“What happens once you come to understand attachment? What do people do with this knowledge? The best way I know to answer these questions is by telling some real-life stories of people who have undertaken this journey of awareness.”
Those are the words with which I begin one of the chapters in my forthcoming book — a newly revised edition of Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears: The connected baby guide to attachment. Since the book was first released in 2013, it has sold nearly 15,000 copies. Seven years on, it seemed time for an updated edition. The publishing team at connected baby never dreamed, when we embarked on planning for 2020, that something called ‘coronavirus’ would be part of the challenge we faced!
Ironically, though, these weeks in lockdown have highlighted the key message of the book. Human beings need connection. Without it, we suffer.
It is true that we don’t all need exactly the same ‘amounts’ of connection, nor do we need it delivered at the same pace or intensity. But each of us, individually, need the amount of connection that allows us to feel personally relaxed and comfortable. It’s no different from the urge to avoid hunger or cold. Human beings have a biological drive to avoid loneliness.
Hunger is managed by the digestive system (with major input from the hypothalamus in the brain). Temperature is managed by the thermoregulatory system (also with guidance from the hypothalamus). Connection is managed by the attachment system (with, yes, help from the hypothalamus). All three are all biological systems. Culturally, we tend to have a lot more awareness of the first two. In 2020, we have all learned more about the attachment system than we ever wanted to know.
On second thought, let me put that another way. Human adults have re-learned more about attachment needs than we ever wanted to remember. Every single one of us knew all about those needs when we were babies. It’s just that the uncomfortable memories of what we learned got stored in our unconscious, so we grow up largely unaware of those early lessons.
It is entirely possible for adults to go through the whole of their lives without any realisation that their emotional patterns and relationship decisions have been influenced by experiences they had as an infant. The aim of Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears is to encourage readers to take a new look at that forgotten past.
Why would a person want to do that? Isn’t it unsettling? Well, yes, it is true that it isn’t always straightforward to undertake these discoveries. But the thing is….when people better understand how their emotional regulatory system works, they often find that everyday emotions become a bit easier. Actions and reactions make more sense. They stop beating themselves up. Shame can be replaced with self-compassion. Compassion can be extended to other people, including one’s own children. Patience requires less effort. So does holding to boundaries.
I would even go as far as saying that lockdown becomes easier when you understand your own attachment style. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Peter Lovenheim, author of the 2018 book The Attachment Effect, has offered his thoughts on coping with quarantine. He reckons that, of the three primary attachment styles, those people who have a ‘secure’ style (i.e., those who handle both emotional connection and disconnection reasonably well) will manage best in weathering this crisis. “They’ll be sheltering in place and helping to keep up the spirits of loved ones.”
For those who have an ‘ambivalent’ style (i.e., those who get anxious in disconnection), Lovenheim advises, in his light-hearted tone: “Watch less TV. You are not cut out for news shows that display a running tally of illness and death. Instead, call a friend.” And for those with an ‘avoidant’ style (i.e., those who feel most at ease with emotional distance)? He recognises that they chafe against rules that constrain. He suggests, cheekily: “Social distancing has long been your preferred way of life, so maybe just pretend that no one has ordered you to do it and it’s your own idea. Keep in mind that the sooner we get through this, the sooner you can regain your independence.”
Putting attachment theory to use
It is in taking attachment theory beyond the realm of theory and applying it to real-life challenges (like pandemics!) that its value becomes clear. That is why I am grateful to the range of people who have allowed me to tell their stories in the new edition of Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears. We hear how Jennifer, as a mum, realised she could support her anxious daughter, rather than get impatient with her, on the days she was reluctant to go to school — because Jennifer came to understand attachment. We hear how Iain, a defence lawyer, has transformed the way he presents clients’ cases within the courtroom – because he was introduced to the science of adverse childhood experiences. We hear how three headteachers — Angela, Eileen and Frances — became so confident in their understanding of the emotional regulatory system that they purchased massive teddy bears for every classroom in their schools. There are other stories told in the book, but I don’t want to spoil all the surprises!
I’ll end with the story of Tony, who was sent to boarding school at the age of 7. Now in his mid-50s, he is still working to make sense of the traumatic impact of those early years. I admire Tony’s willingness to share his story publicly, both on his website and more widely. As he says in the book, “Going to boarding school is considered a privilege. There is a shame associated with telling a story of privilege as a story of trauma. I have to re-confront that shame every time I share my story.” Yet, when you view the remarkable animated film that Tony has created as part of his journey of recovery, you are left in no doubt about the power of attachment ruptures to wound – and the power of attachment knowledge to heal.
Celebrating with a Book Launch
That is why Tony Gammidge will be amongst those joining me at the Book Launch for Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears, on 16th May 2020. I have invited him and other guest speakers to reflect on the ways they have benefitted from understanding attachment theory and why they believe everyone deserves that opportunity.
You too can hear what they have to say, if you wish – because you are also invited to come to the Book Launch on 16th May, 10.30am – 12.00pm (GMT), from wherever you live in the world. One of the silver linings that has come out of the collapse of live gatherings is the rise of online ones. All you need to do to attend is sign up via this link, and then tune in this coming Saturday.
Actually, that’s not quite true. You’ll also need, please, to bring along a glass of your favourite fizzy morning beverage. Despite the distances, we want the occasion to feel as celebratory as possible, so we’re going to end it with a toast. I guess we’ll have to pretend we can hear the ‘clinks’!
