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We All Mess Up our Children: A Message of Hope - Attachment Theory Insights Every Parent Needs to Know

 

I’m looking forward to teaching you about a valid  theory in the psychology world I think every parent needs to know. I learned about Attachment Theory in my marriage and family studies degree, my first thought was: wow, we all mess up our children. Dang. But I’ve since built upon that initial response  and want to share the insights from it, and how it can help you in your relationships to understand why you are the way you are, and why other people are the way they are.

 

Based on our childhoods, how we were nurtured, and based on our temperaments, we developed what I call trust templates, which is just in simple terms, your default programming with your ability to trust. Sometimes, our trust templates need some attention and updating. 

 

I think of it a little bit like remodeling a home, which I personally love to do. I love to update and paint, knock down walls, open things up, just tweak things so it feels more functional and beautiful. My husband and I have remodeled I think, seven homes now over the years? It’s hard work, but we always love the finished product and conclude the work was worth it. 

 

Same with our attachment style, or our trust template. Sometimes, the things we inherited from childhood might need a little updating and care and attention. 

 

Trust issues show up for many of us. Attachment Theory may explain why.

 

I work with parents in my coaching practice, and I work with some teens and young adults, and it’s so fascinating to me to see that even though we all experience the inevitable ups and downs in our parenting, most of us want the same thing - our children to grow up and be happy, and look back on their childhoods with fondness. And we as parents want to enjoy this parenting thing, but it’s not easy, raising kids will humble you and cause your heart to push right through the skin sometimes.

 

Children won’t develop and deepen their skills of trust unless we are able to model and demonstrate what trust looks like. 

 

Attachment Theory can help you see through a more clear lens the areas where to work on building trust. It’s a skill that can be developed. 

 

Because what happens, we come into relationships as adults, having learned from our childhoods and from our parents, how to trust, or how not to - and instead, we conclude it’s just easier to rely on ourselves, and we carry all these beliefs with us from our past - some of it can get in the way of a clear vision of who other people really are, without us even knowing our vision is clouded. 

 

Like driving in a car with a windshield that we can’t see through, we might struggle to see how the lens we are viewing other people through is affecting our relationships. That clouded windshield, that lens, shaped by our nurturing experiences from the past, combined with our natural disposition, our temperaments, can deeply impact how we perceive other people and what we expect from them in terms of our ability to trust.

 

So here’s how I’m going to break this down in bite size pieces that are easy to understand. I’ll do it in three parts. 

 

Part I - I’ll define the different Attachment Styles and briefly recap the history of where Attachment Theory came into being in the psychology world, why it’s still such a valid theory. You’ll want to see if you can identify your own Attachment Style as you listen. 

 

Part II - We’ll discuss how your Attachment Style lays a foundation for your assumptions about relationships as an adult and how it affects your ability to trust. 

 

Part III - I’ll provide some tips on how you can more gracefully heal and uplevel your own attachment style in your present relationships and answer the burning question everyone has after learning about Attachment Styles, I’m sure you’ll have this question in your mind too, which is, can your Attachment Style change over time? Is it too late? And how do I improve so my children can have strong trust templates? So good. 

 

So let’s dive into Part I and define Attachment Styles: you ready?

 

I think it’s fun to learn about prominent psychologists and how they contribute to how we think of modern mental health. John Bowlby is one of those contributors. He was an interesting man, a British psychiatrist whose own attachment history had its own challenges. After World War II, his work led him to children who were orphaned from the war, and his work has an impact on your life even now, as many psychologists and researchers continue to build on what he learned.

 

  • He’s the reason we no longer drop young kiddos off at sanitariums and have strangers work with challenging children in a cold, clinical way, which used to be how things were done.The idea was this; after the difficult child was supposedly cured, pick them up while expecting them to suck it up and be strong. We’ve since found that approach causes more problems than it cures. 
  • He’s the reason for  Ronald McDonald Houses near children’s hospitals, so  parents don’t have to be separated from their children through prolonged illnesses. 
  • We can attribute some of the advances made in the foster care system to him versus the way orphanages used to be run, or boarding schools for elementary school children were run, and have since declined. 
  • And hospice care at home with loved ones have replaced hospitals for the dying, all because of his influence. 

