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How have you made sense of your childhood experiences?

I had the pleasure of being interviewed for a podcast with Erin Meinel, Sleep Consultant and Founder of Lake Country Sleep, where we discussed the role of early childhood attachment and how it plays a role in our later life.  Unless you have experienced a challenging childhood, many people do not spend too much time considering their early attachment; however, when it comes to living a wholehearted, integrated life it is a significant piece of the puzzle.  How you adapted to your childhood experiences plays a major role in how you relate to yourself, others and the world.  It's worth your attention.  Let me give you a brief description (there are volumes of books written on these subjects - this is the cliff notes of cliff notes version).  Use this information as a resource to reflect on your childhood attachment and perhaps what kind of attachment relationship your children have with you.  If this interests you, you can listen to a more in-depth conversation on the podcast.

We are born with an attachment system.  In fact it's "experience expectant", meaning we are wired for meaningful secure connection and so our bodies/minds literally expect it to happen.  Sometimes our early experiences of attachment are safe and loving (secure, what we expected) and sometimes they are not.  However we adapted to that experience gets encoded into our nervous system and it forms a basis for how we relate to ourselves and others.

Attachment can be defined as the primary relationship (in early childhood) that gives you an inner sense of security.  The attachment figure is usually the parent(s) or primary caregiver.  The quality of our attachment experience is characterized by what Dr. Daniel Siegel calls the 4 S's.  He wrote a wonderful  book to help parents learn the crucial qualities of fostering a secure attachment .  In short, how we are (or are not) Seen, Soothed, provided Safety and Security can lead to a secure or insecure attachment with a parent. 

There are four main categories (or strategies) of attachment:  Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent and Disorganized.  These strategies categorize how we adapted to early childhood experiences with our attachment figure.  The categories describe the relationship, not the child. This is an important distinction to know early on because all too often we can over identify with our difficult experience and see it as something defective with oneself.  This then becomes a shameful experience, when in reality, it was the relationship that was broken.  Not you.  It is also possible for a child to have a different strategy of attachment with different adults.  And so one child could have a Secure Attachment with his father and an Avoidant Attachment with his mother depending on the relationship with each.  Sometimes this is a blessing.  Sometimes it is not.

Thanks to  Attachment theory and research we know that the greatest predictor of a child's security of attachment is not what happened to the parents as children, but instead how the parent makes sense of their childhood experiences.  It is not necessarily the challenging childhood that you experienced, but how you have come to understand, perceive, remember and explain your experiences that is the biggest precursor that is correlated to the kind of secure or insecure attachment relationship you foster with your own child.  This is a fascinating, empirical finding.

This leads us to some really good news!  Early childhood attachment is not a fate.  It is never too late to learn how to make sense of your experiences.  And here is where therapy or other reflective practices step in.  In therapy we work towards integration - the basis of well-being and resilience. We investigate your narrative (the story you tell yourself) because that story can sometimes negatively effect or limit who you are in your current life/relationships.  We also explore unresolved painful past experiences while helping you make sense of what happened to you, therefore making it less likely that you will pass down some of those same painful experiences to your children or other relationships.  Sometimes when you learn to work through the difficulty of a challenging childhood you gain what's called Earned Security.  Regardless of where you are in life, there is always an opportunity for growth.

So you may be asking yourself, what can I do to foster a secure attachment with my child? I would encourage you to consider the PART you play.  Be intentional about your presence, how you attune, and what it feels like to resonate with your child so that you build a trusting relationship.

Presence - slow down, lessen distractions, let your mind be where your body is, remove expectations and judgements and be receptive and open to connection.

Attune - be curious about what's going on beneath the behavior, focus your attention on your child's inner experience, use your body as an instrument of sensitivity - can you sense what they are experiencing.

Resonate - connect in a way that's deep and authentic where the other person feels felt, recognize your child as a separate whole being whom you see and love.
Trust - nurture with kindness and compassion, be consistent and predictable, try to respond calmly instead of react harshly.
Lastly, remember that there is no such thing as perfect parenting.  Every relationship experiences rupture (conflict) and repair (mending); they are a normal part of parenting.  What's important is to reengage after you disengage.  It's the coming back to each other with care and attention that strengthens the security of your relationship.
Take a moment and listen to this beautiful song about a mother's love for her son.  I first heard this song when I was in college.  It has never left my memory.  Little did I know then that I would have 3 sons some day whom I would love whole-fully so that they could venture out into the world to continue the story that started between us.
"My First Child" by Nil Lara
Quote of the month:

"Life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base"
- John Bowlby
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