view of the kid that does not believe that any of the parents are gonna be there for him or her at times of need compared to those who believe that okay, mom is sick, but I know that when dad comes home later tonight it’s gonna be okay.
So just maybe something to think about in terms of the point of view of the child. It’s not only about a single caregiver, it’s about multiple caregivers or attachment networks rather than a single attachment.
Dr. Sarah (39:45):
No, I think that’s really important. I think we do know, I think it’s important to point out, we’re talking about a really wide range of, we’re not talking about good and bad. We’re talking about if you could stretch that good and bad all the way out into a spectrum and say there’s range here optimal and there’s suboptimal, but there’s a lot in between. Cuz I think I get a lot of parents who are like, my child is, I parent so differently from my partner and I’m very worried that the way that my partner’s parenting my child is gonna damage their attachment security and it’s all gonna be on me. And I will often say to them, we know from the research that predict the protective factor of a secure attachment can be present if there’s simply one attachment, one secure attachment relationship in a child’s life.
But obviously there’s nuance to that. And so yeah, it’s really interesting to think about this idea that we’ll optimally we want our children to have opportunities to have secure attachments with multiple simultaneous secure based figures. Which is another thing that I think also comes up with, having caregivers and care providers and going to daycare and having extended family also be part of your child’s secure based network. That’s a good thing. We want our children to form these attachments to their teachers and to their babysitters and to their grandparents. Because it’s the more secure attachment security you have, the more secure based scripts you have, the safer you’re gonna feel in the world. That makes a lot of sense.
Dr. Or (41:30):
So it’s kind of mind boggling that we are still not talking about attachment network or attachments. Yes, we’re still talking about attachment in as a single caregiver child phenomenon but it’s not right.
Dr. Sarah (41:44):
That makes me think of a metaphor. I often used to describe the family system as a spider web. We’re all connected and if you pull one thread, the whole thing moves. You can’t just isolate a mother child attachment within a family system because there are other factors like any other piece. If you wiggle that or pull on that thread, everything moves. Like you were saying, if there’s absolutely, there’s an attachment relationship with one caregiver that’s really, really insecure, it is gonna affect the security of the attachment with the caregiver who might be more secure because it’s pulling on that, it bleeds into that a little bit.
Dr. Or (42:33):
Little, yes I should say that there is someone of a weak correlation between how securely attached children are to mothers and how they are to fathers but it’s weak. In other words, we have quite a bit of children who are securely attached to one parent, but insecurely attached to another. And that I think that’s actually not a bad thing cuz it gives hope to us thinking as parents, children can do this independent with each parent. Of course there is family environment that also influences how many secure attachment they’re gonna be. But if you’re insecure attached to one parent, it’s not the end of the story, just the beginning of the story. Well now we have other attachment relationships that we can work on as well.
Dr. Sarah (43:24):
So it’s like it’s complicated if there is no one right way to think of it. I feel like some of the things we’re saying, I might even feel almost contradictory. But in reality we’re saying it’s really nuanced. It’s really complicated. That’s why this research is so important because what you’re trying to do is isolate all these variables so you can actually look at them all. But there’s a lot of variables.
Dr. Or (43:49):
I think this is the tight rope that we are all walking on especially those of us who are doing research. Cause on the one hand you don’t, I really, and if a scientist listen to our podcast that they, they’re gonna call you right now and this is what I’m about to say. I mean, we don’t want to look, when we relay the information to lay population to people who are interested in this, to clinicians, you don’t wanna lean too heavily on the scientific domain because you’ll get lost. Plus, there’s so many empirical evidence. But sometimes you gotta give some way to the theory itself and not get lost in all the, because the scientific evidence is really confusing. You have to make sense of it, but sometimes you also wanna stick to the theory and just measure it again or differently. On the other hand, you don’t want to fall on the other side of the tightrope. You don’t wanna completely simplify things. As we started talking about some 30 or 40 minutes ago and say secure attachment is really the end all be all. And if you are not, then things are gonna be bad. And then I think it’s a tight rope to walk on for all of us.
Dr. Sarah (44:58):
Yeah, yeah, I agree. So I guess with that, I wonder if you wanted parents to walk away from this episode feeling something or understanding something, what would you hope the takeaway is?
Dr. Or (45:15):
Well, I think a couple of things. Number one if you as a parent feel that something is not completely right in the way that your child feels in the world when you are around them it doesn’t have to be well articulated, but it can be felt. And I trust that people can feel that seek therapy even for a short term to articulate what it is. If it end up being something about your ability to be there for the child in an ultimate way to provide the children with secure attachment you’re doing something very important for yourself and the child. It may end up not being that, in which case it’s also important to articulate what it is, but I want parents, I ideally want parents to be sensitive to their ability to be there for the children at times of need.
