I have blogged about the connection between love and psychotherapy, and the topic is up again for me after a recent sensorimotor training. In part, the training focused on the relationship between early life attachment, character development, and later life patterns of relating. The gifted (and seemingly indefatigable) Dr. Janina Fisher led the training, tossing out enlightening gems amidst an already insightful curriculum. (I recommend attending any training she offers.) Dr. Fisher relayed how childhood maltreatment may not be the only way a person develops a disorganized/disorienting attachment style, which historically has been the hallmark of a childhood history of abuse. It could also occur as a result of being parented by a caregiver who has PTSD. Thus, I would add, developing this attachment style may be one way the intergenerational transmission of trauma occurs.
According to attachment theory, all of us develop a style for relating to the people we love (which I’ll call our “love objects”). Some of us are blessed with the conditions that lead to a secure attachment style — supposedly about two-thirds of the population. (I sometimes doubt this figure, and think it’s too high, but perhaps my view is skewed by practicing psychotherapy and the opportunity to hear about what troubles so many of us: relationships!) The other third of us tend to either be “preoccupied” with our love objects, or in contrast, are easily overwhelmed by them and prefer some emotional distance (so-called “avoidant” style). Within this third also includes attempts to attach amidst childhood maltreatment. A disorganized/disorienting style is thought to emerge as a response to having caregivers who are either frightened (such as a parent enduring domestic violence) or frightening (a violent caregiver).
For the abused child, the frightened or frightening caregiver is both longed for and a source of threat. The child both wants to attach to the caregiver as well as escape from the fear he or she causes. Two primary functions of attachment are:
- creating a safe base for the child to return to when exploration feels threatening or emotionally overwhelming, and
- teaching the child how to regulate emotions, especially when the child feels threatened or overwhelmed.
When the caregiver is frightened or frightening, the child is left to deal on her own with overpowering emotions. Such conditions, especially when they are chronic, can lead to later difficulties connecting with love objects as well as problems with emotional regulation — and the capacity for emotional regulation is likely one of the best inoculations against developing a mental disorder.
But as Dr. Fisher pointed out, childhood abuse is not a necessary precursor for a disorganized/disoriented attachment style. Caregivers with PTSD or substance abuse issues can have the same impact on a child’s budding attachment style as violence in the home. Consider these characteristics of a “frightened” caregiver:
- Backing away
- Frightened voice
- Dazed expression
- Exaggerated startle
Although usually associated with a caregiver victimized by domestic violence, these behaviors are also seen in people with PTSD.
Or consider these traits of “frightening” caregivers:
- Sudden movements
- Attack postures
- Mocking, teasing
- Emotionally reactive
- Loud, startling noises
Whereas these behaviors sketch a violent parent, they also give the picture of an inebriated, nonviolent alcoholic. Substance abuse is also highly correlated with histories of trauma.
Increasingly, research and clinical experience points to the significance of early attachment for healthy relationships and mental health. Fortunately, secure attachment can be earned through later healthy relationships (perhaps one of the best uses of psychotherapy). Thus, none of us are necessarily stuck with unhealthy attachment styles resulting from early life conditions out of our control. Yet, I am personally unsatisfied with relying on a corrective approach to mental health problems that could be avoided by greater sensitivity to a child’s development. While certainly creating supportive conditions for healthy attachments involves addressing the needs of the very young, it also requires looking after their caregivers. Too many parents also suffer from trauma’s long-lasting impact, and often unintentionally, pass it on to the next generation.