What Is Family Enmeshment? Is My Family Enmeshed?

The definition of family enmeshment is that family members are excessively involved in each other’s lives and find it hard, even impossible, to set boundaries. There is a strong desire to maintain close relationships, which in itself is not bad, but it has negative impacts.

It is like several lengths of wool, each representing a family member. The wool strands become tangled into masses of knots. With an enmeshed family each person in the family becomes entangled and the needs and identities of each individual get lost.

Enmeshed Families And Close Families Are Different.

This doesn’t mean that families can’t be close and healthy. There are families where family members are close. These families have strong bonds. The members of the family care for each other.

The difference between a close family and an enmeshed family is that in the close knit family there is respect of each individual and their personal space and independence. Individuals within a close family are encouraged to grow and make their own choices. There is no pressure for people to do things they don’t want to.

In the enmeshed family there is a blurring of the boundaries between individuals within the family. It becomes difficult for a member of such a family to make a decision or even have their own thoughts and feelings. Members of enmeshed families feel unable to make choices that the family won’t approve of, even when they really want to do something.

Are Enmeshed Families Codependent?

It is often believed that enmeshed families are in codependent relationship with each other. Certainly co-dependency and enmeshment are related and can happen in family relationships as well as other relationships but there is a difference.

Enmeshment is when two or more people become so involved in each other’s lives, relationships and decision making that they are unable to act autonomously. This has a negative effect on the mental health of the enmeshed people.

Codependent relationships are where two people, such as those in a romantic relationship, friends, parent and child rely on the other for emotional support, acceptance or identity.

Co-dependency may exist in an enmeshed family but then again it may not.

Cultural Impact Of Enmeshment.

In different cultures families can act differently. If the culture is one of autonomy and independence (individualistic) a healthy family will have well defined boundaries between family members. If the culture is one where being part of the group and more dependent on others is normal (collectivist culture), then a family that meets the definition of enmeshed is more likely to exist. In this setting, such a family is considered to be normal and healthy.

If the culture the family exists in is collectivist, family members will not suffer negative mental health impacts. However, if the family has emigrated to a country with a more individualistic culture, the family members may be more torn between the culture of their family and that of the society in which they are now living. This is particularly so with children.

When deciding if a family is enmeshed or not it is important to consider the culture of the family and the impact that enmeshment is having on the mental health of the family members.

In Enmeshed Families Roles Are Rigid.

Another thing seen in an enmeshed family is that family members will often have rigid roles within the family. Every family has roles for family members, but in a healthy family the roles can change over time.

Enmeshed families are often very intrusive. There is little privacy and interfering with another family member’s private thoughts and concerns is considered normal. This is because of the lack of boundaries between family members.

How To Spot Lack Of Boundaries

In such a family other signs of lack of boundaries can include:

• Over protective adults who control what children do and prevent them from anything that challenges them and allows them to grow. The adults may believe they are protecting the child but the motivation is often their own fears of something like that happening to them.

• Adults in the family system will micromanage their children and make decisions for them without any consultation.

• Manipulation is used to coerce the children to do what the adult wants. Guilt and Shame are often used to achieve this.

• Not respecting the privacy of children, often seen by going through their belongings, reading private writings, monitoring their activities and keeping tabs on what they are doing.

• Use the children for emotional support and validation.

• Set out to be the child’s “best friend” even when the child doesn’t want it.

• Not perceive the children as individuals who are growing up and striving for independence.

• Enforce family unity and prevent anything that threatens that such as something an individual may wish to do or outside relationships individuals may wish to have.

• Keep a strict cap on any conflict within the family. Individuals within an enmeshed family learn that keeping the peace is essential and there are negative consequences for disobeying that rule.

What Impact Does An Enmeshed Family Have On A Child?

Children in an enmeshed family are:

• Often very alert to their parent’s needs and emotions.

• Have trouble making decisions.

• Struggle to become independent as adults.

• If asked what their interests and values are they will always cite the family interests and values.

• Believe they must keep the family happy.

• Often are loners and don’t make friends because their emotional needs are met within the family.

• Find it hard to voice their own needs, again due to a need to maintain peace within the family.

• Become more emotional then is normal when there are family conflicts or crises

• As they grow older they often become financially and emotionally responsible for the care of their parents.

Why Does Enmeshment Occur In Some Families?

A lot of enmeshment happens because of parents being raised in enmeshed families. This is the only family structure one or both parents know. Parenting is usually based on what was learned during childhood. Unless the parent is aware their childhood family was enmeshed and was able to learn about other family models as well as learn how to set healthy boundaries, the pattern the parent will use in their family will be an enmeshed one.

Another cause could be if there were difficulties in the relationship a child had with their caregivers that resulted in what is known as an anxious attachment style. That style of attachment involves a need for excessive closeness and validation from others. If the childhood wounds are not resolved and the attachment style healed then it can result in the behaviours present in an enmeshed family.

Research has suggested that a parent who has poor mental health and is raising their children alone without healthy adult friendships is more likely to establish enmeshed relationships with her children. People in that situation often experienced their own trauma as children and consequently have a poor sense of self and have difficult regulating their emotions.

Crises in the environment, such as natural disasters and wars will increase the likelihood that the family members with look to each other for support and security. If the crisis is long term or resulted in traumatic impacts that are not healed then enmeshment can develop.

Is Enmeshment Bad?

Yes and no. members of enmeshed family value loyalty, belonging and emotionally supporting others. They also have deep interpersonal connections with other family members.

The negative is that family members, especially children raised in such a family, find it hard to set boundaries with others. They can find it hard to make decisions. They will also struggle being able to express their own needs and desires and set healthy boundaries around their needs and desires.

Another negative is that it can be difficult developing healthy relationships with others outside the family.

For adults in an enmeshed family there can be high levels of stress as they remain constantly vigilant maintaining control and closeness. Adults are also likely to struggle to maintain their own identity which impacts on their own mental health. It also impacts on their relationships with others both within and outside the family.

Conflict is another difficulty for enmeshed families. It may often lead to conflict being buried and these unresolved conflicts result in tension within the family that can become destructive. Family members, especially children, will struggle to learn healthy conflict resolution skills. This impacts mental health as well as impacting on the ability to learn healthy communication skills.

Does Enmeshment Cause Trauma?

Yes it can.

In heavily enmeshed families each family member is very involved in the emotional life of each other family member. This is difficult for children with their developing brains and developing emotional regulation skills. Being overloaded and overwhelmed by adult emotions without anyone to help the child understand what is being experienced, as well as emotionally regulate, impacts the child’s mental well being, both in childhood and later in adulthood.

Not knowing where you end and other family members start is also damaging. This impacts on the ability to form a sense of self. It impacts on the ability to set boundaries.