Dr. Sarah (46:15):
Yes. That’s so important. And I think as parents sometimes it’s hard to give ourselves permission to kinda, You were saying we’ll spend all sorts of money on extracurriculars and tutors and stuff for our children, but we don’t do it for ourselves when in fact, doing this work for ourselves is for our children. Exactly. It’s just as beneficial to them as it is to us.
Dr. Or (46:42):
Well put Sarah, I like that. Yes, yes.
Dr. Sarah (46:48):
Yeah, no, so I think it’s so wonderful talking to you and it’s nice to hear. It’s nice to hear the science side of it because I think I’m plugged into that. But it’s hard to translate it to parents. I think our field in general struggles very much translating this research to the general population. There’s a lot of contradictions, there’s a lot of misunderstandings about it. And then those misunderstandings, it’s like it becomes telephone, the game of telephone, and it gets overly distorted and overly distorted. The more social media and people who don’t totally fully understand it start to share more about it or it gets, it really becomes quite distorted. And so I think we have a responsibility as people who are directly connected to this research to start to get the word out more accurately to parents, which I think is amazing that you’re doing this research and that you came on here to help us understand it better.
Dr. Or (47:57):
Sarah, actually, I’m curious, do you feel that parents who come to you for help are asking for attachment related help? Or is it something that you are the one who is promoting this in front of them?
Dr. Sarah (48:13):
It’s interesting. I would say it’s almost half and half. And a lot of times I get a lot of parents who come to me who don’t understand that this is the problem, that this is where we can enter into a solution. Like, hey, let’s actually, some of the things that you are focusing on might be inadvertently creating more anxiety in your child’s attachment and less sense of safety and security. So there’s a lot of room to grow because we can really help them recalibrate that relatively easily if they’re open, usually they’re coming to me, they’re open to something.
But then I also, and I think this is the part of maybe the benefit of social media and some of the more the ways that our society has created more outlets to share information about attachment in a more mainstream way with parents that they’re becoming educated about this, they are learning about this, albeit sometimes slightly inaccurately. And so then they come to me having a lot of anxiety that they’re doing something very damaging to their child’s attachment. And then the work is also a little bit about just helping them root their fears in actual reality. Try to help them say, Well, let’s look at the facts and let’s actually understand what it is that you are interpreting here and just check and see if this is actually accurate. And then from there we can usually find some room to come closer to more accurate attunement of the things that matter. So I do a lot of work helping parents kind of tune out the noise that’s making them feel like they’re doing a bad job. And to start to know, okay, well what are the real markers, what we’re talking about? What are the things that I actually have to do to create secure attachment in my child? It’s less than we think, which is relieving to many parents. But to do it effectively?
Dr. Or (50:15):
No, it’s interesting you’re saying that it’s basically changing a little bit the perspective of parents that come with a specific problem and telling them, well, they might be ways to be there for your child that would make them feel better around you. I get a sense also that don’t, parents that I do talk to come with a concrete problem they believe the child has. And I think the shifting of perspective, maybe it’s not necessarily only the problem, it’s next to the child and who’s supporting the child when dealing with the problem. I think this is an important shift of perspective that when parents see that, I think it’s relatively easy to actually start changing your behavior towards making your children feel better. So I like how you put it and I am very much aligned with how you see it.
Dr. Sarah (51:09):
Yes. And in those situations. And that is why in my practice, I don’t think of a single case that we treat where we see the child in isolation for their quote problem. Even if that is what we are treating, we always bring the parents into that treatment because children do not live in a vacuum. They are in inextricably intertwined with the family system. Absolutely. So I very much respect clinicians that work exclusively with kids, but in my practice we don’t do that. We always integrate the parents, even if it’s very clear that we’re treating a symptom in a child because of exactly what you’re saying. We need to know who’s next to the child when they’re struggling with this and how we can support that person to support the child. We can’t reduce it down to symptoms.
Dr. Or (52:09):
I’m a hundred percent with you on this, Sarah.
Dr. Sarah (52:12):
Well, thank you so much for coming. And so if people wanna learn more about the research that you’re doing or the therapy that you provide, how can people get in touch with you?
Dr. Or (52:20):
Dr. Sarah (52:35):
Amazing. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing all this with us. It’s so interesting. Oh, if we could nerd out on this for ours.
Dr. Or (52:43):
Thanks. Thanks Sarah for inviting me. I really appreciate that.
Dr. Sarah (52:52):
Thanks for listening. If you’re interested in additional resources for parenting support, head over to my website, drsarahbren.com. There you’ll find free guides to help you with everything from planning your postpartum, to fostering resilience in your child, and creating a successful toddler bedtime routine. You can find all that and more at drsarahbren.com. Until next Tuesday, don’t be a stranger.
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