Human beings are wired for connection. As infants we are driven to form attachments with the people who are ‘looking after’ us to ensure our survival. Infants and young children rely on their caregivers (attachment figures) for protection, support and to help them regulate their emotions. The way our caregivers respond to us especially when we are distressed can affect the way we attach or bond to others, as we get older. It is about feeling and being safe, feeling and being seen and being supported to get in touch with and manage strong feelings. The good news is that even when this hasn’t happened in childhood, it can happen later on through the healing power of relationships.
The reality is that many survivors were not nurtured or protected as children. Some did not have a parent or caregiver who they could rely on for consistent care which responded to their needs. Others experienced abuse or violence in which they felt and were unsafe. These experiences can mean that many survivors find it difficult to trust enough to develop close bonds with others as an adult.
However, we know it is possible to change this through a mechanism called ‘earned security’. Earned security depends on neuroplasticity i.e. the capacity of the brain to change. Healthy relationships of trust and safety later in life can over time support the development of a secure base, which is a foundation for other relationships, including with one’s children. This relationship might be with a partner, a close friend or a professional. For survivors who are parents, or wanting to become parents, it is important to know that you can become the secure base for your child, that you may not have experienced yourself.
We can learn new ways of interacting with a secure base – no longer avoiding intimacy or closeness or not clinging tightly to others for fear of being abandoned. We can learn to be consistent, warm and nurturing even when we ourselves didn’t experience that growing up.
All of us can experience the biological survival responses of fight, flight, freeze and feign at different times. These are automatic responses which all human beings experience in response to threat, perceived threat, stress or distress. For many survivors these responses are closer to the surface and triggered more readily. It is important to try to tune into our own survival reactions to understand when they occur and why. Parenting can bring a lot of possible triggers, for example: particular behaviours the child displays, children reaching significant ages/stages, family patterns, heightened emotions and so forth. There are many.
Becoming aware of our triggers – what causes strong reactions– from anxiety, to withdrawal, to anger, and distress can help us better manage them in the present, including when we are interacting with our children. Once we learn what triggers us, we can work to try and reduce these triggers or reduce our reaction to them through different grounding strategies and ways to self-soothe. As we learn to soothe ourselves, we can better support our children to manage their own strong feelings. To do this we need to look after ourselves and our own needs, to refuel and to do what it is that supports us to feel calm and more energised.