Friday, May 09, 2008

On the Real Monsters in Children's Lives (Attachment Theory and Mindfulness)

The Last Psychiatrist posted this yesterday, and I thought it needed to be shared with as many people as possible, especially parents. I have some lengthy comments below.

Cookie Monster Becomes Aware

cookie monster.jpg

An article from McSweeney's (I know, I know) called, Cookie Monster Searches Deep Within Himself, And Asks: Is Me Really Monster?

While humorous though predictable, I did catch a reply on Metafilter which, in my opinion, borders on genius:

They are all monsters, that's the point. The show is for children, don't forget. They are monsters the kids don't have to fear. The show's message for kids was "We know you're sometimes afraid of monsters, but not all monsters are bad."

Sometimes monsters can be cute and cuddly and quirky and funny. Elmo's a monster and he has such a cute giggle!. These are the good monsters.

Not like the monster sitting next to you on the sofa, watching the TV. Not like the monster WHO TOLD YOU FOR THE LAST TIME TO STOP CRYING.

Not like the monsters who kick your toys and curse under their breath. Not like the monsters who say you stole their youth and take pills because YOU'RE DRIVING ME CRAZY. Not like the monsters who meet strange men at the door and leave you home alone. Not like the monsters who hit with their hands, or their words. Not like the monsters who come into your room at night stinking of whiskey and sweat, with madness in their eyes and a belt in their hands.

On Sesame Street, the monsters have not HAD ENOUGH, and they aren't doing it FOR YOUR OWN GOOD.

Your monsters are not brought to you by the number 4 or the letter M. Your monsters don't want you to come and play, they want you to LEAVE THEM ALONE.

Cookie monster is safe, and so are Elmo and the Count. Even Oscar and Bert are your friends even if they are bit grouchy or fussy. Your monsters think our monsters are harmless.

To them.

Your monsters bought you a Tickle-Me Elmo doll, didn't they? They bought it to JUST SHUT YOU UP ALREADY. So they let you play with Elmo and make him laugh and giggle. But Elmo doesn't just laugh and giggle. Elmo loves you, and he listens.

And he records.

And soon, Elmo is going to tell you exactly what to do.

That last little part is a bit freaky, but the rest is spot on correct.

I've been reading a lot about trauma in children, attachment theory, and other "fun" stuff. Many of us grew up with parents who unknowingly wounded us in ways that impact our lives and our relationships in powerful ways.

Children need consistency, especially before the age of six. They don't understand why mother is nice and loving one minute but harsh and angry the next. They don't understand that dad just had a bad day at work, maybe got yelled at by the boss, and doesn't want to hold his daughter when she wants to be held.

Many of these little empathic failures are unavoidable -- no parent is perfect. But when they rise to the level presented above on a regular basis -- and in this hectic world we have created, it's happening more and more -- then the child ends up wounded in ways that impact trust, intimacy, and self-esteem. The hardest part for the child-mind is that it can't see the parents -- who it depends on for love, nurturing, and survival -- as the monsters they sometimes are.

This is especially a big issue in infancy, when attachment is occurring. Here is a brief look at the different styles of attachment:
Characteristics of Secure Attachment
  • Securely attached children exhibit minimal distress when separated from caregivers. Remember, these children feel secure and able to depend on their adult caregivers. When the adult leaves, the child feels assured that the parent or caregiver will return.
  • When frightened, securely attached children will seek comfort from caregivers. These children know their parent or caregiver will provide comfort and reassurance, so they are comfortable seeking them out in times of need.

Characteristics of Ambivalent Attachment
  • Ambivalently attached children usually become very distressed when a parent leaves. This attachment style is considered relatively uncommon, affecting an estimated 7-15% of U.S. children. Research suggests that ambivalent attachment is a result of poor maternal availability. These children cannot depend on their mother (or caregiver) to be there when the child is in need.

Characteristics of Avoidant Attachment
  • Children with an avoidant attachment tend to avoid parents or caregivers. When offered a choice, these children will show no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. Research has suggested that this attachment style might be a result of abusive or neglectful caregivers. Children who are punished for relying on a caregiver will learn to avoid seeking help in the future.

Problems with Attachment

What happens to children who do not form secure attachments? Research suggests that failure to form secure attachments early in life can have a negative impact on behavior in later childhood and throughout the life. Children diagnosed with oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently display attachment problems, possibly due to early abuse, neglect, or trauma. Clinicians suggest that children adopted after the age of six months have a higher risk of problems with attachment.

