Monday, October 25, 2010

A Deeper Understanding of Attachment - Part 1 (of a few, I hope)

Note:  I'd really like to open up a conversation on this topic.  I welcome and encourage you to leave me comments with your thoughts, so that we can further engage in dialogue...


Attachment is something that both adoptive parents (AP), and prospective adoptive parents (PAP), talk about a lot.  They read books about it before bringing their child(ren) home and, after bringing them home, work diligently at building those bonds that cultivate emotional and psychological health in their child(ren).

Though I've come to the whole attachment theory from the perspective of a PAP, something that I've been thinking a lot about lately is that attachment is not an issue exclusive to children who have been adopted.  It's also very relevant to children who join their families biologically.  Lately, I've been adding to my (granted, limited) knowledge of attachment by taking a parenting course with Geoff.  The course, called "The Power to Parent," is based on the work of a guy that I've talked about before:  Gordon Neufeld.  He is a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist who wrote the book Hold On To Your Kids, which, when I read it a few years ago, began to change how I parented Matthew.  The course we're taking now has, thus far, been very profound for both Geoff and me: in understanding Matthew better; in understanding our role and responsibilities as parents from a unique perspective; and even in understanding ourselves better.  Neufeld doesn't claim ownership of all of the ideas he talks about; in addition to proposing his own, deeply researched conclusions, he has made many connections between various existing theories out there.  The contents of his book seem to be the tip of the iceberg, and what we're learning about parenting and attachment is very thought-provoking.  This post is just the beginning point.

The science of attachment theory began, as far as I can tell, in the late 1960s, with the work of a psychologist by the name of John Bowlby.  He described attachment as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings." (Bowlby, 1969, p.194)  Failure to develop these connections were viewed as having a significant affect on children not only during childhood but throughout their lives.

Maybe this is obvious to most people reading it.  But is wasn't to me, at least as it concerned my biological child.  Perhaps I've simply assumed that because Matthew was born to me, he would automatically be attached to me.  The truth is that he is extremely attached to me and so perhaps I've taken that for granted.  Perhaps it's because I intuitively cultivated attachment with him (as most parents do) that I haven't really thought about attachment re: bio kids a whole lot until recently.  Whatever the reason, I have a new understanding (as a result of these parenting classes) about the importance of deliberate attachment with all children - adopted and bio.

What I also understand better now is that attachment is a life-long process.  It is not something that simply happens at some point in the parent-child relationship and then stays intact in perpetuity.  Instead, it is something that must be cultivated (at the parent's initiative) for as long as one parents a as long as you both shall live.  Even more specifically, with younger children, it is something that needs work every single time we have been separated from them - whether the separation is lengthy (such as a day or a week apart) or for a short period of time (such as the length of a tv show or a playdate or a nap).

One of the gazillion things that has made sense to me in these first six parenting classes is the notion of meeting a child's attachment needs in abundance, and cultivating their dependency on us as parents.  This is somewhat counter culture these days, to be honest, and may be controversial.  How many times, since beginning to parent Matthew, have I hear people say that our children need to learn to be independent?  Someone said it to me just a couple of weeks ago, when challenging our decision to h/school (another topic entirely!) - that I needed to help Matthew become more independent.  My response (having started this parenting course already!) was:  "why?  He's only six!" But that's our culture.  We foster our children's independence at every turn, and urge them to be as self-sustaining as possible.  We leave them to figure things out on their own, encourage them to resolve disputes with each other without our assistance ("figure things out"), and assume a far greater competence and independence than is likely appropriate for young children.  I recognize that many will disagree with me here, at least a little bit, but really, let's push things a little by asking this question:  why do our five, ten, and fifteen-year old children need to be functioning with a certain level of independence?  An answer that might come readily to your mind is similar to what I heard from the parent I was speaking to a week or two ago:  "because they grow up and need to learn to function in a society as an adult."

My perspective on that comment is:  of course they do.  That individual and I have the exact same conclusion in mind.  Our children will absolutely grow up, and they will need to learn to function in a society as an adult.  My challenge is only that I'm thinking there's a better way to go about it than by encouraging or assuming or forcing our young children into premature independence.

