This section deals with what we need to achieve emotional stability, how it can get derailed and what we can do to regain or acquire that stability so that we have more choice and mastery over how to respond when life experiences knock us off balance.
We come into the world as infants hardwired to bond with a primary caregiver who can provide us with the essentials to sustain us, because we cannot survive by ourselves. Their job is also to help us grow into autonomous human beings, with a healthy self-worth and the tools to navigate the world with a confidence and resilience to manage the ups and downs that life can bring. To do this well we need them to bond with us, attune to us, nurture and protect us, want and value us for who we are, not what they might want us to be, and treat us with respect. This model of caregiving goes beyond the basics of food and shelter. It includes attuning to our unique emotional needs as well as our physical needs and meeting those needs appropriately.
The cornerstones of this emotional stability emanate from the caregiver’s ability to attune well to the emotional needs of the child. An attuning caregiver is one who demonstrates consistently throughout all of the child’s developmental stages the ability to sense their emotional state, sense what is needed, and respond appropriately to meet those needs.
A quality attunement enables the child to form a secure attachment with their caregiver, who can become a trustworthy source/role model from whom the child can assimilate the emotional toolkit essential to do important things like self-soothing and maintaining emotional stability. With the right consistent support from loving attuned caregivers, children can strengthen and develop their emotional muscle to work through difficult emotions and experiences, and maintain emotional stability that will serve them well in adulthood.
Attachment wounding happens when parents fail to meet our emotional needs well enough for us to develop emotional stability. This is not so much about bad things that happen, although bad things may happen too. It’s more about the important good things that don’t happen enough. Like when parents fail to give us attuned responses; warm affection; encouragement; reassurance; repair of a break when there is a rupture in the relationship; loving correction; guidance; good boundaries; respectful interactions; freedom to individuate; unconditional acceptance; help to soothe painful emotions; and help to process grief and loss.
These parental failures may or may not include deliberate, intentionally wounding actions or messages directed at a child to create an effect like feeling shame, guilt, worthlessness or ‘not good enough’. It doesn’t have to be explicit (stated directly), for a child will infer a message, especially if the caregiver’s behaviour conveys those beliefs repeatedly.
Children learn and grow by modelling (taking on board) the beliefs, values and behaviours they observe in their caregivers. This includes taking on the caregiver’s beliefs about them, the child: how they ‘see’ their child. It is the only frame of reference a child has growing up and it sets up patterns of behaviour that become a template into adulthood. So we can see that caregivers have a lot of power and influence in our lives which go beyond childhood. It’s therefore important to our developing emotional foundational stability that we can recognise what went well in our childhood experience of being cared for and what didn’t go so well, so we can take steps to redress gaps and repair attachment wounding.
There’s a vast amount of reliable data that’s emerged from research about this area of child development (for more detail, reference publications by John Bowlby). According to Bowlby, an inborn attachment system has emerged in humans over the course of evolution. This system provides the instinctive motivation for a child to seek proximity to a caregiver who will provide a safe, secure base from which to learn and grow. A child naturally anticipates that a caregiver will provide a safe haven and a source of comfort in times of distress. This attachment system increases the likelihood that young children, who cannot care for themselves, will survive and eventually reproduce.
The attachment system motivates a child to bid for a caregiver’s attention, reassurance, comfort, and protection with attachment behaviours which are designed to elicit a caregiver response that reassures the child they are loved and safe. An appropriate caregiver answer to such bids might include holding, rocking, stroking the child, or making vocal or eye contact. The child will return to sleep, play, or exploration once they feel sufficiently reassured. This helps the child develop an enduring, secure emotional bond with the caregiver.
Attachment Styles and their impact in adulthood
Individuals can form secure or insecure styles of attachment depending upon their interactions with their primary caregivers. The style of attachment is unique to a single relationship. It will vary between different caregivers depending upon how well or not the caregiver is able to attune to the needs of the child.
Secure Attachment: Children develop secure attachments with caregivers who rate highly in their ability to attune and be sensitive to the child’s needs at all their developmental stages, and meet those needs appropriately. They will be emotionally available and able to regulate their own emotions. They can respond promptly to distress, provide moderate stimulation, are non-intrusive, interact with synchrony, and are warm, involved and responsive. They can interact positively with the child, are rarely over-arousing and are able to stabilise a child’s disorganised emotional responses. These caregivers are consistent in their behaviour. They will be able to regulate their own emotions so they remain calm and secure in stressful situations and regard their children’s negative emotions as meaningful, there to be understood and worked through with the caregivers’ help rather than dismissed or seen as unacceptable or threatening. This contributes to a secure attachment.
Relationships between children and caregivers will inevitably experience emotional breaks. Attuned caregivers recognise and respond to these ruptures with soothing and comfort which leads to necessary repair. This contributes to a secure attachment in which a child can learn to trust that person and enjoy being close to them. They learn that it is safe to play, explore, and be themselves.
To summarise, a secure attachment to consistent loving, attuned caregivers is the most important of all childhood needs. Children who grow up feeling securely attached in this way can grow into adults with the ability to form other secure attachments, regulate their own emotions and hold a more positive, hopeful outlook about self and the world.
Insecure/Anxious attachment and its impact in adulthood
A child will form an insecure or anxious attachment to caregivers who are not able to provide a secure base or safe haven.