If you’d like to pre-order a print copy of the book, you can do so on this link. After the Launch, you’ll be able to obtain the book in three additional formats: audio, eBook and online. The connected baby team has always been keen to have the insights in the book reach as many people as possible, and the challenges wrought by COVID have only strengthened that desire. I am grateful to every single person who helps to expand the ripple of understanding.
I look forward to welcoming everyone who can come along to the Launch. Bring yourselves, your children and, if you wish, your teddies! Thank you all.
I reckon that, by this point in the coronavirus lockdown (Week 4 here in Britain), many parents are starting to find their children’s constant company tiresome. I can hear incredulous whispers already: “By this point?? Are you nuts?? I reached that point on Day 3!”
And it will indeed be as whispers that the replies drift in. Parents are often reluctant to admit this kind of truth. They might express it as humour, but say it for real? Nope. That risks being judged as a poor parent.
Therein lies a problem. If we can’t acknowledge to ourselves and others what we are actually feeling, then we have to shift into denial or projection or shame. Those options don’t help parents or the children they love.
So what can parents to do in the moments when times get really tough?
The question about what parents can do is an interesting one not only for its practical value, but because it was being asked during the historic era that has become a touchstone for our current challenge: World War II and its aftermath. The person leading the public discussion at that time was paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Throughout the 1950s, Winnicott shared the insights of his training in weekly BBC radio broadcasts. He added his calming voice to the national debate about what a post-war Britain could look like.
You might find yourself wondering what topics he tackled. Economics? The creation of new political structures? Renewing demolished transport infrastructures? Nope. Winnicott talked about childcare.
He believed that the sicknesses of a society were ultimately always attributable to the failure to support parents when they were in need. For Winnicott, the road to the new and better world began in the nursery. It was grounded in parental love.
Many of Winnicott’s observations would have sounded radical to the mothers who made up his audience. (Yep. It was mothers who tuned in. It was the 1950s. He was talking about childcare. Who else would have been listening?) Winnicott said: No, babies aren’t crying just to get attention. They need cuddles. Winnicott said: No, boys don’t need to be toughened up in order to grow up. Sending them away to boarding school carries emotional risks.
The most radical thing Winnicott ever said relates to the question at the heart of this piece. He told mums that there would be moments in which they would dislike their children. In fact, he used even stronger language. Winnicott said that sometimes the dislike would spike so intensely that they would hate their children. He said that this was normal and predictable. It didn’t make them a poor parent. It made them a real person trying to do a hard job.
But how could a good parent ever hate their child? It seems such extreme language. Well, children are relentlessly demanding, needy, insistent, expectant. Sometimes it’s just too much. Sometimes the emotional pressure is overwhelming and impossible to manage. You can feel trapped by all that intensity, and by your failure to fulfil your child’s hopes. How could it be otherwise? Failure becomes inevitable in the face of unremitting demands.
And it gets worse. Children will have feelings about your failure. Disappointment is a really tough emotion to manage, especially for a wee one whose emotional regulatory system is still under development. So sometimes a child’s feelings will spike. He or she won’t cope well. Sometimes the intensity will become so great that your child will hate you for disappointing them. Winnicott said those feelings, too, are normal. It doesn’t make them a bad child. It makes them a real person trying do the hard job of figuring out how life works.
It can be tricky to talk about uncomfortable, socially unacceptable ideas. An image is often better suited to the task – like this advertisement from the 1940s. The image was chosen as the cover of the 1994 book Representations of Motherhood (edited by Bassin, Honey and Kaplan, published by Yale University Press) precisely because it is so haunting. The towering baby is depicted as dominating the mother, who finds herself entrapped by his presumptuous demands. This was the dilemma that Winnicott believed all mothers and children faced. It remained unconscious unless it was brought to awareness. He didn’t want mothers to have to muddle through that dilemma alone.
This was the most radical and important idea that Winnicott ever brought to the public: moments of intense dislike are part of healthy, loving relationships.
What isn’t healthy is denying those feelings.
Denying uncomfortable emotions doesn’t make them go away. It doesn’t shrink them. Instead, it feeds them. Denying emotions makes it more likely that we will act on them in ways that are harmful to the very people we care for.
Winnicott’s training in psychoanalysis and medicine had led him to think long and hard about how the emotional needs of children can best be met. And yet, the most significant insight he ever had was not about children per se. It was about parents. He believed that healthy societies were ones who permitted parents to acknowledge the full range of their emotions, both the discomforting and the joyous ones. As a parent becomes more skilled in acknowledging their own feelings, they become better able to choose which actions will follow. Knowing what we feel lets us take charge of our behaviour. We don’t have to live at the mercy of our emotions. Winnicott’s message seems as relevant today as when he was speaking it into a radio microphone, all those years ago.
Life gets easier when it’s lighter
Okay, you might be thinking, that maybe sounds nice for the bairns, but a pretty tough road for the parents. Why on earth would a person want to be in conscious touch with unpleasant emotions? Doesn’t that make your life harder?
Nope. It’s ironic. Being able to embrace uncomfortable emotions, rather than push them away, makes life easier. That’s what Winnicott was trying to say. Life gets lighter. You stop taking things so personally.
