Those of you who have trained with me in the past, are well aware that I take great stock in the impact that either secure, insecure, ambivalent, avoidant or disorganized attachment styles have on a child’s emotional, neurological, and psychological development. The research is powerful and convincing: dysfunctional attachment patterns play a major role in affect dysregulation; impedes the functions of an infant’s developing per-frontal cortex; profoundly interferes with the resolution of trust vs. mistrust and the subsequent relationship dynamics of intimacy; and increases the likelihood that self-destructive behaviors will be employed to self-soothe and dissociate from unresolved feelings of worthlessness and despair. As a therapist working with adult survivors who were not allowed to successfully attach because they had emotionally unavailable, abusive or mentally ill caretakers, I see the long-term effects of poor attachment every day in my practice.
But this week, as my husband and I helped move our youngest son into his first college dorm room, while watching other parents and loved ones lug box after box, engaging in the same exhausting and emotional endeavor, I was reminded of the power of healthy, secure attachments. Clearly, growing up with loving and safe relationships makes it possible for young adults to fully individuate, and begin the extraordinarily exciting and frightening next chapter in their lives. I saw those glimmers of excitement and fear in the eyes of many incoming Freshman. And I noticed, with relief and joy, how my son and so many others allowed their families and friends to help usher them into this life changing experience. My son let me hug him as many times as I wanted to-and felt that he needed to be hugged. He let my husband take the lead when it came to connecting devices to electrical outlets or hanging up posters with the right tools. We all made his bed and hung up his 50 sweatshirts. And down the hall, his friends allowed their parents to do the same things.
Of course, it was all very bittersweet, but I knew that he was going to thrive and I believe that a large part of that is because of the loving and consistent foundation we have given him at home. I marveled as he reached out to brand new kids and a roommate who is still a stranger. He did it effortlessly, trusting that his overtures would be respected and his kindness reciprocated. His fundamental belief that he is worthy and the world will be responsive and supportive of his endeavors will help get him through new challenges. And as we tearfully parted (ok-I was the most tearful- but my son did say he would have been ‘upset’ if I didn’t cry) my husband and I watched as “packs” or groups took shape- kids reaching out to kids they didn’t know-walking somewhat aimlessly around the campus- but already needing and seeking out new attachments to help buffer them through their college experiences.
For your clients, young and old, who were deprived of safe attachment, know that the therapeutic relationships you forge with them and sustain throughout treatment are so reparative and so healing. We buffer them in similar ways, helping to usher them into and through the exciting and fearful next chapters of their lives.
How has the therapeutic relationship strengthened a sense of attachment for your clients, and the ways in which you have seen clients thrive when that attachment is sustained in healthy ways?