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Currently showing posts tagged attachment

  • the presence of the caregiver and the still face

    Part of what Winnicott argues--along with others interested in what has come to be called attachment theory--is that babies come into an awareness of themselves only in the presence of another. But that other must be available to them with consistency and with presence. What happens when the other goes away--either physically or psychically--for extended periods of time?

    This is exactly what Ed Tronick set out to discover when he devised what is now known as "The Still Face Experiment" more than 40 years ago. In the initial experiment, he asked mothers to engage their babies in social interaction for three minutes, to turn away for a moment, and then to turn back with an expressionless, nonresponsive face.

    The effect on the babies was profound. Within seconds of encountering the non-responsive mother, babies first registered a kind of wary surprise, glancing uncomfortably at their mothers, then working hard to re-engage them with behaviors that they had developed in concert with their mothers over these first months of life: smiling, cooing, coughing artificially, reaching towards, and more. Then, when their mothers failed to warm to these bids, babies descended rapidly into distress, registering discomfort vocally, expressively on the face, gesturally, and posturally. These visible changes were accompaied by invisible ones, as blood pressures rose, respiration and heartrate altered, and hormone levels shifted.

    The experiment has been used by researchers to explore a wide variety of hypotheses about babies, learning, and relationships, but here, as we're thinking about attachment, relationship, and the development of the person, we can say that a consistent and responsive mirroring presence is so essential to a baby's wellbeing that without it--in the face of absence--the baby begins to come apart physically and psychologically. (If you like to see the experiment, please go here to view a clip that is narrated by Ed Tronick.)

    And the good news? That this effect can be repaired. Check in in a few weeks to see how. 

  • connection and the circle of security

    I've studied attachment theory with a variety of people, among them the folks at Circle of Security International (COSI). COSI has put together this video about being in relationship with your child--about being biggerstrongerwiser, and kind while offering both a secure base and a safe haven. Those eight bold words are pretty much all you need to know to parent a child--and finding a way to live them takes lots of support and practice. Head on over to their website through the link, or watch it right here:

     

    I'm hoping to pull together a group of parents who are interested in supporting one another in this practice. Email me or call me if you're interested. 

  • rupture and repair

    Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking and writing a lot about attachment--about the ways in which we learn to be individuals only in the context of relationship. And I've been thinking, too, about what happens when relationship changes dramatically, goes away, or just stumbles--as in the Still Face experiment. What happens to the developing person when their primary attachment figure--the person who cares for them most consistently--fails to mirror them? Is damage done? It can seem that way. Just a few seconds of the nonresponsive mother, and the baby begins to experience distress. The mother's emotional absence is experienced by the baby as a rupture in the relationship.

    And yet, how can this damage ever be avoided? If, as Winnicott suggests, the ordinary devoted mother sometimes feels tired or anxious or irritated, and fails to be perfectly attuned to her baby--if she doesn't mirror her baby's experience--isn't this bad for babies?

    Research suggests that misattuned parents miss their baby's cues about 30% of the time. So as babies try to communicate their needs, their desires, their wish for engagement, one out of every three times, their parents just don't get it. Over and over and over again, these babies are shut out or shut down. And research finds that well-attuned parents miss their baby's cues... about 30% of the time.

    Missing cues is normal. It's part of being in relationship: sometimes we notice bids for attention, sometimes we don't. The significant difference between misattuned and well-attuned parents isn't about the missed cues--it's about what happens next, about what they do next. And that's part of what you can see in the Still Face experiment. The return of warmth, the genuineness of apology, the willingness to hear how it felt to not be seen, the pleasure of being together again are all part of what allows babies--and children, and adults--to get reconnected, and to trust that those they most care for are willing to come back over and over and over, to keep trying even when they've made a mistake. And that trust reinforces the bond.

    Attachment theory is encouraging because it's not about urging us to become more perfect parents or partners--it's much more about making room for us to acknowledge the moments when we've failed and missed seeing the other person, because in that acknowledgement, the relationship grows stronger. 

  • what is a baby?

    One of the best known, and arguably, most important statements by a therapeutic figure about babies is this, from D. W. Winnicott: 

    There is no such thing as a baby... If you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. 

    People sometimes take this statement to mean that babies cannot survive without the nurturance of another person, who commits themselves to the baby's care. And that it is accurate. In babyhood, we are profoundly dependent on another person to ensure our physical security and wellbeing.

    But Winnicott is saying something more than this here. He is suggesting that the very personhood of the baby is dependent on the ongoing relationship between the baby and person who loves her/him. That without that loving attention, the baby cannot become a person in the truest sense of the word. That to develop a self, and a sense of self, a baby must see her/himself reflected in someone's face, someone who mirrors back to the baby what it is that the baby is experiencing--and who in doing so demonstrates that the experience is bearable, that it is meaningful, that there are ways of talking and thinking and feeling about it, that it can therefore be shared, and that it belongs to the baby--that the baby is its own distinct person. Without that mirroring presence, the baby is lost in a morass of sensation that has no proportion and no meaning; without it, the baby cannot make sense of her/himself, or of the world.

    This, Winnicott suggests, is the way in which the develpment of the person unfolds, in the awareness of another who lends their presence to the developing person we call "baby," who helps the baby to be with their own experience by being with the baby, and who in doing so helps the baby to become a person. That person is what Winnicott calls--writing in the 1940s--"the ordinary devoted mother," the subject of a future post.