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They f*** you up. The ABC of Attachment
Have you ever wondered how it is that some people are just more self assured than others?
They are more ‘grounded’ and resilient when things go wrong. They just seem more comfortable in their own skins. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with how rich or successful they are. The ones with the top jobs, big houses and a wardrobe full of Jimmy Choo’s are just as likely to be as insecure and anxious as their less well-off cousins.
So what’s it all about?
While the nature-nurture debate rumbles on, it’s fair to say, there’s little we can do about the genes we were born with, but a whole lot we can do about taking responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and wellbeing as adults and how we choose to parent our own children.
Poet PhilipLarkin and child psychologist Oliver James famously acknowledged that parents can ‘f*** you up’. Some research indicates that who we are, and how we are, is 50% due to genetic predisposition, 10% to life events and 40% to the way we interpret and process the world.
Others say genes do not play any part at all in our mental health.
In an astonishing statement, Robert Plomin, the country’s leading genetic psychologist, admitted of the Human Genome Project’s quest for genes for psychological traits of all kinds: ‘I’ve been looking for these genes for 15 years and I don’t have any.’
It seems how we interact with the world around us is largely down to the internal ‘roadmaps’ we construct in childhood and the kind of parenting we experienced.
The ABC of parenting style
While I was studying to become a psychotherapist, I learned about ‘the ABC’ of attachment. It explained a lot about what was going on for some of my clients; the ones who presented with low self esteem, high anxiety and, its evil twin, depression.
From Mary Berry to Joan Crawford, there is certainly a broad spectrum of parenting styles. A primary caregiver might be mother or father but sadly, no one has to go on a training program to have a child. Some are better at it than others, and just having a child doesn’t automatically turn you into a good parent, just like owning a grand piano doesn’t make you a concert pianist.
If were lucky, you had might have had, what Bowlby described as a ‘good-enough’ parent, who, by and large, meant you well.
If you were not so lucky, the parenting you received may have had a significant impact on your current sense of wellbeing and your ability to ‘bounce back’ when things go wrong.
The children of attuned parents learn how to self soothe and ‘manage’ their emotions. This is because their primary caregivers were able to interpret their baby-like cries, gurgles and grunts well enough so that they got their needs for safety, food, comfort and warmth, met.
However, even attuned parents don’t get it right all the time. Up to 50% of the signals are misread. But a bit like tuning into a radio station, those parents are able to twiddle the dials, retune and get it right eventually.
The good news for the children of attuned parents is that they learn to tolerate periods of anxiety. It’s a skill they take with them into the adult world creating the kind of security and resilience which are good to have when the going gets tough, as it inevitably does from time to time.
You’d think the children of broken parenting might come off worst, but you’d be wrong.
Some children have to virtually bring themselves up. These are the children who ‘get tough’ because they have to. They become self-sufficient. They might become the street kids and, as adults, they can often be really successful, self-sufficient and resilient too.
The downside is, they can build emotional walls around them selves to prevent others getting in. Their self-sufficiency can lead to isolation and loneliness, and even a disconnection from their own emotions.
It’s the children of a chaotic parenting style that tend to have the longer-term problems.
Chaotic parents are focused on getting their own needs met rather than that of the child. Sometimes they are there and sometimes they’re not.
Depression, drink, drug dependence or other issues affect their ability to be child-centric. If they feel needy themselves, they impose hugs or affection on a child or keep them home from school for company. But when the child needs love, attention or reassurance, the parent may be absent either physically or emotionally.
The stress levels in the child of chaotic parenting are generally high as they never know whether their needs will be met, and they never have a chance to develop the kind of coping skills and resilience the children of broken parenting do.
High cortisol levels
This is well illustrated in experiments with rats where groups of mother and baby rats were separated into three different environments.
In the first environment, food was always freely available and consistent. Levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, were monitored in mother and baby rats and were found to be low.
In the second environment, food was restricted. Yet, surprisingly, stress levels in this environment, although initially high, soon settled to low as both mother and baby rats became adapted to this meagre food supplies. In other words they knew what to expect.
However, in the third environment, sometimes food was plentiful and sometimes it was absent. Never knowing what to expect kept cortisol levels in both mother and baby rats high.
They were not as fortunate as group A and did not develop the resilience to a harsher environment as group B had to.
As children, we begin learning how to interpret and manage our emotions.
With the rough-and-tumble of home life and school life, siblings and friends, we develop the skills of sociability and ‘affect regulation’. Our parents play a key role in helping us learn these new skills by providing a safe base from which we can begin to explore the world.
The children of chaotic parents don’t really learn how to internally manage their emotions and can’t self-soothe, so they seek external props and crutches to do that for them. This often takes the form of drink or drugs, or anything which temporarily makes them feel ‘better’ and distracts from, or numbs, the uncomfortable emotion they are experiencing.
The joy of neuroscience
Whether they did f*** you up or not, the good news emerging from the world of neuroscience is that, even if you haven’t learned the skills of emotional management in childhood, you can most certainly learn them in adult life.
The brain is always changing, affected by our thoughts and emotions and our continued life experience. Modern, brief therapies and interventions can help achieve effective change by rewriting old, subconscious ‘roadmaps’ through techniques like guided visualisation.
Neuroscientist, Donald Hebb said, ‘Cells that fire together, wire together.’ He was right.
Turns out, we can quite literally ‘rewire the brain’ and influence its neural architecture to change old thinking styles, attachment styles and self limiting beliefs ….which is good news for all of us.