In a family where everyone’s business and feelings is everyone else’s it is very difficult to learn boundaries and to learn to say no or yes.

If a child doesn’t learn to set boundaries then it is very difficult to do so in adulthood.

Research shows that adults who grew up in enmeshed families and were traumatised by this, struggle with their mental health in adulthood. They may suffer depression and anxiety. They may also find it hard to form healthy, respectful relationships. They are more vulnerable to codependent relationships. They also struggle to separate their emotions and needs from those of others.

The Good News.

As with all trauma, it is possible to heal. It is not easy and it will take a long time for your brain to grow new, healthy connections, but it is possible.

The first step is recognising the enmeshment and what behaviours within the family are enmeshed behaviours and which are not problem behaviours.

• It is possible to learn who you are and learn where your boundaries are.

• It is possible to learn to assert those boundaries in a calm and healthy way.

• You can even learn to say no without feeling guilty!

• It is even possible to learn to set boundaries with your family. It may not always be possible to set boundaries without cutting off contact with your family, that will depend on how mentally healthy individual members are, but you can learn to set limits on contact so that it is healthy and you learn how to heal from this.

• You can learn what is normal family and relationship behaviour and be able to set healthy boundaries around future relationships as well as existing ones. You can also learn to recognise unhealthy relationships that may need to end.

What Other Things Can You Do To Learn Who You Are And Heal?

A competent counsellor who is trained in mindfulness can teach you mindfulness and how to use this to understand the feelings and emotions you experience.

• With this skill you can be taught how to regulate your emotions.

• With mindfulness you can start exploring the things that matter to you, what your values are, what you believe in.

• You can get to know yourself and what you are passionate about. You can recognise the things that really interest you.

• You can learn how to be curious and how to try new things.

• You can learn to connect with others in a healthy way and “find your tribe” who understand you and support you.

• You can learn to be kind to yourself.

Getting Help.

When you have been raised in the difficult environment of an enmeshed family it can be hard to learn what is normal and what is dysfunctional.

It can also be difficult to know how to learn more healthy behaviours.

This is where seeing a counsellor who is skilled in those areas can be helpful.

Can I Help?

I am trained in mindfulness and in trauma counselling. I use mindfulness always in my work with people. If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your family enmeshment, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with helpful information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

Learning To Feel What Seems Unfeelable

I often write about the importance of learning to feel into your body. It is in your body that the keys to unlock the things that hold you back can be found.

I always write this knowing that it is possible to learn to do this, as I have done. But I am also aware it is not easy to reach there. It is virtually impossible without the assistance of a trauma trained counsellor.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a blog by a trauma yoga teacher.

She wrote about leading a yoga and meditation class in the mental health ward of a hospital. Her clients were people with dissociative disorders.

Feeling Into Your Body Is Something You Have To Learn To Do

Having learned, as I have, to be able to feel into her body in safety, she realised she had to allow for the difficulty these people experienced feeling into their bodies. When you have unresolved trauma from the past it is very hard to feel into your body where all those unprocessed and very scary memories are stored.

This experience forced the teacher to explore how to bring attention inside without being so frightened that you dissociate. She explored how to bring attention inside without feeling like you are floating, disconnected from your internal and external environment.

Being In The External World Is Easy, But Go Into Your Internal World And It Becomes Very Hard

We find it so easy to get angry or irritated by people in our external world, why is it so hard to turn out attention internally to situations in our past that hurt us?

Why is it that we can be courageous in the world around us, but when we come to look in side ourselves and allow us to feel what we find there, we are terrified?

Every Child Needs An Adult Who Loves Them And Can Teach Them How To Self Regulate

If you never had an adult in your childhood who was able to attune to you. Able to teach you how to make sense of what was going on in your body. Able to help you learn how to regulate your emotions so that your internal world is not terrifying. Then how could you learn?

When you lacked someone to guide and teach you then how do you navigate your internal environment?

Trauma Trained Counsellors Learn How To Do This

This is what a trauma trained counsellor knows to do. I have learned how to connect those broken pieces inside. How to piece your body, mind and heart together so that you can feel safe to look inside yourself.

I know these techniques work because I used them myself to learn.

All those trapped memories need to be processed. Until you learn the skills and have someone skilled to walk beside you and help you, you will not be able to process this trauma. And it will cripple your life.

Childhood Memories Of Trauma Are Frightening

Those memories are frightening. They hurt. They are full of a child trying to understand a very frightening world. There is a deep sense of shame, of being wrong. Of thinking that what happened was your fault and because there was something wrong with you.

There is despair at never seeming to get any better. There is rage at the unfair things being done to you. There is hurt that someone who should care for you can do this. There is disappointment that no matter what you try, nothing gets better.

All these terrifying memories are the reason you become numb. Feeling them is terrifying so blanketing them, freezing them, dulling them is the only way to survive. And because they are still there your body reacts to them in the only way it can.

How Your Body Reacts To The Pain

You get terrible fear and pain from these memories.

You get anxious, depressed, you do whatever you can to shut down the memories.

You take pills, you drink too much alcohol, you try an array of drugs, you go on spending sprees, you do any behaviour that is repetitive to drown out those horrible memories and feelings of deep shame and unworthiness.

What You Need

What you need is someone to teach you how to manage those emotions. How to release the feelings of unworthiness, exclusion and shame. How to release these harmful feelings.

You need to take it slowly. To only visit those memories when you have the skills to calm yourself.

Yes you can reach a point where you can make the choice to be who you want to be. A place where you know how to respond to calm yourself. Where you know how to respond to not put yourself in a fight/flight/freeze state. And I can help you with that learning.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your childhood trauma, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with helpful information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

The Real Impact of Trauma

It is one thing to process memories of trauma, but it is an entirely different matter to confront the inner void – the holes in the soul that result from not having been wanted, not having been seen, and not having been allowed to speak the truth. If your parents’ faces never lit up when they looked at you, it’s hard to know what it feels like to be loved and cherished. If you come from an incomprehensible world filled with secrecy and fear, its almost impossible to find the words to express what you have endured. If you grew up unwanted and ignored, it is a major challenge to develop a visceral sense of agency and self worth.” ~ Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score

This quote from the book The Body Keeps The Score, by Bessel van der Kolk has always hit home for me.

It is such a powerful summary of the impact of abuse, neglect, lack of attunement, poor attachment, emotionally unavailable parents, narcissistic parents and more that include the range of wounds that comprise childhood trauma.

It is horrible to not be wanted. It is devastating to not be seen. The wounds left by never been greeted by your parents with love and lit up faces are immense.
When all those things happen the child feels like they don’t exist. They feel unsafe. The feel they have to fight for their survival. They learn to people please and fawn to be given the tiny bit of attention needed to survive. They do things that make them feel ashamed and cripple them in adulthood with shame. They learn to feel like a nothing. To have no way to express their fear, sorrow, anger and more.

