Picture a newborn baby, here she is coming into this bright big world and she is completely ready. She can walk, talk, stand on her own two feet and survive! Ha! This is so far from reality! When my husband and I first had our oldest son we were like most new parents. Overwhelmed and tired! We stared into the eyes of this tiny person who was now looking to us for EVERYTHING! The posters in the hospital,“ Don’t EVER sleep with your baby” and “Breast is Best” “don’t shake the baby, NEVER SHAKE THE BABY” did little to prepare us for just how much this little guy would need.
My mother was with us for a week, which felt right to have a responsible parent overseeing the daily tasks to make sure we knew what we were doing. When she left I panicked. I looked into my son’s eyes wondering what he would say if he knew how little I knew about raising him and if he knew the “adult” just left. I did the only things I knew how to do. I cuddled, cooed and did all I could to learn what his cries meant and how to meet his needs. I held my breath, I hoped, and I called my older sister, mother of four, literally every single day.
It is a miraculous and mind blowing thing that we are made to grow up in families. We immediately need someone to help us meet our basic needs. Our brains are wired in such a way that we need each other from the moment we take our first breath. Whether your family is one in which two people fell in love and out of that love a baby grew in the mother’s womb or an intentional choice to adopt or foster a child who needed love and a healthy home, the story is the same. We rely and need each other. This is attachment!
John Bowlby, the Father of Attachment Theory, states that we need 4 things to develop a secure attachment; Safe Haven, Secure Base, Proximity Maintenance and Separation Distress.
Safe Haven – This is marked by a small child’s intuitive understanding that when he cries his needs get met by a caregiver. This is so important in a child’s development. A child must be able to communicate their need and early on they have very few ways of communicating these needs. They must be able to ask the question; “if I’m hurting who do I turn to”.
Secure Base- This idea of attachment is rooted in the notion that ‘Mistakes are opportunities to learn’. Children do eventually need to learn and grow and figure out how to live in a world that has challenges, rejection, and instability. When a child feels that their home is a safe place to make a mistake and learn, they become better equipped to take on the challenges that they face when they go to school, learn to drive and even leave for college.
Proximity Maintenance: Lisa Damour gives a beautiful analogy of this in her book “Untangled”. She describes a scenario of a child learning to swim. The child stays on the side of the pool kicking her feet and learning to hold her breath. She is close to the side of the pool to make sure that she is safe. Eventually she gets big enough and strong enough to push off the side of the pool and swim out to the middle. She plays there for a little while enjoying the new challenge of the deep part of the pool. She becomes tired and weary and she swims back to the side of the pool to recover and build her strength again. In this analogy, the parents are the side of the pool. Kids need their parents for strength and confidence building. When they push off to explore the challenging world of the deep-end they grow in new ways. They need to know that the safety of the side of the pool is within their reach for recovery.
Separation Distress- This is the notion that a child feels discomfort when being separated from a parent. For a small child this may be when a parent drops the child off at daycare and they cry for a few moments before settling down and being able to play. For an older child, this is the sadness of missing a parent when they are on a business trip. In this reverse of “out of sight, out of mind” this child feels full and complete when the caregiver is present as opposed to an ambivalence of their absence.
When I see kids or adults who endured developmental trauma in which their needs did not get met when they were hurting, hungry, sad or scared, they often have difficulty trusting. They have learned that the person who was supposed to meet their needs never did, so they learn to keep quiet and meet their own need or suffer silently. When a child who was designed to grow within an attached family has to do it alone it takes courage and patience to teach them “ you can trust me, I’m here for you”. If you find yourself in a family where this may have been true for you or for your child family therapy can help you.