How People Change: Momma Trauma (Part 9)

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How People Change: Momma Trauma (Part 9)

“Momma Trauma” – we’ve all got it!  At some level, we all face issues in our childhoods that could, in some ways, “mess us up.” Admittedly, not all of those acts are downright traumatic in the way that we think of trauma anyway. But they are barriers to growth or hiccups on the course, so to speak.

Trauma isn’t always physical, either. When we think of trauma, most of us think of something really profound – a car accident, a stroke, a bout with cancer, or child abuse.  And yes, these things are traumatic. But there are more subtle types of trauma, too.

The type of trauma that keeps someone stuck, stewing in their own dysfunctional juices, is also known as “insecure attachment.”

“Attachment” is a term coined by Psychologists in the early 1950s to 1960s to describe human relationships.  In other words, how a child or adult “manages” or navigates the world they live in – the relationships they are part of – is largely affected by their childhood attachment figures. These “attachment figures” are the people who a child is MOST attached to, or bonded to, early in life.

In fact, attachment starts at birth. Because babies are “tabula rasa”, or “clean slates” as we saw in our last post, this means they are almost purely emotional beings. They feel through the world instead of thinking rationally. Their brains don’t yet have that cognitive capacity to problem solve or think through issues the way adults do. Furthermore, our brains aren’t truly developed to full cognitive capacity until the age of 20 years. Babies begin to feel as if their primary caregiver is their “secure base.”  This is the person they feel the most connected to, and is the person of whom of they feel the most secure.

Consequently, it is this secure base that aides in the development of cognitive development. As we saw with Genie, without cognitive stimulation, we not only grow to have little cognition and language ability, our emotional capacity is stunted.

It is a basic human need to have this “secure base.” To have someone of which we can always return is a basic need and desire.  As a child, this secure base is most likely Mom and / or Dad, while as an adult the natural transition is to have a life partner or best friends as a secure base, as well as parents.

Think of the word “attachment” as a physical, cognitive, and emotional bond. Like having an extra arm or a supplement to your own soul, being “attached” to a child is a bond that feels as if there is an imaginary string which connects parent and child. When a child feels sad, a parent feels sad right along with them. When a baby is hungry, the parent feels compelled to feed. When a child is in need, the parent feels the need, sometimes before the child even fully understands or can verbalize the desire, want, and need themselves.

In fact, parents help children understand their own needs and strong feelings as they have them. Parents help children understand the “butterflies” in their stomach or the anger in their brains.

The connection between parent and child is the same connection or attachment felt between key people throughout our life time. The word “attachment” isn’t to be confused with mere dependence. I’m not referring to a fostering of reliance on another person. I’m talking about a reciprocity felt between two people – the safety, security, and assurance mutually received and given. This is a ‘kindred spirit with “inner circle” of friends. Parents and other caregivers teach children how relationships “should be.” It is only through these early models children learn how to connect to friends, intimate partners, children, coworkers, and others throughout life.

Mirror Neurons

There are mirror neurons within our brains that allow us, no matter what age, to connect with someone on an emotional level, simply by “tuning in” to them.

Mirror Nuerons are the communication signals within our brain that, for lack of a better term, imitate what another is doing. For example, when the brain watches someone take a large swig of water, our own brains react and fire as if we ourselves have just taken a large swig of water. When we watch someone a football or hockey game and feel the intensity of anxiety and rush of adrenaline within our bodies, it is because we are imagining we are in game. Our brains are reacting as if we are playing, in the same way the actual hockey player’s brain is firing and responding.

When parents connect (attach) to their child in this way, the communication neurons of the baby maps it’s signals to mimic what it experiences. If the baby experiences chaos, anger and violence, it will attune and map chaos, anger and violence. When the baby experiences eye-gazing, caressing, cooing and unconditional love, the baby’s brain tunes in to that of the caregiver’s brain, learning the same. In other words, we as humans have the unique ability to, in a sense, project out own abilities and intentions out to others. These mirror neurons send emotional messages that allow us to connect.

The connection we send and receive through mirror neurons is, in fact, empathy. We feel empathetic because of this communication structure within our neural pathways of our brain. So, with a baby’s brain waiting to soak in their environment at birth, ready to develop and expand based on it’s experiences, almost elusively, then we can confidently claim that the environment the baby lives in, and the interaction between child and caregiver, is crucial. 

Therein lies a major turning point in the process of change. If we are to change our thoughts, beliefs, opinions, perceptions, assumptions, judgments – our own reality – we must dissect and become acutely aware of what we learned in our early years. We must know what our environment taught us. We must begin to understand that we behave the way we behave because of how we were taught. And, let me be clear by saying, often behaviors are taught very innocently. Many, many parents do not seek out to harm their children. In fact, most parents are loving, caring, and gentle. They are everything they can be and need to be at the time. But for whatever reason, based on this unique individual, there are times that kinks are formed. There are times that the process of development has a hiccup. For some, it is a large, life altering and traumatic hiccup. For others, it is a hiccup that requires a small tweak.

