How can we help more people to understand what attachment is and how it works? The scientific community may talk a lot about it, but parents have often never heard of it – even though this information would be very helpful to them! Maybe what we need is a different language for explaining it? That’s why I’ve taken to using the language of Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears.
The phrase ‘Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears’ is helpful in all sorts of ways. It makes us more curious about what is driving the children’s behaviour. It gets us to respond more empathically. And it captures the underlying scientific theory. So whenever I am talking about attachment these days, I always draw on the metaphor of Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears.
What is attachment?
Attachment is the biological need that all babies are born with that drives them to bond with their caregivers. The immature nature of human brains means that babies can’t handle emotions on their own, so they need the help of other people. That’s why brains are born immensely observant. Babies notice the facial expressions, bodily movements and responsiveness of other people. They are much more observant than most people imagine and certainly more observant than adults.
A baby’s brain needs that power of observation. It is trying to work out the best ways of getting parents’ help and attention. Babies feel like they need that attention a lot! And they really really do. They can’t feel safe without it.
Babies have lots of strong emotions – fear, joy, frustration, disappointment, surprise, anger, boredom, discomfort, loneliness. Any of those emotions can become overwhelming for them. That’s why they need a caregiver’s help. The adult can help to ‘contain’ those emotions, so that the baby isn’t left handling the feelings on their own.
With help, and over time, the baby’s body and brain develop the capacity to handle strong emotions. This is called ‘self-regulation’. Attachment is the process that helps a child to grow a strong self-regulatory system. Without the ability for self-regulation, mental health problems develop, as well as physical health problems and behavioural difficulties.
Why is the language of Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears helpful?
The language of Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears captures two key insights that the science of attachment has discovered over the past several decades.
The first is the frequency of babies’ anxieties. Babies can be scared of all sorts of things that surprise grown-ups. They are scared of being left alone in the hallway. They are scared when a stranger leans in too close, even if she’s smiling. They get scared if they can’t find you because you are being them, pushing the buggy. I could list hundreds of these examples.
Talking about ‘Sabre Tooth Tigers’ helps to remind adults of such anxieties. The fear comes from long ago in our evolutionary past, when predators like tigers roamed villages. Babies, who can’t yet run away from predators, needed to be able to call on someone to come and help. That’s what kept them alive! The ability to get someone to come and help when you are feeling scared is part of the baby’s survival system.
The second insight from the science of attachment is the importance of comfort. That’s captured by the reference to ‘Teddy Bears’. All of us know that the whole point of a teddy bear is to provide reassurance.
Responsive attention from parents and other key adults helps a baby to grow an ‘internal teddy bear’. It helps babies to develop a self-regulatory system that will last throughout life, which will be good at keeping them calm, even in moments when strong emotions are swirling. This capacity to remain calm will be important throughout their life! It will guard against mental and physical health problems, and will prevent relationship difficulties.
Who is now using the language of Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears?
This language is proving helpful to all sorts of people. This includes childcare staff, early years workers, social workers, teachers, health practitioners, foster carers and many others, as well as mums, dads, grannies and granddads. Many organisations and local authorities have embraced it and use it in their training and even in their policies.
After becoming familiar with this language, people often remark that they had found the traditional language of attachment theory, such as ‘secure’ and ‘insecure’ attachment, to be confusing. This new metaphorical language helps them to feel more confident and informed. That’s why I now use it whenever I am training people on the subject of attachment.
If you’d like to hear others talking about this approach to understanding attachment, you can see that in this film.