 

And so the take away from this is that Bowlby discovered young children need adults in their lives who are warm, consistently available, responsive, and affectionate, and who aren’t dismissive or neglectful. 

 

For some, this will sound so basic, like just a given. But for others, it will touch a tender nerve, because for many reasons, not all of us get what we need, but this kind of stable care can lay a foundation for our personality development. 

 

I do want to interject, some parents go to the opposite extreme - they can stifle the growth and independence of children by smothering them with affection, which isn’t ideal either . But today, we’re talking about how Bowlby believed that overall, human beings come hardwired as babies to attach to other human beings. 

 

It isn’t always easy to attach to our babies. Babies come with their own personalities and dispositions. There has been much controversy on this - some believe that babies are born as a blank slate, and others believe that babies come with their own temperament. Bowlby believed babies come with their own temperament and aren’t blank slates.

 

My own observation is that babies come with their own temperaments. And I’m going to go with that. Some parent and baby temperament combinations have an easier time attaching to each other - for many reasons, and some parents and children have a harder time forming strong attachments. For example: Children with autism tend to exert a lot of effort in avoiding being touched or soothed, despite loving parents who are engaged, and some anxious babies are difficult to soothe or console enough, no matter how much attention their caregivers provide. 

 

So disposition and temperament play a role in attachment styles. But along with that, babies and toddlers have a vast variety of experiences separate from their parents that influence their attachment style. 

 

When I learned about all of this, I felt myself go into a kind of guilt spiral, questioning if I did it right with my own children. 

 

You might be doing that a little bit right now?

 

I want to offer to you that as you learn about Attachment Theory, just decide right now that you are going to give yourself a lot of grace and also, your parents, and whomever else comes up for you with this topic. 

 

Just decide to be gracious in your thinking even if there is some tenderness that is triggered  on  the topic. 

 

Ok. So let’s dive into the labels of the Attachment Styles, and these come from psychologist and researcher, Mary Ainsworth who built upon Bowlby’s findings. She conducted studies of how toddlers tolerated separation from their mothers. Her work built on Bowlby’s work, and she found that there are four main Attachment Styles:

  • Secure
  • Avoidant
  • Anxious
  • Traumatic

 

  1. Secure attachment is the ideal. And most of the population in the U.S. is securely attached, according to studies from 2008 and onward. A secure attachment style presents as having an easier time trusting people, even when they seem unavailable. They believe deep down that people are good, and have their best interests at heart. During times of stress or challenges, they expect they’ll bounce back and that they can share their challenges with other people to receive strength, they don’t have to go through it alone, and that people bring out the best in each other and are better, together. 
  2. Avoidant attachment is the second most common. Even though it is less desirable than secure attachment, some studies show there are high percentages of the population with the Avoidant attachment style. It presents as having the belief in being independent simply because emotional closeness is not something he or she necessarily values or needs. Getting too close to other people feels a little dangerous, but there is some inner conflict because being too distant can leave them feeling alienated, lonely and wondering about the meaning of life. These individuals may have experienced some chaotic periods in their childhood, parents moved a lot, maybe there was a chronically ill sibling or parent, or maybe they may have had to depend on people who hurt them in their early years, leaving them to conclude that other people aren’t safe or reliable for meeting their needs.  Sometimes this presents itself as overachieving. Again, try to be gracious with yourself and others if this is bringing up some tender stuff for you. 
  3. Anxious attachment is less common than the other two, and also one of the less desirable attachment styles. It is different from Avoidant Attachment in that avoidant individuals tend to think of  themselves as capable of meeting their needs and others not so much - but Anxious individuals tend to view themselves as weak, unworthy or in danger if left alone and worry about their capacity to meet their needs if alone. They tend to work hard to stay connected to people even if connection is difficult. They have a lot of worries and fears, including worrying about wearing others out with their neediness. They tend to conclude their only choice is to people please in order for people to value them. 

 

Now, I want to point out that many of us alternate between an avoidant and an anxious style when we’re under big life stressors. 

 

So that’s where you might feel inclined to panic and question yourself when learning about Attachment Styles. Don’t panic. Just take a deep breath here. And hear me when I say; we all have characteristics of every Attachment Style. 

 

But the way I think of Attachment Styles is more in terms of a trust template. What is your default ability to trust, the trust template you tend to operate from? 

