When Parting May Not Be Such Sweet Sorrow

Wow! That was a lot of guilt purging last week. I hope we're all travelling a little lighter this week if only because we've been reminded that we are not alone in carrying that MOTHER LOAD of guilt. Seriously, thanks for all the sharing. Not only has it been great to hear that we are not alone, but it's been great to get to know you a bit. We aim to please…so the more you tell us, the more you can help shape this site, what gets covered etc. 

In that spirit..
Last week's group carthasis started with Bella's guilt over her departure to Europe, but someone (Paola?) mentioned that she was also interested in the garden variety of separation anxiety.  I thought I"d give a little background into the research on separation anxiety (regular kind) but then leave you with a couple of questions that, to my knowledge, are not so well covered in the research literature. The first is an issue about separation anxiety that I"ve experienced with my son (there we are in the pic in those "all important" early days). I've also heard about it from friends re: their experiences with their own children. Once again, it would be great to hear about your experience…

Here's a quick "Did you know…?" to set it all up (just some highlights mind you, the literature on attachment is MASSIVE).

Fig4 1. One of the key studies that influenced thinking on human attachment came from a study with monkeys. Infant monkeys were given a choice of a). a surrogate mom made of wire, with a plastic nipple attached that delivered food or b). a similar wire mother with no food access but who was covered in a soft terry cloth. Although they nursed from the wire mom, the monkeys preferred the cloth mum (as in, they spent 17-18 hours a day with the cloth mum versus 1 hour with the wire/nipple one), even more so when food was not at issue but the monkeys were frightened by some foreign object that entered the room. You can read more about the study here. Although this finding came from a study with monkeys and not human babies, it raised the idea that food supply may not be as central to developing an attachment to a caregiver (as previously believed) as comfort and security. 

2. Of course the MAJOR line of research on human attachment came from Mary Ainsworth's work in the lab using something called the "Strange Situation". Basically, moms and infants come to the lab and spend some time in a "waiting room" of sorts (magazines for mom, toys for baby etc.). Over the course of 15 minutes, the people in the room change. At first mom is alone with baby. Then a stranger enters. Mom leaves baby with the stranger. Mom returns, then leaves again. Then the stranger also leaves and baby is alone. Stranger returns, then mom returns. Each of these scenarios last only a very short time; less than a minute to 3 minutes max. The researchers were mostly interested in what happens when mom and baby are reunited. Based on baby's reaction to mom's return, the babies were classified as either a). securely attached, b).avoidant attached or c). anxiously attached. The secure babies (about 65% of the infants tested) got upset when mom left but were comforted and quickly re-assured by mom on her return. In contrast, the avoidant (about 23%) babies were somewhat detached, did not show much emotion, even avoided mom or acted unaffected by her departure and also her return. Interestingly, biological markers (such as heart rate and skin conductance) later showed that these babies were nonetheless in distress. And the anxious babies (about 13%), were VERY upset at mom leaving, seemed upset or even angry on her return and were not easily reassured. 

The argument goes that securely attached babies, confident in a secure base to return to, are more free to explore their environment and therefore to learn. There is evidence that they fare better than avoidant- or anxiously- attached babies on complex problem -solving tasks and that they are generally better adjusted in later childhood and beyond.

3. In case you're freaking out because you don't believe that your child would react like a securely attached baby, here's something to consider. There is evidence that the proportion of babies in the different categories varies across cultures. E.g. supposedly there is a greater proportion of "avoidant" babies in studies with German infants  (although a more recent study with a German sample showed more of a "normal" distribution of babies across the three categories)  and of "anxious" babies in studies with Japanese infants.. Makes sense if you consider that parenting practices and styles definitely differ cross-cuturally, although perhaps less so nowadays what with the whole global village, internet etc. revolution.  In that case, it would be normal, and perhaps highly adaptive, for babies' attachment behaviors to reflect the culture they are being raised to function in.

