It’s Mental Health awareness week at the moment with the theme of relationships. It’s remarkable to me when I hear professionals say that Insecure Attachment in itself is not a mental health issue but behavourial. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service states that it is not a core remit of CAMHS. Often children who are only displaying Attachment difficulties such as disconnect from people or low self esteem, without self harming or appearing suicidal, do not meet the criteria for referral. Ok, so you might classify it as ‘just’ behaviour but for the person with Attachment difficulties and those living or working with them it certainly does impact people’s mental health.
Research has shown that the factors affecting mental health are very much linked to secure or insecure attachment. This is mainly linked to stress levels. As a baby the stress we feel needs to be alleviated by our parents so that our biological system can manage the cortisol flowing around our systems. Secure attachment is a behavioural system that protects our biological systems. Children with insecure attachment are more prone to common colds, more likely to develop depression in later life and feel unloveable which can lead to all kinds of difficulties.
There are many ways that I believe having an insecure Attachment impacts on our mental health, as well as how we might behave in any given situation, for these reasons:-
Trust – not having their needs met consistently as a baby means that children do not develop trust in others. They inherently feel that others will harm them and that they need to get their needs met themselves. This leads to difficulties in making and sustaining friendships, lack of trust that the adults around them will meet their needs, never asking for help, fiercely self reliant and paranoid about how others see them. Behavioural or mental health issues? Both possibly, but definitely not ‘just’ behaviour.
Shame – at the core of their being children with insecure attachments often feel a sense of deep shame. Not just that the world around them is bad but that they are bad. This impacts on everything they do. Their thoughts, ambitions, abilities to try new things and engage in activities, their resilience and capacity to take criticism and to reflect and learn from their mistake. When they make mistakes they feel THEY are the mistake. This absolutely impacts on their mental health. How they feel at the core of their being leaks out into every area of their lives.
Impaired brain function – living in chaotic early years environments or experiencing trauma in different ways impacts on our brains development. The way we process things, the part of the brain we might be living in and the connections of the cells around the brain that help us engage with others. All these areas are impaired for children who’ve experienced early trauma and have insecure attachment as a result. They cannot process things at the same speed that others might. Their memory and organisational skills are underdeveloped. Most importantly they are constantly living in the fight, flight, freeze part of the brain that is wired for survival. Often the behaviours they display are unconscious. They are the reactions of a stressed out and hypervigiliant brain. This is one of the reasons why just treating the symptoms or behaviours will not change things for many children with Attachment difficulties. They need a different approach that rewires the brain and goes back to fill in the gaps they’ve missed.
Why should be bother to try and raise the awareness in people of these issues?
I really believe, and have seen in our training with schools, that the needs of children with Insecure Attachments are often misunderstood. Being aware of how different they think, feel, receive messages and behave makes a huge difference to how you might interact with them. We need to do more of the changing than they do. We need to step back more and see what is happening around us. Be more proactive than reactive. Instead of pushing children to achieve in ways they find impossible at the moment, we need to be understanding the mental health needs of these children and meeting those needs first.
If children hadn’t been fed consistently when they were young – then waiting for food in a school canteen can be tough. If they’ve consistently been told they are stupid and a waste of space – why would they want to try something new. As we raise awareness I believe people will begin to see these key messages:-
- It’s about survival for many children – not about learning or even having fun but getting through each day.
- Their emotional age is so much younger than their chronological age – think toddler.
- They need relationships to grow. This is where it’s all broken down and this is where it needs to be built up – consistent, regular, reliable contact with trust worthy and fun adults.
- If their social and emotional needs aren’t met first, then their academic needs will not be met – the targets are the wrong way round.
- Above all else we need to break the cycle of neglect, abuse and trauma in these young children’s lives. When we can look back and say they broke out of that way of life that would have them constantly living chaotic, unhappy lives – then I believe we have done our job!
So wherever you are right now raise awareness of the mental health issues for those vulnerable children who are struggling in our schools and towns – they need us to see and to do something about it. It needs to be acknowledged as an issue that can impact on all of their lives – emotionally, biologically, financially, socially – every aspect is linked to whether they can be resilient enough to overcome lives challenges in the future and to break the cycle of insecure attachment with their own children.