This blog post is a continuation of the previous discussion on attachment theory and its influence on the development of dissociative responses, as it relates to both early interactions with the parents AND experiences in the life of the person in question. I’m just going to pick up where I left off, and if you’re confused, you might want to go back and read The Attachment Link, Part 1. K? K.
This article, which is the focus of these 2 (edit: 3, actually) posts, went on to cite empirical evidence that traumatic losses and severe traumatic events in the life of dissociative patients’ mothers that took place roughly two years before or after the patients’ birth were a significant risk factor in the development of dissociative disorders. It can be assumed that these traumas in the life of the patients’ primary caregivers effected those caregivers in the time period when the patients’ early attachments were being formed, thus putting them on the path to disorganized attachment and subsequent dissociative issues.
As if all of these findings were not fascinating enough, here is the clincher. Here is the thing I personally found most astounding in this whole article. I am going to summarize, because the scholarly wording of the article kind of takes the wind out of its own sails for us lay people (in my opinion, anyway). The article suggested that when unresolved traumatic memories are triggered in the mind of the parents when they are responding to the attachment requests of their own children, the psychological pain and suffering linked to those memories activates the parents’ own attachment system together with their care-giving system. In that instance, the parents become the ones in need of comfort while simultaneously being called upon to give comfort. Because of the unresolved suffering experienced within the parent’s own traumas, the parents’ attachment system kicks in when this pain is re-experienced, and temporarily overrides their ability to administer care and comfort. The fact that the attachment system of every human being is powerfully activated after any experience of fear and of physical or psychological pain guarantees that this is going to override a person’s caregiving system, because it’s an evolved survival mechanism. So. At that point, in the absence of soothing responses from the parents’ attachment figure, to soothe their trauma-induced pain, the parents’ attachment system arouses strong emotions of fear and/or anger in the parent. These emotions intrude in their attempts to provide caregiving responses to their children. To infants, a caregivers’ sudden (often unintentional) interjection of alarm or anger is always frightening. And to an infant, when frightened in such a way, the innate defensive reaction to escape the signal of threat is employed – be it avoidance, dissociation, or another behavior designed to distract or increase relational distance between infant and (now [possibly accidentally] frightening) caregiver. And in tragic irony, the increased relational distance only further activates the infant’s attachment system because the distance only increases the need for re-approach, or protective proximity. And this is true no matter what the behavior of the attachment figure is.
To quote the article directly, on this point:
The attachment figure, in interactions leading to attachment disorganization, is “at once the source and the solution” (Main & Hesse, 1990, p.163) of the infant’s alarm, and this leads to fright without solution. (italics mine) That is, the infant has no way out of this paradox. There is no single, coherent behavioral or attentional strategy able to interrupt the loop of increasing fear and contradictory intentions (approach and avoidance) in the infant’s experience.
Folks, I believe that this is where it breaks down for so many parents, most especially those with trauma histories that they have not completely healed from. And here is where I differ from this article. I do not believe parents with a trauma history will only affect their children if those traumas occurred within 2 years before or after the birth of their child/ren. I believe ANY unresolved trauma from any point in the parents’ life has the potential to affect their relationships in the present day. And I’m not simply implicating parents who have been through extreme, capital-T trauma, SRA or extreme psychologically damaging upbringings. It doesn’t take a very long look around at the present state of the world to wonder how anyone ever actually manages to avoid a traumatic experience at some point in their lives. I would say the vast majority of us do not. The degree to which it affects the individual in the present day, especially to the extent that it intrudes into their parenting, is what matters, not the scope of the actual experience in question. And given that an environmental trigger for any type of unresolved trauma can be so benign, and potentially so random, this connection doesn’t seem unfathomable to me. The article did not say this, because this is outside the bounds of scholarly reporting and empirical research, but I propose the following idea, based on the above knowledge. This is simply an idea, so I’m open to (and interested in!) discussion, feedback, disagreement, agreement, and/or development.
My idea is this: I propose that any time a parent experiences fear or irrational anger toward a crying child, or even a non-crying, comfort-seeking child (of any age, not necessarily an infant), this anger or fear is a strong indicator that the parents’ attachment system has been activated and is overriding their caregiving system. Given that under normal circumstances, when a person is feeling very much “themselves,” and fully present and in control, why would an infant or attachment-seeking behavior (such as approaching, clinging, touching, or other bids for attention) arouse fear or anger in a caregiver? It wouldn’t. A caregiver in caregiver-mode, in ideal circumstances, would interpret the infant/child’s needs correctly and respond appropriately. So if they are experiencing fear or anger instead, the caregivers’ attachment system has somehow been activated instead. Lacking a soothing response, the caregiver experiences anger or fear. The strongest indicator of this – in my opinion – would be an awareness on the part of the parent that they don’t understand why they are afraid or angry. But since the child is still there, still demanding attention despite their conflicting emotions, the parent either blames the child directly for their fear or anger (fear at this point is oftentimes converted to anger even without the parent’s awareness, since anger is a defensive emotion meant to mask or protect from fear or pain) – so the parent pins the blame on something the child is doing that they categorize as fear-inducing or irritating – or they respond fearfully or angrily to the child even if they don’t deeply understand why, just assuming the child caused their response, when in reality it may well have had nothing to do with the child at all.
What do you think about that idea?
For me this is huge. HUGE! I have never heard of the possibility – nevermind the statistical likelihood – of a person being capable of having two somewhat incompatible systems activated at once; namely, their attachment system and their caregiving system, nor seen a discussion of how and why that could happen, and what would result.
Scientifically, as one of those babies who undoubtedly ended up with a very disorganized attachment system, I was one whose developing brain was negatively influenced by “early relational trauma”. According to the article, the portion of the brain involved in coping with emotional stress developed along unfavorable lines, which is thought to be the neurological basis for vulnerability to dissociative reactions to trauma later in life.
Actually this may end up needing to be 3 posts after all. I really don’t want to make every post forever long, and this subject in particular has a LOT to try to absorb.
Let’s take a breather.
Hopefully Part 3 will come together quickly and I can post it later today, but if not, definitely within the next day or two. (Edit: find Part 3 here.) Cheers! ~J8