My Own Experience

I understand this because that was my childhood. I was never wanted and was told that often. I was deliberately ignored. There were never any proud parents watching my achievements as a child. There were never words of congratulation around the dinner table at night.

I never knew what it was like to be greeted by someone whose face lit up when they saw me, that is until I met my husband. The things my parents did to me were never discussed.

In adulthood when I tried to discuss them with my parents and my siblings there was a wall of silence. My mother constructed a narrative to dismiss my recollections as me being neurotic, or over exaggerating, or making a mountain out of a tiny molehill.

I have had to fight very hard to heal from that. To learn that I am worthy, that I do have a sense of agency, that I matter. I have learned to feel safe, to learn to trust others, to fearlessly speak my truth.

Because I have done that, I know you can too. It is scary. It is hard to trust. Progress can seem so agonisingly slow. But you will get there. You can heal.

As well as my own lived experience, I have studied extensively the latest research on trauma and the best practice approaches to heal trauma. I have helped countless people heal from their trauma, and I can help you too.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your childhood pain and trauma, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with helpful information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

I didn’t think I had an abusive childhood, but now I realise I did

Do you need other people to validate the things you do?

Do you need the approval of others?

Do you find it hard making decisions for yourself?

Do you find it hard feeling self-reliant?

Do you find it hard to regulate your emotions?

Are you really hard on yourself?

Do you feel you have little or no worth?

Do you do things to numb your emotional pain?

Are you frightened of rejection and abandonment?

Do you feel you are stuck in angry mode?

Do you find it hard to feel joy or peace?

Do you find it hard to get close to other people?

Do you feel lonely and seek out others to compensate for your loneliness?

Do you feel lost, misunderstood or that you don’t fit in and others are judging you for that?

Do you frequently feel anxious or depressed?

Are you frightened of social situations and fear being rejected.

Do you feel others judge you as not being good enough?

Do you feel empowered in your life?

How childhood experiences can impact you as an adult

Did you know that trauma in childhood has a significant impact on your self-worth?

If your sense of safety and belonging in childhood was damaged you are likely to have developed skills to keep you safe in that situation. As you grew up you may never have unlearned those skills, so they trap you in patterns that don’t serve you in adulthood.

Also, poor attachment between your parents and you puts you at risk of suffering from loneliness in adulthood.

Traumatic experiences in your childhood disrupt how you see your self as a person and affect your ability to regulate your emotions. All this impacts on the quality of the interpersonal relationships you have later in life.

My parents didn’t physically or sexually abuse me. I can’t have suffered trauma.

It can be hard to understand you have been traumatised in childhood. The usual picture of trauma is that of being hit or sexually abused. But trauma covers much more than just that. In fact, the worst traumas are emotional and psychological.


Neglect is a trauma that is often overlooked. With neglect the child’s physical and emotional needs are frequently overlooked. It may involve not receiving regular meals, not having clean clothes to wear, not having your emotional needs for comfort and support met. A parent who rarely interacts or shows an interest in you is also neglectful.

Neglectful parents are also unlikely to be there to teach you skills of emotional regulation. They may not teach you how to wash yourself, how often to change your clothes.

It is unlikely a neglectful parent will see you and spend time connecting to you. This is known as attunement. A child who is not seen is a child who is not safe. Not being safe is extremely traumatic.

The clear message in this situation is that you have no worth or value. After all, you are not worth having any time or attention given to you.

Narcissistic Parent

Narcissistic parents are also very destructive of a child’s sense of self-worth.

Such a parent depends on the child to make them feel good. The child gets positive attention when they do things that serve the parent. The trouble is, there are no clear guidelines as to what the child needs to do to serve the parent. Consequently, the child lives life second guessing the parent in order to feel that the parent will care for them and they will be safe.

Narcissistic parents will also often shame their children in front of others. They will expect their child to meet their needs, to do things to make them proud. They will never teach their child any skills that will equip them for adulthood and self-reliance.

Narcissistic parents will often hold the child close to serve their needs. They want the child to stay dependent on them because the child is there to serve their needs and that is why they had them.

One classic example is of a woman who would take her child to school. The child would happily run into the classroom and greet her friends. The mother would call her back and make a fuss of her, stating it was okay for mummy to leave now and she would be okay. The child would go back to her friends and be happily talking with them. Again, the mother would call her back. This would continue until the child’s resolve was broken and she would wail and beg her mother not to leave her.

A narcissistic parent is one of the most destructive types of parent and sentence their children to mental poor health and a dependence on validation from others in adulthood.

Complex PTSD and Borderline personality disorder

These conditions develop because of chronic trauma experienced in childhood. The type of trauma most associated with these conditions is emotional abuse and invalidation. It can happen if you are neglected or have a narcissistic parent. It can also happen from other types of abuse and invalidation.

Sometimes parents are not aware that their behaviour towards their children is invalidating and can be surprised when their child develops this disorder in adulthood.

When a parent is emotionally abusive or invalidating during a child’s early years it impacts on the child’s sense of self and the child can struggle to have a strong sense of self.

You may develop self-defeating attitudes and beliefs around yourself and the trustworthiness of the world.

When raised in such an environment it is also difficult to learn to regulate your emotions. This is often due to your parents being unable to regulate their emotions. How can you teach another person how to regulate their emotions if you can’t do it yourself.

For this reason, I encourage people who had difficult childhoods to seek counselling from a trauma trained professional before having children. Many parents who were emotionally abused as children are determined their own children will never have to go through that. But sometimes things your children do can trigger reactions in you that you can’t control and don’t like doing. If you find raising your children triggers behaviours you struggle to control then seek counselling. Seeking help makes you a good parent.

Unstable and intense relationships

If you find that any type of relationship you have with others tends to be intense and over time unstable then you may be experiencing the impacts of chronic trauma in childhood. Sometimes these relationships happen because you are uncomfortable being alone and seek out anyone who looks willing to be in a relationship with you. This can result in you unconsciously choosing the wrong type of person to have a relationship with.

Sometimes when you are in a relationship you can sabotage it by clinging to the person and unwittingly pushing them away.

I think you are the best, I hate you patterns

Another impact of childhood trauma can be seen in meeting someone new and idealising them. This continues for some time then you start devaluing them and finding things wrong with them.

You are too hard on yourself

One of the saddest impacts of childhood trauma is the lack of self-worth and lack of self-compassion.

It is not surprising that children develop these beliefs. When a parent is abusive, or expects you to jump over hoops to gain their approval, the natural response is to believe this is because you are a bad person. If your parent constantly tells you that you are bad then this belief is reinforced.

The reality is that a child is just a child learning how to live life. There is no inherent badness in a child. Sadly a child doesn’t know that. Shame becomes a big part of the life of an abused child.

