While working with children who have Attachment Disorder, we can learn to see how they are emotionally reactive.
Within this blog, we will be exploring how children who have insecure attachments and attachment disorders are actually stuck in the infant stage of emotional and social development.
What is the difference between children who have secure attachments, who have insecure attachments, and who have Attachment Disorder?
Children with a secure attachment style are regulated by healthy relationships, which provides reward, meaning, and a sense of safety in the child’s life.
Regulated is a term that refers to a flexible and resilient individual who can keep themselves from becoming too worked up or too overwhelmed. They are able to maintain themselves within a window of activation and relaxation.
A child who has a secure attachment is, in a sense, taught how to control their emotions by the healthy relationships they have. And because of this they gain the ability to regulate themselves from getting too overwhelmed.
It is vital to note that this process of regulation is developed through the early emotional and social interactions they have with their primary caregiver, because as infants, they have a very reactive physiology.
An infant does not yet have the ability to calm themselves down when they are overwhelmed or scared, thus they depend on the interaction with their primary caregiver to show them how to calm down their system. It is through interpersonal neurobiology that infants’ nervous systems begin to mirror the nervous system of their caregiver.
Children with insecure attachments tend to be those who do not get enough healthy emotional and social interaction early on. Perhaps their caregiver was physically or emotionally absent at the time the child needed someone that could help them regulate their system. If the interpersonal neurobiology interactions remain infrequent or are not consistent enough for the child’s system to gain a feeling of safety or calm, that child’s system will, unfortunately, remain reactive.
Thus, while children with a secure attachment style are regulated by healthy relationships, children with an insecure attachment style, or Attachment Disorder, have a nervous system that is reactive to relationships rather than regulated by them. This leads the child into a sense of insecurity within relationships and life. Therefore, requiring the child to find other ways of acquiring the same brain chemistry of reward, meaning, and safety.
Attachment Disorder is thus due to an early disruption in key social and emotional interactions with the world. This resulted in a failure to meet emotional developmental milestones and in turn, the development of a reactive emotional brain and nervous system. As time continues, the physical body grows, but the emotions and inner physiology of the brain, nervous system, and body are stuck in that developmental stage. Here is a chart of the Eight Psychosocial Stages as developed by Erickson.
Consistent with Attachment Theory and what we see in children with Attachment Disorder, the first psychosocial stage is Trust vs. Mistrust. Children with Attachment Disorder, at some point, had inadequate positive emotional and social interactions that caused them to develop mistrust.
Thus, their nervous system reacts and goes into survival mode in response to situations that involve trust and intimacy with others, especially adults, those in positions of authority, and those who are caregivers.
Until a child has enough of the required environmental resources and interactions to meet the next emotional developmental stage, there will be a part of them, their nervous system physiology, that gets stuck at that age.
For example, parents who have children with Attachment Disorder will often describe their children as “2 year olds in a 10 year old body.” This is because they had the physical nutrients of adequate food, water, and air to meet physical developmental milestones, but they didn’t have a sufficient amount of emotional and social interactions to successfully move them through the Erickson’s Psychosocial Stages.
Because the child was unable to meet this first psychosocial development, and would not be able to successfully grow into the next stage of developing autonomy, the child would instead develop shame. Shame is not only the sense that have I done a bad thing, but that “I am bad.” It is this feeling at one’s core that they shouldn’t even be alive, because they are not worthy of love, belonging, or meaning.
Shame does not always look like depression, but often carries similar symptoms, such as hurting others or one’s self to try feel better. For children who have Attachment Disorder, shame can present itself in many different facades, but it’s shame that is at the root of both aggression and social isolation.
Let’s return to a previous point made, in order to further understand why children who have insecure attachments and Attachment Disorder react the way they typically due towards adults, those in positions of authority, and caregivers.
The first developmental stage is developing trust in others, specifically in the mother figure or primary caregiver who cares for them. An infant is so vulnerable, they have no other option, but to rely on another person who is bigger and stronger to care for them and to keep them alive.
But if an adequate amount of attention, physical, and emotional care are lacking that infant will not trust that the caregiver (mother or not) to consistently be there for them. This would cause for a lack of trust, the brain and nervous system to be wired in a reactive way, and their emotional brain, as well as their nervous system, would get stuck at that the first developmental stage.
This would result in having all experiences in the world be built on this reactive foundation.
As a child then interacts with adults in the future, they are again subconsciously placed in that same vulnerable position. This would represent a physical vulnerability, because the adult is physically much bigger and stronger.
The child would react to this vulnerability, because it triggers their nervous system to go into full survival mode, which at times, will be sympathetic defiance and rages, or parasympathetic freeze and shut down.
Complete vulnerability without trust is overwhelming to the brain and nervous system, so these defensive behaviors will occur at home, at school, or in any situation where there is a felt sense of physical vulnerability.
Later in life, this child will also react to emotional vulnerability in the same pattern since their foundation for relationships is reactive. In friendships or romantic relationships, they will need to feel in control to obtain intimacy, but this involves emotional vulnerability, which will trigger them into sympathetic acting out, violence, parasympathetic shut down, or escape emotionally into work, exercise or behavioral or substance addictions.
In summary, all children with insecure attachments and Attachment Disorder are emotionally stuck on Trust vs. Mistrust developmental stage, because their brains and nervous systems are stuck in reactivity.
This reactivity will set a pattern of pushing away the very relationships that they need so desperately. This reactivity also sets the foundation for behavioral and substance addictions that could be used to help themselves regulate. Food, sex, and exercise are behavioral addictions that have direct and indirect effects on regulating the nervous system.
The reactivity is what needs to be corrected for an individual to experience healing from Attachment Disorder and earn a secure attachment. This requires intentional focused tools and methods that cannot be left to only an hour a week in a therapist’s office.
Just like with a baby who uses mirror neurons and positive emotional interactions to develop a regulated nervous system, children who are going to earn a secure attachment also need to be immersed in an environment that facilitates a felt sense of safety and regulation.
The parents are the ones who create the environment in which their child can heal. Because there can be other genetic and biological factors that can come into play, which could create a more dysregulated or reactive nervous system, we can never guarantee a parent that they can heal their child.
At the end of the day, the parent provides the environment in which their child can be motivated to heal, because the child chooses the healing. As parents with children who have Attachment Disorder, Neuroplasticity, or the brain and nervous system’s ability to change, is our hope.
Healing is possible, and given the task of changing the very foundation of a child’s nervous system and its reactivity, requires very intentional, focused attention and interventions.
Encouraging you on in the fight for our children’s lives! Keep the goal in mind: developing trust and earning a secure attachment with a regulated nervous system and a well-adjusted emotional brain!
Looking through Erickson’s Psychosocial Stages, where would you see your child emotionally stuck?
In what ways can you tell your child’s nervous system is reactive to relationships?
In Peace and Health,
P.S. I offer individual consultations to those who want to go in-depth about this and make major progress.