When primary caregivers consistently fail to meet emotional needs well enough, two types of insecure/anxious attachment can develop between the child and the misattuned caregiver. These are termed “avoidant” and “ambivalent” (for more information, reference research by Mary Ainsworth). An avoidant attachment develops when caregivers are overly rejecting or distancing. An ambivalent attachment develops when caregivers are overly intrusive or enmeshing. Avoidant attached children tend to enter adulthood with a dismissive state of mind with respect to attachment, while ambivalently attached children tend to enter adulthood with a preoccupied state of mind with respect to attachments. That is to say, preoccupied with ‘other’. This leads to over-adaptive behaviours i.e. where the individual adapts their behaviour to please the other person as a strategy to stay safe in the relationship. There is a sub group of an insecure attachment which is defined as Disorganised Attachment, also referred to as Fearful/Avoidant. This attachment pattern stems from intense fear, often as a result of childhood trauma, emotional or physical neglect, or abuse. Adults with this style can tend to feel they don’t deserve love or closeness in a relationship. They can feel unlovable or unworthy. They may desire a close relationship with another but find it painfully difficult to open up or be vulnerable with another person. It can lead to a push/pull response which makes it difficult to stay in relationship.
Broadly speaking, children who grew up with an insecure attachment to their caregivers (whether avoidant or ambivalent or disorganised) can find it challenging to form and sustain healthy relationships in adulthood. There are several other reasons why this might happen which are unrelated to attachment issues. However, when looking at it through the lens of attachment, difficulties can arise for people because they’re drawn to those who display similar behaviours to their misattuned childhood caregivers. These are behaviours they recognise and know how to navigate well. Different, and more healthy behaviours might be confusing and not seem genuine or to be trusted as they aren’t familiar. We can define a healthy relationship as one where there is equality of power, mutual respect, reciprocity, autonomy, empathy and attunement with a wish to meet one another’s needs in an appropriate way.
To summarise, early childhood relationships influence our attachment styles in adulthood. If this doesn’t happen in a good enough way, it’s profoundly upsetting and destabilising. If this failure continues throughout childhood, it can lead to a painful adulthood, where we hold unwanted emotions, behaviours and beliefs about ourselves and the world which we have assimilated into our persona, drawn from our experience of being parented and the behaviours we’ve experienced from other adult authority figures/caregivers.
Putting parenting in perspective
We need to draw a balanced, realistic frame around this concept of a wounding primary caregiver. Few parents set out to inflict harm upon their children. The vast majority are really good people, trying their best to parent well, and they may even succeed a lot of the time. And parents who fail to meet some needs well may meet other needs very well. So when they have a blind spot or are clumsy, their wounding behaviour doesn’t define all of who they are and we can maintain a genuine loving relationship with them.
There are many reasons parents may fail to meet needs well enough. They don’t understand how to do it. They don’t understand its importance. They’re misinformed about what’s needed. They’re too triggered by their own past. We have talked about how a child picks up beliefs, attitudes and behaviours from what is modelled to them. Parents did too when they were children. So they may often, with good intentions, be doing the only thing they know how to do: repeating how they were brought up. And some parents would be good at meeting needs, but simply cannot because of a chronic physical illness, chronic depression, overwhelming work demands, financial hardship, prolonged crisis, chronic stress or danger, or an unusual child’s unique needs or perplexing temperament.
The important thing here is to be able to acknowledge that two things can be true at the same time. On the one hand there may be understandable reasons why parents behaved (and may continue to behave) in wounding ways, depending upon their personal history. However, it can also be true and okay to say that their behaviour wasn’t / isn’t acceptable either. This is an important first step toward us as adults attuning to our younger selves who have been wounded by such behaviours. To downplay or dismiss the child’s authentic experience would be repeating the pattern of misattunement and likely embed further a person’s negative beliefs and behaviours which they are trying to change.
What happens when we have a wounding experience
When a very wounding experience happens in childhood, a part of self can go into a state of shock, split off and get stuck in time. We call these child parts ‘wounded parts’. In adulthood, those child parts can get triggered, bringing painful emotions from the past into the present, so that in that moment we aren’t operating from our most adult rational self, with choice about how to respond. Instead a younger wounded part is reacting to the present event as if it is a re-run of the same past distressing experience – as if it is happening right now – and it overwhelms our ability to act from our adult self. When this happens, we can’t access the thinking part of our brain to put in missing information that will help us make sense of why we are feeling/reacting the way we are, so that we can regain our emotional balance, get perspective and be able to choose how to think and act to find a way through.
More about what happens when we get triggered
When a very distressing event happens, the brain looks to stored memories from an earlier similar experience. It aims to make a helpful pattern match, like an earlier similar situation, a face, mood, smell or message. It will be something that left us with a negative belief, emotion, thought and feeling. If the brain finds a recording of something similar in the in-box, the brain will press ‘play’ on that stored recording. The intensity of the emotions and the vividness of the recording can evoke the felt sense that the old wounding event is happening now. It creates an illusion that the recording is as relevant now as it was back then. In reality a recording is not real-life happening now and is therefore not harmful, but the child part that is reacting and overwhelmed does not know that.
Being emotionally distressed is not always ‘being triggered’. It’s normal, rational and appropriate to feel painful emotions like fear, anger, sadness or despair after a big loss or hearing bad news. But our most healthy adult self can feel able to deal with those responses, make sense of the feelings and solve the problem. Support from friends and family will also help this process.