Ways to dull the pain

If you never learned how to regulate your emotions, and you believe you are a bad person, then you feel great pain that you don’t know how to soothe.

Many people turn to behaviours that numb the pain. These behaviours may be dangerous. A good example of this is children who steal cars then drive them dangerously at high speed. The risk and dangers inherent in this activity help to suppress their pain.

Other things people do include addictions such as substance abuse, smoking or vaping, gambling, compulsive shopping, sex addiction, exercise addiction and eating disorders.

I am lonely

If you don’t feel you are worth anything then you may not feel you are likeable. The result is that you may avoid getting close to others so that they can’t reject you.

Getting close to another person means exposing yourself to the rejection of your parents. If they rejected you, then other people will too.

When you do form relationships with others you may be frightened of expressing your needs or asking for help because your parents failed to meet those needs when you were a child. So you may feel even lonelier because you can’t turn to someone for help.

Many people who suffered trauma in childhood report feeling lonely.

Depression and Anxiety

It is very common for someone traumatised as a child to be anxious. Your childhood was an anxious time of never being sure when you would receive support, or whether you may be abused. Abusers are rarely predictable so hypervigilance was an essential part of childhood.

Hypervigilance leads to anxiety. There is the need to be constantly on your guard because you never know what is going to happen in the next minute. You never know when things will suddenly become dangerous and frightening.

When you grow up and things become safer the fear doesn’t go away because your brain has developed neural pathways that constantly scan for danger. This is why anxiety is a constant companion of the traumatised child.

Depression is another consequence of this type of childhood. Many people report feeling depressed from childhood. The sense of not being good enough, the lack of self-worth, being emotionally worn down with anxiety and fear, the rejection and abandonment of parents and the sense of never being safe all contribute to feeling overwhelmed and hopeless and lead into depression.

I constantly feel on edge

The environment of neglect and emotional abuse is a highly stressful environment. Children in this situation are being impacted regularly by the release of stress hormones in the body. This has an impact on the developing brain and will often result in an adult who is highly sensitive to stress hormones.

The result is that your brain is in a constant state of defending yourself. In other words the fight/flight/freeze response.

It is very difficult to cope with life if your brain is constantly seeing danger and you spend a lot of time with your brain taking over your life and deciding whether you are to fight, run away, or freeze.

When this defence mechanism takes over, your thinking brain switches off. You can’t control your reactions. Sadly, very few people understand this and you may find yourself judged when you get stuck in this defence response.

It is for this reason that it is important to seek counselling from a qualified trauma counsellor.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your childhood trauma, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with helpful information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

The complicated journey of grief

Dealing with grief is overwhelming.

As you try to come to terms with your grief it can feel so hard to do. Being able to verbalise what you are feeling and experiencing can be so difficult to accomplish that many people never process their grief to that depth.

Grief is complex, overwhelming and unsettling.

The 5 stages of death belief

Back in the 70s it was thought that grief was processed in a straight line. There was a five stage process that you went through in that order. According to this theory you were supposed to experience the stages of:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Later an extra stage was added:

  1. Meaning

This was a theory formed to describe the process of dying, not the process of grief.

So much harm was done to people who weren’t grieving according to the rigid stages structure. Even today, there are those who adhere to this long defunct theory.

The effects of grief are more complex than a simple linear theory.

The tasks of grieving

There have been many theories of death proposed since then. In many of the theories it was suggested there were “tasks” to be completed during the grieving process.

One of the most popular theories gives four tasks:

  1. Accept the reality of the loss
  2. Process the pain of grief
  3. Adjust to a world without the one you lost
  4. Find an enduring connection with the person in the midst of embarking on a new life.

The tasks in themselves aren’t wrong. But a rigid adherence to them is not helpful when you are grieving.

Oscillating between grief and life

More recently the Dual Process Model has become popular. In this theory you oscillate between loss oriented mode and restoration oriented mode. This model has great validity. You need to keep living so you do have to live in the real world and there are tasks of living you still need to do. Additionally you need to learn how to live in the world without the one you love. You also need to process the loss so you need to spend time and allow yourself to experience and accept the emotional pain of your loss.

But there is more to understanding grief than oscillating from loss and restoration.

Multidimensional Grief Theory

In 2023 a paper was released describing Multidimensional Grief Theory (MGT). This theory relates to children aged 7-18 who are grieving. According to the theory there are three dimensions of grief. They are:

• Separation Distress

• Existential/identity distress

• Circumstance-related distress

Although this is aimed at children, my reading of the theory is that it can be applied to adults as well.

Separation Distress

Separation distress is not just an emotional reaction. It also involves areas of the brain where attachments to other people form. When someone close dies, there is a time of that area of the brain removing and altering neural networks connected to that person.

The big issue with separation distress is finding a way to feel connected to the person you are grieving for, even when they are gone.

Existential and Identity exploration

Every time you lose a loved one, there is a period of redefining yourself. This happens because every person you are connected to helps you define who you are. When one person dies, especially if they were very important in your life, you have to redefine who you are.

Every loss is a challenge existentially. I have found this is greater when it is the first time you have encountered the death of someone you know.

The way they died

The last dimension of grief relates to the circumstances of that person’s death. How do you think and feel about the way they died? How do you learn to accept that?

These three dimensions of grief have a major impact on how well you process grief and incorporate it into your life.

The importance of understanding what is happening to you

You may wonder why I am giving you all this information.

It is important you understand what is happening to you. When people talk about you being in denial or anger you can understand this is an outmoded theory on dying that was misapplied to grief.

If someone talks to you about tasks you must complete you can understand what they are referring to.

You are more likely to hear about the dual process model if you visit me and I will explain how you sometimes are overwhelmed by grief and other times focused on daily tasks and learning to live after your loss.

As for MGT, I am also likely to discuss with you the impact on your brain of the separation from the one you love. I will also at some stage explore the existential and identity aspects of your loss. You may also want to talk about how your loved one died so I will most likely explore your perception of that with you.

To Summarise

Grief is a complicated journey. There is a lot to process and a lot of physical changes in your brain to be completed. You need to learn how to live in the world now they are gone. You need to learn who you are. You also need to process your feelings around the manner of their death. Sometimes you will want to talk, other times cry, and maybe other times process your feelings through expressive activities such as poetry, painting, sandplay, or journalling.

This journey takes time, so don’t rush it. Be okay for it to take as long as it needs to.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your grief journey, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with helpful information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

Breaking The Cycle Of Unhealthy Relationships

Many people come to see me reporting a history of failed relationships. Some find they keep choosing the wrong person, who treats them badly. Others report not understanding why their relationships fail. Others have a history of seeing many therapists, seeing each one for a period of time, then moving to another therapist with no resolution of their difficulties.

All report being dissatisfied with their relationship histories but don’t know what to do about it. They feel stuck and unable to change the way things are happening.

