What was your first response when you realised the seriousness of the current threat from Covid 19? Did you phone an elderly parent, wonder if you should keep your child home from school, or did you find yourself wanting to escape to a remote spot in the Highlands? I think most of us found our attachment systems going into overdrive. We longed for a safe haven and at the same time to keep those we love safe. It is not easy, because in a moment of fear and crisis we may miss important opportunities to provide reassurance to others.
On one of our recent morning walks, my wife shared this story with me: “When I was a child living in Michigan, I remember the day when tornadoes came through our county. It was a long time ago and I don’t remember all the details, but I remember being very afraid when mom and dad told us to go down into the basement. That was the sensible thing to do, but I was still terrified until my dad took hold of me and put me on his knee. At that point I felt completely safe.”
We walked on in silence; temporarily flooded with our own emotions. Finally, my wife commented, “You know a refuge isn’t really a place, it’s a relationship.”
Before we talk about how we can be a safe haven to others, I think it is important to think more about how the attachment system manifests in adults compared to young children. When Mary Ainsworth devised the Strange Situation procedure, she found a powerful tool for observing how young children organise attachment behaviours. Ainsworth observed that when a toddler was separated and then reunited with his or her mother, there were clear patterns of behaviour. The child’s attachment behaviours, seeking proximity and contact with their mother, could be observed in real time.
In older children and adults, the function of a safe haven and secure base becomes more internalised. How we think about attachment figures becomes more a state of mind, but no less real. Attachment in adults is not so much the sum of early experiences and our attachment history, but how we reflect on and make sense of those experiences, good and bad. John Bowlby suggested the link between early attachment experiences and adults’ attachment relationships is not fixed in stone (1). I think that presents a very hopeful picture. As adults we are not necessarily victims of our childhoods. We can still pass on a legacy of a secure attachment despite an imperfect past. It is more about how we resolve what has happened, put things into perspective (neither minimising past attachment-related experiences nor being preoccupied with attachment figures), and communicate our love though sensitively interpreting our children’s attachment signals (1).
I think one of the best ways to help children internalise the sensitivity and availability of an attachment figure is by showing that we keep them in mind. I like to explain it like this: I know that several hundred miles away there is a lady, in her eighties now, who probably every day wonders what I, her son, am up to. Most of the time, I don’t even consciously think about my mother thinking about me, I just know it. Occasionally, and probably more often when I am worried or stressed, I phone her just to make sure. Being kept in mind helps me have a certain amount of confidence as I go out into the world. When growing up, it allowed me to function more independently. When there is a crisis, the thought of that person’s concern for me still provides comfort and a sense of safety and refuge. Now I am older, I still recognise the value of having a secure base and safe haven (2).
What about the child who lacks that sense of being kept in mind? The foster carer of a teenage girl gave me a piece of good advice about her daughter: “When she withdraws and isolates herself, because she is afraid and anxious, adults tend to stop contacting her. She thinks that if she hasn’t seen you, you must have forgotten about her.”
It was a penny-dropping moment. For one whole term, she refused to come to school. When I visited the house, she rarely came downstairs to see me, but I kept visiting. I wanted her to get a clear message: You are not forgotten.
It must be incredibly hard to be a young person without that default way of thinking that the adults who care about you don’t forget you. It must be like living in a world where people fall off a precipice or somehow cease to exist.
Keeping a person in mind often works in an unplanned way. I know of a young person who is adopted, and when his older brother moved away from home to study, he refused to talk about or even acknowledge his brother. One day, quite by chance, while visiting his brother with his parents, he noticed his photograph sitting on his older brother’s desk. There was a look of surprise and joy on the younger boy’s face when he saw this visible, tangible proof of his brother’s affection. Another adoptive parent remarked, “Even as adults I send postcards when I’m away, especially if I am visiting somewhere we have been together in the past, like a favourite ice cream shop.”
At other times keeping in mind has to be more intentional. Some suggestions of how to do this may seem mundane and part of what most people do routinely in order to stay connected. However, the kind of children who need a clear message that they are not forgotten often seem most indifferent or even hostile to an adult’s interest. For other young people, circumstances like an unplanned move require adults to make an extra effort.
Sending a postcard during a period of absence or remembering and commenting on a small detail a young person talked about doing over a half-term break can make a difference. As a teacher, occasionally I might ask a young person, “Do you mind if I keep that piece of work on my desk? Every time I walk past my desk, it will remind me of what we talked about today.” Even a visit to a home or children’s unit is not wasted: “That’s okay if they are still in bed, but could you tell them I was asking for them?”
One of the key things I have noticed recently is how I need to know that I am being kept in mind. A phone call from a friend and an email from a loved one suddenly takes on special significance. Knowing that I am kept in mind also reminds me that in times of crisis, we all feel a need to seek a safe haven, but that refuge is not found in a place or an object, but primarily in a relationship with someone you know loves you. There are many metaphors we use to talk about refuge: shielding the vulnerable, standing on a rock, or a chick sheltering under the wings of its mother, but these metaphors stand for the qualities of a relationship with a person who is available and attentive, and whose love is faithful, committed, and protective.
1. Van IJzendoorn M. Adult attachment representations, parental responsiveness, and infant attachment:A meta-analysis on the predictive validity of the adult attachment interview. Psychological Bulletin. 1995; 117(3): 387-340.
2. E. Grossman K.E.Grossman. Essentials when studying child-father attachment: A fundamental view on safe haven and secure base phenomena. Attachment and Human Development. 2019:1-6.
© 2020 David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only.
