Setting The Stage for Healthy Attachment

theresa-2PQ Therapist, Theresa Hasting, LPC-S, LCPAA

During the formative years of adolescence the development of the self is a primary focus. As teens learn to navigate social relationships and attempt to differentiate from their parents, attachment difficulties may become pronounced and interfere with healthy identity development. Young people who have experienced adoption, relational trauma, stressful relationships and loss are highly vulnerable to experience relational difficulties during this critical time of development. At Pacific Quest attachment theory is applied through our integrative clinical practice model to effectively help our students regulate their emotions, develop and claim a deep sense of self, and improve relational health.

Attachment theory is based upon the work of John Bowlby who provided the structure for how we understand parent-child relationships today. Mary Ainsworth conducted research to validate and further the theories around attachment and to provide the language of our current understanding of attachment. The important tenets that come out of attachment theory include: the importance of the early relationship between infant and caregiver, attachment style is determined and evident within a child’s first year of life, the attachment cycle is linked to stimulation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and self-regulation develops from attachment. When an infant becomes distressed their sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, which sends the brain and body into a state of alertness and stress; the infant expresses their need. If the parent is responsive, consistently and appropriately, the parent soothes and meets the infant’s need. At this point, the parasympathetic system becomes activated, deactivating the sympathetic nervous system, allowing the brain and body to return to a state of calm and regulation creating a secure attachment style. If this cycle is broken and the child’s need is not regularly met; not only does the infant develop an insecure attachment style, the infant’s brain learns to stay in a state of high alert and dysregulation.

In attachment theory, there are three styles of insecure attachment: avoidant, anxious and disorganized. With avoidant attachment style, students may appear mature for their age, taking care of their own needs, but are emotionally underdeveloped and do not believe that they can trust/rely on others to help them meet their needs. Anxious attachment style is portrayed by neediness, attention-seeking behavior, feeling insecure if away from their caregiver. This student demonstrates difficulty in regulating and looks to others for help with regulation. The student with disorganized attachment style has no clear strategy for self soothing (regulating) or relating to others. This style is characterized by contradictory behaviors in relationships and often demonstrates controlling behaviors toward caregiver.IMG_3679

At Pacific Quest, we use brain-based strategies to treat students who demonstrate mild to severe attachment issues as characterized by one of the three insecure attachment styles. Fortunately, due to neural plasticity, we are are able to set the stage for addressing these issues and start the process of achieving “recovered secure attachment” with our students. Working with students to learn methods of emotional and physical regulation is the first step. We utilize nature, horticultural therapy, and mind-body techniques in an intentional way to help our students manage their regulatory system. Through a series of interactions with the garden and our team, students have repetitive and corrective experiences regulating their nervous system in the context of relationship. Each new experience creates neural pathways strengthened through repetition, resulting in the emergence of new behavioral patterns and perceptions of self, others and the environment.

The progressive camp system of Pacific Quest is based on developmental stages of growth and provides a safe container for the work. Our first stage, Nalu (Hawaiian word for reflection) is organized around a student’s basic wellness needs, adjustment to the program, and self-reflection. Contact between students is limited. The result is that students rely on our staff to meet their needs, much like infancy and the cycle of attachment. They are also afforded the time and space to begin internal healing. In the second phase, Kuleana (Hawaiian for personal responsibility) students have structured, low stimulus relational experiences similar to that of early childhood. Students work with staff to co-regulate and practice social skills in small groups as they explore what brought them to Pacific Quest and write their life story. In the third phase, Ohana (Hawaiian for family, community), students become responsible members of a community and learn to self-regulate using internal resources and improve communication with others, including their family. These phases of development allow students not only to have a corrective experience with regulation, but also with relationships.

Our highly trained staff and therapists build on the foundations of mind-body wellness, horticultural therapy and our camp system to individualize treatment for each student. Finally, the Rites of Passage component of Pacific Quest creates a formal opportunity for our young people to leave “old story” patterns of insecure attachment and enter their “new story” more deeply connected to themselves, others and their environment. These connections, along with their newfound capacity for self-regulation, set the stage for a secure sense of attachment as they venture onward from Pacific Quest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *