Practical Christian Parenting – 4 – Attachment

If our goal in parenting is to draw our children into loving relationship, as God does with us, then we need to study the inner workings of the human mind to understand why God works with us the way he does. The more we understand about his methods, the more likely we are to be successful with our children.

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Some years ago, I was watching TV on Sunday morning. Milton Friedman was on Meet the Press. He was a well-known free-market economist. And the reporters who were grilling him seemed more intense with him than they usually were. They were, after all, thinly veiled liberals facing a giant intellect from the world of conservatives. Dr. Friedman had won a Nobel Prize in economics and he was an advisor to President Ronald Reagan. It seemed to me that they wanted to make him look bad, but the more condescending they became in their demeanor – the more frustrated they were with him – the more relaxed he seemed to be as he shredded their arguments with cool logic and accurate information, polite respect. It got so bad that they quit asking him questions after a while, because every time he answered one, it was so simple, it was like a question nobody should have even bothered to ask.

So, how was he able to defend his position so easily? Well, in comparison, I noticed that the panel seemed random and scattered, and the more frustrated they got with him, the more random and scattered they became – you know, what about this? and, what about that? – while his answers, on the contrary, all seemed to emanate from a tightly knit framework of knowledge and principles bound together with logic and common sense. He’d thought so much about his topic that he had a framework in his mind that joined all the parts together into a seemingly airtight position. His questioners were looking for that one thing that he would say that didn’t fit and thereby crumble his argument, but they couldn’t find even the smallest weakness in his tapestry of logic, facts and evidence.

Well, what does that have to do with Practical Parenting? Well, I’m hoping my little recollection of a well-constructed framework will strike a chord with you, because all parents need a well-thought out, airtight plan in their heads, if they want to wisely respond to the multitude of behaviors they’re going to see from their children. In the three previous presentations in this series, we saw that the goal of godly parenting is to develop a loving relationship with our children. And to achieve this goal, the plan, generally, is to parent them the way God parents us. But these are very general and from the framework of the plan rather than completed. The specifics remain to be attached to the framework in a logical and airtight way.

So, today, in this fourth in our series on Practical Parenting, we’re going to add to our biblically provided framework, a way of thinking about the way our children act, and the things they do and need, which will make sense and help us provide specifics for our plan going forward. It’s a way to approach what’s going on with them. This framework is called attachment theory. If you absorb the major elements of it, you’ll be well-equipped to understand your children.

What is attachment theory? Well, it started back in the 50s. A psychologist, named John Bowlby, posited that babies needed a secure base – a person that they could attach to securely in order to go forward. With this base in place, the baby is then able to go forward and meet the challenges of life. Not long after, he came out with his theory about this, a woman, named Mary Ainsworth, who had read his materials, started a study. She got a grant, hired some people, she trained them to observe – to go into the homes of mothers with infants and carefully record the behaviors of the mothers with their infants. So, about a year later, after they gathered all this data, she asked these mothers and toddlers to participate in an interview. During the interview, the staff watched the reaction of the toddler when the mother left the room for a few minutes and then came back. This interview was called the strained situation interview. If you’d like to Google it, you can learn a lot more about what they actually did, but we don’t have time for that today.

This interview, in the first years of the study, was done with hundreds of mothers and toddlers. They were trying to learn how various relational approaches of parents affected their kids. Now, nearly sixty-five years later, this study has grown to include many thousands. Some of the original toddlers are still known and observable as they approach their mid-sixties.

What did they learn from this longest longitudinal study in history? Well, they learned that the way our parents interact with us as infants sets a pattern for all our relationships for the rest of our lives, over a range from very beneficial to disastrous. They learned that the human brain reacts predictably – to a given relational stimuli, as if there is an attachment plan built into the brain. At first, many people didn’t believe this theory. They said it wasn’t hard science. But, as our sophistication in brain research has grown, most of the brain researchers out there today tell us that those early findings were accurate and that it can be seen in the scans. And they’ve gone beyond that to tell us that the human brain is designed for relationship. Relationship is built into us. The quality of our lives, in good measure, depends on the quality of our relationships.

