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Early Childhood Attachment: Building a 'Safe Haven' for Your Child

08/10/2010 06:55 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Judith Acosta Author, 'The Next Osama'; Co-author, 'Verbal First Aid'

Recently at a restaurant, I watched a woman trying to have lunch with a friend as she struggled with her two-year-old daughter. The little girl whined and clung to her pant leg like a kitten to a silk drape. Nothing shook her off. She tried to distract her with crayons. She told her to "stop it" in more ways than I could remember--sweetly, firmly, commandingly, pleadingly. Finally, irritated and frustrated with the situation, she yelled at her, "Do you want me to take you home? Then sit still!"

Lucky (at least in short-term considerations) for the mother, the child did. She pouted, hurt and confused, and finally sat still. But a golden opportunity was missed as the mother misinterpreted a terribly important communication from the child.

What do children want when they cling to us? What are they asking for? What are we supposed to do when we have so many things to accomplish in one day, when we're halfway through the to-do list and the baby once again needs our attention? And how are we even supposed to know what they need our attention for?

The Course of Fear and the Need for Safety
According to attachment theorists, the first question on the mind of every human being born into the world (and some might argue not just humans) is: Am I safe? Can I get food? Shelter? Can I survive?

It is not a cognitive question--there is no language facility at that age. It's a cellular one. It is embedded in us in the same manner as our abilities to blink, swallow and breathe. We don't have to think about it consciously. We just seek it.

Ironically, we are born the most helpless of all creatures on earth. For years, we are at the wholesale mercy of those into whose care we were born. We can't walk, talk or understand the rules of engagement on almost any level. It is natural and logical that the primary genetic compulsion is: seek safety.

My husband, who is one of the wisest men I've ever known, thinks there's a poetic irony in this--that colicky babies who are incapable of uttering a single clear idea can somehow yank middle-aged people out of bed after a late night party, make them put on their jeans and shoes and take them for a 3 a.m. ride in the car to nowhere.

Of course, that is precisely the point: they don't use words. But they do SIGNAL. They scream. They cry. They fuss. They pout. They cling.

And if the primary need is for safety, what do they signal for? Proximity and relief. The promise of safety. They need to know that their caretakers are available, that their needs will be met, that they will be protected, fed, warm and loved. They need to be seen.

If those basic needs are not met with some regularity, they can become fearful and angry.

Clinging as a Signal
So what did that little girl at the restaurant need? In all likelihood, she was disconcerted by her mother's focus on her friend and needed some temporary reassurance that mom knew she was still there. She was in the phase Margaret Mahler called "Rapprochement."

I see it all the time in young children and even in some adults who come to me for treatment. It is part of the normal phase of separation-individuation in which the child begins to see the parents as separate individuals. In this phase, children who have developed a healthy, independent sense of exploration and personal identity (as distinct from the mother's) begin to "re-approach."

You see this behavior a great deal in playgrounds. The child will run about on his or her own, then periodically come back to home base for a touch, a smile, an acknowledgment. So long as he has his caretaker in his sights and within quick reach, he is safe to continue exploring his new world.

This can include running back and forth as if he were playing tag with mom or dad as the "post," a greater need for physical attention, or some regression to earlier behavior, e.g., a need to be held. Parents who misread this signal will misunderstand the motivation and respond with dismissal ("Stop that, you're a big boy, now!"), irritation or impatience and unavailability. This can lead to a great deal of disappointment and anxiety in a toddler.

When this sort of short-circuit occurs, it is interpreted immediately as: "UNSAFE." Instead of extinguishing the behavior this leads to a ramping up to try to get the caretaker to understand how badly he or she is needed.

According to Mahler, continued disruptions in this critical phase can result in a failure to develop a secure sense of self and a protracted feeling of unease, anxiety and dependency.

How do children deal with fear? The same way we do. Instantly and vigorously.

All of us were children once. Some of us remember it better than others. I remember vividly one recurring nightmare I had when I was still a toddler (toy soldiers with bayonets walking slowly and menacingly towards me). Every time I had it, I would open my eyes and try to scream, but I could not move and no sound came out of my mouth. That was one response. The other was when I finally was able to move and I ran into my parents' room, crying.

And they did precisely what I needed. They let me stay with them till I was calmed and then led me back to my own bed and helped me chase away the bad guys.

Magic Words, Verbal First Aid and Mirror Neurons
Empathy is the key at every level. It is not the same as pity or sympathy. It is the ability to recognize what someone else is feeling even if we ourselves are not feeling it at that moment, even if we don't understand why he or she is feeling it, and even if we don't like it very much.

It is not easy, but it is perhaps the most vitally important and potentially rewarding skill a parent can have.

Scientists have recently discovered a type of neuron that fires not only when it is performing an action, but also when we are watching someone else perform that same action (PBS, 2005). For this neuron, seeing an action is the same as doing it yourself--thus, they are called "Mirror Neurons."

