Category Archives: Parenting

The meaning behind actions and behaviour

A core concept that underlies the attachment experience is the idea that our actions and behaviour mean something, although the meaning behind the behaviour and the actual attachment needs might not be apparent.

And it’s important to note, the same behaviour can mean different things at different times.

When we reflect on our own behaviour and emotional undertone we take a step towards understanding our children’s needs, no matter the behaviour they present in the moment.

It isn’t necessary to have precise knowledge of the meaning behind an action or behaviour. Instead, we can focus on what the behaviour feels like, sit in it with our children, and feel it with them. This is what attachment teaches us.

The take-away is our shared experience.

What is “process”?

When I talk about process I’m fitting together a number of abstractions, including empathy, mindfulness, and conflict. Then there is the question: How do each of them relate to each other, and how do they fit into attachment?

The summation of all of this is “process”.

We can understand and translate our child’s process back into empathy, and use that empathy in such a way that we can understand our self in relation to our child.

The practice of empathy

Our task as parents is to encourage a process within our families whereby we minimize the cataclysmic solutions of violence, on one hand, and the giving-up that can occur through lack of protest, and turn instead towards a more acceptable resolution of attachment conflict.

This is available to us through the practice of empathy.

Empathy, sometimes called “the heartbeat of attachment”, is a feeling and thinking solution to comprehending the feeling state and actions of another. It is the skill of experiencing another person’s feelings as if they were our own, through suspending judgment and stepping into the other person’s shoes.

Empathy is a tool, and the foundation for understanding conflict and expressing reciprocity, and though for most of us it is a skill that takes time to learn and practice, mothers and babies appear to achieve the state of empathy in its most clear form. They appear to simply know the other’s present experience.

We might have the awareness, “I have feelings and you have feelings, and I want to understand that, and I am trying to get to a particular place in our relationship.”  When we use this awareness we are attempting to get to empathy – a place where, “I don’t impose my values on you but I try and understand your life experience so I can understand where you are in this fight.”

Attachment is active all of the time, and each of us finds a balance somewhere, except for those people who end up killing others, or those who just give up.

That is what empathy allows us.

This psychological paradigm is not based on a value or moral system. It represents what is, not what we might prefer. It is neither dualistic nor dichotomous. We do not subscribe to either self-destruction or violence as a preferential solution to attachment conflict.

Competing needs

In order to break out of the automaticity of our parental behaviour, it cannot be stated enough that attachment can be understood in terms of the tension between competing needs.

The achievement of a balance between those competing needs is central to the development of our children’s intimacy, mutuality, and reciprocal behaviours.

Achieving balance

Conflict resolution, or achieving balance, demands that we take into account the other person’s process. We may be discouraged to find ourselves in conflict with our children, but if we are mindful despite the challenge, we can access a teachable moment.

At this point in time we have the opportunity to let them know,  “You have your process, and I have mine. I respect your process and in return I ask that you respect mine. Let’s talk about what’s going on for each of us, so we can move forward.”

Despite our child’s response, achieving balance in this way helps us stay in the moment, and out of outcome mode.

Automatic strategies

Everything we do is about getting our attachment needs met. Most of our strategies are automatic or done with automaticity because that is what has been successful for us in the past. We filter out the stuff we don’t think works, and we do the stuff that we think works, but our automatic responses limit our outcomes, and we have to settle for what we can get. We often settle in our daily living: a young person stays up all night on their computer and can’t get up for school. They met their attachment needs last night but they are unable to meet their attachment needs today.

When we parent, we attempt to guide our children through this process.

Human brains are organized and structured to do things repetitively, and all of our biorhythms are established by evolutionary principles over thousands and thousands of years. Much of what we do is below the level of consciousness, below the level of decision-making. So we find ourselves with processes that lead in a certain direction, and we talk and think about, and sometimes want to change them, but when push comes to shove, when we’re stressed, when we can’t get our cognition to work because we’re anxious or upset or traumatized – we fall back on established principles that have organized our decision-making. We act in a way that is habitual, though it appears to us to be free will. Perhaps we find ourselves going in the direction that we’d rather not go.

Trying to bring our actions from an automatic response into the decision-making realm is a difficult process.

We may recognize our habitual behaviour, but because of the automaticity of our thinking process we often cycle around in a big circle.

In a similar vein, we might assume our children are acting in some way on purpose, or as a result of a deficit, when in actuality they are stuck in a pattern of automaticity, and the behaviour has become a habit.