4. A student of Mary Ainsworth – Mary Main – went on to do pioneering work on adult attachment. She was interested in how your memories regarding attachment with a primary figure when you were a child compared to the type of relationships/attachments that you form as an adult (in friendships but particularly in romantic relationships). Turns out that in ~75% of cases, that early style of attachment stays with you and is similar to the types of relationships/attachments formed in later life. Although, keep in mind that it has also been suggested that certain "buffering" factors can help mediate that connection. So a rough time in childhood does NOT necessarily mean that you are doomed to repeat that pattern as an adult.  

So there you go, some points to ponder. Here's what I'm interested in hearing from you:

My son has been very attached to me, since very early on. At 18 months of age, he would get upset if I left the room to go the bathroom, even if he was in the company of his father or grandparents who he knows very well and loves dearly. A good friend of mine's child went through a phase (granted he was quite young, maybe only 6-7 months or so) where he would get upset when she bent down over the sink to brush her teeth and was momentarily out of his view. Both of these kids improved immensely, but then with no warning would show this intense reaction all over again. No precipitating event, so stressful time, no new baby, move, change of preschool or daycare, illness of loss of a family member etc. Then it would subside, only to return again. And so it went. This summer,at almost 5, my son went to a day camp for the first time (for 2 weeks). He did not know a soul, it was in a location he did not know well, first time taking his own backpack, own lunch etc. But he did not even blink. "See ya Mum". That was it. Ditto the first day of school some weeks later. So we seem to have come out the other side. It's understandable to me that there may be sensitive periods in development when kids are more likely to suddenly seem anxious about separation agai
n, but sometimes he would sail through those sensitive periods without a blip and sometimes not. 

I'm interested to hear from you about "bouts" of separation anxiety. Anyone out there have a child who would "zoom" in and out?  At what ages?  What do/did you attribute it to?

Finally, as a mum of only 1, I"m always interested to know how kids with siblings cope with things. If you have more than 1, are/were your kids similar or different when it comes to separation anxiety?  Also, do you think that how the younger one or ones handled separation from you was different to how their older sibs handled it because they had sibs – read: company – to help tide them over until you returned? 

Send me your thoughts…


11 thoughts on “When Parting May Not Be Such Sweet Sorrow

  1. OK. My kids will be 3 and 5 in January. Lets start with the elder one, a boy. He is definitely a ‘secure’ kid. Always has been. Never had a day of seperation anxiety ( that I recognised anyway). Also a very good sleeper. First day of kindergarten at age 3, he didn’t even bat an eyelid when I left. Happy as Larry when I came to pick him up, and this behaviour has been repeated the two times that I left him (with his favourtie gran)when I went away for one or two nights.
    My daughter is the complete opposite, although I don’t know if I would label her avoidant or anxiously attached. A mixture of all three perhaps depending on the timing. At 8 months whe went thru the first bout of sep. anx. and it was heart breaking to see. We were at a kid’s party. She had to sit on my knee the whole party because the moment I put her on the floor next to me she sobbed inconsolably. She had another really bad bout of it between 19-23 months when she would not ( could not) go to sleep without me sitting with her (previously she had always been a plop in bed, fall asleep immediately kinda girl). It happened again on and off from around 2.5 and we are having a minor episode right now (although only sleep related so maybe not the real thing)
    During these times, she did not like anyone other than me( and her favourite granma) to change her nappy, dress her or undress her either. This was particularly frustrating for my husband who must have felt like an ogre as she did. not. want. a bar of him.
    NOw at almost 3 she actually asks for her daddy to help her brush her teeth or put on her pjs and this is an ENORMOUS improvement, something that I did not ever, EVER, expect to see.

  2. Oh, and to answer your last question Tracy, DD frets if she doesn’t sleep in the same room as her brother. The times I have seperated them ( because she was wailing and waking her elder brother) she BEGGED to go back to their room so she could sleep with him. I’m sure having him with her does help, but he is no way a substitute for me, as her sleep is crap whether he is there or not.