I Am Not Good Enough

A lot of the time, when I explore with them their feelings about themselves they will report feeling not good enough. Often they believe they are not worth anything better.

Often they are looking for the perfect parent to fill the void left by less than perfect parenting that left them traumatised. This happens especially with friendships and therapists.

Insecure Attachment And Poor Attunement

For these people, they have not formed a secure attachment relationship with their parents in childhood. They will also have had parents who were not attuned to them. This leaves the child feeling unsafe and invisible.

This may not seem like a big issue, but this happens at a time when the child’s brain is developing. When the child’s template of relationships, their view of the world, their view of themselves is developing.

Attachment Is

Research has shown that human babies have an inbuilt need for secure attachment. If a parent cannot meet a baby’s needs, then the baby will die. For that reason, it is vital a baby can trust that their parent will feed them, change them, hold them when they are scared or in pain. In short, the baby needs to trust that their parent will keep them safe and alive.

This continues as the baby grows into a child. A child still needs care and protection.

This is what is referred to as attachment.

If a child does not have a secure attachment with its parents, then it is not safe. That is terrifying for a child.

Attunement Is

Attunement is a measure of how well a caregiver understands the child and is able to meet their needs, especially emotional needs. It means the parent seeks to understand why the child is crying, or acting out.

Instead of judging the parent may seek to understand what is wrong with the child. Are they tired, hungry, upset about something, unwell?

To be understood, to be attuned to, is to be seen. If you are seen then you are more likely to have your survival needs met. If you are not seen you are invisible and then you are at risk of dying because you will not be cared for.

It is worth noting that the parent who spends their time on their mobile phone instead of looking at their child and interacting with them is at risk of exhibiting poor attunement with the child.

If You Can’t Spend Time Caring For Me or Seeing Me Then I Am Not Worthwhile

Lack of attunement is a terrifying situation.

Insecure attachment is a terrifying situation.

They leave the child with the message that they are not worth anything because their parents don’t take the time to attend to their needs, seek to understand them or notice them.

Physical, sexual and emotional abuse can also leave a child feeling they are not worthy of love, that they are not good enough, that they are not worth anything better. I will talk about those issues more in other blogs.

I Am Not Worth Anything And Counselling

This is the situation many people who come to see me find themselves in. They were not worth enough to be securely attached or attuned to their parents.

People come to see me because they want help to feel better in relationships with other people. They want to have successful relationships. They want to have relationships with people who they can feel safe with.

But when there is a history of insecure attachment and lack of attunement it can be hard to work with a counsellor. If all other relationships are unsatisfactory, how can you be sure the counsellor will be a safe person to work with?

The Therapeutic Relationship (Alliance)

Counselling is a relationship referred to as the Therapeutic Alliance. Research has shown that the relationship between you and your counsellor is responsible for the majority of healing that takes place.

When you come to see me, the relationship we have will be a model of a secure relationship. The difficulty is, can you trust that the relationship is secure? When all you have known is insecure relationships, can you be sure I will give you the secure relationship you crave?

The Therapeutic Alliance Must Be A Secure Relationship

I can give you that secure relationship, but will you allow me to?

Growing up in an insecure relationship is terrifying. Children know intrinsically what they need. They can’t name it, but they will seek what they need.

A child who cannot trust relationships will constantly look for evidence that the person they are relating to cannot be trusted. Often, to avoid the pain of failed relationships the child will end a relationship before the other person can end it. This happens even when the other person is committed to the relationship.

Bids For Attention

As humans, we make constant “bids for attention” from the people we are in relationship with. As adults those bids are usually fairly subtle, but if those bids are not met, they can become more obvious, even angry.

For a child, who lacks the skills of an adult, the bids for attention are more extreme. The child may misbehave, break things, yell at the adult. They will do whatever it takes to get attention. This is because it is only when they get attention that they can know they are seen.

You have no doubt heard the saying “any attention is better than no attention”. The ignored child doesn’t want the bad attention, but if that is all they can get they will seek it.

The trouble is, the bad attention doesn’t meet the child’s needs fully.

The Traumatised Child In An Adult Body

As the child grows up, the small traumatised child who was desperate to feel safe and get their needs met is still there.

Normally, as we grow into adulthood, we learn new behaviours to replace the old behaviours. Then we behave in ways that help us to form and maintain relationships.

But for the child whose childhood needs were never met, those behaviours that worked temporarily in childhood don’t get an opportunity to transform into adult behaviours.

I see this often in my work. The small child, desperate to feel safe and get their needs met, demanding attention, demanding control, unable to consider others or collaborate with them. That adult with the small child behaviours is often labelled narcissistic, selfish, even aggressive. Yet they are not a true narcissist. They are just a child who lacks the nuanced skills of an adult.

How I Work

In my work I seek to heal the child and allow the adult self to take control. That is the way for you to feel safe in life. For you to have those relationships you crave. The way for you to feel worthwhile, safe and seen.

But for you, working with me is dangerous and scary. How can you trust me?

Therapy Is No Quick Fix

Healing the pain of your childhood will take a long time. Additionally, I will work with areas of your life your traumatised child is desperate to protect. I need to work with those areas, because they are what is holding you trapped in unsuccessful relationships. And you need to be able to let me do that.

It takes a long time to work through childhood trauma.

I will use many different approaches to help you work through this.

You may want me to wave a magic wand and fix you instantly. You may want me to work the way you decide, even though it is not a way that will help you. You may get frightened and decide you don’t want to be healed. You may know that you don’t want healing, or you may convince yourself that you just want another approach, or another therapist will meet your needs better.

Communication Between You And Me Is Vital

It is important we both communicate well.

I will tell you how I envisage working with you and ask you if you are okay with that.

I will explain things to you and review often to see if you are happy with the direction therapy is taking and discuss different approaches we can take for each stage of treatment.

You can help by telling me about your feelings and concerns so I can hear you and meet your needs.

When we communicate well with each other, then we can plan your therapy to best help you heal.

Therapy Is Long Term

Don’t expect this to be quick.

It is quite likely we will work towards a goal and you will then stop therapy for a time while you learn to live with this new goal. Over time you may find another area that needs attending to. Then you will either come back to me or to another therapist to do more work.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your difficulties, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with interesting information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

7 Words of Advice When Seeking Trauma Healing

If you have trauma in your past. Trauma that is impacting how you are in the world today. You will likely at some stage seek counselling.

Maybe you already have been to counselling.

Maybe you found it helpful, but now feel you need more.

Maybe you thought your counselling was amazing then became scared because you felt useless and the counsellor seemed so capable in life. You may have then decided to stop going.

Maybe you became frightened they would treat you like everyone else had in the past so you ran away from counselling, frightened of imagined judgement.