It doesn’t matter how big or small the problem, hiccup or kink, the process of change is the same. 

Changing behaviors and unwanted emotions means understanding subconscious thought, implicit memory, childhood amnesia, and an awareness of what our environment taught. Considering that our environment, and particularly the connection between parent and child literally shapes the neural processes of the brain, we begin to unravel the mystery of why we do things we don’t want to do over and over and over again, despite it’s very clear harm and disservice in our lives!

Change Happens

When changing, we all want to alter what we feel and what we do that isn’t serving our lives positively. We may feel depressed, anxious, lonely, or guilty so we seek counsel for assistance to help us get over these feelings. Some of us may drink too much alcohol, sleep too much, hit our pets out of anger, or yell too much at our spouse. We may lose friends easily, and not be able to pinpoint why.

Emotions and actions are the main reasons people attempt to change, because the feelings and actions are painful. Those actions create a never ending cycle of more pain, constructing a sad, lonely, dysfunctional life.

However, change at the level of emotions and actions only, not taking into account the thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and perceptions of a person is truly doing a disservice to the changing individual. Change doesn’t occur at the level of merely “goal setting.” This happens before a client walks into a counselor’s office, and even before they made the first call to get help. Goal setting is something most of us can do because it is merely an initiation of change. But iniation of change actual change, could not be more different.

“An unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

A truly examined life, one that is looked at with a fine tooth comb, is viewed through the eyes of those attachment figures that were part of life so early on. Why? Because it is these attachment figures that created this “secure base” – the brain of the child is rooted in an attachment or connection that is secure or insecure. Lack of a proper attachment figure, or an attachment figure that failed to meet the intricate emotional needs of a child, can create detachment in part of a person’s life. It is usually this detachment (or, “insecure attachment”) that one seeks counsel.

When a child enters into adulthood without the foundation of this secure base (otherwise known as a “secure attachment”) there are many, many problems that surface in their relationships. From marital relationships to friendships, sibling relationships and parent-child relationships, we learn how to do relationships, because we were taught in childhood.

Two Types of Attachment

1.  Secure. This type of attachment is just as I talked about – where one feels they have a “secure base” of which they can always return. It’s easy to see this type of attachment in babies as they learn to become independent day after day after day.  Think about it… A baby comes out of the womb attached to mom, wanting to, literally, be back in her womb.  And why wouldn’t she?  It’s warm and cozy in there.  She doesn’t have to cry out when she’s hungry because she has a constant source of food, she doesn’t have to cry out to be held, and she doesn’t have to cry out to be changed.  All her needs are met in the comfort of her cozy home-womb.

At birth, she still wants mom’s warmth and touch. In fact, it’s essential to her life (remember Genie, who we talked about in our previous post? That is an example of a baby left alone, without her mother to attach to.).

But slowly, the baby begins to explore life away from Mom. Once she starts to crawl, anywhere between 6-9 months, she will begin to explore the world around her.  First she’ll go no further than a few inches from mom, then a foot, then two feet, and before you know it, she’s rounded a corner and is in another room!  But notice how baby quickly rounds back to make sure Mom is still there (if you haven’t already followed her, that is!).  Baby never gets too far from mom without crying out, babbling or looking over her shoulder to ensure her secure base is still available for her.  If she is, baby keeps on going.  She is now exploring the world away from her “secure base”. But it is essential that she have a knowing that her secure base exists.

A quick word here though about this secure base, and my reference to “Mom.”  Certainly, this secure base can be anyone.  Most of the time, the default person is Mom, because there is a time period of which the baby is with mom after birth and / or Mom is the primary caregiver.  However, Dads are stay-at-home caregivers much of the time these days!  Dads can most definitely be a secure base as well.

Just as Dad can also be a secure base, so can a nanny or a child-care worker.  It should come as no surprise that a baby becomes at least somewhat attached to the childcare provider or nanny, especially when Mom or Dad aren’t around to provide MOST of the hours of care throughout the day.  Most childcare facilities are wonderful, and are able to provide this great attachment that is essential to babies, but some of them, unfortunately, cannot.  With many babies to tend to, there are times that at baby’s needs are put on hold or not taken care of in a timely manner, and this is not ideal in the formative years.  The baby needs to know who their secure base is, and it will be the person that takes care of them the MOST hours of the day – physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually.  If a child care worker is torn in  many directions with many other children, babies get left out (and with 60% of all babies in a childcare setting, this is definitely a discussion worth having, but for another time).

When I say “secure base” and I reference “Mom” as the secure base, I do that out of ease of writing.  However, there are other attachment figures that become the “secure base” for babies and children, and they are all equally wonderful in the development of a child!

