Sunday, October 8, 2017

Understanding Attachment

Okay... so what's "attachment"? Well, it's how you attach to, or connect with relationally, other people. It all begins with your caregivers, who are generally from the start, your parents. Research says that your attachment style is solidified by the time you are 2-3 years old, and that this style stays with you for the remainder of your life. Can it change? Absolutely - but it's not easy. Changing an unhealthy attachment style can take years of very hard work. 

What's healthy attachment? What it comes down to, is that a person you love (let's say, your mother) can disappoint you or hurt you, but you can still love them dearly despite your negative feelings towards them. The healthy attachment is there. It means seeking out the individual you have healthy attachment towards when you need something (ex: searching for your dad at the park after you fall down and hurt yourself rather than running to a stranger for comfort). 

Okay... so what's unhealthy attachment? Why does it matter that I know this as a teacher? Unhealthy attachment styles can show up in a variety of ways. Depending on what source you read (I have learned about attachment styles and disorders from Bowlby and Ainsworth, who coined the term "attachment theory"), there are 3 types of unhealthy attachment. This matters to you as an educator because you're likely trying to build relationships with your students. If you have a child who has struggled greatly in her ability to form healthy bonds with her parents, she's likely going to struggle in creating a relationship with you and the rest of her educational team. It's just behavior science. There's not magical intervention to fix this (yet!), but knowing about the dynamics of attachment and what she may be facing can be helpful in how you go about forming a trusting relationship with her. 

On to unhealthy attachment styles - in a nutshell:

Anxious Attachment - As the title states, this is a pretty anxious kiddo. They are continually showing inward and outward signs of anxiety in relation to their caregiver. Where are they? Can I call them? This child might be really suspicious of their caregiver, but then also super clingy towards them. Overall, their caregiver is unpredictable or inconsistent. Sometimes they are able to support, attend to, and deeply parent their child, while other times they cannot. 

Avoidance Attachment - This child learned early in life that they should ignore the innate urge to rely on their caregiver in times of need, because their needs are so often not met (or made worse) by their caregiver. This is a child who is consistently overly independent and trying to fix problems by themselves, acting like a little adult. This child in class is always taking problems into their own hands and never asking you for help. 

Disorganized Attachment - This child falls into neither category: they're not clingy to their caregiver due to anxiety and they're not trying to take matters into their own hands. They have no strategy when it comes to attaching and forming relationships. Typically, our students who fall into this category have experienced complex trauma. These students are mostly operating in fight or flight mode, as they're so unsure of what each moment could actually bring - because of their past experiences. Perhaps they have experienced their caregiver neglecting and/or abusing them, and then in turn watched someone neglect and/or abuse their caregiver. They have no way of making sense that their scary person could have their own scary person. Who can they trust? How can they make sense of safety in their world? 

Now I understand this is outrageously hard to read. Whether you're familiar with these terms or not, it's heartbreaking to read. How can we best help and serve these students?!

Well, first its good to remember that this is not easy. And it won't be. 

But what CAN you do? Be consistent. Be safe. Be predictable. Every day, my teacher greets me with a smile and a handshake, even if I hit her yesterday. There is always a bean bag in the corner I can sit in if I feel overwhelmed. My teacher always listens to what I have to say. Every time _____ happens, this is the consequence. 

Attachment is tricky. But you CAN be a safe landing for kids who once lived in chaos (think children in foster care, children living in group homes/residential treatment facilities, children who have been adopted or lived in large orphanages for a portion of their childhood) or children who are currently living in challenging homes. And their parents aren't necessarily terrible people. Many of them had childhoods that mirror the ones that your students are living. Be aware and be watchful, but also be gentle. Do a lot of listening and checking in. Offer resources. &, don't do it alone! Keep a team around this child and family - social worker, school psychologist, behavior team members. 

And, take care of yourself! Working with kids in trauma can be traumatic for those around them. This article about vicarious trauma is super eye opening. You got this - just make sure there's lots of self care happening to keep the ship afloat. 

Love,

Allie



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