A New Normal
As the last few months brought more permanent school closures and work from home became the new normal, I’ve loved the parental panic gifs parading across social media. I thought this one started realistically, with several blocks of screen time to break up schoolwork, but it degenerates quickly into all-day screen time “plus $100 if you let me work.”
The struggle is real.
As the weeks turn into months of quarantine, many parents are feeling the quiet desperation of this Instagram dad, resorting to impressive deception in order to find peace and quiet:
This dad is rather impressively portraying one of the four attachment styles that social development researchers have identified: an avoidant attachment style. Early researchers such as psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth were focused on the attachment that a child has with their parents; later research has shown that early attachment styles affect us into adulthood, and impacts our parenting.
- Secure Attachment: a securely attached child has a “confidence and trust in the goodness of me, you, us” . They have learned to trust their parents will be there, and so are able to venture out and take risks. An adult with secure attachment is able to develop trusting relationships, and able to build networks of social support in life.
- Ambivalent Attachment: an ambivalent child becomes distressed when a parent leaves, possibly because parents were not available or dependable. As an adult, an ambivalent person may find it hard to be close to or trust others, and be very distraught when relationships end.
- Avoidant Attachment: Avoidant children may not reject parents but they don’t turn to them for comfort or presence. They show little preference for parents over strangers. As they grow they may have problems with intimacy in relationships and find it hard to emotionally invest in other relationships.
- Disorganized Attachment: A child with disorganized attachment will act with a mix of behaviors, such as resistance, avoidance, confusion, withdrawal or apprehension toward a caregiver. Adults in their lives may have been inconsistent and undependable, leading to the child having to take on aspects of the parental role.
Children with secure attachment to an adult caregiver tend to grow up happier, more socially competent, more trusting and kind, even more successful in school and more likely to have good health. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel describes it as, “When parents consistently show up, their children’s minds come to expect that the world is a place that can be understood and meaningfully interacted with—even in times of trouble and pain. Showing up thus creates in our kids neural pathways that lead to selfhood, grit, strength, and resilience.”
There’s a lot riding on parents creating a strong, secure attachment with their kids.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. While our current season of sheltering in place offers a unique opportunity for families to develop and strengthen attachment relationships, it also offers the daily opportunity to get on each other’s nerves. Children can feel the stress of not having a school structure or not seeing their friends. Parents can be impatient and rude and make poor choices in time and priority. Relationship ruptures are normal and will happen in every imperfect family.
When inevitable relational tension occurs, our homes need to be a safe place where children can see and experience relational repairs, and children can feel safe and secure in spite of relational frustration. In The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired, Psychologist Daniel Siegel describes that the way to create the secure attachment between parents and kids just comes down to a parent “showing up”. He breaks this down into four S’s:
The 4 S’s
- SAFE from harm
- SEEN by you
- SOOTHED by you when they are hurting
- SECURE and at home in the world
These four S’s will create secure attachment for our children, leading to healthy development patterns and an ability to relate with others in a positive way.
Many parents, however, feel unable to provide these four S’s.
Perhaps we ourselves did not have the most secure attachment growing up and we ourselves are avoidant, disorganized, or ambivalent. Maybe in spite of our best intentions, we are reliving negative patterns we learned growing up. Trauma can occur in obvious ways like violence or abuse, or it can happen in more subtle emotional rejection or neglect. Research has also shown that social rejection affects the brain in very similar ways that actual physical pain does . And trauma can be passed on intergenerationally as well, in both physical and relational ways.
On The Bright Side
The good news is that attachment science, based on neurobiology, has shown that we do not need to be stuck in old and negative patterns. One of the first steps towards change is to become aware of our own attachment patterns from family of origin, and to begin the work to create new neurological patterns. Therapy can help increase our self-awareness and free us to more fully show up for our children. Our homes can become places where children are safe, seen, soothed, and secure.
An Attachment Story
While we shelter in place, my friend has to face a herculean task each and every day: managing schoolwork for three young boys under the age of 10, while trying to work her full-time job from home, and making sure her boys do not mortally wound each other. One day she had the luxury of having only one son help her with dinner, while the others were with dad. This kindergartener shared with her that at school, several weeks earlier, he had felt sad and alone at school. Seems that this child does not usually play with the boys at recess as he does not like sports, but when he tried to play with some girls, they had told him to “go away”.
.…this moment when he was alone with his mom and he felt safe enough to share it with her..She could not magically solve his problem, (but) it’s clear that she gave her son a great gift that day.”
This young boy had carried the burden of rejection alone, until this moment when he was alone with his mom and he felt safe enough to share it with her. My friend talked with him about how he felt about that incident, and even though she could not magically solve his problem, the sting of peer rejection will be muted, because it had been washed in the love of a mother’s caring presence and availability. Knowing that he has a place where he can safely share his burden will contribute to this boy’s attachment style; he will know that he can continue to try to make friends, because he is not alone if it doesn’t work out. While my friend could not wave a wand to fix the incident, I am certain that her boy felt better that day.
This unique time of sheltering in place may be the break many of us needed to clear our minds from extraneous urgent matters, so that we can focus on things of true importance. Doing the work on ourselves that we need to do to grow in self-awareness and overcome unhealthy patterns does not usually feel urgent, but its impact will be felt for generations.
About the Author
Alice Wu Cardona is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) at Well Clinic in San Francisco.Learn more & book an appointment today
Sources https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_cultivate_a_secure_attachment_with_your_child  Siegel, Daniel J.. The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired (p. 9). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 2020.  Kross, E; Berman, M.; Mischel, W; Smithb, E.; Wagerd, T., 2010. “Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain”, ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1102693108.