Facilitating Attachment Security and Resolving Childhood Trauma: Principles of Interventions Guided by Attachment and Intersubjectivity Theories
from “Newsletter of the Boston Institute for the Development of Infants and Parents.” Vol. 21, No. 2, 15-16.
by Daniel Hughes, Ph.D.
“You cannot understand an infant by observing him. You can only understand an infant by being engaged with him.” – Colwyn Trevarthen
The psychological development of children has at its core the finely attuned dance between the infant/toddler and his parents. (For brevity: adults are “she,” children are “he” unless the story involves a specific individual.) When an infant does not have the opportunity to dance with a specific adult – an adult who wants so much to dance with him – the infant’s physical, affective, behavioral, cognitive, social, and communication abilities are placed at risk. Infants born into the world of an orphanage, the world of abuse and neglect, or the world of repetitive loss of attachment figures are placed in such conditions of risk.
What about the dance makes it so important? While dancing, the infant – and parent – feel safe. We know that attachment behaviors are activated in conditions of fear and serve to elicit basic safety. Without actual safety there can be no development. We are also increasingly understanding that psychological safety is crucially important if our developmental journey is to proceed to its fullest potential.
The sense of safety-while-dancing comes from within the contingent, reciprocal communications that occur between infant and parent, moment to moment, each and every one never again to be repeated in just the same way. The mind, heart, and body of the infant are being organized, differentiated, and integrated at each successive level, when the infant experiences – intersubjectively – the mind, heart, and body of his parent as they dance. Again, this is reciprocal. The mind, heart, and body of the parent-as-parent is being impacted by her infant also. Her self-with regard-to-parenting is becoming organized, differentiated, and integrated by her infant.
When a child has experienced the first months or years of life in a setting that did not provide opportunities for dancing, he may have forgotten his ability to join in rhythm with his parent. He may no longer even hear the music. When his adoptive parent puts on the music and leads the dance, he does not follow. When his adoptive parent waits, notices, and joins his rhythm, he changes it or flees. Reciprocity – the “Cradle of Thought” as described so well by Peter Hobson – may no longer be a natural process for this child. This child may have chosen a path defined by the ability to control everyone and everything. Since reciprocity is a process at odds with control, it is avoided. This child works diligently to not allow adults to have an impact on him. He chooses not to discover himself through engagement with a loving parent. In choosing not to allow his parent to impact him, he is impacting her in a negative manner. Her self-as-parent is failing. She cannot have a positive impact on her child’s development. Her failure is having a negative impact on her development as a parent.
What is to be done? The parent needs to learn to dance with a child who does not know how, and most often does not want to learn. Dancing involves intersubjectivity, both primary (person-person) and secondary (person-person-object) and there is no time deadline on its use. When the subjectivity of one person meets the subjectivity of the other – truly meets and responds with joint affect, attention, and intention – the development of both individuals is fostered. When one person uniquely responds to what is uniquely expressed by the other, the subjectivity of both is made more coherent and comprehensive. A five-year-old child who has had little exposure to the world of intersubjectivity may certainly resist becoming engaged within it. His parent needs to become adept at accepting the resistance for what it is, becoming engaged with the affect, focus of attention, and intention that underlies the resistance, and joining with that aspect of the child’s subjectivity. What will induce the child to step into this world? His current world is so lonely, so frightening, so poorly defined, and so empty that his resistance may weaken when he begins to notice what his parents are persistently offering.
The core components of dancing with a 3- or 5-year-old child who does not dance well are similar to the manner by which we dance with infants. The dance is primarily one of non-verbal communication. The impact of the parent on her child comes through her eyes, face, voice, gestures, and touch, varying in unique, reciprocal ways in vitality and timing. This coordinated non-verbal communication reflects the meaning that she attributes to her child’s non-verbal expressions and behavior. The parent is continuously responding to features of her child that exist under the behavioral problems. The meaning that she gives these problems involves her child’s fears, shame, despair, and rage along with his courage, persistence, and harsh honesty over an early life where his most basic developmental needs were not addressed, valued, or even noticed. The dance involves moments of engagement, followed by breaks, which are followed by re-engagement or repair. The dance is non-linear, involving reciprocal influence moment-to-moment. Within the dance affect is co-regulated and the meaning of both the attentional focus and the object/event focused upon is being co-created.
The parental stance that facilitates a successful dance is one of playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy (PACE). These four qualities are able to create a rhythmic, sensitive, and responsive dialogue. This dialogue has complementary affective and reflective components that activate both the heart and the mind of both the child and his parent. This dialogue is not judgmental, even when the behavior is being limited. It is not evaluative. It involves continuing acts of discovery of the other – intentional acts that do not evaluate – leading to a joining with the other in his world. And the child feels this joining in his world – he “feels-felt” while feeling safe – and his loneliness and emptiness begin to lift. He then fears this new intersubjective experience and he runs. And his parent waits, notices, and joins him again, without judgment. Through it all, they are dancing, though with breaks, out-of-synch moments, and sore toes. And this is not a job in which the child becomes an object. Rather it is a creative, often joyful, often stressful, spontaneous process of joint intersubjective discovery and development.
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