Yesterday was a historic day for the transgender community in the United States. After weeks of uncertainty here in North Carolina about how the federal government would respond to the passage of House Bill 2, a law that (among other things) makes it illegal for transgender individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch delivered an unequivocal statement that the Justice Department is invested in protecting transgender Americans from state-sanctioned discrimination. While others are discussing how this statement fits into the broader struggles for civil rights in the U.S., I want to focus on what parents, especially parents of children who have been bullied, isolated or traumatized, can learn from Lynch’s actions and demeanor about helping their kids feel safe, protected, and heard.
At Porch Light Counseling, we talk a lot about attachment. We’ve talked about it here and here and here and probably lots of other places I'm forgetting. Attachment is a way of describing the bond between a child and a caregiver that’s hard-wired in our brains and bodies in order to ensure the survival of our species. If babies weren’t wired to cry and reach out to get their needs met and caregivers weren’t wired to protect children and keep them safe, this human experiment would have ended long ago. Under the right conditions, a child forms a secure attachment with one or more caregivers and that secure attachment style lays the foundation for the child’s sense of safety in future relationships throughout their life. (No pressure, right?)
In her DARe Somatic Attachment Professional Trainings, Dr. Diane Poole Heller offers a list of characteristics that help develop a secure attachment. (Hint: These characteristics work to improve our connection with our partners too.)
What Helps Develop a Secure Attachment?
- Safe & Protective
- Unflappable Trust
- Affirming & Positive
- Consistent & Reliable
- Attuned & Resonant
- Reciprocity in Communication
- Welcoming & Affectionate
- Ease in Coming & Going
- Use of Repairs
Loretta Lynch demonstrated several of these items in her statements directed to the transgender community: “Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself. … [N]o matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward...It may not be easy – but we’ll get there together.”
Let’s look at just a few to see how they could apply to parents of marginalized kids.
Safe & Protective - Demonstrating to a child that their caregivers are themselves safe to be around and that they will protect the child from others who might harm them is critical to developing a secure attachment. This is especially important for children who feel unsafe at school or with peers. Creating a safe haven of comfort and protection at home can make a world of difference in a child’s mood and long-term attachment style.
Attuned & Resonant - Attunement is about “tuning in” to a child’s primary emotions on multiple levels, not just the cognitive exercise of recognizing what a child is feeling. Attunement calls for a deeper “state of alignment” between the adult’s emotions and child’s. Resonance is an outgrowth of this alignment of emotions and occurs in the non-verbal realm of sensations, memories, thoughts, and images. When we attune to a child’s feelings, they feel the resonance of that connection and experience themselves as more whole as a result of our joining with them. That’s no small thing to a kid who’s feeling completely alone 8 hours a day at school. (Read more about these concepts in Parenting from the Inside Out by Dr. Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell.)
Affirming & Positive - When children are told that their feelings aren’t real or don’t matter, or when well-meaning caregivers try to talk kids out of their hard feelings, the message the child often hears is that they don’t matter. Whether you agree with your child’s view of the situation or not, it never hurts to tell them that you understand how they got there and that they have a right to their feelings. Affirming their inherent worth and remaining positive toward them in the face of negativity can go a long way toward building a strong relationship with your child.
Consistent & Reliable - Caregivers who hope to maintain the trust of their children do so through applying these principles of secure attachment consistently. That doesn’t mean that parents have to be perfect and that their kids are doomed to a life of disconnection if they sometimes screw up. What it does mean is that kids are always watching to see if adults mean what they say. The best way to demonstrate your commitment to your child’s well-being is by showing up for them in a consistent and reliable way.
Through her words promising safety and protection, her voice conveying attunement and resonance, her acknowledgment validating feelings of fear and isolation, Lynch began to build trust with members of the transgender community. Just as so many parents find their relationships with their kids tested by intolerance, discrimination, and misunderstanding, her ability to remain consistent and reliable will be tested in the weeks to come.
How are you building secure attachment relationships? Tell us in the comments!
Heather Branham, LCSW, a therapist based in Asheville, NC, specializes in helping individuals, couples, and families navigate the complexities of gender identity and sexuality.