Secure attachment and Resilience

It has often said that there is no manual for childrearing – and nothing could be both further from the truth and yet so true at the same time. The inundation of parenting advice today is saturating. Finding the way through early parenting years can be thrilling, equally terrifying and certainly life changing. Caregivers for the most part, will come into a greater confidence and trust in their child and their ability to manage tough times. However, there will be struggles and difficulties, life and parenting is not straightforward. During these times parents and caregivers will often consult the great body of literature, friends, family or a therapist. Wading through the copious literature and opinions can be intimidating, piecemeal and reactive. It can be helpful at these times to go back to the basics, reviewing what we know is helpful across the lifespan. Pioneered by Mary Ainsworth’s work on attachment styles, copious research now supports the concept that secure attachment is the single most important fundamental to child development (Siegel and Bryson, 2020).

Secure attachment is a phrase that potentially evokes images of monkey experiments, classic studies into the impact of parental engagement (the “still face” experiments) or perhaps of even children in orphanages. In terms of neurodevelopment, secure attachment is the pillar of brain development that allows a child to be in a physiological state that is ready for learning. Without perceived safety, the mind of the child is perpetually engaged in threat reduction and survival. The brain can be thought of in the most simplistic terms as an association machine, and secure attachment means that the brain will expect that the world will be open to receive them in a safe, logical and positive way.

Secure attachment is the culmination of experiences that are “good enough”, that are safe and soothing for the baby and child.  It is a process whereby the child is safe, seen and soothed repeatedly (Siegel and Bryson, 2020). It is this predictable cause and effect that creates pathways of neurobiological “wiring”.  It is not about always being a “perfect” caregiver, it is the long and slow process of being good enough (Winnicott). A brain that has not had the opportunity to wire with secure attachment will look very different to a securely attached brain. In particular, the amygdala, frontal and prefrontal cortex develop in a structurally different way. However, it is not so much in the brain scans that this is evidenced, but in how the child copes relationally and how they develop their sense of self in the world as a person. As an individual who can manage difficulties, who can be self determined and self confident, as a person who has a positive impact on those around them, and who can manage interpersonal difficulties as they arise. Naturally, as the child wants to explore they engage more with those in the community or school settings, the securely attached child is able to take with them into the world the idea of the “secure base”. This is an internal mechanism of the relational safety the child has developed and acts like an “on-board puncture repair kit”. It shows up in the way the child engages in positive self talk, the way they are willing to take appropriate risks, and through the way they reconnect with caregivers and others when relational difficulties or conflict arise.

Secure attachment can also be facilitated and enhanced as children grow. It is not something that is finished with after the child becomes an adolescent. Indeed the “showing up”, being attuned, holding safe boundaries and being able to support an adolescent during this intense period of brain development is, I believe just as crucial, and at times overlooked in the parenting literature. My next blog post will explore this in greater detail.

  • Daniel Hughes (2006), Building the Bonds of Attachment, Jason Aronson
  • Kenneth Ginsburg (2015), Building Resilience in Children and Teens, American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (2020), The Power of Showing Up, Ballantine Books

Written by:
Veronica McKibbin
Counsellor / Child and Family Therapist

Show you care. Apologize!

Inevitably, people make mistakes, it is what makes us human. Either those mistakes are done willingly or unwillingly, they damage our relationships and hurt the people we care about: our friends, family, spouses, children or colleagues. If we want to keep a healthy relationship, apologizing is the only way to repair and heal what has been damaged. It is a way to show care and foster respect and affection. It is a necessary step toward validating feelings, promoting forgiveness, and restoring balance and trust in a relationship. However, it is not always easy to apologize and to apologize effectively.

To formulate an effective apology, there are four essential parts: 

1: acknowledgment of the offense (recognize your responsibility and express your empathy);

2: an explanation of what went wrong; 

3: expressions of remorse; 

4: offer of reparation and commitment to improving. 

Apologizing requires honesty, humility, generosity, and courage. The offended party can recognize that and reward you with forgiveness and reconciliation. However, a lack of ownership, blame or excuses, and lack of appropriate reparation could lead to resentment, grudges or even desire for vengeance.

These four steps increase the chance of forgiveness because they satisfy the psychological needs of the offended person. They help to restore their sense of dignity, validating that they are not deserving of the harm caused and that they are not to blame. It gives them a chance to express their feelings and contribute to a sense of justice. Finally, it can also provide reinsurance that they are safe from further harm, making them more likely to trust you again. 

We are never too young to learn the importance of taking care of our relationships. Teaching children the ways to repair when they have hurt people helps them develop humility, empathy and a sense of responsibility that will help them foster healthy relationships throughout their lives. 

Link to start the discussion with children and help them practice:

Evidence that this 4 steps apology works:

Lewicki, R. J., Polin, B., & Lount, R. B. (2016). An exploration of the structure of effective apologiesNegotiation and Conflict Management Research, 9(2), 177-196. 

To read more on the subject:

Written by:
Lucie Ramet

Clinical Psychologist

Managing COVID-19 Anxiety

Since December of last year, we have been bombarded with news about the COVID-19 virus that is impacting the world.  The number of people infected and the rate at which it has spread has caused an increase in cognizance of how and with whom we interact.  This awareness isn’t necessarily distressing but it can increase feelings of unease and anxiety. In the extreme, stress levels intensify beyond our ability to function normally. This impacts daily life through sleeplessness, social isolation, perseverating thoughts and lack of focus.

