Local experts share the latest information and resources on all things mental health.
Posted: May 22, 2018 by Nani Waddoups
Today, thousands upon thousands of young people and their friends and families across the country marched in protest against gun violence that has infected the innocence of American childhood with fear and anxiety. I watched a video of 16-year old, Alex King, speaking to a huge crowd in DC, imploring all to act as a family to support one another.
The combination of so many troubling issues here and abroad has a cumulative impact on all of us, but seeking solace or support from others is not everyone’s default coping strategy. What strategies we use and how effectively we cope with the fear and stress of today’s global/political climate is rooted in our earliest experiences.
In the 1960’s, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth set up a scenario to observe how children under two reacted to unusual situations. What she learned is that the child’s primary caregiver’s responses (in her scenarios, usually the mom’s) provided the template of whether or not turning to others, as Alex King implores, will provide the comfort necessary in such distressing times. Ainsworth’s observational scenario was called, The Strange Situation.
In a nutshell, a child was paired with a parent in a setting where something weird happens, and the young child looks to this very important person for input as to what to make of this strange situation. Ainsworth found that there were four different scenarios that a child might experience:
1. The mom is attentive and signals that everything is ok.
2. The mom isn’t paying attention, because she is otherwise preoccupied, depressed, or inebriated, and not providing any cues to help understand if the situation is safe or not.
3. The mom responds dramatically and fearfully, impressing on the child that this situation is something to be afraid of.
4. The mom is an unpredictable and unreliable source of guidance: sometimes dramatic and fearful, other times unavailable, and sometimes even dangerous.
This pre-verbal cue-ing becomes part of our unconscious operating system about the reliability of others with whom we attach, and also impacts how we cope with strange situations as we grow up. While those with a secure attachment to that responsive and reliable parent may seek solace in others, those for whom the primary caregiver was unreliable, unpredictable, and even threatening, may have developed other coping strategies than turning to family for comfort.
Do you turn to others for support and comfort? What strategies have you developed to cope with and manage strange situations like those we are exposed to today?
While the secure attachment style is idealized (and by the way, parents only have to be responsive about 50% of the time to create this sense of security!), growing up with a less secure and predictable situation demands other survival strategies that become adult superpowers like being extremely observant and attentive to detail.
Taking a look at our early attachment style can help us appreciate the strengths we have developed to help us cope with, and perhaps better, our complicated world.
Next month: How your childhood attachment style becomes your adult attachment style. What kind of adult partner will you seek based on your early primary caregiver’s ability to be present and comforting to you?