Dan Siegel (Part 3): Attachment Styles & Parenting Approaches

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In this third and final blog from The Developing Mind; How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (1999; 2012), author and renowned psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, MD, uses attachment research to discuss not only attachment styles, but the parenting approaches they influence and are influenced by. Siegel writes:

“Children challenge parents continually. How parents respond will set the tone of their interactions and will shape the development of their children’s capacity to regulate their states of mind and shifts in emotions. Take, for example, a fourteen-month-old boy who wants to climb onto a table with a lamp on it. One possible parental response would be to yell ‘No!’ and then take the boy outside, where his drive to climb can be ‘attuned to.’ Another response would be not to notice the attempt to climb, to hear the lamp come crashing down, to pick it up, and either to tell the boy quietly not to do it again or just to ignore him for the rest of the evening. A third response would be for the parent to yell ‘No!’and reprimand the boy, hug him out of guilt, then distance herself from him because he has disappointed her. A fourth approach would be to become enraged and throw the lamp to the floor next to the boy, to teach him never to do that again.

Which attachment pattern would be associated with each form of prohibition/disconnection and repair? Think of how the child over time would learn to regulate his baseline emotional state as well as his aroused state in each case, if each pattern of interaction were to be repeated many times. These four parental responses would be associated with the attachment patterns of security, avoidance, ambivalence (anxiety), and disorganization, respectively.

Security

The first year of life is filled with the attunement of infant and attachment figure, which often centers around the upbeat, high vitality affects of interest/excitement and enjoyment/joy. The sympathetic system is being activated and developed at a high level during this period….(If) a pattern of attunement like the first one described above is chronically repeated, the securely attached child will experience an aroused state (excited about climbing) that is responded to by the parent with a prohibition (inducing parasympathetic activation and a sense of shame), rapidly followed by a repair (attuning to the gist of the initial aroused state and redirecting it in socially acceptable ways)….

Avoidance

The avoidantly attached child is not so fortunate and learns little about the emotional state of the parent, with no warning about the parental response, which in fact may be quite uninvolved (neglectful) or severe and misattuned (rejecting). In such a dyad, it is likely that the general level of shared emotion is quite low, possibly resulting in an underdevelopment of the child’s capacity for normal levels of interest/excitement and enjoyment/joy….This, coupled with the generally low levels of attunement and sensitivity to the child’s signals, may produce an excess in overall parasympathetic tone. The child’s early experience may have a significant impact on the expression of affect and access to conscious awareness of emotion….

Ambivalence (Anxiety)

In the third approach, parental facial expressions of continued disapproval, eye gaze aversion, and body language of disconnection or anger are all perceived by the child. The child’s high-arousal states may be attuned to sometimes, but if they are not, disconnection and shame may be associated with humiliation and may thus become toxic, especially if disconnection is prolonged or associated with parental anger….Inconsistent attunements and repair may lead to excessive arousal, so that the sympathetic system may often be unchecked because of a diminished parasympathetic system response. Alternatively, prolonged despair may result if the parasympathetic system is excessively activated. Anticipatory anxiety and fear of separation may be evident. Separation in the ambivalently attached child means having to rely on the self for ineffective emotion regulation….

Disorganization

In the fourth pattern, the child’s behavior elicits a rageful parental response, producing terror in the child. This is not simply the child’s fear of consequences, but a fear for safety induced by the attachment figure. The child’s adaptation to this suddenly induced fear state (high levels of both sympathetic and parasympathetic discharge) is a conflictual one: The accelerator and the brakes are being applied simultaneously….The parent…may unintentionally and unknowingly be providing the child with a set of responses that are disorienting and disorganizing. As an attachment figure, such a parent has become a source of fear and confusion, not of safety and security. The intense and frightening moments of disconnection with the parent remain unrepaired. As the parent disappears into rage, the child becomes lost in terror. These disorganizing and disorienting experiences become an essential part of how the child learns to self-regulate behavior and emotional states. The child has the double insult of becoming engulfed in confusion and terror induced by the parent, and of losing the relationship with an attachment figure that might have provided a safe haven and sense of security.”

Conclusion? “The lessons from attachment research can guide our understanding of the powerful effect interpersonal relationships can have on the development and ongoing functioning of self-regulation….The interactions that occur have direct effects on the emotional experience in that moment. Within the context of an attachment relationship, the child’s developing mind and the structure of the child’s brain will be shaped in such a way that the ability to regulate emotion in the future is affected.”

Readers are encouraged to consult Siegel’s Parenting from the Inside Out (2003; 2013), which explores further how one’s attachment style influences their parenting approach.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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