I heard Bruce Perry, a very important brain researcher in this country, a few years ago at UNM, and he mentioned that when we smile at somebody, say hello, shake their hand, make eye contact, there’s a positive response to the connection that goes on inside us. Our heart rate slows. Our blood pressure drops. A tiny spurt of growth hormone is injected into the bloodstream. We feel better and experience a heightened sense of self-worth. Relationship is good for us biologically. They know also that infants attached securely, primarily through brief episodes of eye contact with parents and other caregivers while they’re being soothed, changed, fed and played with, the infant brain takes in the parent through the eyes and feels taken in, as well, through the eye contact. They feel connected to mom and dad, and valued, and loved, and cared for and safe. And that’s where the security comes from, you see. So this feeling of connectedness gives them the security that they need to face the challenges of baby life and life throughout the lifespan. For example, I was reading some research recently about post-traumatic stress disorder. Social scientists have been wondering for years now why some people are susceptible to PTSD when under trauma and others seem to suffer less or no symptoms at all. As we learn more about how the brain works, as we study trauma more, we starting to see that the ones who are resistant to PTSD symptoms tend to be those people who had secure attachments in infancy.

What else can we learn from attachment theory? Well, as Christians, we might ask that question – what can we learn from it? Well, I think what we’re looking at in attachment theory is the mechanics, so to speak, or the particulars of how God designed us, so that He can draw us into relationship with Him. We had to be relational beings, otherwise we wouldn’t to relationship, right? Once we see how He has made us and what we respond to, then we can extrapolate that knowledge to our own parenting to work in harmony with God’s plan, instead of against it. We know for a fact, out of the Bible, that God is drawing us into relationship, rather than hurting us or forcing us. We can look at what science has discovered, and we see how God made us and what draws us, then.

Let’s look at this. This is sort of an off-shoot from attachment theory. There’s the baby in the crib. You know, it won’t be long before that baby has a need, right? They do. They need a lot of stuff. Then, the baby cries, because it has a need. Why do babies cry? Well, because they’re worried about something. They need something. They don’t get time either, so it’s got to happen right now, or they’re unhappy. They’re not very patient. What happens after that? Well, the adults respond, don’t they? They take care of the baby. They change it. They feed it. They cuddle it. They play with it. They do what parents do. And the result of that is, that the baby’s need is satisfied. So it feels safe, secure, a sense of well-being – you know, all is well. The baby is emotionally regulated again.

You know, when a mom picks up the baby and starts cuddling it and it starts calming down, it looks like she’s soothing it, but actually what’s happening there is she’s meeting the baby’s need, and the baby’s self-regulating mechanism is now taking over and the baby is calming itself. Babies learn to do that in the first year of their life. If they miss out on that, they’re going to have emotional problems for a long time after that. Have you ever met people, as adults, who have trouble controlling their emotions? That’s where it comes from. Also, the baby’s brain is integrated. When people are in a state of emotional dysregulation – we could call it – a lot of the blood is drained out of the top part of their brain and it’s down in the center, where emotions are created. So there’s a lack of integration in the brain. But when we’re hitting on all four cylinders and our brain is completely integrated, that’s what it looks like in a baby. They’re happy. They’re relaxed. Everything is working. It’s good. That’s how we like to see them, but we have to do something to cause that to happen in them.

So, how many times do you think that happens in the first year of a baby’s life? Baby has a need, baby cries, parents respond, baby has a need satisfied. Thousands in the first year, right? Absolutely. So this is how babies learn to trust – they learn how to feel secure – when their needs are met repeatedly – over and over again. Now, no parent can do that perfectly, but we just go with what Winnicott said – the great therapist – who talked about the good enough parent. Babies are resilient. They can withstand some stuff, but they need this a lot more than the opposite of it.