 

And the reason I like to study this in myself is because I see so much value in healing the way I make sense of my childhood. 

 

That’s what this work and understanding your Attachment Style can offer to you. 

 

The 4th Attachment Style, traumatic, is rare. If you experienced physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse, or serious or ongoing neglect, then the feelings of helplessness and being alone might be intolerable as an adult. Traumas like war, accidents, serious health problems and natural disasters are hard on children, but if the caregivers in the children’s lives aren’t creating affection and safety, it can leave a deep impact. 

 

Children are resilient and can heal from traumatic childhoods. But it takes intentional effort and informed support from family, caregivers, therapists, counselors, and people who are practiced in understanding and caring for trauma. There are some life coaches out there who can do this, but it might be out of their expertise, so be intentional when looking for someone to work with - you can always direct message me if you have questions about this. It’s important to me that you find the help and support you need. 

 

Let’s move into Part II - some assumptions you may have in your relationships, depending on your Attachment Style. 

 

Relationship assumptions are something I help my clients identify in themselves, regardless of their Attachment Style. We all have relationship assumptions. 

 

The way I define Relationships in the work I do with clients is simply: the thoughts you have about another person. And those thoughts create feelings. 

 

Relationship assumptions are a set of rules and expectations of what is normal, kind, and

acceptable behavior for someone else in their interactions with us. Often, our assumptions are tied to our Values. Some of the rules and expectations are written unknowingly, and insights from understanding your attachment style can help bring to light why your assumptions are different from someone else's. 

 

For example:

Assumptions for your child might sound like this:

  • You shouldn’t interrupt me when I’m working
  • You should tell the truth and not be sneaky
  • You should know when I’m angry and be on your best behavior
  • You shouldn’t make messes

 

Assumptions for your spouse might sound like:

  • You should help with the housework
  • We should be on the same page with raising kids
  • You should have the same views in politics that I do
  • We should enjoy the same movies, music, and activities
  • We shouldn’t fight in front of the kids

 

Now, let’s talk about how your attachment style might inform your relationship assumptions. You will have different expectations if you have a Secure Attachment Style, versus if you have an Avoidant or Anxious Attachment Style. 

 

Here are some examples:

 

If you’re securely attached, you might believe:

  • People are worth the effort of investing time, energy, friendships. Life is better with people versus being alone. 
  • When other people aren’t available, it’s more about them than about you.
  • When people let you down, it isn’t the end, there’s more to the story, and you’re willing to be curious about what that might be. You don’t make it mean something negative about you. 
  • Trust is a beautiful emotion to build, to pursue, and that it’s worth being vulnerable for, knowing that it will get messy sometimes, you might get your heart broken, but you know it’s temporary and you’ll heal in time. 

 

If you’re avoidant attached, you might believe:

  • People are to be held at arm’s length. Trust needs to be earned. 
  • You enjoy having fun with friends, but you wouldn’t say you ‘need’ people in order to live your best life. 
  • When other people aren’t available, it’s fine because you don’t want them to have to depend on you to make them happy. 
  • When people let you down, you kind of aren’t surprised, you tend to think that other people are unreliable anyway. 
  • And, trust, if it’s even possible, is rare to find with other people. You might think that the only person you can really trust is yourself. 

 

Now, just notice, both of these belief sets could be equally true,  they are equally true. The insights come from seeing your attachment or trust template, your default beliefs, where you operate from in general. And - keep in mind, these templates are going to be different if there is a big stressor event going on in your life, like a death of a loved one, or an illness, or financial strain. 

 

If you’re anxious attached, you might believe:

  • In soul mates; that when you find that person who really gets you, you should merge with them mind/heart/and soul, and that is the end goal.
  • You’re almost afraid of how much you need people or want them to love you and understand you. 
  • There can be a lot of all or nothing thinking here.
  • When other people aren’t available, you imagine they’ve moved on, worst-case scenario thinking, imagining the other person sees the real you and has concluded you didn’t measure up. . . you’ve been found out and they are rejecting you.
  • When people let you down, you feel completely betrayed, you tend to think that you’ll never find a person to believe in or ever give your heart to again.
  • And trust, either you completely trust them and overshare, or you hold back and pretend you are someone you are not, and you hide parts of you in fear of being rejected. You want to desperately trust someone, but you’ve been burned and you don’t know what other people want. 
  • There’s also a strong tendency to look to other people to find answers outside of you, to find reasons to trust, versus trusting yourself. Lots of second guessing of yourself, and reinventing yourself to fit what you think other people might want or expect. 