Tension isn’t just about you. It doesn’t have to be a judgement against you. Intense feelings are a normal, messy part of relationships. Your child needs to know that he or she can rail against you and that you will stay steady. You need to know that you can fail to meet expectations and you’re still a good parent. You don’t have to beat up yourself with guilt or defensiveness. And, crucially, you don’t have to beat up your child, either. Nobody has to be to blamed or humiliated or punished. Relationships are just hard.
When the events of Life feel less personalised, you end up better able to offer support to others. You can ride out your child’s storm with them, even if they are aiming that storm at you. You aren’t blown about by the gusts of wind. You aren’t offended because they are aiming angry arrows at you. You have a better chance of staying curious about what’s wrong. You can offer help with those raging feelings. You’ll be better able to listen. Listening is, in itself, a form of helping.
Winnicott said that the more capable parents became of accepting their own uncomfortable emotions, the more capable they became of accepting their child’s. We can forgive in others what we can forgive in ourselves. He saw the ability to stay curious in the face of discomfort as underpinning what he called the ‘holding environment’. Children raised in families where parents can create a holding environment grow up more emotionally resilient.
Put simply, Winnicott was saying you didn’t need to be a perfect mother (or father). You need only to be good enough. Winnicott left us many ideas of value, but I think his most powerful legacy is that guilt-relieving phrase: “the good enough mother”.
I reckon there are millions of parents out there who would love to hear somebody say that it is genuinely okay that they are finding their children’s constant company to be tiresome. You don’t have to whisper it under your breath. You can say it out loud to yourself.
Were he here, Winnicott would add: You really don’t have to live up to some mythical standard. You are an ordinary person, trying to do your best in extraordinary times, as a parent, living in lockdown, with your kids — who are also trying to do their best, cooped up with you.
It is a message of self-compassion. Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. Forgive yourself when you fail to live up to your own expectations. Extend that forgiveness to others. Your children didn’t dream of perfect parents. They just wanted good enough ones.
So what can you do the next time the dislike starts looming?
How do you create a holding environment in a locked down household? Here are some ideas.
Remember that your children are anxious too. This is a weird, uncertain time for all of us. Uncertainty drives anxiety, and anxiety drives difficult behaviour. If your anxiety levels are high, then it is inevitable your children’s levels will be too. Remembering this single insight can help you to take their behaviour less personally.
Pay attention to your self-talk. One easy way to remind yourself of the difficult emotions driving your child’s behaviour is to pay attention to the language you use in your head. If you are given to using common phrases like ‘misbehaviour’ or ‘badly behaved’, try replacing them with the phrase ‘distressed behaviour’. This simple shift helps with the tension because it reminds you that if your kids are distressed, they need help.
Be sure to say sorry. Don’t focus on the points at which you lost it. Instead, focus on making up. Psychologists call this the ‘rupture-repair cycle’. Research has shown that what sustains relationships over the long term is not avoiding ruptures, but rather the ability to repair them. Lockdown will probably give you more opportunities to practice repair than you would ever have wished for in your entire life!
Try to practice gratitude. It isn’t easy to feel grateful if you are stressed, but try to notice the moments when there isn’t any tension. Once you start looking for them, you may find they are more frequent than you’d realised. Your body can relax into those. You can breathe easier. That sense of ease will help, even for a little bit. (And if you have read this article and thought: ‘Umm, none of this really applies to me. We’re doing fine. I’m not struggling with dislike of my kids’ … then please don’t take that for granted. You have lots and lots to be grateful for.)
Laugh. This may sound even crazier than practicing gratitude, but laugh whenever you can. Laughter releases a hormone called oxytocin that tells your brain and body they can relax. It’s kind of like oiling the hinges of doors. When storms are raging within relationships, emotional doors slam shut. Laughter makes it easier to open them back up, and it cuts down on the amount of creaking and groaning that will be required to achieve that.
In my last blog, I told the story of a baby who was having a tough day. Some commentators wrote to say they felt unsettled by what I’d written. They wished I had ended the piece with ideas about the kind of steps readers — especially parent readers – could take to guard against the possibility of a baby’s distress.
So that’s aim of this blog. I’m going to suggest five simple steps parents can take to grow their baby’s inner teddy bear when they are out and about in the buggy.
First, though, let me start with a preamble.
I’m always reluctant to provide advice. Parents are practically drowning in advice these days, and often it achieves the opposite of what it intends. Advice can easily undermine parents’ confidence, because it feels like someone else knows better than you what to do.
I’m not there when parents have to make decisions. I don’t know what challenges are going on in a parent’s family or a parent’s life. Knowledge about children development in general is not the same thing as a knowing a particular child.
So I don’t like providing advice because it can seem like the advice is more important than a parent’s curiosity. That is never the case. Parents are the experts on their children. My only real advice to parents is: “Be curious. Be kind. Be gentle. Remember connection.”
On the other hand, I realise that parents often find suggestions helpful. Being in a relationship with a child is tiring and relentless and confusing – and, yes, sometimes joyous. (Note that I have not used the word ‘parenting’ in that sentence, because I don’t like that word. ‘Parenting’ sounds like a task to be performed. Making a relationship with a child is not a task. It is a process. Being in a relationship with a child or a friend or a partner is a way of being. It’s one aspect of walking through life. Relationships are not tasks.)
Since suggestions can be helpful, I have crafted the ones I will shortly discuss. I don’t see them as advice, but more as pointers. They are tips that I hope can make parents’ lives easier and babies’ lives more secure.
