Just as we felt confident enough to breathe again in a public space, to embrace the loved ones and to be able to tell our children everything is going to be all right, after facing so many losses for the past 2 years of COVID pandemic, a war is tearing apart our lives and hopes, once again. It’s our next-door neighbors who are forced to flee their country, to abandon their homes, to renounce their normal lives, to leave behind loved ones – husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they might never see again. 60% of the children of Ukraine are not sleeping in their own bed anymore. That is, if they are sleeping at all…
This month I talked to Bethany Saltman, mother, researcher and author of Strange situation: A mother’s journey into the Science of Attachment, about how we can maintain a secure attachment in such an insecure world.
You have been studying the science of attachment for over 10 years prior to writing your book. We live in a „strange situation“ for quite some time now, first with the COVID pandemic, now with the Ukrainian war. According to ACLED (The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project), the last month we had over 8000 events (battles, riots, explosions, violence against civilians) with almost 13.000 fatalities. So, I would ask you, given that you’ve studied the science of attachment for so long, how can one form a secure attachment in such an insecure world?
Well, it’s really hard! This is one of the reasons this situation is so devastating, setting aside the obvious physical violence, living under threat, the trauma, living in a war zone and the insecurity, the poverty, the ill-health, there are so many reasons… And not being able to maintain a thread of a secure attachment, attachment ruptures are another terrible thing that happen in war. From my perspective, one of the things that have been so strangely heartwarming for me, watching from afar the events unfolding in Ukraine, is the fact that there has been so much heartbreak about the dissolutions of families; certain members of the family, oftentimes men, going to fight and women and the children leaving and so much fear and sadness about losing loved ones – to me speaks to the strengths of those attachments, as an insecure person doesn’t care. An insecurely attached family is not heartbroken when they have to separate. So, again, I am not saying this is a good thing (obviously!), but I have been so filled with the wonder of the human heart, the human condition, to see that devastation on a deeply personal level. Even in such a time, to just say „I don’t want you to go, because I love you“ – that speaks to the incredibly raw and powerful expression of our attachment systems. And with that said, because attachment happens in childhood and continues in adulthood, when children are separated from one of their caregivers, this is devastating and can be traumatic, but having the safe heaven and the secure base of one caregiver even in times of great tragedy and turbulence can really maintain a secure attachment.
One of the incredible things about attachment is that nothing is required, really, but delight, from a caregiver.
And so, I’ve seen quite a bit of videos of people really trying so hard to maintain a space that is child friendly for these refugee children – this is why I am so drawn to try to help: to maintain some pleasure, some delight, some security, some color…
A sense of normal, let’s say.
Exactly. But normal, form an emotional point of view. That is what I find so beautiful and stunning about this thing that I am watching – is like people aren’t just trying to make sure that their kids are fed; that would be pre-attachment. That’s the way people thought about what children needed before John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth came and change the world: they thought all children really need is food and shelter. So now, we see that the narrative of what is happening in Ukraine: among many other things, the horror of families being divided and of children being in a state of emotional upset. This is a changed narrative from the end of World War II, when John Bowlby began doing his work, when there were orphans all over Europe and most of the caregivers really thought all they needed was food and shelter and that they will be fine. And then he came along and said: no, these children are grieving their parents and we need to pay attention to them, as emotional beings, as people who have lost a relationship. And so, again, I am watching this in awe of how far we’ve come. We are understanding now that for these children to be separated from their loved ones, to be in a state of insecurity… Yes, they might have food and they might have shelter, but that is not enough. And that is a silver lining, if you will, that we get that – things have changed since World War II.
Mothers were forced to flee the country with their children. What are they supposed to tell their children about the fathers not being with them and staying to fight for their country? What could a mother say to her child in order to make him feel better in this situation?
I can’t say from any kind of „expert“ point of view, but I can say if this was my family, I would say – it depends on the age of the child how much detail you want to give, but I would always come back to „I’m here and we are going to figure this out together“ and „safe and I not going to abandon you and your dad is doing a wonderful thing, to protect you“.
But can you tell a child „you are safe“, if he sees around bombing or hears the news about his hometown being devastated by war, or his elder brothers talking – can you tell this to a child, without lying?