2. Insecure. There are three types of insecure attachment, but what is most important to know here the issue of a baby or child being UNattached, or insecurely attached.

When an infant is not attached securely to his or her primary caregiver for some reason, this is called insecure attachment.  The effects of insecure attachment are far-reaching, and are the most known reason for individuals seeking counseling as adults. If there isn’t an “attachment issue” brought to the therapy room, most likely it’s a life-coaching issue, which simply means, new goals need to be set, new prodding, new motivators set in place.  But this most definitely is not a therapeutic issue in the sense that some heavy-duty work needs to be done on this issue of attachment (read: loneliness, loss, abandonment, fear, depression, etc.).

I once had a co-worker who I’d visited just after having her baby.  I was young, working in the corporate world, and without kids myself, so I didn’t quite understand the new mom sleeping in the middle of the day and looking completely frazzled (ha! completely laughable now, with one marriage and three kids later!). I had my degree in Human Development by this time, but I didn’t have the worldly experience I have now.  Still, the day I visited her, I felt uneasy…

Nevermind that the new mom was completely off her game as I knew her, but her baby was crying when I arrived and Mom wasn’t going to pick her up.  The new mom said, “I’m going to let her cry because I don’t want her to think she can manipulate me into picking her up all the time. She needs to learn to be independent.”

I didn’t say much at the time, in fact, I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know quite how to process what I’d just heard.  AND, I didn’t have much, well, any experience with children to have a leg to stand on. But my heart hurt. What I heard is a baby in need and a Mom not going to her aide.  What I heard was a baby needing to be held and coddled, but being ignored.  This was hard to witness.

I don’t know the outcome of the child, to be honest with you.  I do know the development of a human being though, and I know that baby wanted to be picked up.  It’s ONLY means of communication with Mom was through crying.  I also know that when a baby is little, days old especially, it doesn’t understand or know “manipulation.”  Babies do not manipulate.  That’s an adult trait.  Babies aren’t meant to be independent. Adults are.

Consider the following story of Annie, a three-year-old young girl in England’s 1948, who was hospitalized for tuberculosis. In those days, parents weren’t allowed to stay in a hospital with their children, and even the smallest of surgeries today would be a very lengthy stay back then. Psychiatrist John Bowlby began to watch and learn from patients just like Annie, and this is what he observed (taken from Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do by Dr. Tim Clinton and Dr. Gary Sibcy):

Annie was a raven-haired, green-eyed, three-year-old going ot a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.  She had a persistent cough and other symptoms that concerned her parents and her doctors.

In those days, conventional wisdom said raising children consisted of keeping them fed, dry, warm and away from traffic. If you provided these fundamentals, kids would grow up just fine. Nowwhere was that attitude more on display than in Annie’s parents as they checked her into the sanitarium. The children’s ward was a long, narrow room filled with beds protruding from the walls on either side like teeth. Even though Annie would be in the sanitarium for an extended stay, her parents merely dropped her off with a nurse at the ward and left. Their three-year-old daughter wouldn’t see them again for about a week, and even then for just a short period.

Annie didn’t understand being left. The moment her mother turned to leave, Annie’s little face twisted, and she began to cry. Her little hands reached out, and she tried to run and grab her mother’s skirts. The nurse restrained her and carried her screaming to what would be her bed.

Annie had reacted just like the other children had done, and as the weeks and months progressed, he saw two more stages in Annie’s behavior that mirrored states he had seen in other children when separated from their mothers.

Stage One: Protest

Like Annie, the moment the children were dropped off in this sterile environment, they began to express real, distressful, even desperate anxiety, then anger at being left. For Annie, this meant tears and reaching out to others; it also meant throwing things and stomping around, even lying down and beating her fists and feet on the floor.  Toddler rage.  And it was nearly universal. Almost every child behaved this way, regardless of the other children around or how the nurses who took care of them reacted. They wanted their mommies, and the nurses, and though they were well-intentioned and took care of the children’s physical needs, were no substitutes.

Stage Two: Despair

Several days after her mother and father left, Annie slipped into what looked like a state of mourning and despair. Dr. Bowlby watched her huddle in bed. When other children tried to play with her, she looked at them with dull eyes then just shook her head listlessly. When her tray of food appeared for breakfast, and again for lunch and dinner, she paid little attention to it. At one point, she lifted her spoon as if it weighed a ton and let it slap on top of her milky cereal. Now and then, seemingly out of the blue, she would start to cry. Her puffy little lips would push into a painful frown, and her little eyes would squeeze out huge, wet tears.

As with the anger, this stage of Annie’s reaction to being left was like every other child’s. They all eventually lapsed into melancholy – their sense of abandonment and loss taking deep root. The nurses, having seen this a thousand times before, paid little attention to it. In fact, they welcomed it as it marked an end to the more florid emotional tantrums of the previous stage. They felt the children just needed to understand that things will not always go their way, and that they just needed to stiffen their upper lips.

