Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Block That Diagram! The "Attachment Cycle" and Persuasive Arguments

Over the years, I’ve commented a number of times on the claims of attachment therapists about what they call the “attachment cycle”. (I’ve also written about this on my other blog, http://thestudyofnonsense.blogspot.com.)  The “attachment cycles” – they actually claim two of these events—are the AT alternative theory about how a child’s attachment to adults develops. I call this an alternative theory because in fact it is in no way related to conventional attachment theory based on the work of John Bowlby. It's not actually an alternative for anyone who is well-educated about child development.

To state it very briefly, conventional attachment theory sees secure emotional attachment as based on social interactions between parent and child. During the first months of life, most of those social interactions occur in the context of caregiving, so sensitive and responsive parenting is a proxy measure for social interaction. Later in the first year, social interactions also include communication by voice, gesture, facial expression, and so on, and these events are often but not always associated with daily care routines. Unresponsive or depressed caregivers, or those who are concerned that their baby not be “in control” of them, are less likely at all times to interact socially with babies. Nevertheless, although the babies may develop insecure or ambivalent attachments that are within the normal range, they do develop attachment, because attachment is such a robust developmental phenomenon. In the second year, social interaction continues to strengthen attachment relationships (as shown by the children’s tendency to seek familiar people when distressed), but another factor comes into play: children who are beginning to walk and talk and generally be autonomous need to have boundaries set for them by their caregivers. This boundary-setting can be done kindly or unkindly, effectively or ineffectively, but caregivers who have been good at social interaction are probably better at being both kind and effective, so we would expect to see secure attachment emerging side by side with awareness of boundaries during the second year, even though the setting of boundaries is not directly related to attachment. As the child gets older, and the parent develops further as a parent, the two ideally create what Bowlby called a “goal-corrected partnership” in which each modulates wishes and behavior to help maintain the emotional connection between them. This partnership provides a developing pattern for partnerships outside the family, which after all is the eventual point of attachment.

The alternative theory of “attachment cycles” has different goals and posits different events. The goal assumed by this vernacular theory is that the child should obey, appreciate, love, and be grateful to the parent, not only in childhood, but in adolescence and even in adulthood. These outcomes are the measure of attachment, and a disobedient or noncompliant child is considered to have some form of disorder of attachment. Attachment, and therefore obedience, are considered to develop as a result of two sets of repeated experiences. The first one, in the first year after birth, involves the child needing something and the parent responding by satisfying that need, repeated many hundreds of times. Hunger and feeding are often given as examples of this “first-year cycle”, but there are many other discomforts with which a parent may help an infant. Parents who do not regularly satisfy the child’s needs are thought not to be fostering attachment, even when they are highly socially responsive but it is impossible for them effectively to help a sick or injured child. Such children are said to be at high risk of failure of attachment, with resulting noncompliant or even criminal behavior, as a result of their early experiences when the “cycle” could not occur.

The second set of experiences, the “second-year attachment cycle”, involves strict boundary- and limit-setting by parents. When a toddler does not seem to have learned boundaries, he or she is said to be lacking in attachment, because obedience is conflated with attachment in this alternative system. Noncompliant older children are also said to have disorders of attachment, although there is no evidence that attachment is necessarily a cause of disobedience, whether or not the two behaviors tend to develop in the same context.
How do attachment therapists persuade parents that these “attachment cycles” exist and function as claimed? One way is to present circular graphics of the “cycles” and trace them around and around to show how events get repeated. As it happens, of course, the series of events is in reality not a “cycle”, in which the same pattern would be represented repeatedly, with the same outcome each time. Instead, as both parent and child are changing through experience and maturation, their interaction does not stay the same, and it would be better represented by a waveform indicating each person’s constantly altered needs, communications, and responses. It’s hardly imaginable that the same process could persist through all the rapid changes in parent and baby during the first year.

But, be that all as it may, the AT proponents continue to present these circular patterns that are supposed to show how trust and attachment build with repeated need and gratification. Yulia Massino recently sent me material showing how this has been used in Russia by American evangelical groups who want to influence Russian adoption and fostering practices. It’s my thought that these people are aware of the persuasive power of mysterious diagrams. Just as juries have been shown in the past to be more easily persuaded when they are shown brain images as part of an argument, parent audiences may regard the presenter of the “cycle” diagram to be somehow more knowledgeable than his or her qualifications show. People really do not like to do the work of figuring out a diagram, especially one that is as abstract as the “cycles” are. Do they figure that anyone who understands that diagram must be pretty smart, so they, the audience members, should just accept what they have to say? Maybe that’s the way it works. If so, the best education about attachment may involve learning to interpret graphs and to move from the graph’s abstraction to the concrete reality it claims to represent. On the case of attachment, a circle does not do a good job of representing the actual interactions that culminate in attachment behavior.



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