I think that the answer I would try to give – again, depends on the age of the child – would be „we have each other, we are here together“. That is the important story. And you hear these stories all the time about people who have suffered through tremendous trauma and they had a caregiver who said „I am here with you“ – that’s what I mean by safe. We are not safe from shelling; we are not safe from insane people. We are never safe! Obviously, we are in an extreme situation in Ukraine right now, but, you know, nobody is safe in the world. And yet, we find security in relationship. And so, I would really keep coming back home to that – if I were in that situation – to be reminding my daughter: “I am here with you and I am never going to forget about you, I am never going to leave you, to abandon you, you are my priority, I am going to do everything I can for us to stay together and for me to protect you“. That is really important. Children need to feel protected.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on February 24th, over 2 million children have been forced to flee the country – UNICEF says. Another 2,5 million are estimated to be internally displaced in Ukraine, taking the total number of children forced out of their homes to 4,5 million, up to 60% of the whole children population in Ukraine. Does this mean all these children will have an insecure attachment in the long run? And according to the Theory of Attachment, that this is something „inheritable“, does this mean that their children will have an insecure attachment, as well?
It’s a great question – I certainly can’t answer that from a professional research point of view, because I haven’t studied this kind of displacement, but from what I do know and, again, as a mother who studied attachment for a long time, I would say, shockingly – no! It is not a guarantee that you are going to have a generation of insecurely attached people, because they are with a caregiver. So, compared with World War II, where both parents were gone, and they were in orphanages, where they didn’t believe that children needed love and affection and attention, they thought all they needed was food and shelter – that is a recipe for generation of insecurely attached children. What we have now is a generation of – certainly – traumatized children, but the wonderful thing about attachment is that it protects us against lifelong trauma. Because, when you are with your caregiver, it is this incredible armor against the violence of the world. So, yes, parents are going to be incredibly stressed and upset but I’ve just been blown away by the grace that I have seen with these mothers, taking their children into these extreme situations. And so, I would say no − that protector model, even when parents don’t feel confident that they actually can protect, bringing that heart of protection into the child’s life, through words, through actions, repeating that is a way to really protect them and generations to come from insecurity running rampant.
You know, insecurity in life is not the same as attachment insecurity.
There are many, many people who have all the comforts of the world: money, wealth, medical care, education, they have access to the absolute best things and they are terribly woefully insecurely attached, meaning they don’t have access to their emotions, they don’t have access to other people’s emotions, they can’t move through emotional upset, trauma hits them in really profound ways and they can’t recover, they lack in resilience, they lack in grit, but they have everything they could ever want, physically, materially. Likewise, 65% of humanity is considered securely attached and we know the variety of the ways people live. Now, of course, in a war zone this is turned up to extreme degree because of stress and trauma and violence. Again, this is not to suggest that this is a normalized, neutralized place, but extrapolating, from what we do see – you know, there are families of 15 in one room, no running water and they could certainly be all securely attached. Because they have a sense that their caregiver is protecting them and delights in them. Attachment is subtle and deep, but is so much simpler and accessible than people think that it is. And so, in this case, that is a good thing.
There are studies, like War exposure attachment style and moral reasoning conducted after the war in Kosovo or The impact of the Yemeni civil war on child attachment styles, conducted by UNICEF in 2020, showing that the war impacts the attachment style and compromises the psychological development of children. As, apparently, we have no way of stopping the wars happening worldwide, what can we do, as parents, as caregivers to minimize their damaging effects on children (in terms of attachment)?
The thing the parents always need to do is to put their own „oxygen mask“ on and to take care of themselves as much as they possibly can and to get the emotional support that they need, because it does get passed down and that is why children are so impacted, because the parents are so impacted. Yes, seeing violence, loosing loved one, all this is, obviously, incredibly disruptive to anybody’s system. And especially when you are young and you can’t get over certain things that you see and experience. The parent needs to be supported. People are wondering what to do: to be supportive of the parent, so they can parent the children under these extreme circumstances – that is a really exponentially helpful way of helping generations.