So, when the baby is in the crib, it learns, “I’m safe. I’m understood. When I ask, I’ll receive. When in trouble, I’ll be rescued. I am loved and I am good.” Now that’s not good in an arrogant way, because babies don’t have arrogance. It’s good as in “I feel good.” It’s good as when God said, “It is very good,” after He created Adam and Eve – there’s a baby in its natural state. Everything is okay.

But it doesn’t always happen this way, does it? Sometimes, when babies cry, adults don’t respond. And there’s a lot of reasons why that happens. Sometimes they’re busy – “I’ll change your diaper after I put in this load of laundry.” Of course, babies don’t that, so they’re unhappy. Sometimes the adults are too stressed to be thinking about the baby, to make that eye contact, to cuddle them and nurture them. You know, they’re having marital problems or there are financial problems or the guy upstairs is playing the stereo too loud. Sometimes adults are too immature or young or are just ignorant of baby’s needs. They don’t know how to take care of a baby. Sometimes the adults are angry with the baby or with each other. Sometimes they’re addicted. Sometimes they’re self-centered – narcissistic. It doesn’t matter what the reason is. If that circle keeps going around and that need is not met, that baby is not going to become secure and be able to trust very well. So, when that happens, the baby feels unloved, worthless, hopeless. Sometimes, it feels a sense of being bad. You know kids always blame themselves for the problem – “What’s wrong with me?” I’ve had five-year-olds tell me they caused their parents’ divorce. It’s a sad, sad thing.

So, when this happens the baby is emotionally unregulated. If they don’t get their needs met, they cry until they can’t cry anymore. People say, “Oh, they’re settling down now, but maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re just unable to cry because of exhaustion. So they remain emotionally unregulated and that part of the brain that does that doesn’t get activated. The baby is still not integrated either. They don’t have that happy sense of well-being. They just are there. So out of all these negative feelings, if you think about it, comes every bad thing that we see around us in life. You know, US prison population is the most studied population in the world history. And almost all those people had it really rough when they were in their first year of life.

What we’re looking at is a cycle that the devil set in motion in the Garden of Eden with our first parents and his first children. And what happened? Well, let’s look at their firstborn son. Do you think Cain could regulate his emotions? He was angry with Abel for being so good. And he got angry with God when God called him on it. He was out of control! So, how did that happen? Well, if you look at the baby in the crib thing, why would Adam and Eve not have been able to focus on their child? Well, because of all the problems they were having. They got kicked out of the Garden, they lost their job, etc. They blamed each other. There was animosity between them, probably.

Or, think about all the greed that we see in the world today. Where does that come from? Well, it comes from a deep sense of lack. You can be a child born in a very rich family and, if your parents are never there for you, it doesn’t matter how many nannies take care of you, what matters is that you don’t have your parents with you.

What about depression – that sense of hopelessness and worthlessness? That starts in the crib for a lot of people. Feelings of isolation? Well, from the disconnect that occurs between parents and children. That’s where it begins for a lot of people.

Do you know what this cycle becomes instead of the trust cycle when the parents don’t meet the needs? Well, it’s an anxiety cycle. That’s where that comes from. Children are anxious instead of trusting. And then bad things come from that.

So, Piaget said that all the feelings we feel toward mom and dad eventually get turned to God. So, the trust cycle turns into the faith cycle for people that are called by God. And the anxiety cycle turns into the unbelief cycle. Does that word unbelief connect to a scripture? Well, in the book of Hebrews, the apostle Paul makes the connection between the Israelites of old and the church today. He spends some time showing how they turned away from God’s care and rebelled against Him at every turn, in spite of miracles, in spite of God’s visible presence, in spite of forty years of God’s ever-present protection. And Paul’s conclusion? Well, we find it in Hebrews 3:19.

Hebrews 3:19 – So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. God did not let those original people that came out of Egypt enter into the Promised Land. There were just two. All the rest died and their children went in. You know, it doesn’t take forty years to go from the Red Sea into Palestine. It doesn’t. But God wandered them around in the Sinai desert for forty years so that those people would get old and die because they didn’t have the belief necessary to have a relationship with Him.

So, believing in and trusting God, then, is the very most important part of our relationship to Him and, therefore, for salvation as well. In the Bible there are two Promised Lands – one, the ancient Israelites entered into and the one that God promises all of us – the eternal Family of God. That first of one – of crossing over the Jordan into the Promised Land – that’s just a model for what’s going to happen later.

So, in attachment theory, coupled with the Bible, we can find awesome implications for warm and loving success or cold hard disaster for our kids spiritually and physically. Implications reach way beyond the physical to the eternal, even. And a good bit of the choice as to which way it is going to go rests with us. Very important job Christians have.

Let’s think about implications for our parenting plan, which, again, is drawing our children into a loving relationship. If we want them to feel about us the way David felt about God in Psalm 23, if we want them to believe in and trust our love for them, if we want them to understand deeply that we care for them, guide them, keep them safe, provide for their needs, love them, find them worthwhile, then, in attachment theory, we learn where to begin and how to proceed. If we think about that cycle of need, meeting needs, loving them, we see that that’s a sacrificial cycle on the part of the parents. It’s a full time job. As Christ and the Father sacrificed for us, we sacrifice for our children to draw them close. See, we’re standing in in God’s place.

Some years ago, there was someone who put out, purportedly, a Christian parenting program – you know, that children are carnal, they’re born sinful. And that was one of the elements of his program. He saw his job, as a parent, to work that out of his kids and not let them manipulate him. You know, these babies…they just want their way, so give it to them. Let them cry. Don’t jump every time they demand it – you know, the little tyrants! Can you see what’s wrong with that? The baby only cries when it has what it considers to be a serious need. Most of the things babies cry about they consider life threatening. You know, if babies aren’t fed, if they’re not warm or cool enough, if they’re not changed, if they’re not stimulated relationally, they can die! And since they don’t have a sense of time, it always for them needs to happen right now. You say, “Well, we know better than that.” Yes, we do, but they don’t, so the damage is done. The self-centered parent, the ignorant parent, the immature parent believes that the baby is trying to control them. The sacrificing parent, however, wins the day.

I know that after they get past the first year of age or so, they can learn how to be manipulative to get their way, but not while they’re infants. They don’t enough brain to do that yet. And yet the most important things are instilled in them right there at a very deep level in their little brains.

Now, think back to the four principles we discussed earlier in this series – the four points to relationship with children. Can we see how fundamental and how vital they are? Our job, as stand-in parents for God, is to care for our children so that they will know we love them and so they will trust us and eventually, God, as they grow into their own personal relationship with Him. In our plan to draw our children into loving relationship, all our hopes and dreams for our children can come true, but we will have no direct control over it. We will draw them into it.

There’s one other huge implication for us in attachment theory I’d like to look at. Think back about the parents who are not able, for whatever reason, to cause their children to trust them. Why did that happen? Remember the father who yelled at his daughter? We visited him earlier on in our series. Do you remember why he did that? Well, he didn’t know what to do. So he fell back into what his parents did with him, because that’s all he knew. If a person’s childhood experience is one of lack of care in all necessary areas of development, then, when he or she has children, the natural tendency, when pressed, will be to follow the same pattern. Since none of us were perfectly cared for as children, all of us need to make changes and get past the wounds of our own childhood, if we want to parent from a healthy basis instead of from a position of woundedness. We have to do our own internal work to get past our own wounds – to be the best parents we can be.

There’s an excellent book about this. It’s called Parenting From the Inside Out, by Daniel Siegel. Viewing our children and/or parenting from an attachment lens gives us insight into their behavior and into their unmet needs. And it provides us a way to think about what we can do to better meet those needs. When I get stuck with a family or a person in my counseling practice, I always go back to the baby in the crib. And, if it works for me with the populations I encounter, it will work for you in your work with your children.

What’s up next time? Well, next time, we’re going to talk about the nature of children. What is a baby? If we don’t know what a child is, how can we ever deal with children effectively? We’ll be doing that in two weeks, so don’t miss it. See you then.