Let me reinforce that last observation by turning to one other hand (if there can be such a thing as three other hands). It is really important that we keep babies’ emotional security in mind. Attention to babies’ emotions quickly slips when life become busy and pressured. That’s partly because babies’ emotions are subtle and fleeting. It’s easy to overlook them. Their body movements can be hard to read. This interpretive process is made much more difficult if you don’t even know that babies have a biological, absolute need for emotional connection.
The struggle I find regularly myself facing is how to balance suggestions against baby’s imperative need for connection. The suggestions I offer never sound complicated. Rather, they sound simplistic: “Connect. Take the baby’s lead. Connect. Meet the baby’s need. Connect. Reassure. Connect.”
Until you understand how tremendously important connection is for babies, my suggestions don’t sound vital. Connect? Smile? Laugh? Cuddle? Pay attention? Those suggestions don’t sound serious. They sound sweet.
I’m not trying to be sweet. I’m trying to help us understand that without connection, babies suffer. That’s why I tell stories of distress and disconnection, like the one I told in my last blog, entitled ‘How not to judge families sitting next to you in the café’. If we are brave enough to see babies’ distress, without turning away from it or denying it, then we begin to really understand what the science of connection is telling us.
But it takes courage to look upon a child’s discomfort. The things I write and talk about are unsettling because they confront us with our own limitations. We realise that, even as loving parents, we could cause discomfort in our children. We could do this without ever intending it or even being aware of it. This possibility easily tips us into guilt or anxiety.
Guilt and anxiety, though, are not helpful to parents or to their children. Nor are they what I ever intend. What I have come to accept is that they are always a risk when I talk about connection.
Thus, the challenge for all of us interested in raising happy children, and in embedding connection in our professional practice, is how to balance:
1) babies’ need for connection…against….
2) our wish to be good parents and professionals and people….against…
3) the knowledge that sometimes we fail to meet babies’ needs.
That is why is compassion and curiosity are so important in this learning process. Compassion for ourselves, as much compassion as for others. Curiosity about what is happening inside ourselves, as well as curiosity about what is happening for others.
Compassion and curiosity get us through the moments of anxiety and guilt and doubt. We become comfortable with the idea we don’t have to be perfect. No one has to be perfect, including parents sitting next to us in a café. We forgive ourselves when we ‘mess up’. We forgive our children when they ‘mess up’. We are less critical of other parents who ‘mess up’. We begin to replace blame and judgment with a search for opportunities to help.
We begin to really believe that making up is more important than messing up. We strengthen our own inner teddy bears.
And then, finally, we begin to relax. We believe that being a good enough parent is good enough. We don’t have to be perfect. Even if others criticise us, we have confidence in our own ‘enoughness’. We do not have to feel ashamed of moments of imperfection. ‘Parenting’ stops being a task you can fail or succeed at. Making a relationship with your child becomes a process you live every day. Some days are better than others. There is an awful lot of learning involved.
I have come to believe that discarding the anxiety about failure is key to balancing the three key components I listed above: babies’ needs vs. parents’ hopes to be good enough vs. fears we aren’t good enough. When we are confident that, even in our imperfection, we are still good enough, then we become better able to cope with scary ideas. And the idea that babies have an overwhelming need for connection, and that we sometimes fail them, is indeed scary for many parents. Perhaps ‘scary’ is not a strong enough word. Maybe the idea that we could fail our children is better understood as shameful.
So here is the good news: Babies do not need connection all the time. Even in healthy human relationships, people spend only about 33% of the time in connection. But we do need that 33%. Babies absolutely need that 33%. And they need extra-strong doses of connection when they’ve had a moment of fear – when they’ve found themselves fighting sabre tooth tigers.
The discoveries science is making about emotional trauma tell us that many babies don’t experience connection 33% of the time. And many of them don’t get extra doses of connection when they are scared, because their parents didn’t realise they were scared in the first place.
That’s why I was worried for the baby in my last blog. For the 25 minutes I sat in the café near he and his family, there was never one moment of connection, no moment that would have helped him to relax and feel that the café was a safe place. He turned to electronic technology for comfort because, for whatever reason, his parents weren’t able to offer him the emotional comfort he needed during that half hour. I say this believing that it was never their intention to ignore his needs. I fully believe they love him. I also know he will have suffered, when, at only 18 months old, he went 25 minutes without feeling connected.
This is the courageous balance we need to achieve as individuals and as a society: to stand in the knowledge that parents who deeply love their children can damage them. When we can accept that these two things go together, without laying blame on the parents, then we can move into the compassionate place that lets us think about how to help other parents. Parents can move themselves into a curious place about what else they could do to support their baby’s need for connection. They don’t have to protect themselves from fears of their own imperfection. They have already become comfortable with its reality.
I know scientists don’t usually talk this way. It sounds more like I am speaking from what I humorously sometimes call ‘Dalai Lama Land’. Nonetheless, it’s still true. The science of connection ultimately leads us to lessons in forgiveness and compassion.
And with that very long, very essential, preamble, here are my suggestions for five simple thing parents can do to help build their baby’s internal teddy bear when they are out and about in the buggy.