Maybe later you searched for another counsellor, only to eventually decided to stop seeing them also.

Maybe you heard about or read about some different treatment and grabbed on to that as the miracle cure. When you pursued that cure, maybe you found it helped a little was certainly no miracle cure.

Maybe you have despaired of ever healing this past trauma.

Here are some words of advice for you.

1. First Word of Advice

You’ve got this. You can do it. Yes, your life may well be a mess, or you feel it is, but you can do it. The fact you are here, reading this, speaks volumes for how much you are capable of.

2. Make Sure The Counsellor You See Is Properly Trained

It is important to check out the credentials of the person you are seeing. Are they trauma trained? Blue Knot Foundation is the peak body for trauma treatment in Australia. Has this counsellor completed training through Blue Knot Foundation?

3. Do Your Research

Once you have established that this counsellor has completed this training, you may like to look at their website, social media page/s, or talk to them. Do you think the way they work will suit you?

4. Stick With The Therapy

So you decide to see this counsellor. The important thing to do now is to stick with the therapy. Yes it will be expensive. Yes, the initial session particularly will feel scary. After all, all new experiences are leaps into the unknown and therefore scary.

5. You Are There For The Long Haul

Don’t expect to see your counsellor for a few sessions then finish. Trauma therapy takes a long time.

6. Therapy Is No Walk In The Park. But It Shouldn’t Be A Trip To The House Of Terrors

Therapy will get hard at times. And you may feel you want to stop, but discuss this with your counsellor first, unless your traumatic memories are becoming overwhelming and your counsellor seems disinterested or unable to help you with this, stick with it.

7. You Will Build A Relationship With Your Counsellor

One of the really scary parts of therapy is the relationship you develop with your counsellor. This is known as the Therapeutic Alliance and it is the foundation of all counselling work.

What Childhood Has Taught You About Relationships

It is rare for someone who has experienced childhood trauma to have a secure attachment with their primary caregiver. Secure attachment is where you feel you are safe, secure and that your caregiver understands you and cares about what you are going through. You are confident that this person will always protect you and that you will always be safe. This relationship builds a template for future relationships, where you expect all people you meet to be safe and secure.

If your primary caregiver is not able to protect you, or is the one who is traumatising you, you are likely to develop an insecure attachment style. You don’t expect to be safe, to be secure or to be comforted by this person.

This also builds an expectation of future relationships. If the person who is supposed to love and care for you doesn’t, then you don’t expect others in life to do that same.

The Therapeutic Alliance

When you come to a counsellor, you are going to form a relationship with them. This is often referred to as the Therapeutic Alliance. It is the way you and the counsellor work together. It is your expectation of being believed, supported, accepted, safe and comforted.

Acceptance is a major part of the therapeutic alliance. It is often referred to as unconditional positive regard. It means that I, your therapist, accept you as you are. I don’t judge you. I don’t look at you and think you are defective or unacceptable. I look at you with acceptance. Whatever you do I seek to understand and accept.

If I don’t accept you, then it will be impossible for us to work together. How can you work with someone who doesn’t think you are acceptable?

What if I Expect All Relationships To Fail?

When your expectation of relationships is that they will fail you, it is hard to learn to trust your counsellor. You may work happily with me for a while. But then your past difficulties with relationships will start to niggle.

You will feel that all people have let you down and you will start to feel that I will let you down too.

It is important to discuss this with me. Because I will continue to accept you. I am very aware of the fears you have around relationships. I want you to learn that you can have safe, secure relationships and I want to model this for you.

You Can Learn How To Have A Secure Relationship

Did you know you can learn to have safe relationships. That you can learn to trust. That there are people in life with whom you can have safe relationships. That you can learn to find those people and believe you are worth a good relationship?

As you learn to love yourself more, to learn your worth, to be able to set healthy boundaries and say no, you will develop confidence in your ability to have healthy relationships with others, including your counsellor.

Of course, this learning goes hand in hand with the work on healing your trauma. But remember, trauma wounds impact many areas of your functioning. It is not just the actual trauma but your sense of self, boundaries, worth, trust and the ability to have relationships that is impacted.

Trauma Treatment Takes More Than Just A Few Sessions

Remember, trauma treatment is long term. You may see a counsellor for a while, complete some healing, then take time to consolidate and allow your brain to absorb the changes. Then you may go back to the same or another counsellor for more therapy. This is ongoing. But each time you engage with therapy you heal another area of trauma.

There are techniques that can help heal some areas, but there will be many areas to heal and your brain needs to grow new neural networks. You also need to learn how to be as a person with all the changes. As I have already mentioned, you need to learn to set boundaries, to see your true worth and more.

There Are No Miracle Cures

Remember, there are no miracle cures, but there are techniques that can help you along the way with your healing. Some of the techniques that I use that can give you relief fairly rapidly and assist you with your healing journey are EFT and EMDR. They are best combined with other methods to help you learn new ways of being.

You may feel that you don’t make much progress in sessions, but believe me, you do make progress. Slow and steady progress is how you will heal your trauma. You have to be able to replace the old trauma networks in your brain with new healthy networks. You cannot have a vacuum there where you have removed a trauma impact and have no new behaviours to replace it with. That is why slow and steady works better.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your trauma healing, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with interesting information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

The Legacy of Grief

Neuroscientific advances have led to the identification of attachment neural networks in our brains. These networks create bonds with the people in your life.

Grief impacts on many aspects of brain function. From a neuroscientific perspective, grief is the action of the brain to build new networks and dismantle old ones to accommodate the loss of people in you life.

The Impact In Your Life

You recall memories of the person you have lost. So many people report the difficulties of bitter sweet memories.

You used to share information with that person and it helped you gain perspective. It enriched the experiences you shared. Many people tell me they no longer enjoy the things they used to do because the experience of doing something on their own is lacking the perspective of the person they used to do it with.

Grief can leave you feeling no longer in control of your feelings and reactions to things. You may find yourself crying uncontrollably, seemingly unable to stop. You may find yourself feeling angry at anything and unable to stop those feelings. You may find making decisions overwhelming.

Then there is pain. That pain may feel physical but your doctor can find no cause for it. But the experience of physical pain occurs in the same part of the brain as the experience of emotional pain. And your body experiences emotions in various parts of the body. Not surprising then that the strong emotions of grief can cause physical pain.

The Experience of Grief

The pain and confusion are horrible. It is not surprising if you want to run away from them. Equally, you may feel numb and want to do anything to feel something.

All this pain, confusion and numbness can only be managed by moving through it. Eventually the worst of it will over and you will learn to live with what is left.

You are walking a tightrope over the gulf of loss and everlasting memories of that person.

Losing You

Your sense of self is totally disrupted. This is not surprising because you gain your sense of self from your relationships with others. If one who deeply mattered is gone, who are you? You need a new identity.