Swearing at the head teacher is never a good idea. I was told that David needed anger management. How would I convince his head teacher that David’s problem was not his anger? In fact, anger was probably the appropriate response to all he was going through. There was something else that could help him, but it would take time and commitment. Louise Bomber in her book, Inside I’m Hurting, calls it Wondering Aloud. It is a powerful tool. However, it works better when we learn to use it first by noticing the emotions of children when they are more settled and well regulated.
Louise Bomber describes Wondering Aloud as the process by which a key adult uses observations of the child to think about what the child might be feeling and then comments on the meaning of those emotions (1). This can help children with attachment difficulties become more self-aware and learn to regulate their internal states. ‘The only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves’ (2).
Wondering Aloud is a process:
1. Notice a change in the child’s behaviour.
2. Describe this change to the child.
3. Make a tentative remark as to what this behaviour means or how it might relate to the child’s internal state.
When I am using Wondering Aloud with a child who is distressed, I add a fourth step. I try to remind him or her of someone who can be a secure base for them. “I have seen your teacher help other children. I am sure she could help sort this out.”
David had been in and out of care all his life; he was now living in a temporary foster placement. Even as a newborn, his birth mother had never been able to offer him sensitive and predictable care. David struggled with feelings of rejection, but also longed for a relationship with a mother. These conflicting emotions made it even harder for him to grieve his loss and at the same time left him longing for someone who would claim him. The unpredictability of his life left him extremely anxious and constantly vigilant. Most of his energy in class was used trying to say and do the right thing so that others would like him. The more he tried to get other children to like him, the more they seemed to reject him.
David’s teacher told me, “He is not coping with playtimes. He is aggressive towards the other children. He has also become much more attention seeking and I can see he is extremely anxious. Sadly, he doesn't know how to express or even recognize all the emotions he is feeling, and he deals with them through being angry with others.“
We decided to try Wondering Aloud, but it wasn’t a straightforward experience.
One morning, David asked the classroom assistant, “Why are my eyes flicking?” (David had been crying.)
“I can see you have tears in your eyes. I wonder if you are feeling sad. Perhaps you are missing your mum. Have I got that right?”
David raised his voice, “No!”
Thinking about his sadness probably reminded him of how vulnerable he felt. He was unable to accept the empathy of the adult.
A year later, David was still waiting for a permanent foster family. Tentatively, I peered through the door of his classroom. The pupils were working in groups of three. David was lying on his tummy on the floor. Next to him were two other pupils. His body language was almost a mirror image of theirs. Here was a rare moment of stillness in David’s otherwise restless day.
Here, also, was an opportunity for David’s teacher to Wonder Aloud in a different way. This time she could notice a more regulated emotion and tentatively give it meaning for David. “I noticed when you were working you looked just like the other two children, the way you were lying on your tummy and listening carefully. I wonder if you had a good feeling being so close to other children who were calm?”
Later, David’s teacher remarked, “If I notice this emotion for him, then he can begin to notice it for himself. If he can notice his emotions, it might just give him enough time to pause before allowing his anger to burst out.”
Louise Bomber says, “Once a child has a sense of what their experience might mean, they are then more in a position to take control over their states, sensations and feelings” (1).
However, being able to recognize what David looked like when he was not anxious, sad, or upset was challenging. With children like David, those moments are quite rare. They are easily missed and yet they were vital if his teacher was to show David that she was tuned in to him without making him feel more vulnerable. In addition, if David could learn to accept her interest in his inner life when he was settled, then he might also accept her support more readily when really distressed.
David’s life didn’t improve. His temporary foster placement broke down. Overnight he was moved to another foster carer. He came into school the next day and lined up his classmates. “Put your hand up if you are going to miss me!” Again, David was desperately looking for someone to affirm that he belonged somewhere.
I was concerned that David’s behaviours would escalate. Would all the work David’s teacher had put in over the months pay off at this moment of crisis in his life?
David’s teacher met me a couple of days after his move. She commented, “He wouldn't settle to work and was in everyone's face, quite aggressive and argumentative. I took him into the cloakroom and asked him if he knew what was bothering him. He replied calmly, ‘I don't know,’ and it dawned on me that he didn't know what he was feeling and couldn't put the emotions he was feeling into words.”
“I said to him, ‘I wonder if going though so much change has been hard for you. If it was me, I would find it very hard.’ He then nodded. I asked him if he went back into class would he like me to come and sit beside him for a little while to help him settle back into his work and he replied, ‘Yes.’”
Had the teacher’s work to notice David’s inner life worked? His behaviour was still challenging and yet at a moment of crisis in his life he had been able to accept help. Learning to accept the help and reassurance of a key adult is a hugely important step for many children with attachment difficulties.
Wondering Aloud is not just a gimmick; it works because of a teacher’s commitment to understand and empathize with a child. It works also because the young person learns that even his strongest emotions can be identified and understood by a caring adult.
We ought to work hard at learning how to use the Wondering Aloud tool. Despite all that has happened to some young people, it can still make a significant difference at the time when a child needs us most.
Keeping it Real
1. Wondering Aloud only works if you have invested the time to really become attuned to a young person. You have to be able to understand their behaviour as communication, and they have to have had to learn to trust you.
2. Expect some resistance from a young person. Don’t overuse it. When I was practicing at home, my sons would say to me sometimes, “Dad, you doing that Wondering Aloud thing again!”
3. When you try it, observe very carefully how a young person responds. Sometimes, all I am looking for is a pause. The young person for a split second doesn’t know what to say after I have Wondered Aloud, and I know it has worked just because I have helped the child be curious about himself.
4. It is very important that we don’t do this to manipulate a young person. We are not trying to solve their difficulties; we first want to show that we are curious and accepting of their inner lives.
1. L. M. Bomber, Inside I’m Hurting, Practical Strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in Schools (London: Worth Publishing, 2007).
2. B.A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014).
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