Okay. So you might have identified with one attachment style or trust template more than another, all of this is good to know. 

 

A warning I want to speak to here is to be careful about using any of those things against yourself and concluding that you are broken in any way. 

 

No. That’s not what we’re doing here.

We’re simply identifying areas where there’s room to grow. That’s it. 

 

Because now we get to the most important takeaway from all of it, and it’s simply this: You might be wondering, can we change?

 

If I’m anxious or avoidant, can I heal and change? Is there hope for me?

 

And the answer is absolutely, YES! Yes, you can. 

 

And the other question you might be wondering, am I broken? NO! You are not broken.

 

For some of us, it’s going to take more work and effort than others. But the answer is yes. And so let’s talk about how:

 

  • Become more conscious of your attachment style, your trust template, and then roll up your sleeves, get to the work of rewriting your relationship assumptions. It’s important to remember to keep the awareness in context, don’t use it as a reason to stay small or use it against yourself and conclude there’s something wrong with you. 
  • Reframe your childhood, change what you tell yourself your childhood meant. Don’t just keep telling the same story over and over to yourself about the difficult things that happened. Acknowledge the hard things, be aware of them, yes, but don’t end it there. When we take the time to change what we tell ourselves about our childhood years, we have a lot of power here. Being conscious of the hard things, wanting different things for yourself and your children is beautiful, but know that insight alone isn’t going to help you rewrite your trust template. You’ll have to learn some more skills. This is where the self-help world is rich and offers a lot of modalities for healing. Find what resonates with you. For me, it’s been different things at different times in my life. Therapy, yoga and meditation, creative pursuits, telling my story or hearing other people’s stories has been really healing for me. Coaching. There is a lot available to us these days. If you’re wanting help, I can point you in a good direction, we should have a one-on-one chat about it and brainstorm what would be a good fit for you. 
  • Developing self-compassion and compassion for your caregivers in your early years is another way to heal your attachment style. Develop the skills of understanding how humans experience the world, how the generations that have gone before you had things they were contending with, big picture thinking is powerful in that it helps you not take things so personally. This is an important aspect of a secure attachment style, the ability to hold space for the big picture, for ambiguity and not having answers, we might not have answers for a long time, but we can settle on some fundamental beliefs, such as a benevolent universe, a loving god, good outweighs the bad. For some, those beliefs take cultivating and careful study and willingness. It reminds me of Doctor Strange from the Marvel cinematic universe, who, before he lost use of his hands, relied solely on his intellect, but found that we are mulit-dimensional being, there’s the astral plane as they call it in the movie, which is just another way of saying the spiritual plane. For me, the astral, the mystical, the spiritual plane, it’s worth seeking more understanding of. Making sense of where I fit into the big picture. I’ve found a lot of healing in my spiritual practices. 

 

It’s important to know that We are never done growing up. Did you know that? We hit a certain point in adulthood, maybe it’s late thirties, early forties, and we might think we’re grown up. But I don’t even know what that means in the context of human potential. I’ve seen young children possess the kind of wisdom and compassion that takes people in their old age years of earned experience. And I’ve seen older people still have tantrums and think the world revolves around them in ways that seem very childlike. And I myself have been both of those things.

 

So growing up is subjective. 

 

None of us are ever done growing up.

 

We can still grow up even though we’re walking around in grown up bodies. 

 

Growth and change is always available to us. 

 

And there’s a certain humility that comes in knowing this. 

 

Humility doesn’t come easy to some of us.  

 

If we have relationship Manuals about ourselves or other people that we think are just true because we have a lot of evidence to back it up, then once we see those relationship rules, once we are conscious  of  them, we have a choice: do we want to keep those rules? Or do we want to change them?

 

You’ll know you have some true humility if you can answer Yes to: 

  • Is there some courage? 
  • Is there a willingness to grow and believe new things?

 

And this is what I love about Attachment theory, how it has shown me that there are some areas where I have work to do. Not in the sense that I’m broken, but just in the sense of an opportunity if I want. 