One of many things I've been thinking about as we take this parenting course is a sentence that Neufeld used in one of the early video segments we watched in the class.  He said that if the provision is greater than the need, the growing child will not need to be in perpetual pursuit of that which they need from their parent.  I know that's a mouthful and may need to be re-read.  To put that in more concrete terms, using the example I began above:  if I provide my child with ample opportunity to be dependent on me to take care of him and his needs, then he will not be in perpetual pursuit of me to take care of him as he grows if I meet and exceed his needs, he will ultimately learn to do this on his own, because he won't be pre-occupied with trying to get me to take care of him.

Confused yet?

It confused me for a while...until suddenly I got it.  Let me give you an example.  Several months ago, I began lying down with Matthew at bedtime.  It was something that I had resisted doing, because I thought he was old enough to be on his own at bedtime, because I didn't want to start a pattern that would be hard to get out of, and because (honestly) I needed to get things done during that precious time when my child was in bed and I wasn't yet.  But something clicked with me a number of months back - that he needed me to do this.  He needed me to lie down with him and help him through the lonely time that happened between his lying down and his falling asleep.  Despite being with me most of most days, he needed yet more proximate connection with me.  So (granted, with a sigh and thinking when is he going to start growing up?), I began to lie down with him...and have continued to do so, for many months, with few exceptions.  I met his need (and, incidentally, ended up finding huge personal satisfaction in the heightened connection with my child, unbelievable conversations, the best possible cuddles, and the looks of adoration that came from him when I lay down beside him..but it's not about me here).   The fact that I met his need (and probably exceeded it) is the point here.  A number of days ago, something surprising happened.  We'd spent about fifteen minutes lying in his bed and chatting, when he said this:

Matthew:  "Mom, you know I love you and love you to lie down with me, right?"

Me:  "Yup."

Matthew:  "Well, to tell you, Mom, I hope this doesn't hurt your feelings, but it's getting kinda boring with you lying here all the time. (pause)  Does that hurt your feelings?"

Me:  "I'm probably more surprised than anything; I've been lying here thinking that it was helping you.  But I'm fine.  Would you like me to go now or stay a little longer?"

Matthew:  "I think I'd like you to go. I'll look at a book for a while now."

Me:  "That's ok with me.  And I'm around if you change your mind."

When I left the room, I was a bit bewildered by the sudden turn of events...until I remembered:  if the provision is greater than the need, they don't need to pursue it.  By offering a child an opportunity to be dependent, they will naturally and gradually seek to become independent.  I had provided more than Matthew needed and he was ready to do something a little differently.  I have continued to lie down with him in the evenings since then, but two additional times in the past week, he and I have had similar conversations and I have ended up leaving after only a few minutes.  I have a feeling that it won't be all that long before I'm back to being able to get a few things done around the house. The only problem for me now is that I'm actually going to miss those times!

So that's the first part of my current thoughts on attachment.  What are yours?


  1. I have been having similar conversations with my sister, regarding her 24 month-old daughter. Counter to the approach of many parents currently, my sister nursed until this past summer, when my niece basically stopped nursing on her own, and never used a "cry for a while" strategy for sleep - cries would get a response. And, there was quite a while where they doubted their sleep parenting, and weren't sure what to do. Then, again this summer, something clicked, and my niece has been going to sleep quite independently for naps and at bedtime. No crying, no waking and fussing. On the contrary, a couple of friends are having ongoing sleep issues with their same-age daughters, who fuss and cry and take ages to fall asleep. Their behaviour is being interpreted as attempts to avoid napping or manipulate the situation. I totally realize there are individual differences between children, and some issues are much more complex than the approach used by parents. I am just sharing observations for further thought. Oh, and my niece has also not attended nursery at church until recently. A few attempts here and there resulted in lots of sadness and tears on her part, and she was much more content (mostly) in the service with my sister. However, over the past few weeks, she has been asking to attend nursery, and has been happily playing there during the service - a decision she made when she was comfortable. While I don't know exactly how I will parent my children, I am watching closely as my little niece demonstrates these lovely signs of security and comfort in her relationship with her parents, and her self-directed choices around safe levels of independence.

  2. You're awesome, Ruth. And if I was a little girl I would pick you as my mom!

    Our twins have their beds in our room and wake a few times a night to check and make sure we are there. They are almost 5 yrs old. Sometimes they end up in bed with us and we count that as pure joy...even though we may not get much sleep! *grin*

    I recently started playing board games with my older boys at night time because it became obvious to me that they were feeling left out at bedtime. What a blessing this has been for me! I am sitting at the table right now homeschooling, (and writing to you) and my 14 yr old just said to my 12 yr old, "Hey Fikru, I love you." This time together as a family each evening has blessed their relationship abundantly...and one day...they will grow up and move out...and I will sit here alone (still writing to and wishing for the days when I spent every waking moment with my precious children.

