What Impairs Attachment?
A big pet peeve of mine is the label “attachment disorder.” This is a diagnosis given to kids who have typically experienced severe disruption in the natural order of what should have been the effortless, instinctual connection we’re designed to make from the very beginning. They were prepared at the level of their brains, their hormones and their entire sensing organism to connect, to be skin-to-skin with oxytocin flowing and weaving the powerful bonding foundations for healthy attachment. They expected to connect.
Many children with the most severe cases of “attachment disorder” had this expectation crushed in a way that has left a primal imprint. Can you think of a time when you were totally, ecstatically primed for a connection and it for whatever reason did not happen? Or it happened and then went away without warning or explanation? I’m speaking here of a romantic situation. Remember the disappointment, the deflation of your entire being? Now take that feeling and multiply it by an order of magnitude of a thousand. Ten thousand. As if there was nothing to you but that deflation, that floor pulled out from beneath you. As if the floor pulled out from beneath you was you.
And can you remember the feeling you’ve had — c’mon, almost all of us have had it — “That’s it, I’m done with <men / women> — they all suck”? Your trust had been broken and you probably gave a cold shoulder to <men / women> for a while. This was usually just momentary — a few days, or weeks, maybe months, sometimes years — until you’d licked your wounds and nursed back your willingness to trust. The thing is, before this happened, you had gathered decades’ worth of experiences that taught you that people in general could be trusted. You had a life’s worth of data to gradually erode the new distrust caused by your recent heartbreak.
A baby who has experienced early separation has no previous data upon which to conclude the world can be trusted. A child whose world is imploded by trauma, family upheaval, and disruption of his sense of secure base, has very little such data. Ever since Freud, psychologists have taught us that the first stage of psychological growth includes the development of trust as a foundation for secure relationships with others.
Babies who experience separation from the only connection they’ve ever known — their first biological and psychological home, their mother — have had their nascent sense of trust violated. The separation may happen because of adoption or surrogacy, but also for much more “routine” reasons, such as medical procedures on the mother; NICU confinement of the baby; or the intrusion of traumatic or disruptive events within the family.
Whatever the cause, the result can be a child who learns early on that the world is not a safe place, not a place to trust people. Trying to love this child can be hard. The love and care we offer can have a hard time getting in. As Primal Wound author Nancy Verrier says of her relationship to adopted daughter, “I discovered that it was easier for us to give her love than it was for her to accept it.” On very deep levels, those who have experienced early disruption of their connections* may unconsciously feel that it’s too dangerous to love and be loved, authentically and deeply; how can they trust that they won’t be hurt or abandoned again?
Connection Disruption, Rather than “Attachment Disorder”
*See what I did there? Rather than saying “those with attachment disorder” I said “those who have experienced early disruption of their connections.” This is a far more fruitful perspective to take, because it recognizes (very accurately) that attachment is a dynamic, reciprocal process. As Daniel Siegel writes, “attachment is a relationship measure, not a feature of the child alone.”
And yet we don’t see parents being diagnosed with attachment disorder when their child is struggling with attachment! This is why I prefer the term “attachment disruption” rather than “attachment disorder.” It captures the fact that a process has disrupted rather than a person is disordered. In fact, the responses to disrupted attachment are usually quite brilliant and extremely adaptive!
When we can expand our perspective and apply an adaptive lens to the behaviors and developmental issues of kids who’ve experienced disruptions in their connection (and thereby in their ability to trust), we can see them as brilliant adaptation strategies that have gotten stuck. They are no longer adaptive. They are no longer useful. They get in the way and cause problems. When a child who has been moved from one mother to another cannot allow himself to accept the love and care his adoptive mother has for him, in bucketsful, it’s painful for both of them.
An adaptive lens interprets children’s behaviors and expressions in light of what they have experienced. Participating in a panel presentation on ADD at an adoption conference years ago, I proposed a new label to use for children who had suffered through maternal separation — which essentially engraves the threat of annihilation in their nervous system — and who years later could not gather their attention and focus on a particular task. The new label I proposed was: Natural Organismic Response to Massive Abandonment or Loss—acronym, NORMAL.
Who Is Responsible for Fixing / Fostering Attachment?
This is why people who do brilliant work with attachment-challenged families — Daniel Hughes, Bryan Post, Heather Forbes — see as the #1 goal to create conditions of security and trustworthiness for the child. And the job belongs to nobody other than to the parents. Extreme situations contain instructive seeds for more average ones, and that is the case here. Thus, the answer to the question posed in my title: In every family, it is the parents’ job to foster attachment. To be a safe, secure place. To be a home base. It is solely the child’s job to be. Period. To be.
This is why I flinch when watching the YouTube video (which won’t play here because of its ads) of an expert whose book I recommend as frequently as my own. I flinch when I hear Gordon Neufeld’s response to the interviewer’s question, “Why are parents so confused?”
Along with too much information (“so many people telling them what to do”), which I agree contributes significantly to parental stress and confusion, Neufeld goes on to say,
Part of the problem is that our children are not pulling the best out of us, they’re not pushing the right buttons.
Here’s the thing: it is our responsibility as parents to make those “right buttons” so irresistible that our kids can’t not push them! When we cultivate within ourselves the calm authority our children need and seek, it organically fosters the “right relationship” Neufeld speaks of.
When children are in right relationship with their parents, when they’re dependent upon them, it brings the most wonderful alpha provider instincts out of the adult. But many of our children are not attaching properly, they’re not attaching deep enough, and then we lose our confidence that we’re their answer.
Despite his wording, I doubt Dr. Neufeld believes secure attachment is the child’s job. His book Hold On To Your Kids (which I recommend almost as often as my own book, especially to parents of tweens and teens) is full of excellent recommendations for parents who want to enrich and strengthen the attachment process with their children.
If you actually posture yourself as if you’re your child’s answer, it pulls out the right place in you.
Oh how true this is! The heart of coaching I do with parents addresses the downward spiraling loss of confidence so many parents experience today. Neufeld also hints at one of the unsung virtues of healthy connection — its positive effect on discipline:
Children need to be in right relationship with their parents for their parents to be able to have the context to parent them and have the power they need to do their job. The secret and the key to it all is in the child’s attachments to the adults responsible.
Indeed — a child enjoying a secure, connected relationship with her parents experiences it a privilege and a joy to behave in harmony with their wishes. In this way, robust attachment is like the power steering of parenting!
So yes, it is your job to create the conditions for healthy relationship with your child. But take heart, for as I point out as often as I can, this is not about perfection but rather about striving. There is tremendous power in striving, even proven by neurodevelopmental research. As Gordon Neufeld so wisely points out,
When you rise to the occasion to become the parent your child needs, it grows us up, and we find that we can find a way there.
Image of mother and baby by Lisa Pflaum, used with permission
About Marcy Axness
I'm the author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers," and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I'm delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I'm happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I'm offering "A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool."