Developing mental health through secure attachment
Since 1949, Mental Health America has led the observance of May as Mental Health Month. But what does the term “mental health” really mean? When you boil it down, mental health is the ability to adequately adapt to the demands of life as we travel in and out of the various roles we play every day. This means feeling comfortable with oneself and in positive connection with others, having the flexibility to think outside the box, being patient, feeling emotions, and repairing and moving beyond conflict. In many ways, mental health is about resilience.
So how do we encourage psychological resilience? Attachment theory, coined by psychologist John Bowlby, asserts that the ability for an individual to form an emotional and physical “attachment” to another person gives a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, and grow and develop a personality.
Building on this work, Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s School of Medicine, identified five key processes that parents can practice to help children develop psychological resilience and positive emotional well-being, leading to psychological and emotional health in adulthood:
- Contingent collaborative communication is when a parent responds to an infant’s verbal and non-verbal cues in a timely and effective manner, allowing the infant to develop a sense that the world is a safe place and her/his needs will be met. According to Siegel, “when there is contingent collaborative communication, the brain functions optimally both within itself and within present and future relationships.”
- Reflective dialogue is the practice of a parent talking to a child about thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, sensations, attitudes, beliefs, and intentions. Siegel asserts that these eight elements help kids develop compassion and “mindsight” — a term coined by Siegel to describe the human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others: “[Mindsight] is a powerful lens through which we can understand our inner lives with more clarity, integrate the brain, and enhance our relationships with others. Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us get ourselves off of the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses. It lets us ‘name and tame’ the emotions we are experiencing, rather than being overwhelmed by them.”
Siegel suggests putting the above-mentioned eight elements on a list to remember to intentionally discuss each of them with your child.
- Conflict repair and reconnection is the means to resolve conflicts that are based upon missed connections. Conflict is a natural and important part of being in relationship with others and is inherently neither good nor bad. What makes conflict healthy or unhealthy is whether genuine, caring efforts to repair the conflict are exhibited.
When parents model appropriate conflict repair and reconnection, kids learn how to regulate their nervous systems when conflict arises. Take this instance:
A child is playing and exclaims, “Mommy, I am so excited about my new toy!” Mommy, who is engrossed in a new book, says “that’s great” without looking up, making eye contact, or seeming to care at all about the child’s excitement. The child walks away with her head down, feeling bad and shameful that she was not paid attention to. Suddenly, mom realizes that this was a missed connection. She jumps up, goes to her child, makes eye contact, and says, “I am really sorry I did not pay attention to you. I am available now.” This is a solid demonstration of conflict repair and reconnection that the child will remember and assimilate into her own future actions.
- Coherent narrative refers to how clearly, logically, and with what appropriate emotional distance a parent tells the story of their life to their child. Attachment research has determined that the most powerful predictor of a child’s attachment to a parent is the coherence of that parent’s autobiographical story – the more coherent the narrative, the more chance of secure attachment.
- Emotional communication is the sharing and amplifying of positive emotional states in a child (i.e., joy, excitement) and the sharing and soothing of negative emotional states (i.e., fear, anxiety). A parent’s ability to tolerate and even embrace these emotions, then help their child regulate her/his emotional state, is critical to secure attachment and mental health. According to Siegel: “It’s important that parents really take joy in their children and to have a lot of fun with them; to really just be amazed at the miracle of life and the fact that we’re alive and can connect with each other. It’s an incredible opportunity for joining and that joy that can come from that kind of connection is something parents should share with their children. It is important that parents not just solve problems when it comes to a child’s negative emotions, but that they share the negative emotional state with the child. The parent needs to learn to tolerate the child’s negative emotional state, not just sweep it under the rug. By tolerating these negative emotions the parent teaches the child that negative emotions can help us learn about ourselves. Ultimately, we can learn to soothe ourselves not by running away from those states, but actually by going toward them and then helping ourselves feel calmed and soothed.”
If you are a parent or parent-to-be, it is critical to pay attention to how you do or will demonstrate secure attachment and resilience with your children through role modeling and interaction.
It’s never too late to improve your mental health.