When discussing anxiety that centers around health and well-being we often think of hypochondriasis (Illness Anxiety Disorder); however the anxiety that has arisen due to the emergence of COVID-19 differs in that it is not generalized worry about becoming ill without an identified focus; there is a specific threat.  To some extent, concern and awareness of it are warranted. The goal should not be to ignore or make ourselves wrong for the concern but to manage it and prevent excess worry from running our lives. To manage the stress around the identified concern it is important to recognize what we can and cannot control. 

To alleviate the stresses brought on by this epidemic we can shift behaviors to ensure that we are more resilient both physically and mentally.  Doing this can include habits such as: eating healthy foods, exercising, getting enough sleep and engaging with others socially. These types of habits will assist with all forms of anxiety and therefore they are practices that should be part of our daily routine regardless.  

Another way in which we can ensure that we are taking control of behavioral changes and preventing exposure can  include washing our hands thoroughly, being mindful of using hand sanitizer when we don’t have access to soap and water and wearing a face mask when we are feeling sick or have a cold.  All of these activities will help make you feel a bit more at ease when having to be out in public and interacting with others.  

A key behavioral modification to institute if you are feeling anxious about COVID-19 is limiting your exposure to an overload of information.  In our world of smartphones and sensational news, information overload is a daily occurrence for most of us. Limiting our exposure to the news cycles regarding COVID-19 can provide a break from increasing our excessive worry and misinformation.  Putting down the phone, turning off the television, not clicking on the news sites on your home screen, are all ways that you can reduce anxiety about COVID-19 exposure. In order to stay informed while also limiting exposure to anxiety producing news feeds, try checking information on reputable sources only once a day.  Reputable reporting sources include the WHO, Singapore Ministry of Health, CNN and AlJazeera news.  

Once you have shifted your behaviors to address things you control, it is important to look at practices that can assist you in finding comfort with the unknown and managing stress about the things that are out of your control.  Practices that work to address all anxieties are mindfulness practices such as meditation, journaling and breathing techniques. 

Although meditation can be tough to begin when you are feeling anxious, there are apps that can guide you by giving your mind focus, apps such as “Calm” and “headspace” are helpful to walk you through an experience to focus your mind on other things.  Journaling about your concerns and anxieties is a great way to get them out of your head and on to paper, practicing journaling allows for you to reread about your anxiety and begin to get a different perspective; once you write down your fears and get clear you can begin to question their benefit to you.  Another mindfulness practice that can reduce feelings of anxiety are breathing techniques…allowing yourself to breathe deeply for a five-count inhale and five-count exhale. Any time you are able to focus on your breathing will help to ensure that you are more able to relax during times that anxiety has increased.  

Being concerned during this time is not unusual nor are you alone in your concern, we all have to be more aware when out in public and making plans but we don’t have to let it stop us from living our lives fully.  There are things within our control and those that are not. Getting clear on what we can do to minimize our exposure and the exposure of our loved ones is important to maintaining our sense of well-being and peace; when that is not enough to assuage your fears, engage in practices that help calm your mind and get present with your thoughts.  This will help reduce the anxiety around those things that are out of our control. Remember when dealing with COVID-19 control those things that you can and let go of those things that you can’t. Worrying won’t change the circumstances or the impact of the virus. Be mindful, be prepared and be safe.  

Written by: 
Kimberly Fisel
Counsellor
Marriage and Family Therapist

The “small things, often” grow your bank account of love

If love were enough, probably all couples would be happy. The simple truth is that relationships take work and, yes, the ‘little things’ add up. One awesome piece of knowledge from the Gottmans is referred to as doing “small things, often.” Gottmans’ years of study proved that the ‘little things’ build trust and intimacy in a relationship and according to a new study by researchers at Penn State University, you don’t need grand gestures to show your partner love. In fact, small gestures, such as hugging, holding hands, and regular acts of kindness (non-romantic gestures) all top the list of how most Americans reported feeling loved and appreciated. The study also found that behavioral actions, rather than purely verbal expressions, triggered more consensus as indicators of love.

The Gottman’s demonstrated that in lasting relationships, there is a culture of appreciation that is maintained using small moments to connect with your partner. These small things aren’t grand gestures demonstrated on Valentine’s Day, buying a piece of jewelry or surprising your partner with an Anniversary trip—although it is certainly great if partners are good at doing that too. The problem is that over time, big gestures tend to get spaced farther and farther apart, because life inevitably changes. Life happens, it just does.

These “powerful small things” can change the everyday moments you share with your spouse; day in and day out, between wrestling toddlers into car seats or arguing over who’s going to do the dishes. These “powerful small things”, that often are not romantic, are rituals of connection, that when done often, help couples avoid falling into too deep of a hole of disconnection—so when things get ugly, spouses still have those many moments that can remind each other that they are in this together.

A good metaphor for this concept is to think of your relationship as an emotional bank account. Like any bank account, you need to make deposits to have it grow. If you make too many withdrawals, the bank account will eventually close. This doesn’t mean keep score, this means focus on making more positive contributions to the relationship rather than withdrawals. If the account is always withering low, it can take just one thing to push your partner over the edge.

References:
https://www.gottman.com/ https://news.psu.edu/story/491253/2017/11/06/research/love-actually-americans-agree-what-makes-peop le-feel-love https://thriveglobal.com/stories/the-one-thing-any-couple-can-do-for-better-connection-and-intimacy/ https://gulfsidecounseling.com/2020/02/18/small-things-often/ https://www.lessonsforlove.com/

Written By:
Laura Spalvieri
Counsellor, Psychotherapist & Transactional Analyst