  3. I just have 1 kid, 20 months. She’s pretty solidly in the “secure attachment” category, but it is very clear that her primary attachment is to me, and my hubby (through no fault of his own as far as I can tell) is a distant second. But interestingly, she adores my mother and has no problem spending a night or two there… whereas with my husband’s parents, she doesn’t like to be left there but then has a good time once mom and dad are gone.

  4. My oldest was _very_ attached to me as a baby/toddler. He would scream his little head off when I went out of his immediate, touching vicinity from the time he was born until he was about 4 months. Then he could stand for shorter separations as long as we had eye contact or he was playing with his dad. Still he would scream if I even just walked away from him in the same room and this continued when he started daycare at 12 months of age. He was known as the “loud kid” (oh, the guilt!). He then went through a phase around 18 months when he was fine at daycare, but threw the most magnificent tantrums when I picked his up. This behavior continued off and on for a couple of years. Now, at 4, he is very easy going – almost blase – about separations. He goes to JK and to play dates and activities confidently. Sometimes, if he is over-tiered or coming down with something he can still throw a good tantrum when it is time to pick him up.
    Baby brother, now 13 months, is a cool baby during the days. He can easily spend time with dad, grandparents, sitter without problems. Partly I think it is because he has his brother there with him like a living, breathing security blanket, but of course his temperament is different too. At night though it is ALL mommy though.

  5. My toddler falls in the “secure attached” category, I think. As a baby, she would always cry when I left, but could be comforted fairly easily by the person caring for her.
    She has also attached to other caregivers- a couple of teachers at day care and my mom in particular (in addition to her father, of course).
    She wants me for certain situations and my husband for others- its like she’s assigned us roles, and will only take the other as a substitute if absolutely necessary.
    My baby is still too young to really know how she’ll be- she’s only 8 weeks old.

  6. Is there any evidence of genetics in attachment and also any sex differences? Paola said her kids are really different; could that be attributed to sex differences, since presumably there shouldn’t be that much variation in the interaction to foster a dramatically different attachment style within the same family…or maybe only a tiny bit of difference in parenting (e.g., as a result of a new sibling) could make a huge difference in attachment style?

  7. Thanks for the comments. Good to get a sense of the ups and downs of separation angst. I find it so interesting that children with hugely different patterns early on can nonetheless all end up pretty secure and well-adjusted. A good reminder that there are multiple routes to achieving a good parenting outcome.
    There is some recent work linking genes to a “disorganized” attachment – a fourth category of attachment, one that was added much later and accounts for a fairly small percentage of the populatio. Disorganized attachment actually refers to a lack of coherent style of attachment. It has been described as a mix of styles (avoidant/anxious) but also as appearing confused or apprehensive. In this category, the attachment figure appears frightened or frightening to the child and may even alternate between being frightening and comforting. So the child does not really know how to take the parent and reacts in this kind of disorganized way. The work that I am thinking of suggests a gene environment interaction in predicting disorganized attachment. Having the particular genetic characteristic that seems to be involved does not necessarily mean that disorganized attachment will occur. It’s more that a combination of that genetic predisposition – coupled with having an attachment figure that is not very responsive – can lead to a disorganized outcome.
    To my knowledge, no difference in the distributions of boys and girls in the various attachment categories. The sibling question is more difficult to call. Judy Dunn – a very well-known developmental psychologist who does work in social development – has written a lot on siblings. The take home message of that work is really that siblings are much more different than the same. Though it may seem that being in the same family means that you are probably treated similarly, characteristics about the different children in the same family can hugely influence the way parents interact with each of them separately. It’s as though each child in the same family experiences the family environment in a different way. On the other hand, it seems reasonable to think that a responsive parent is probably a consistently responsive parent and one who is say, unresponsive or frightening is probably battling his or her own demons and this is likely to continue no matter which child he or she is interacting with. So children in the same family may be more likely to have a similar attachment style compared to children from different families, but I would bet the correlation is probably pretty low (in other words that the attachment classification of one child is limited in how well it can predict the attachment classification of a sibling, if they are related at all).