Five steps to guard against causing your baby anxiety
1. Change the language in your head: Use the word ‘baby’, not ‘buggy’.
Experiment with never using the phrase ‘pushing the buggy’. Instead, try always using the phrase ‘pushing the baby’. This simple linguistic shift reminds you that inside that piece of mechanical technology is a real live baby, with a brain and body that needs to feel safe. The baby’s sense of safety comes only through their confidence that you are always nearby, that you haven’t forgotten them. The problem with buggies is that they too easily interfere with a baby’s sense of connection to trusted adults. There is a mismatch between babies’ brains and buggies’ design – especially when buggies face outward.
2. Don’t park the baby far away from you.
If you are going into a café, or a bus, or a shop, don’t park the baby across a large space. Take the baby, in the buggy, with you. (Better yet, lift them out and carry them. This gives their muscles a chance to stretch.) They will feel safer, because you are nearby. They won’t have to wonder when you will come back. They won’t have to worry whether you might never come back. Their physiology doesn’t have to start gearing up for sabre tooth tigers that might sneak into the café or bus or shop before you get back to them. All unfamiliar environments are, for babies, settings in which a tiger might spring out and gobble them up. The only way to prevent that fear is for them to feel confident that their trusted adult is looking out for them.
3. Be sure the baby can see you.
If you do have to park the baby far away from you, be sure you have oriented them so that they can keep their eyes on you. Being able to see you will keep them feeling a bit safer. You can keep turning around and talking to them, smiling and nodding at them. That responsiveness will comfort their brain. They will know you haven’t forgotten them. They will believe you are keeping your eyes out for any sneaky, dangerous sabre tooth tigers. If the baby starts to cry, go back and lift them out of the stroller. Your cuddle will be the reassuring comfort they need. If they are crying hard, don’t take the stroller by the handle and rock it. Being soothed in a stroller is not the same as being soothed in your parent’s arms. Babies recover more quickly from fear when they have the warmth of human touch to help them
4. Touch the baby before you leave and when you get back.
Another thing you can do if you have to put space between you and the baby is to make physical contact with them before you leave and as soon as you get back. Talk to them at that moment as well. Tell them where you are going and when you will be back. Point to where you will be. Do all this even if your baby can’t talk yet. They will hear the tone of your voice as reassuring. That moment of physical connection will boost the hormone oxytocin, which will give their physiological system a boost in coping with the anxiety of your distance. The conversation will also slow down the speed of your departure. Remember, babies didn’t know you were both going into this space. They weren’t in on the planning, so they have little expectation about what might happen. Your departure to the other side of the room will be one more surprise. Try to ensure it isn’t an abrupt surprise.
5. Tell the baby you are about to lift them out of the buggy.
When you go to lift the baby out of the buggy, don’t life the baby abruptly. Give them a chance to realise a change is about to happen in their body. Hold out your hands and tell them you are about to pick them up. This lets them be an active participant in this transition, rather than experiencing themselves they as a passive being in an unpredictable world. If you are surprised by my suggestion that you speak to the baby in this way, please rest assured many parents find this suggestion surprising. Most parents do not know that by the unbelievably young age of 2 months, some babies are already beginning to anticipate when their parents are going to pick them up. If a parent doesn’t make that move too rapidly, and gives the baby time to read the parent’s signals, then babies adjust their own posture to ‘help’ parents in picking them up. You can see babies making these astounding postural adjustments in the photos below, which come from a 2013 research study by Professor Vasu Reddy, where she reported on this ability. If you like, you can even watch videos of parents and babies participating in the study, on this link here.
As a human species, we didn’t always need to ‘know’ consciously about connection. In our evolutionary past, we just lived it. That’s because we lived in a way that allowed it to happen naturally.
Nowadays, our modern way of life too often interferes with connection. We need to use the knowledge that science is providing to guide our thinking about the way we relate to our babies.
I like knowing that understanding the science of connection helps us not only in relating to our babies, but also to ourselves. Whatever the problem, curiosity is the answer.
With Donald Trump’s inauguration upon us in a few days’ time, I find myself thinking of Vice President Biden’s comments earlier this month: “Grow up Donald. Time to be an adult. You’re president.”
That is not going to happen.
Why not? That is the question that I hear being asked repeatedly: Why is it that Donald Trump keeps behaving in this aggressive, belligerent, exaggerated manner, especially since he has already won the election?
However, there are many people who have never heard of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. They have no idea what it is or how it arises from unmet attachment needs. So they continue to find Trump’s behaviour baffling.
I thought a piece on this topic to be timely, since Trump is about to be inaugurated into one of the most powerful positions in the world. Our globe is a scarier place when it is impossible for citizens to predict or interpret a leader’s behaviour. Fear isn’t good for us.
I’m not partisan in writing this piece. I hope it will be of help to Trump supporters and detractors alike. We all need to think more about the ripple effects of mental functioning. If Donald Trump does have this serious personality disorder, then the two camps have something terribly important in common: the motivation for his actions is not caring for the American people, but is always about his own ego.
What’s Trump said now?
Let’s start with a few reminders of Trump’s recent behaviour.
Trump continues to engage in explosive Twitter tirades, often tweeting late at night or early morning.
On 13 January, he used the phrase “sleazebag political operatives” in a flurry of angry tweets.
On 11 January, he used Twitter to accuse the US intelligence services of functioning like those in Nazi Germany.
On 9 January, he called Meryl Streep one of the “most overrated actresses in Hollywood”, following her speech criticising his bullying behaviour.
On 9 January, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch gained a place on Trump’s list of “great guys”, because “Murdoch likes me much better as a very successful candidate than he ever did as a very successful developer!”