A fundamentally similar experiment was done (reported in The Worst is Over, 2002) with individuals watching a chase scene in a movie. With electrodes attached to them at critical junctures, they found that watching the movie produced involuntary muscle responses similar to those they would have had had they actually been in the movie scene.

In his article (Scientific American Mind, May/June 2006) "A Revealing Reflection," David Dobbs talks about his first mirroring experience with his son.

Sometime just before my second child was born, I read that if you stuck your tongue out at a newborn, he'd do the same. So in young Nicholas's first hour, even as my wife was still in the O.R. getting stitched up (40-hour labor, C-section, epic saga), I tried it. Holding the gooing, alert young lad before me in my hands--he was no bigger than a ball of pizza dough-- I stuck my tongue out at him. He immediately returned the gesture. I hadn't slept in 40 hours. I laughed till I cried.

These mirror neurons typically fire in the premotor cortex of the brain, that segment responsible for the development of language, empath and, believe it or not, pain.

In the theory underpinning Verbal First Aid, what is even more amazing and potentially life-saving is that you don't even have to watch an action to fire along with it. You can hear about it. The words generate the imagery, which in turn generate the biochemistry that mirrors the experience.

Mirror neurons are only the latest scientific reduction of a process we have all known intuitively since the first laugh broke up a whole room, since the first tear prompted sorrow in a friend, since the first delight in watching the underdog win.

As Dobbs explains, "...it suggest a common neurobiologic dynamic for our understanding of others...it makes sense of why yawns are contagious ... why we feel Hamlet's grief for Ophelia."

Besides the enormous spiritual and social implications of this rather recent discovery (1996 in Parma, Italy), it explains why words hold sway the way they do and why what we say to our children--particularly when they are hurt, confused, shocked or sick--matters the way it does.

Reassurance is good and necessary. But Verbal First Aid goes farther. Our words--in generating images and inspiring neurologic and biochemical responses--hold sway over their physical and emotional response to any given situation.

What children see in us, feel from us, and hear from us, they become. Literally.
How we respond determines how they respond. And not only in that moment, but for the future.

How it Works
Janie is a five-year-old like any other--quick to run, slow to stop. As she runs around the yard with the family dog, she trips on a hose and lands squarely on her chin. She is stunned and momentarily distracted by the dog as he runs back to her and licks her face. Then she realizes she is bleeding and a wail alerts her father, who is working in another part of the yard. He rushes to her.

He has two options at this point.

He can become irate and/or hysterical, alternating between anger and fear for his child, which could sound something like this: "How many times have I told you not to run around like that, that you'd get hurt and now look what you did? Oh, God, look at that gash on you. Oh, for goodness sake, Janie. We have to get you to the hospital. Where are your shoes?"

Or, he can take a breath, approach her calmly and gently examine the situation, which might sound like this:

"Janie, I'm right here, honey. I've got you. Come. Let me see what's going on. Well, looks like you're bleeding pretty well and cleaning the wound out. That's really good, sweetheart. And it looks like you've done that enough for now, so you can go ahead and start healing that boo boo, while I get something to clean it with and call the doctor. We may need some special doctor magic to make it go away for good. But you're pretty good at magic, too. So, you wanna come help me with this?"

In the first scenario, Janie is not only hurt and frightened by her own mistake, but by her father's anger, disappointment and fear. His reaction to her intensifies logarithmically whatever fear she already had. As a result, her biochemistry is responding instantly with substances that actually impede healing.

In the second scenario, Janie is calmed, reassured and held by her father's presence. In addition--and perhaps most importantly--he refers her to herself as a primary source of comfort and healing.

Our ability to deal with fear as children is the foundation for the way we deal with fear as adults--both for ourselves and with our kids. Most of us were not raised with these ideas and some of them may feel awkward or even seem unnecessary, especially if we ourselves were dismissed when we were afraid or hurt. Most of my colleagues remember being told to "buck up" when they got cut or bruised, especially the men.

But, the truth is that in order to help children hard wire for safety, parents have to provide what Gary Sibcy calls "Safe Haven" experiences, which occur when people are able to experience the regulation that comes from a parent's emotional and physical availability. In fact, these very experiences are what enable children to develop into emotionally healthy adults. Without it, they are wary, volatile and quick to interpret rejection or abandonment even when none is intended or even implicit. They become angry, defensive or detached, instead of patient, understanding and connected.

What parents say is the fodder for the hard-wiring of their children. Our words are so potent that when people feel understood, their brains create a limbic calming similar to the effect of benzodiazepines.

When they are invalidated or denied, their brains react as they were intended to: they go to red alert.

When Janie's father speaks to her using Verbal First Aid, he has not only reassured and calmed her, he has given her a new point of view, a new way, as my husband puts it, "of handling it." And it really is a skill to last a lifetime. When a child knows they can participate in their own healing, in their own soothing, they learn self-reliance, self-confidence and compassion. And they learn it forever.