The Psychological, Emotional, and Neurological Struggles for Youth with Insecure Attachment
by Nicole Fakaua, M.C., R.C.C.
Carlos, a 14-year-old middle school youth, just can’t seem to get ahead in his classes. He has a hard time focusing on his assignments, his head often feels heavy, he just can’t seem to make sense of the work, or calm an anxiousness that is always with him. He often eats lunch alone and doesn’t feel connected to any one person or group at school. Teachers notice he fidgets and looks around all the time and is particularly sensitive to loud noises like the bell ringing. He doesn’t like coming to school and is not sure that its worth his time or effort if he is going to fail anyways. The only class he likes is Mr. Jones mechanics class. Yet, Mr. Jones describes Carlos as a loner who sits in the back of the shop and doesn’t seem to pay much attention to what is going on.
There are many children like Carlos in our schools. Kids that just struggle to learn and to engage in meaningful friendships as a result of their trauma associated backgrounds. Without specific trauma focused interventions, it is possible that Carlos could struggle over the trajectory of his life. Even with many attempts at foster placement, Carlos is now in a residential home.
John Bowlby (1969) a defining figure of attachment theory, believes that attachment plays a critical role in human connection and that this formation of attachment serves as a template for the relationships that people form over their lifespan. A baby or child that has had a loving parent consistently respond to their needs will build secure attachment which affects the child’s ability to fulfill both the physical and psychological aspects of growth and social connection. However, if a child has experienced confusing and unpredictable experiences early in life then insecure attachment ensues. These individuals (like Carlos) live out an innate message that states the world is not safe and people cannot be trusted.
As the impact of insecure attachment can have lasting psychological, social and educational effects in early adolescence and is compounded for children in multiple foster placements, it is essential that we assist teens in forming critical relationships that will benefit the youth over the course of their life.
Middle school is a critical stage for developing self-confidence as tweens navigate through this developmental stage of life (Newman & Newman, 2018, p. 65). During this particular stage, many teens are essentially developing an understanding of ‘Who Am I?’ In today’s blog we will look at the psychological impact of insecure attachment and its impact on middle school kids. Over the next couple of months, keep an eye out for Part 2 and Part 3 as we target both the social and educational impact of insecure attachment in subsequent publications.
Psychological, Emotional, & Neurological Struggles
Neuroscience has contributed incredible insight into how the brain can be altered as a result of neglect and abuse. When there has been an absence of consistent caregiving responses, especially as they are related to soothing and calming a child, the neural pathways associated with these cues build an embodied set of reactions and responses. For the adolescent with insecure attachment, they are known to have a short fuse, express more aggression, withdraw emotionally and have an inability to express, regulate and understand their emotional responses. Often these teens are ‘wired’(subconsciously) to be highly vigilant, always on the lookout for the next possible threat, have an over-reactive stress response, struggle with impulse control and have underlying anxiety issues.
Adolescents that struggle with insecure attachment typically have an internal core belief regarding self that mirrors low self-image, confusion regarding identity and often feel undervalued as an individual. Historically, teens with insecure attachment have not had consistent and positive feedback relating to tasks and accomplishments and therefore, tend to withdraw, lack the motivation to push through challenges, are impulsive and often lack self-control.
Carlos’ was first removed from his home at the age of six due to severe neglect. His history was one of one placement after the next. He pushed everyone away until he landed at the residential agency. His worker John, took a liking to him even though Carlos would yell and swear at him. John had done some trauma training and specifically understood that he needed to apply different strategies in order to have any impact on Carlos’ life. John also understood the pivotal nature of Carlos’ age – this was a critical time in his life to develop formative relationship. Without this, the possibility of Carlos struggling over the trajectory of his life to maintain and keep friendships would be low. John knew that growth, healing, and attachment would be possible so long as Carlos had the support from his environment in order to feel and be successful.
Some Specific Interventions that John applied were the following:
- Coaching Carlos in emotional attunement and developing emotional literacy (a feeling vocabulary).
- Building in activities in order that he is able to understand his own bodily sensations (ie. Calming activities, breathing regulation, feeling ‘anxiety’ in which parts of his body)
- John took this one step further and had him, Carlos and another worker attend a yoga class once a week together for exercise and building on relaxation techniques.
- As Carlos enjoyed working with his hands, John bought a model airplane and they spent the next month working on building this together. This was an intentional attempt to build in scheduled one on one time in order to foster attachment.
- John also co-ordinated with the other workers to create fun ‘togetherness’ rituals around key times such as bedtime (reading a series together), games night, meals, and things he can anticipate: computer time, building the model airplane, shooting baskets etc.)
The team worked hard on fostering attachment, self-worth, and self-belief. They found that after a month, Carlos was starting to sleep better, he only yelled at John twice and didn’t even swear at him, and was starting to smile. He even went as far as putting his hand on John’s shoulder and saying thank you. These small steps forward were huge in Carlos’ life and marked the beginning of a healing journey. With continued input alongside further trauma specific strategies, one could expect Carlos to understand the need for formative relationships in his life. In our next publication, we will specifically address socialization and it’s critical need in Carlos’ life as well as enhance trauma-informed strategies for the classroom that will aid Carlos in feeling successful in school.
Bowlby J. Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1: Loss. New York: Basic Books; 1969.
Newman, B. and Newman P. Development through life. A psychosocial approach. Boston:Cengage Learning; 2018.