On 6 January, he referred to himself in a tweet as a “ratings machine”, pointing out that his ratings as host of the television show The Apprentice had “swamped” the first season ratings gained by its new host, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
On 4 January, Trump claimed that sales of 16-year-old Jackie Evancho’s albums had “skyrocketed” after her announcement that she would sing at his inauguration ceremony, although an analysis showed that the spike is better explained by the fact her Christmas album was on sale during December.
Members of the public who aren’t yet on Twitter might be wondering on how earth brief social media statements, only 140 characters in length, can matter in the real world. Yet they absolutely do. First, we know for sure they come from Trump, not from some political committee who has crafted them on his behalf. They thus provide first-rate insights into his character. Second, it is this very personal use of Twitter that his supporters love. They feel the tweets give them a direct link to him, which would never be possible via the ‘biased media’.
But how does one explain these acts that are not presidential, comments that are so often eccentric and extreme? We start by realising that, if viewed through the lens of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, their content and tone aren’t unusual. They are entirely predictable, especially for a man now living outside his natural comfort zone. Trump has much less control of his world as a politician than he did as a businessman.
Incites negative emotions, especially through tantrums
False image projection
Sense of entitlement
Manipulates others by using them as an extension of the self
These descriptors give you a chance to decide whether you think they fit Trump’s behaviour. You can make a judgment as to whether you think it is possible he might have a diagnosable mental disorder, included within the clinical manual DSM-IV and attributable to somewhere between 1% and 6% of the US population. Amongst corporate leaders, it is believed to be four times that rate.
I use the world ‘possible’ above because it is technically impossible to know Trump’s mental health status without examination by a psychiatrist. The fact that no clinical professional has been given a chance to interview him is one of the reasons we haven’t heard more about Narcissistic Personality Disorder over this election period. All psychiatrists are prevented by the 1973 ‘Goldwater Rule’ from diagnosing celebrities whom they have not actually examined. Bodies like the American Psychiatric Association and the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists require that their members abide by it, due to the inaccuracy inherently at risk in ‘armchair diagnoses’.
Critics, though, argue that the stakes with Trump are now too high. What if the President of the United States is pathologically mentally unfit? Their worry is reasonable, because when it comes to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the people who end up suffering most are not narcissists themselves. Instead, it is the people affected by their behaviour. That would be us, ordinary citizens in countries across the world.
As a research scientist who works with the public, my job is to help make sense of scientific insights on attachment, connection and human relationships. My aim in doing that is to reduce suffering. I think we deserve access to ideas and information that can assist us in interpreting unsettling behaviour from the next President of the United States of America. We need to reduce the fear and anxiety floating in the world.
So here’s how I think it is easiest to make sense of Trump’s behaviour: understand what’s driving it. The answer is: human attachment needs. At a fundamental level, Trump is no different from the rest of us. Here are two reasons why.
Why Trump is no different from the rest of us
1. We’re all driven by attachment needs.
Love. Belonging. Emotional safety. Human beings have a craving for these things. They lie at the core of the attachment system. When I say ‘core’, I really mean that. These are biological needs.
All mammals seek connection, but it is especially intense for humans. Our large skulls cause our offspring to be born extra-early, extra-vulnerable and ultra-dependent. It is our biological attachment system that keeps us alive as babies and that frames our relationships as adults. When our attachment system is placed under threat, our brains and bodies panic, because we move toward overwhelm. When the overwhelm gets too intense, it starts to feel like we’re at risk of dying. Our sense of self is tied up with the unconscious strategies we use to manage occasions on which panic rises.
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder live with a lot of unconscious panic. Their sense of self is fragile, as a consequence of emotional injuries they suffered early in life. Their way of coping with that panic is to develop a false self that they can present to the world. The more grandiose and exalted, the better. That idealised self-image, projected to the world, keeps them from feeling the overwhelming emotional wounds that gave birth to the inauthentic self in the first place. As the author Preston Ni puts it, deep down, pathological narcissists feel like the ‘ugly duckling’. They worry they aren’t good enough, but they don’t want anyone, including themselves, to know it. A lot of unconscious psychological energy has to go into keeping up the front. Phew! It’s exhausting just describing it!
So, at a deep human level, the rest of us are just like Donald Trump, and vice versa. We all want to be loved.
2. We’re all seeking a sense of safety. Control gives us that safety.
We all seek emotional safety. That’s the aim of our attachment system. It is always on the look-out for relationship threats that can be spotted on the horizon. That monitoring is crucial to us as babies, because our immature stress management system renders us totally dependent on summoning people to rescue us from overwhelm. Overwhelm is frequent in babies’ lives; it rears its head hundreds of times a day. And it’s not fun. Remember: once it gets intense, overwhelm feels like impending death.
We gain a sense of safety through having enough control over our environment and other people. We are our best selves when we feel in control. If the threat risk has dropped, there is no need to stay on high-alert. Control = emotional safety = relief = relaxation.
You can see that pattern in Trump’s behaviour. When he’s at home at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, he is described as relaxed and calm. At his 2016 New Year’s Eve party, held there, Trump was described by the New York Times as “comfortable in his own skin”. He was reported by attendees as “holding court” at the party: “totally at ease, very positive, very gregarious”. Sure, he’s at home. He’s in control. He can be his charming best self.