 

I’ve learned that trusting other human beings is  a beautiful thing. I learned it early on with my grandma, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t thank the universe for her. 

 

But I’ve also learned that I can trust romantically, and I can trust women  and build satisfying and beautiful friendships. I can trust my children to grow in grace and even though in some ways I felt like I didn’t have what other moms seem to have, when they fly the nest, I have shown up with what they needed and we’ll always be a soft place to land for each other, even though parts of me were still healing. I’ve learned to trust my adopted parents, my younger siblings, and on and on  and on. And I love the feeling of trust much more than feeling like something is missing, something that other people that I admire seem to have, but I didn’t. I don’t tell myself that story anymore. 

 

John Bowlby believed that human beings come into the world hard wired to attach to other human beings. He was curious about what happens when We don’t all get what we need, but his work helped us identify how we can develop an ‘earned secure attachment’ style, as some attachment researchers call it, if we want. 

 

I think the work of upleveling our attachment style from childhood is worth it. 

 

I have an Attachment Style Assessment questionnaire that I have my students answer some questions to help them see where they’re at with their attachment style, or your trust template as I like to think of it. 

I’m happy to share it with you, my readers, if you’re curious, right now I have a few openings for women who want to make peace with their past, I’m offering one-on-one private coaching. I only have a couple spots available. Most of my coaching time is spent inside the Dare Greatly Society - but if this is some work that is calling to you to do, I would invite you to jump on the chance, it’s changed the way I go through motherhood and the way I enjoy my marriage so much more now. 

Click here to download the quiz

 

This is the work we do in the Dare Greatly Society. For me, it’s ongoing, as it is for many of my clients. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be that deep. And sometimes, we get into murky waters, meaning some tender stuff. But I’m up for all of it. This is one my superpowers, helping women heal from difficult childhoods, or tender things. 

 

I’ve found that doing the work of building my trust template, Building trust with yourself and with other human beings leads to an amazing sense of fulfillment, confidence, and sense of purpose and place in the world. 

 

I want that for you, if this is something that is calling to you. I’d be so honored to help you through coaching. 

 

I want to leave you with one more thing: just a short anecdotal story of a human I admire who did this work,  who upleved her attachment style. I’ll call her Sarah. She told me she was tired of doubting herself, and whenever she tried to heal from her past, the agitation she felt was unbearable. 

 

She was deeply convinced that something was so wrong with her, it could never be fixed. She experienced a breakthrough in one of our sessions when she realized she couldn’t stop the negative thoughts from happening, but she could choose whether to believe them or not. 

 

In many instances, we inherit things we didn’t ask for. She had inherited a mother who was pretty depressed and filled with self-hatred to give her real support, and an emotionally distant father who was also critical and achievement oriented. And she grew up in a culture that promised satisfaction through achieving. 

 

When I urge my clients to see the things they inherit that can sometimes lead to the separateness they feel, they first tend to be hard on themselves and tell me they should be able to suck it up, and they should be able be grateful, they build a case for how other people have it worse in the world. 

 

I don’t think this is helpful at all. 

 

It’s okay to give ourselves permission to let ourselves feel the void that exists if our needs weren’t met. We can ask ourselves how we might still need to fill those needs and hold space for our wanting. An unhealed Attachment Style can present as being afraid of your desires and your wanting. But when we can dare greatly, and face our wanting, when we do this, when we acknowledge our own needs, we become free to move forward and break out of attachment styles of old conditioning that are no longer serving us.

 

This is how we break out of the chain of reactivity, and more into feeling empowered. We stop blaming ourselves for wanting what we wish we never had, and we stop blaming other people who couldn’t provide our needs for us. 

 

So isn’t that so comforting to know that we all mess up our children AND there’s hope? That’s my main message to the world. Haha

 

A secure Attachment Style can be earned, if this kind of work is calling to you, there are so many resources out there to help you, lots of free resources too, you can google Attachment Theory and find some resources. I really want to leave you with this important message and insight: There’s hope.

 

Ok my friends, thanks for being here. 

 

Be gentle with yourself as the awareness comes on.

 

It’s okay to be messed up. 

 

We all are. And I find a lot of comfort in that. 

 

I hope you have a beautiful day. Take Care 

 

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