  8. Tracy – I agree with you that despite the huge variation in childhood attachment, children generally seem to come out okay as relatively secure adults in the end. (HUGE RELIEF FOR ME!!!) Also, I am glad that attachment relationships in adulthood can sometimes help correct undesirable patterns (even if it is hard work): e.g., I am relatively securely attached to my parents but have a little more avoidance in relation to my father. I see how my marriage is helping undo some of that avoidance. I still have a tendency towards avoidance BUT my husband won’t have any of it – he’ll make me talk/discuss/deal :P It’s good to know that even though attachments are relatively stable across the lifespan, they can still change for the better (here’s hoping my son will, in 20 years time, find a partner/spouse who will help him with any attachment issues he has incurred from us!) :)
    I was also curious to know how easy it is for young children to form new attachment relationships. I’m sure it’s just one of those aspects with huge individual variation. My 1 year old really likes his “key person” at day care; she is the only person there he would voluntarily approach when I drop him off. I haven’t observed them frequently enough to know whether she constitutes as another attachment figure in the technical sense of the word, but I was quite surprised (and pleased) by how willing he is to go to her when I hug him and say goodbye.

  9. @Bonnie
    Yeah, I like to emphasize the potential for a positive outcome no matter what has gone before. One of those “buffers” I was referring to was having another important figure in your life such as a grandparent, coach, babysitter, teacher and so on. And it makes sense, having someone else who can show you evidence of another, healthier way to interact is bound to open up your emotional world a bit.
    On the daycare teacher issue, my son had a teacher that he absolutely adored in preschool from ages 3 – 5. It give me great peace of mind to drop him off in her care, where he was so OBVIOUSLY comfortable and happy. I also felt good about myself having found a good attachment figure for him at school. I know that some people can feel as though the new figure has usurped their attachment bond with their child. But I don’t think there is much another person can do to shake that mother (or other primary attachment) tie, except perhaps in extreme, exceptional cases.
    It’s great that you can feel glad for your son that he has another important figure to go to at daycare. Doesn’t it just make it so much easier to go and focus on whatever it is you have to do?

  10. Two boys, they will be 4 and 1 in January.
    So with the older one: very securely attached. I always wondered if it was because I was a stay-at-home for the first year. Even at ten months, I could put him down to play alone while I did work. He just needed to know where I was, but not necessarily near. He is a little shy, but doesn’t get too upset with strangers.
    When he started day care, he would cry a little when we dropped him off (15 months old) but calmed quickly. After four days, he was dashing off into the room without even saying goodbye. We got a lot of envious looks from parents with crying kids.
    He’s had two waves of separation anxiety. Once when we left him with grandparents while we went abroad for a week and other when his brother was born. He was very unhappy about letting us out of his sight for a few days afterward. He generally worked through it on his own.
    As a baby, he was tightly bonded to me. When I was pregnant, I was too sick to do much, so he transferred his bonds to his father, and they are still tight.
    For the baby: I don’t think he is as securely attached as his brother. I went back to work when he was 5 months old, so he is always graspy when he sees us. He gets upset if we are not picking him up instantly when he’s with the baby-sitter. He doesn’t mind not being held othertimes, but that reuniting moment has to be immediate or he gets worked up. Like his brother, he is more tightly bonded to me, but we are noticing that he is very ritualized. He knows he has breakfast with daddy, so in the morning, if he sees daddy walking away (to take a shower, say), he wails as if his heart is breaking, and forget mommy who is hugging him and holding him right there.
    Interestingly enough, he is most attached to his brother. As long as big brother is around, he’s fine. And if he’s upset or nervous about being somewhere, we generally have him sit with his brother and presto! instant zen.
    Actually, I am curious in your take on whether I am just buying into the working mom guilt by saying that my working has made the baby less attached.

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