Stage Three: Detachment

Over the next several months, Annie appeared to be snapping out of it. One day a little girl with a big, floppy Raggedy Ann doll coaxed her from her bed, and they began to play. Although Annie wasn’t 100 percent right, she began to show signs of recovery. Soon she fit easily into life in the sanitarium’s children’s ward. Annie enjoyed coloring. Like any three-year-old, she rarely stayed in the lines, but she had an eye for colors, and each time she finished a masterpiece she’d show it around proudly. She found which kids liked her art as much as she did, and she limited her exhibitions to them only. All seemed well with the children again; their anger and depression were gone. As “normalcy” eased through the ward, the doctors and nurses alike believed their method of dealing with children had been proven correct once more.

But then Annie’s mother showed up for a Sunday afternoon visit. You might think Annie would grab her favorite artwork and run happily toward her mother, merrily shrieking, “Mommy! Mommy! Look what I did!” You’d think she’d leap into her mother’s arms, and after her mother smothered her in kisses, they’d pore over her colorings excitedly. You’d think so. But you’d be wrong.

Not only didn’t Annie run to her mom she did just the opposite. She hardly looked up. And the picture she was coloring at the moment got turned over while others she’d done that day were pushed under her covers – hidden. When Mommy came to her bed and kissed her, Annie actually pulled away. Some might say she was just angry – and she was. But Dr. Bowlby saw more than that. He saw that Annie had detached from her mother. Of course, she still wanted her mother’s goodies – a toy and some of Mommy’s home-baked cookies. But she had walled herself off from her mother at an emotional level.

Annie was not unique. Many of the children in the hospital ward detached from their parents in some way. Some, like Annie, avoided their parents, detached emotionally, and were indifferent to their mothers’ presence. Others who were relative newcomers, became punishingly clingy, pleading to be held and taken home. But they learned they weren’t going home, at least not anytime soon. Each week they were left behind, feeling angry, overwhelmed, and helpless. At the end of each visit they were pried from their mother’s necks, then they watched powerlessly as their parents hastily scurried out of the hospital ward.

In response, Annie and many others like her developed a calloused self. Repeatedly wounded emotionally, they weren’t about to let thmselves be hurt again. Instead, they develpoed a system of replacing things for relationships. Annie realized that if she allowed herself to really want mom she would be profoundly hurt. So she switched her desire from Mom to things – toys, knickknacks, candy, coloring pencils. She buried the need she had felt for trust, intimacy, and closeness. Never again would she willingly reach out to anyone for emotional comfort. Instead, she relied only on herself and the material things she now loved.

Now only did Annie use the replacement defense, but she also learned how to “wall off” her emotions. She no longer expressed or acknowledged her feelings to anyone, including herself. This helped her not to feel so vulnerable and helpless. No longer did she feel compelled to cling to Mommy’s neck. No longer did she have to worry about whether Mommy was coming to visit. No longer did she have to get angry when Mommy left. She eradicated her need for Mommy, and consequently, she eliminated her negative feelings about being separeated from her.

What Dr. Bowlby saw in Annie, he saw thousands of times in other children in similar situations. “But,” you might say, “Annie was left in a hospital for days on end, and that doesn’t really happen these days. It’s not relevant.” Or is it?

Insecure attachment is often so subtle, the only result is the end-result – the result of behaviors not wanted or welcomed in your life, and an inability to figure out WHY you do the thing you don’t want to do, and WHY you feel the way you don’t want to feel.

Real change is about figuring out your thoughts.  More specifically, change is about figuring out your subconscious thoughts.  And even more specific than that, it’s about figuring out, if you can, the genesis of those subconscious thoughts.  

DNA combined with attachment figures during the formative years create the blueprint for all other relationships throughout life.  How you manage friendships, intimate relationships, work relationships, sibling relationships, parental relationships – all relationships! – are a direct result of what was encoded early on – what was taught.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some subtle ways thoughts become habits during our formative years as well as in our adult years. Then, we’ll  move into changing those neural pathways, er, those communication signals – the habits! – that have been so cleverly “stuck” in our brains.


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About the Author:

Jennifer Slingerland Ryan knows a thing or two about kids and families. First, she knows they are joyous, exhilarating, loving and so darn fun. Second, she knows they suck your life dry and make you weep like a baby. By day she’s a psychotherapist; by night she’s a mom and wife. She claims to love therapizing couples, educating parents, reading dystopian fiction and sleeping in her free time (read: she never sleeps). Jennifer has spent over 12 years in private practice working with individuals, couples, and parents who are faced with kid-drama, mamma-drama, and family-drama, and she claims that although some stories make a grown woman cry, she loves it.