His Cabinet picks? He has chosen people he feels safe with. They may not all be the best people for the job, but, hey, they feel trustworthy to him. That’s emphasised by his tweet on 13 January, in which he said: “I want Cabinet nominees…to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!” Why does he need to articulate a quality that should come automatically as part of the job description for a Cabinet post?
Integrating family members into his political activities, despite the conflicts that risks? Yes, his family members make him feel safe. Rude to reporters at a press conference? Well, since he doesn’t generally like the media and he doesn’t know what questions reporters are going to ask him, it can’t feel a safe environment for him, can it? That would easily send his self-regulatory system into overdrive. Reluctant even to travel in the Presidential plane, Air Force One? Okay, his suggestion that he hire out his private jet to the government for his Presidential travel would indeed make him money, but I reckon that what’s more pertinent is a feeling of familiarity and relief when travelling inside his own personal plane.
Donald Trump is no different from the rest of us. He is seeking a sense of emotional safety. And, if he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, then that internal sense of safety is fragile. A person inevitably exerts more control over their external environment when they can’t find a sense of control internally.
The problem for Trump is that he about to be President of the United States. That role risks putting him constantly outside of his comfort zone. He cannot control Congress; he cannot control the press; he cannot control other countries; he cannot control what his critics say of him. All of that uncertainty would easily keep him on constant high-alert. That would explain why he so often hits out on Twitter and in interviews. Punching someone – whether with your words or your fists — is a way of exerting control. All bullies instinctively get that.
Moreover, they feel better after punching. Lashing out is a tonic. Their cortisol levels drop once they’ve discharged all their pent up anxiety.
The problem for us ordinary people is that a leader who feels constantly threatened becomes even more erratic, more authoritarian, more dependent on intimidation and tantrums as a stress management strategy. That is a serious problem for the globe.
In understanding Trump, we better understand ourselves
I predict there will be a number of people who won’t thank me for this article. Essentially, I’m saying that there is a rational explanation for Trump’s eccentricities. The extremity of what he says and does has driven many of us to our own extreme positions. It is easy to stay holed up in 1) derisively laughing at him or 2) protectively defending him or 3) terrified by his capacity to blow up the world.
As Inauguration Week begins, I’m unlikely to win a popularity contest with either liberals or conservatives by saying that Trump’s dangerously quirky bullying can be explained logically. Indeed, the people I risk becoming most popular with are the trolls.
Important Note: Seeking to understand behaviour is not the same thing as saying that behaviour is okay. It is not okay to lie, to demean people, to rage and sulk, to obfuscate and gaslight. Seeking to understand behaviour is simply a starting place for devising solutions to problems. Finding effectivesolutions is always impossible unless understanding is your starting place. And you can’t reach understanding without curiosity. So yes, I am encouraging us to be genuinely curious about the origins of Trump’s behaviour.
Why publish an article that carries risk, when I could just as easily have chosen to another of my pieces on the healing power of laughter? The answer is that my main aim isn’t actually helping us to better understand the enigma of Trump. My main aim is helping us to better understand ourselves.
America got itself (and the rest of the world) into this situation, where they have elected a man who may be seriously mentally disturbed, because too many people felt unheard. The misery of poverty and anxiety about uncertain futures went unsolved by their politicians. It is in times of fear that we look to someone else to save us. As I have written about before during this election, our own attachment needs place us at most risk when we feel most vulnerable. It is at times of vulnerability that we are most likely to be tricked by people who tell us they will be our saviour, that they will be the one to make our lives great again. All they have to do is make us feel heard.
The best way to make sure you aren’t being conned is to get better at listening to your own vulnerabilities. Along the way, you also get better at listening to others’ vulnerabilities. That compassion is invaluable because…if we are to heal ourselves from the division that Trump’s election has created, we will need to get very very good at listening to each other.
The year 2017 has started with a row that might surprise many people. On 1st January, the Scottish Government distributed the first of their new Baby Boxes, designed to support families and babies’ development. Immediately a row erupted on Twitter.
James McEnaney asked about the evidence that the boxes would fulfil their stated aim of reducing infant mortality. Lucy Hunter Blackburn queried the allocated budget of £6 million, wondering why the figures were not more clearly delineated in the Scottish Parliament’s budgetary documents. Scottish Labour criticised the contents as a missed opportunity to promote breastfeeding. Ian Smart sneered at the poem included in the Box, written by Scotland’s Poet Laureate Jackie Kay, branding her “a woman from Bishopbriggs writing doggerel.” By 4th January, articles had appeared in the mainstream press, criticising the poem itself as “insensitive” because it risked putting pressure on mothers with postnatal depression, who might not experience welcoming feelings toward their babies.
Some of you may, at this point, find yourself wondering what a Baby Box is, having missed this debate because you were out enjoying holiday walks with loved ones in the winter sunshine, rather than hunched over social media streams. The Baby Box is an idea that has been imported from Finland, where it has played a role since 1938 in promoting social equality. The box, suitable as a first cot, comes complete with mattress, bedding, clothing, thermometer, nappies, book and other essentials for a baby’s first weeks of life.
Such enthusiasm! What’s not to love? What’s driving the doubtful debate unfurling in Scotland? Several commentators have been quick to offer analyses.
