Andrew and Attachment Theory
Updated: 4 days ago
I used to work at a preschool center for military kids on-base at JBLM. Each classroom had teachers, and my job was to go from room to room and connect with kids who maybe were just by themselves or struggling with things that the core teachers didn’t have time to focus on individuals throughout the day. It’s interesting how many “therapy with children” jobs involve playing games of Uno until the therapist can’t stand playing Uno anymore…
I remember the first time I met (I’ll call him) Andrew. He was 2 ½ years old and adorable, but to be honest - he scared me. He stood at the window of the classroom overlooking the parking lot, and he would scream as his mom drove away every day. He would stand there sobbing, “MOM, WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME HERE?” It broke my heart. It reminded me of my own experiences as a child in preschool and not understanding why I had to be around all these strange people while mom and dad left.
One of the teachers asked if I would sit with Andrew and try to calm him down. The other kids picked up on the negative energy and it was hard to be in the room with a child yelling at that volume. As tears streamed down his face, I patted his back and told him that she would come back, it was ok, and that we would have fun today. Wow - this just had no effect on him. I could have promised Disneyland to this child, and he would not have budged. Nothing I did helped or comforted him.
Within a short time, I asked the teachers what they did when kids wouldn’t stop crying for their mom (a super common theme in that environment). They said they offer a bit of empathy, then they establish boundaries and tell the child that they will come back when he has calmed down. It was clear that the extremes of abandonment vs. coddling were both to be avoided, but how to get to a middle ground was unclear in the moment.
So with Andrew, I started briefly offering comfort, and then telling him that I was going to go play blocks, and if he wanted to join me to let me know. It took awhile, but eventually his crying went down to very low levels (from an hour and a half of gut-wrenching sobs to eventually just 5 minutes). He would see me and get excited to get to play like we did the previous day.
I then created a new routine for him at recess while all the kids played outside. Again, his default was to hug the window and cry for his mom. There was a looped pathway, and him and I would walk and hold hands. For the first several weeks, it’s all he wanted to do outside. As he got more comfortable, he would run away from the path and go on the slide or talk with other kids/teachers. Then he would find me again and say, “Walk?” Over the months, I would walk into the classroom and he would run up and give me a giant hug. There were aspects of that job that I wasn’t crazy about, but that boy warmed my heart and was one of the reasons I kept going to the job when my gut was telling me that I needed to do something else.
I have used this story as a metaphor for clients regarding attachment theory. The best parents on the planet are human and all of us grow up with unmet emotional needs of some kind or in specific situation. We end up either anxious, avoidant, or ambivalent in our styles of relating.
An “earned secure attachment” or base is where we learn to balance both of the conflicting needs of risk vs. security. Because I earned Andrew's trust, he was able to calm himself down, and then start taking more risks. The balance of coming back to the security and also being able to branch out and take risks are both important in all of our lives. Emotional deficits from caregivers can say a lot about how we end up in a non-balanced stance as adults too.
I think this is why some clients talk and talk and talk with no space for the therapist to say anything. It takes a while for them to calm down and realize that the therapist is there for them. This is earned, it doesn’t happen in the first month of therapy, and that should be ok. Many adults struggle with balancing a healthy amount of risk vs. security, and their extremes come out in a quest for intimacy and vulnerability. Our relational patterns are directly tied to how we were treated when we were children at the mercy of the adults in the room.
For Andrew, he needed to have safety in that classroom. Once he could trust that he was safe and secure, he branched out and made new friends, had new adventures, and came back telling me about the things he was doing. Eventually, our walks became less and less as he was more comfortable engaging with others. There was a sadness for me in that, but also I smiled because I knew it was good for him.
How exciting to go out into the world with new empowerment, knowing that he was ok and safe. He no longer had to cry at the window with adults yelling at him that he was fine and to stop crying. I wish more adults were kind to kids, because decades later that can be such a powerful thing to remember - that an adult showed us that we were important and worth protecting.