Identity can be tied with another person in many ways.

  1. The relationship you had with them: partner, parent, child, friend.
  2. Your identity in relationship with that person. Were you a parent and now you are not? Did you care for the person before they died and now they are gong you are not a person who cares for another?
  3. How do you perceive yourself as a parent without a child, or with one less? How do you perceive yourself as a person without parents or a parent? How do you perceive yourself as single? You had a relationship with the person who has died and who you were in that relationship no longer exists.

The Only Way Out

One thing you will eventually discover is that facing grief is the way out of this time of deep grieving.

When you learn to face grief and experience it you will learn how to reorganise yourself and your life to include your grief in it.

What You Can Do

Be gentle, self compassionate and open to seeking help from other people. Don’t turn away those who want to support you. It is okay to occasionally say you need a break from people, but do allow people in when you are able to.

Be willing to learn how to cope. Draw on what you already know and learn new strategies. You may find it beneficial to see a Grief Counsellor to assist you with this.

A Wise Perspective From An Old Woman

I wanted to finish on a wonderful perspective shared with me a long time ago.

A lovely woman who saw me some years ago had experienced much grief during her life. Now in her final years she was coming to terms with the losses of close friends as many came to the end of their lives.

At the end of our sessions together, she reflected on a lifetime of grief and rejoiced that she could remember all the wonder of each relationship and the precious memories she had of those times.

She reflected that at the time each loss was so painful. She had grieved so much for each one. She thought she would never feel better. But she was able to move on with the sweetness of that loss as a precious bitter sweet memory.

Now looking back on her life, she could see how precious each person was and how the relationships had been vital parts of her life. Each relationship had given her life a richness and meaning that far outweighed the pain of losing them. For that she was grateful.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your grief, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with interesting information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

What is my brain doing when I grieve?

In my last blog I shared the range of experiences people report in the aftermath of bereavement.

Today I want to share about what is happening in the brain in grief.

Before I do that, it is important to acknowledge that grief is not just about the death of someone close to you. It is also about losing a body part, losing freedom, losing a job, losing good health, losing a relationship, moving house, moving to a new area/country and so on.

What is the brain doing in grief?

In the immediate aftermath of your loss, your brain perceives the distress you are experiencing as a threat to your survival and springs into defence mode. You are suddenly in a highly activated stress state. The state where you body switches into fight or flight mode. This is why many people in the early stages of grief are unable to sit still but instead need to pace backwards and forwards, or even run away.

Other symptoms of this defence mode include:

• an inability to sleep,

• being unable to think clearly or make decisions,

• total loss of appetite,

• Being numb or feeling things are unreal,

• Being hypervigilant to reminders of your loss,

• Dizziness, trembling, racing heartbeat, gastro-intestinal upset,

• Difficulty concentrating,

• Forgetting things,

• Finding it difficult to regulate your feelings.

Long term brain work

After the acute grief period your defence systems in your brain will settle down. But you will still experience many of the same symptoms. So what is happening?

Learning is what is happening.

Any change in circumstances results in changes in the brain. The brain has to develop new neural pathways and close down others. This is how learning shows up in the brain.

The brain’s internal map

I have heard it likened to walking through your house at night. Most people can navigate around the house fairly well in dim light. Your brain has an internal map of the layout of the space so that you avoid bumping into things.

In this map, your brain will alert you to what is there.

Have you ever experienced walking into a space and noticing something is not there? Then you wonder how long it has been missing because you can’t actually remember when you last saw it. The chances are this item has just gone missing. When things are familiar you tend not to notice them. But when they are not there you suddenly notice.

When items are missing from the brain’s map

This is very similar to what your brain does with people in your life. You are used to seeing certain people and don’t even have to think about them being there, because they always are. Every time you see them, your brain releases a feel good chemical, oxytocin. But if they are not there, then you notice their absence and you no longer get the oxytocin dose.

Some of the difficulty in grief is that you brain keeps noticing the one you love is not there. And it hurts.

Your brain relates to the people in your life

Your brain will change the way you relate to the person who is dead. This is learning. Your brain can create new pathways to hold the memory of the person you love, to remember their absence, and to feel the grief at their departure from your life.

While you are grieving, your brain is learning. It is learning how to transform the relationship you have with the one you have lost so that they are not in your life anymore but the love you have for them, and your memories of them, still exist.

Why does it take so long? Why is it so hard to accept the reality of the person being out of your life?

New neural pathways take time to grow. And there is a lot of growth needed to transform your memory of the person who is gone from present reality to a memory.

The neural connection with the people you love

You form neural pathways that link you to the person you love. The bond you have carries with it the understanding that you will both be there for each other. Now your brain has to unlearn that. But you still have that attachment pathway to their memory. And the pathway for memory needs to be unlinked from the pathways for the present.

While those neural pathways are changing you still have the sense the person you love is there and your brain keeps trying to connect to them. Then it is devastating when you remember they are gone.

Grieving requires you to resolve this conflict between your attachment to someone who is here and the memory of them when they are no longer here.

Epigenetic changes happen in brain when people bond. Oxytocin is released around those bonds. When the bond is broken the brain has to adapt to the loss of oxytocin..

Your brain understanding they are gone

Attachment bonds are specific to each person you bond with. It is hard to learn they are gone but usually the brain is good at learning. You learn to accept the loss of the person. Your brain can learn that they will not be there.

Continuing bonds

You may have heard the term continuing bonds. This refers to the bond you will always have with the person who is dead. They may not physically be present, but you will find you are still in communication with them. It is very common for human beings to do this.

Continuing bonds allow you to connect to other loved ones and make new friends.

The benefits of what your brain is doing

Your brain can help you through the experience of grief so that you can understand what life is like now and find ways to reconnect and create meaningful activity in your life.

Grief is a form of learning so it doesn’t matter how long it takes. You will continue to learn.

Keep talking about your loved one. Keep sharing your experiences. Find your tribe who will be willing to listen. Be patient. Be okay to not always be happy. Be okay to sometimes feel sad. Be okay to grieve forever.

If you need to talk to someone and can’t find a group, then counselling can help.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your grief, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with interesting information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

Attachment and its relevance to you

Attachment is a frequent topic of conversation. You may have heard about it and wondered what it is. In this blog, I will be explaining attachment and the related term attunement. I will describe the impact it has on child development and finish with an explanation as to how this impacts on adulthood. Finally, I will end with the good news for adults who missed out on secure attachment in childhood and how to correct insecure attachment.

What is Attachment?

Many mistakes and much research has demonstrated that an essential need for children is to be held and touched, as well as to feel seen. This need starts at birth.

These two needs are named Attachment and Attunement.