Jason Michel, of the Random Public Journal, attributes it to old class-based prejudices, a “comfortable no-voting social elite” frustrated by seeing Scotland’s “plebs” receiving more free handouts. Joan McAlpine, of the Scottish Daily Record, sees the scheme as a convenient new football in the political game of Labour vs the SNP. James McEnaney, of The Common Space, can’t see strong evidence of effectiveness of the scheme, and Jane Bradley of The Scotsman thinks that a universal programme is a poor use of £6 million in the first place. Julia Rampden, of the New Statesman, sees the debate as a reflection of the social division that still haunts Scottish society, from which Finnish society does not suffer.
I am choosing to celebrate this row. At its core is a debate about what babies need. It is too seldom that our wider society pays any attention at all to babies’ needs, let alone kicks off a new year with people defending them. I’m cheering…
…because, ultimately, the Boxes aren’t about poems or parenting or even babies themselves. The Boxes are about building relationships.
That’s what will matter to the babies: what their relationships with their mums and dads feel like. If that’s what matters to the babies, then that’s what needs to matter to us.
Relationships are not abstract things. They are real, lived things, grown out of tiny moments:
How gentle or rough it feels, being helped into a onesie by your mum.
How cold or warm it feels, with your nappy being changed around you by your big brother.
How predictable or surprising it feels, to have a thermometer placed against your body by your grandma.
How familiar or odd it is to hear your dad’s voice, reading a story out loud.
What matters for a baby is the emotional sense of these tiny moments, these moments that the items in the Baby Box will facilitate: comfortable or uncomfortable, safe or alarming, shared or lonely.
We now have a huge amount of evidence available about the fundamental importance of relationships in infant development. Babies’ brains develop more rapidly in the first year of life than they ever will again, with approximately 750 connections between nerve cells being formed every second. Those connections are driven largely by babies’ experiences of the world – and especially by their experiences of other people. Relationships shape a baby’s very biology, especially the self-regulatory system that underpins everything from a child’s behaviour to learning to friendships.
Stories about these processes appear all the time in the press, even though they may use none of the language I’ve chosen here. For example, during December, in the run up to the launch of the Baby Box, one widespread story concerned the latest report from the Dunedin Study, affirming that brain functioning at age 3 can predict behavioural patterns in adulthood. That means that the way children had been loved left lasting biological consequences.
Economics also featured, with Nobel Laureate James Heckman releasing yet another study showing that family support from the age of 8 weeks increases a child’s eventual chances of gaining school qualifications and staying out of prison. That means that the way families had been supported in loving their children had left lasting consequences.
Yet most of the public, parents and non-parents alike, do not realise just how important babies’ early experiences are. They have no idea how fully babies’ brains are tracking patterns in the environment. The ‘Tuning In Report’, released last summer by the US organisation Zero to Three, starkly illuminates this gap. More than half the 2000 parents interviewed didn’t know that babies can sense parents’ moods by the age of 3 months or that language skills start at birth. A quarter of new parents thought that shouting in the home didn’t matter until a child was two years old.
Look closely, slow things down — and we can see babies tuning in to their environment, in the most ordinary, unremarkable of tasks — like nappy changing:
It is overwhelming for most of us to comprehend just how important a parent’s love is. In fact, some authors have argued that all this talk about brain development isn’t helpful to parents. It only makes them more anxious. Instead, they argue, we should simply concentrate on emphasising love and warmth and joy. I want to agree. And yet, I think we live in a society that undervalues precisely the things that help babies grow into healthy, happy children: love and warmth and laughter and play.
The importance of the Baby Boxes being distributed by the Scottish Government derives not from the things they contain. The importance is the way those things will facilitate relationships between babies and parents, reducing the stress on many parents’ ability to meet their babies’ earliest physical and emotional needs. Mark McDonald, Minister for Childcare and Early Years, has pointed to that himself, when he said that “the box contains materials that will promote attachment.” Most of the public, though, has no idea what the word ‘attachment’ means. So let me translate: It’s basically a scientific word for how emotionally safe love feels.
And for many babies in Scotland, love does not feel as safe as we would hope. Over the course of 2017, approximately 10,000 babies will be born into poverty. Poverty creates stress for babies, because it creates stress for their parents. Stress causes human bodies and human brains to change – for the worse. Our whole society pays the later costs of that change, drawn from the budgets for education, health and criminal justice.
How much do we pay? James Heckman’s analyses suggest that for every £1 invested in early intervention, the returns start at £3 and rise. So it is possible that by spending this £6 million now, the Scottish Government could be saving us £18 million (or some other figure) in future years. Let’s get busy figuring out how to incorporate such calculations into our impact assessments. We so seldom take into account this second part of the equation when it comes to evaluating public spending.
Early intervention? How can I describe a Box of things as ‘early intervention’? That sounds odd, given that we usually think of ‘intervention’ as a ‘programme’. But that’s my point. A baby doesn’t think of early intervention as a programme. He or she experiences intervention as cuddles and kisses and attention and laughter and play and feeling safe. If the Baby Box helps mums and dads to ‘deliver’ more of these, then the Boxes will have served our newest citizens well – and we will all benefit.
So when you reach your own conclusion about the value of the Baby Boxes, be sure you have taken into account this wider context, missing from the stories offered us this week in the press. The Boxes aren’t just about £6 million spent on other people’s bairns. Parenting is hard. We all end up paying greater costs when we overlook the importance of supporting the people doing the work of connecting.
That’s why I want to do all I can to say to Scotland’s babies of 2017, in the words of our national Makar, Jackie Kay: Welcome wee one.