Romanians are firsthand witnesses to this war, which is in very close proximity and over 630.000 Ukrainians sought refuge in our country, many of them living with their small children in our households. How can we as „hosts“ in this unfortunate situation, can help the families, in order to provide a secure place for them to be in?
It goes to what we are just talking about: providing a safe place for the parents.
Specifically, what can we do? Because we have the best of intentions, and often, we do damage by asking the stupidest questions, such as „Don’t you miss your husband?“. (The reporters were asking the children „When was the last time you saw your daddy?“ – of course, the child would start to cry). So, we are trying to help, to build a capital of empathy for these people, but oftentimes we are doing much damage, instead of helping. So, in concrete terms, how can we conduct in a way that is helpful and not damaging to them?
If I had the answer to that question…How can any of us can ever behave? It’s always going to be so particular to the circumstance, but, generally speaking, empathy travels through people and it starts with self-compassion. So, the hosts need to be compassionate to themselves and understand that they are not going to get it right all the time, they are going to say dumb things, but their heart is in the right place. When we connect, as hosts, to our own true good nature, to our best intentions and then we make mistakes, instead of clutching and freaking out and say a bunch of dumber things (which is what we do when we get nervous), we can be more relaxed. If I could recommend anything – it’s unrealistic, but if you are really going to push for something concrete – I would say everybody needs to learn to meditate, even for 5 minutes. Learning to watch your mind and feel your sensations – that is nothing more effective in learning how to stop the flow of extreme thoughts. Because people ask those „dumb“ questions because they are nervous. And they just don’t know.
For a secure attachment to be build, you need quality parenting, let’s say. In such troubled times, nobody really cares about quality parenting. What about the cases when the mother crumbles – how can she recover in order to be present for her children, to strengthen their bond and offer them a secure attachment?
She needs support. But you know: rupture and repair go together. To remind people: a secure attachment is full of ruptures and repairs! Is the repair that matters – „Mommy had a really rough moment, I am sorry if that was scary, I am here now, what would you like, how are you feeling? Talk to me about how that felt“ – making that connection. The thing we want to avoid is pretending that things aren’t happening.
…and everything is all right and normal.
Exactly! Because that is very confusing for a kid (and for anybody).
You practice Mindfulness a lot – for many, many years now. Is there a simple exercise you could recommend for mothers and children to do on a daily basis?
Sure! My favorite is just counting your breath.
That’s it: you sit in a quiet place (well, it doesn’t need to be quiet). You can quiet your body and you want to put your feet on the ground, take a deep breath, let it out and then just focus on your breath – when you do your in-breath you count 1, in your out-breath count 2. And you count up to 10. And immediately your thoughts are going to come flooding in and you are not going to make it even to 1 and a half. And you just let that go and you start again at 1. And you set a timer, you do it for 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour and you can sit wherever, you don’t have to sit on a cushion, in any kind of funny posture – it just focusses your attention. And breathing is an incredibly regulating thing to do.
And do you hold your child’s hand or not?
You can, absolutely, sure! I used to do this with Azalea on my lap. The most important thing if for the mothers to do it – I wouldn’t worry about the children practicing mindfulness, because they are pretty mindful as it is. Is the adults that need to practice mindfulness. And an important thing to remember is that mindfulness does not mean feeling peaceful, it means feeling exactly what you are feeling – and that can include terror, sadness, horror, confusion, the things that are really difficult to feel. The reason we practice mindfulness is to allow those feelings in, because when we don’t metabolize our feelings, we would lash out and act on them later. So, we need to do that for our children. We are their resource and so if we are processing our feelings, talking to people, just having a quiet moment: those things are going to impact our children incredibly. That is where a secure attachment comes from – the parents’ ability to feel what is going on for them.
Does the science of attachment say anything about the way a disconnected mother is building an insecure attachment for her child? Are there specific behaviors that inflict such an insecure attachment? Or is this something built in time, repeated patterns, repeated behaviors?
I understand the question, but I don’t want to focus on mother’s behavior that create insecure attachment, I would much rather focus on how women can take care of themselves, not to help their children, because women actually deserve care, regardless of their child state. When women are resource and take care of themselves and have the capacity to feel their feelings and be heard and seen by a caregiving other (either it’s a friend, a spouse), they are in a better position to do that for their child.