Attachment describes the bond between the child and their caregiver/s. For survival, a baby needs at least one secure adult who will provide the baby’s needs. If the child cries, it needs an adult to pick it up and attend to its needs for food, nappy changes, comfort when distressed and loving interactions. In an ideal world every child will receive that care and will be secure in the knowledge its care needs will be met.

But this is not an ideal world. And children, even in infancy, have to adopt behaviours to ensure their care needs are met.

The securely attached child

For the child with secure adult/s in their life, it is easy to have their needs met. They know there will be someone to look after them, to keep them clean, feed them, comfort them when they are distressed, play with them, see them. The usual attachment behaviours of crying or holding out their arms will result in their needs being met.

The insecurely attached child

For the child who does not have a secure adult in their life, it is not so easy. These children, described as having an insecure pattern of attachment, learn that their carer is not available when they need them. For this child, crying or expressing emotions may be dangerous. They learn to hide their fear and distress. Other insecurely attached children may learn that only when they exaggerate their crying or adopt any behaviour that gets attention will they get their needs met. For these children there is a belief that their carer is not there to meet their needs physically and/or emotionally.

Another group of insecurely attached children may learn that their carer is totally inconsistent in meeting their needs. This carer may be terrifying. That child may be frozen, unable to get any needs met and never being sure of the carer’s response to their attachment seeking behaviour.

The positive impact of secure attachment

When a child feels safe. That their physical and emotional needs will be met. They are able to develop on a normal trajectory.

Before I explain this, I want to talk about Attunement.


It is not enough for a child to have its needs for food and comfort met. Children also need to feel seen.

If a child is not seen and visible to its carer/s then it will not get its needs met and will not survive.

Attunement is noticing a child, tuning into them, interacting with them, seeking to understand them.

A child needs to be reassured that if they are upset at something, their carer will seek to understand what the problem is.

Babies are observed to use behaviours to be noticed by their carer. They smile, coo, put their hands out, respond to the carer’s interactions. All these are part of early attunement.

Another aspect of attunement is the carer who hears the child cry and understands that cry is one of discomfort. So they change the nappy and check for anything else causing discomfort.

If the cry is one of hunger, they feed the child. And so on.

As the child grows, the attuned parent plays with the child, interacts with them, looks at things they show them, seeks to understand why the child is upset, seeks to understand acting out behaviours and so on.

Providing the security to explore the world and safety to return to

Attunement is an important aspect of secure attachment for a child.

What a child needs is to have a secure base from which to explore the world while being delighted in, helped and sharing enjoyment. They also need a safe haven that welcomes the child returning and where they can feel protected, comforted, delighted in, and having their feelings organised so they can learn to do that later in life. (Circle of Security www.circleofsecurity.net)

Interacting with a child securely and safely

Once children learn to talk, they learn to ask questions. A lot of them. These questions are vital aspects of learning for the child. It is a child’s interactions with its carers that drive brain development.

It is during the child’s first five years of life that dramatic brain development takes place. During this time the child learns how to self-regulate their emotions. They learn this by being co-regulated by their carer who holds and comforts them when they are upset or hurt, as well as laughing with them when they are having fun.

During these years, the child learns about the world and forms the view of the world as either safe or dangerous.

4 main areas where attachment drives development

  1. Cognitive development. This is the internal belief about who I am and who You are.
  2. Emotional regulation. This is the ability to experience, tolerate, express and regulate all emotions and to learn to seek help when needed.
  3. Exploratory play and allied behaviour. This is the ability to be able to initiate exploration and investigation of the world through play and socialisation.
  4. Pro-social orientation towards others. This means feeling able to reach out to others, to form friendships with others, to be part of a community.

9 positive benefits throughout life of secure childhood attachment

  1. Protects from toxic stress. Toxic stress can be an abusive teacher, a bully, an abusive parent, needs being unmet, a disruption in the family such as divorce or a parent dying.
  2. Allows healthy development. The stress of insecure attachment has a negative effect on child development. It also makes children vulnerable to depression or anxiety in childhood and later life.
  3. Learning to regulate emotions. This has already been mentioned above.
  4. Develop a healthy sense of self. Being related to by others in secure attachment allows the child to develop a sense of “who am I” and “who are you”.
  5. Frees the brain to focus on learning. Insecure attachment involves the child constantly seeking safety which prevents the brain from giving full attention to learning.
  6. The development of self reliance. If the child is secure, they can feel safe to try new things and learn to be self reliant. On the flip side, the child also learns it is okay to ask for help when needed and safe to rely on others when necessary. Insecurely attached children can struggle to learn self reliance and can struggle to ask for help because as a child there was no one to help them.
  7. Healthy self esteem from which confidence grows. A securely attached child learns that there is always someone who thinks they are worthwhile. This is communicated to the child by the fact that there is always a carer there to pick them up, soothe them, play with them, see them. This sends the message “I am here and you are worth me being here”. What message does the child get from this? “You are here and I must be worth your being here. If I am worth you being here then I am worthwhile”.
  8. Social competence. The carer baby relationship is the first relationship a child has. These sets the template for all relationships the child has in life.
    Secure attachment teaches a child: • it is safe to be close to another person (intimacy) • you can support others and they can support you • empathy • getting along with others in all areas of life (or doing the best you can because it is not possible to get along with everyone)
  9. Good health. This is considered due to lower stress in childhood and into adulthood, which, apart from the lowered exposure to the damaging effect of stress hormones on the body, is shown to lower the need to resort to stress relieving activities such as excessive alcohol intake, comfort eating and smoking.

Secure attachment also leads to healthy relationships which result in good mental health, good physical health, healthy life habits and lowered mortality risk.

How does this relate to me as an adult?

If you had a secure attachment and were well attuned to as a child then you are likely to be able to live life with the ability to cope with the challenges you encounter. You may occasionally need help, but you will be fairly likely to be comfortable asking for help.

You will be able to form secure relationships with other people.

If you didn’t have a secure attachment then life may be more stressful. It may be harder to cope when challenges occur. You may not know who to seek help from or feel safe seeking that help. You may find it hard to do that things you want to do in life.

You may also find it hard to function when you are stressed. And you may notice you are stressed often. On the other hand, other people may comment on how stressed you are and you don’t think you are stressed at all because stress is so much part of your life that you don’t know what it feels like to not be stressed.

You may find you get into friendships and intimate relationships with people who are toxic. You may find yourself unable to speak up at work about problems.

You may find you feel there is crisis after crisis and struggle to feel at peace.

There are myriad ways your childhood may impact on you.

The good news

The good news is that, with the help of a trauma trained counsellor, it is possible to repair those early attachment wounds. It is possible to learn how to be more secure in relationships. It is possible to learn how to use the way your brain developed to serve you well in life, instead of hampering you.

Can I Help?

I am trauma trained and if you would like to talk to me about how I can help you to develop a more secure attachment style, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with interesting information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz