A Paradigm Shift
Have you ever had your view of something suddenly crash, and then in a head-shaking movement, have to reorganize all of your thinking about it? Well, I recently had such an experience, and I’d like to share it with you. Maybe there’s something in it that might be helpful to you, particularly if you’re mental health professional. The big shift that I’ve had is about attachment trauma and the first year.
As a developmental psychologist, I’ve known forever about the importance of a child’s life experiences during the first year of life . . . how they create the foundation for a person’s future relationships, and their mental and physical health. After three days at a conference with Dan Siegel, Mary Main and Erik Hesse studying Disorganized Attachment: Understanding and Treating Early Life Traumas, my understanding of attachment and the first year has moved to a whole new level.
It’s All Visible By the End of the First Year
What I know is that by the end of the first year, it is possible see the trajectory of a person’s whole life. If you know an infant’s attachment style, it’s possible to predict his or her ability to experience and sustain intimacy in adult relationships, ability to parent children, the attachment style of his or her children, even the kinds of health issues this person may have in adulthood. And the only thing that changes this predictable lifespan path are therapeutic interventions that modify the relational experiences of the first year! This statement puts the field of mental health and the practice of psychotherapy in a whole new framework! And it makes me rethink the context of my work as both a practitioner and a counselor educator.
A Short History of Attachment Theory
The presenters spent hours reviewing the history of attachment, beginning with John Bowlby’s ground-breaking research. Then we reviewed and discussed video clips illustrating Ainsworth’s three attachment styles: secure, ambivalent and avoidant. The work of Mary Main, a student of Ainsworth, expanded the body of attachment research by identifying a fourth attachment style: the disorganized “D- type” attachment style.
What’s important about Main’s D-type attachment style is that it’s the most common attachment style of people who seek psychotherapy. It’s the group that most mental health practitioners are working with, and it’s also the most complicated to help because of the D-style’s dissociative features, unless you’ve identified their D-style attachment. Then this group is the most easily helped.
Main’s D-type attachment style contains a critical mother-child relationship dynamic in which the child sees the mother or primary caregiver not as a source of safety and attachment, but as a source of fear and danger. This aversion reaction can be present even when the mother is not behaving aggressively. So children’s opposing needs for safety vs. attachment cause a painful internal conflict of needs that involves fright without resolution. This conflict becomes visible in children’s disorganized, disorientated and confusing reactions to the mother or attachment figure:
- Simultaneous contradictory behavior, such as moving towards the mother while also fleeing from her
- Sequential contradictory behaviors that repeatedly reveal both the need for the mother and the fear of the mother
- A stilling or freezing of all movement (dissociation)
- Undirected, misdirected, incomplete and interrupted movements & expressions that reveal the inner conflict
- Disorganized speech and/or reasoning while discussing loss or other potential trauma
- Strange or anomalous movements and postures.
The kinds of the parental behaviors that causes children to respond chaotically include:
- Going into trance-like states
- Animal-like stalking of the child
- Making facial expressions that involve exposure of the canine teeth, like as a snarling dog
- Making growling and other inhuman sounds
- Displaying signs of being afraid of the infant, such as backing away
- Making strange or “haunted” sounds such as “Hiiiiiii” when greeting the child
Mary Main’s Ground-breaking Attachment Research
Main’s research findings show two interesting things about the Disorganized Attachment style. The first is that infants identified with this style have developed an “inverted” relational style that turns them into either compulsive caretakers of their mothers, or they have become “Solicitous Caregivers” or “Little Generals” around their mothers. They’ve become become “parentized” children whose focus is providing stability for their mothers, and surrendered their own needs and locus of control. This caregiving pattern is commonly identified as codependency, and commonly seen in those who enter the helping professions, particularly mental health practitioners.
The second interesting Main’s research showed is that the Disorganized Attachment is the most common attachment style—in about 30% of the non-clinical population—and in about 80 – 90% of the clinical population. So it’s likely that the D-style is also the most dominant attachment style of mental health practitioners. And the probability is very high that novice therapists and their clients have D-style attachment styles.
Given that relationship is at the core of the client-therapist experience, it’s critical that psychotherapists know their own attachment style and what they are bringing to the therapeutic experience. It’s also important that parents, childcare providers and educators know their attachment style, which is why Main and her colleagues developed the Adult Attachment Inventory (AAI). They were seeing so many children with impaired attachment in their research projects that they developed this inventory to help them understand the adult side of the parent-child relationship.
In addition to being the most common style, Main & Hesse also identified the D-style attachment in infancy as the strongest early predictor of psychopathology in young adulthood. This means that early identification of children’s attachment styles is a critical component of early intervention strategies for professionals working with young children. Main’s research showed that 45% of Americans are not well attached.
Main and Hesse discovered that the D-type attachment style is often a “second generation” phenomenon that transmits the mother’s own unresolved childhood fears to her child through an intergenerational pattern of developmental trauma. This makes it really important that parents—particularly mothers—know their own attachment history and style so they can avoid reenacting it with their children.
Given This, Now What?
I can see how providing mothers with outside support during their child’s first year of life could change both the mother’s and the child’s lifespan trajectory! Wow, what a great insight! Wow, what a noble idea! Wow, what a massive project!
Putting all of these a-ha moments together set me on a rollercoaster ride that began in a flash of understanding, shifted to feelings of excitement and possibilities, and landed in nervous system overwhelm when I grasped the magnitude of such an effort. And in my head, I heard the old saying, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” and I wonder: whose hands are rocking the cradles these days? Who is shaping children’s first year? Why isn’t attachment training part of the curriculum for training psychotherapists, bodyworkers, childcare providers, and preschool teachers and directors and educators?