  3. Ruth, I think this makes perfect sense! I was parented by a single mother and she honestly did the best she could but she defintely had to "influence independancy" in me at young age...I was a "latch key kid" and spent a lot of time parenting myself...thankfully for my mom I was never a kid who took advantage of that.

    I do think it took me a lot longer to figure out who I was though because of this and still to this day have troubles believing people will be there to help me if I need it....I think I can only depend on help from myself...I am slowly working on this though and getting better at telling people what I need.

    Thanks for you insightful post!

    I also really liked Joy and Corrie's repsonses - it is so good to have a community of parents and parents-to-be who share their experiences.

  4. Very interesting post Ruth.
    I used to notice after my 3 year old spent the night at my parent's, her behaviour the next day would be horrible. After reading one of your other posts about the importance of re-attaching, I started focusing on just her when I picked her up, and making sure we re-connected. Amazing what a positive change those few minutes could have.
    Guess I'll now have to start snuggling longer at bedtime (sigh!) in lieu of attacking the "to do" list. I've always figured, "you just spent the entire day with me, do you REALLY need more of me?". I need to remind myself from time to time, that the answer to that question is in fact "yes", and be glad for the fact that I have such a sweet little girl who still wants to snuggle with her mommy :)

  5. HI Ruth ,

    Love the post but am so tired from work I can hardly type but when I can I will tell you a story from today that it sounds like I was using some of the words as you where typing them here, Love it ! I was wondering if you have any handouts from your course I would love to read and hear more.
    Thanks for writing as always
    Who will fall asleep tonight with a smile with all our good news updates and the thought that we have some leaving for court a month early , WOW who would have ever seen that coming !

  6. I am in complete agreement with you! I always cringe when the parents I work with literately or figuratively push their children away, claiming that their children need to be "big" or "tough" or "strong". What's all the rush?

  7. Thanks so much for the comments, folks. I love every one of them, and will be thinking about them as I stew on future posts on this subject. There's something in all of this attachment stuff that really speaks to me - it makes sense at a very intuitive level - it's just societal norms that mess me up sometimes...and my own flawed nature! I'm going to enjoy picking up this conversation again very soon.

    (and Corrie - thanks for the compliment - you're awfully sweet!!)


  8. I do think that many kids do not get enough. I also think who are we to say what their "enough" is? Each one of us and our children have different levels of need related to our life experiences, our personalities, etc.

    Our son Jonah, who is now 13, used to be very shy. He didn't want to go to Sunday School or birthday parties or playdates unless I stayed with him. Most people we knew said that I should push him and force him to stay by himself, that eventually he would stop crying and adjust. They also thought that I shouldn't homeschool him because that would make him more shy. Anyone who knows Jonah now knows that he is still on the introverted side, but he is a very confident boy. He plays on a hockey team and has good friends. He is no longer afraid to go into a class by himself. I have watched the past few years as his confidence has steadily grown. I think that if I had pushed him when he was little, he would only have reverted further inside himself. I am glad that I stuck to my instincts.

    I think that Matthew and your future children will benefit from your being willing to meet whatever their "enough" is.

  9. Hey Ruth, I'm all over a therapist who bases my work with clients on an attachment framework, my kids never had a chance to be parented otherwise. Knowing what I was doing from a theoretical perspective affirmed what I inherently felt like innate parenting--and gave me strength to continue when people told me I was carrying my kids around too much, I was too responsive to their needs, and I made decisions to be around them a lot. It also gave me good theories when I suddenly became a single parent and had 2 kids whose world became destabalized--attachment said it was ok that they both slept in my room for months after their dad left, that it made sense to do a lot of snuggling together sleeping in cozy forts, and to remind me that they needed me and it was worthwhile to put my energy into supporting them at a time when I hardly knew down from up. I've got fabulous kids who are wonderful and are confident and inquisitive and bright...and we talk about things that I couldn't imagine talking with my parents about because they bring up the topic! Attachment framework helps make the everyday contact with kids meaningful even when the story book is tattered and gives meaning to reading it again.