While attachment styles displayed in adulthood aren’t necessarily the same as those seen in infancy, research suggests that early attachments can have a serious impact on later relationships. For example, those who are securely attached in childhood tend to have good self-esteem, strong romantic relationships, and the ability to self-disclose to others. For more information, see this articles on attachment styles.
Later studies revealed a fourth type of attachment (disorganized) that results from having an inconsistent parenting style (or from having actual borderline parents), and often produces a borderline child. Some psychologists think that this style of attachment results from parents who are both loving and fearsome to their children, resulting in children who have very erratic attachment.
Children with a disorganized-insecure attachment style show a lack of clear attachment behavior. Their actions and responses to caregivers are often a mix of behaviors, including avoidance or resistance. These children are described as displaying dazed behavior, sometimes seeming either confused or apprehensive in the presence of a caregiver.

Main and Solomon (1986) proposed that inconsistent behavior on the part of parents might be a contributing factor in this style of attachment. In later research, Main and Hesse (1990) argued that parents who act as figures of both fear and reassurance to a child contribute to a disorganized attachment style. Because the child feels both comforted and frightened by the parent, confusion results.
When parents are sometimes monsters (as in the comment above) and sometimes loving and affectionate, the child becomes very split in its understanding (all of which is pre-conscious) of how to relate to the parents. This creates anxiety and stress hormones, both of which can impact the developing brain and -- of course -- the developing sense of self.

Obviously, we want our children to exhibit a secure attachment style so that they are free to explore their world, feel safe with us when they are afraid, and know that we are always there for them when needed. These children grow up to be secure, open, loving adults who are capable of having healthy intimate relationships.
Parents of securely attached children tend to play more with their children. Additionally, these parents react more quickly to their children's needs and are generally more responsive to their children than the parents of insecurely attached children. Studies have shown that securely attached children are more empathetic during later stages of childhood.
It doesn't take much to be a "good enough" parent. One good tool that would no doubt help many parents is a little mindfulness practice. Taking a moment to be mindful of we are acting toward our children -- these sponges who soak up everything we give them, both good and bad -- can go a long way toward increasing the odds of raising healthy, happy children.

You can learn more about mindfulness as a meditation practice here.

Jack Kornfield talks about mindfulness:
Mindfulness is attention. It is a non-judging, receptive awareness, a respectful awareness. Unfortunately, much of the time we don’t attend in this way. Instead, we react, judging whether we like, dislike, or can ignore what is happening. Or we measure our experience against our expectation. We evaluate ourselves and others with a stream of commentary and criticism.
It's not a huge commitment of time, and we don't even need to engage in formal meditation practice -- we simply need to expand our awareness and become more awake to how we relate to the people in our lives, especially our children.

This article presents it as well as any:
Mindfulness meditation is somewhat different. There is no particular focus. It is a process of paying attention to your ongoing experience, whatever it may be at the moment. If you have a pain in your knee and that happens to be prominent in your awareness right now, you pay attention to that — not trying to concentrate, but simply noticing it and letting it be there. You don't try to make it different. You don't try to hold onto it. You just notice it as fully as you can, including what is going through your mind about it.

Paying attention to your experience is not difficult, but the mind has a strong tendency to wander off. That's why it takes practice. It is a skill.

But it isn't necessary to practice zazen sitting in a lotus position. You can use everyday opportunities to practice. When you feel like flinching while talking with someone, that is an excellent time to practice because it will help you deal with the situation. Observe your experience — the person you're talking to, your surroundings, your bodily sensations, the thoughts arising in your mind. Just pay attention without withdrawing or flinching. It is very calming.

Isn't it worth the effort? If we can be tuned in to our frustrations, and how we are feeling, we are less likely to allow those feelings to impact how we relate to our children. It's essentially about becoming responsible for our responses so that we don't act out unconsciously.

After all, these are our children's lives we are talking about.

1 comment:

amisthorn said...

read dan siegel's "the mindful brain". Vipassana grows and strengthens the parts of the brain that are grown and strengthened in secure attachment.

As well as becoming your own master, become your own kind compassionate patient and loving mother. Self attunement through Vipassana effectively replaces a secure attachment.