You are right – we have this custom of blaming ourselves for our „shortcomings“ – we see them as such, but in truth, it’s only natural that we react the way we react sometimes, so yes, you are right, we shouldn’t focus on what we do wrong…
Especially women, especially mothers… Especially mothers who are facing the evil of this patriarchal war. Are you kidding? – this is not the time to say women are doing anything wrong!
My bad – it was a dumb question!
No, we all do it: it is what we grow up in. This is what we do. But I would like to flip that. To say women can help other women…
I think it was a „reversed“ question, actually. In the back of my mind there was exactly this: that we oftentimes blame ourselves for all the things we think we do wrong. So, I was asking the question in reverse – „are we doing such a terrible job?“
A word of encouragement for mothers and children: what we should tell them right now? About this war, about their brighter – hopefully – future?
I would say they have absolutely everything they need, to help their children through this, even in the face of this nightmare. They have what they need, because their children really just need their attention – sometimes, not all the time – and their children will understand. Their children will forgive the blow-ups and the ignoring and the stress. You know how adults always focus on the negative, instead of the positive? Children are the exact opposite! They will drink in all the delight and all the attention, all the warmth, all the protection and all the good stuff. And the rest? Yes, they are going to have a lot to deal with, but the fact that they have been loved and protected sometimes, in such a state, that will go a long way to help them process whatever they’re going to need to process. Do not underestimate the power of all those small gestures and expressions of love and protection and delight, even in the midst of these nightmarish times!
Do we have any way to predict how the reconnection with their fathers would be?
That’s very interesting, because this is a very large scale „Strange situation“, right? I couldn’t say – there are too many factors. But, certainly, the more a child is feeling loved and protected and delighted in, in this traumatic situation, the more easily they will be able to reconnect. Now, of course, the fathers are going to need a lot of help. Is going to be really difficult. That is why is so important for the women to be strong in their affection. Don’t underestimate the power of the simple affection, even it is just for a second, in the midst of this nightmare. You are so insecure, you don’t know what is going on – and I am not saying I can relate to this: I have never been there, I can only imagine that in such a state, when you think to tell your child that you love them, they will hear you!
I know we talked a lot about this the last time we did our interview, but it’s been another year, so maybe the things settled down a bit: for you, personally, what is the more precious thing you learned from studying the Theory of Attachment and taking the AAI test?
Having the confidence that I have what it takes: to be a loving person to myself, to my daughter, to my husband, to the world – that my edginess, my craziness, my insecurity, all my stuff is not getting in the way. Is just part of it, is just the way that „I do“ me and that is true for everybody. There is no personality trait that will make it impossible for you to love well!
I don’t want to put you in a blind spot here, or in a difficult situation, but I am wondering, because everybody I’ve been talking to these days has an opinion about Putin and Zelensky − from the Theory of Attachment perspective, what kind of attachment would you say Putin has?
Oh, my Gosh! I mean, Zelensky seems incredibly secure: he is so capable of dealing with difficult emotions and coming on top, he is a rock star to me! Putin, obviously, is like a disorganized, very complicated person – I really can’t say, but certainly it seems like he has some serious mental health problems! To me, the sad thing, the tragic thing is not about Putin, because he is one person, but about all the support that he has, to be able to unleash like this. That is the part that scares me! We are always going to have outlier mad men, but when we have governments in support and publics in support, that’s when things get really scary.
Back to the optimism, please! So, the final words, on this topic, for today, would be?
This is to mothers specifically: to not underestimate two things. One is the importance of them having emotional support and the other: the power of their affection, however it comes out for them – affection doesn’t look the same for everybody. And children know that: when their mother is expressing their true nature. And that is all they want, all they need. So if it was ever a time to really forgive yourself for everything you’ve ever done „wrong“ and to just be your best self now – this is the time! And trust that is enough: all your kids want is you, exactly as you are! And this is a very tough thing for us, as women, to understand, because we are so hard on ourselves. We think: how can we possibly be enough? But the incredible thing about being a mother is that we are enough for our children, even in our darkest days.
© Credit photo: Carly Piersol