A safe haven in times of trouble: being ‘kept in mind’ makes a relationship a refuge
What was your first response when you realised the seriousness of the current threat from Covid19? Did you phone an elderly parent, wonder if you should keep your child home from school, or did you find yourself wanting to escape to a remote spot in the Highlands? I think most of us found our attachment systems going into overdrive. We longed for a safe haven and at the same time to keep those we love safe. It is not easy, because in a moment of fear and crisis we may miss important opportunities to provide reassurance to others.
On one of our recent morning walks, my wife shared this story with me: “When I was a child living in Michigan, I remember the day when tornadoes came through our county. It was a long time ago and I don’t remember all the details, but I remember being very afraid when mom and dad told us to go down into the basement. That was the sensible thing to do, but I was still terrified until my dad took hold of me and put me on his knee. At that point I felt completely safe.”
We walked on in silence; temporarily flooded with our own emotions. Finally, my wife commented, “You know a refuge isn’t really a place, it’s a relationship.”
Before we talk about how we can be a safe haven to others, I think it is important to think more about how the attachment system manifests in adults compared to young children. When Mary Ainsworth devised the Strange Situation procedure, she found a powerful tool for observing how young children organise attachment behaviours. Ainsworth observed that when a toddler was separated and then reunited with his or her mother, there were clear patterns of behaviour. The child’s attachment behaviours, seeking proximity and contact with their mother, could be observed in real time.
In older children and adults, the function of a safe haven and secure base becomes more internalised. How we think about attachment figures becomes more a state of mind, but no less real. Attachment in adults is not so much the sum of early experiences and our attachment history, but how we reflect on and make sense of those experiences, good and bad. John Bowlby suggested the link between early attachment experiences and adults’ attachment relationships is not fixed in stone (1). I think that presents a very hopeful picture. As adults we are not necessarily victims of our childhoods. We can still pass on a legacy of a secure attachment despite an imperfect past. It is more about how we resolve what has happened, put things into perspective (neither minimising past attachment-related experiences nor being preoccupied with attachment figures), and communicate our love though sensitively interpreting our children’s attachment signals (1).
I think one of the best ways to help children internalise the sensitivity and availability of an attachment figure is by showing that we keep them in mind. I like to explain it like this: I know that several hundred miles away there is a lady, in her eighties now, who probably every day wonders what I, her son, am up to. Most of the time, I don’t even consciously think about my mother thinking about me, I just know it. Occasionally, and probably more often when I am worried or stressed, I phone her just to make sure. Being kept in mind helps me have a certain amount of confidence as I go out into the world. When growing up, it allowed me to function more independently. When there is a crisis, the thought of that person’s concern for me still provides comfort and a sense of safety and refuge. Now I am older, I still recognise the value of having a secure base and safe haven (2).
What about the child who lacks that sense of being kept in mind? The foster carer of a teenage girl gave me a piece of good advice about her daughter: “When she withdraws and isolates herself, because she is afraid and anxious, adults tend to stop contacting her. She thinks that if she hasn’t seen you, you must have forgotten about her.”
It was a penny-dropping moment. For one whole term, she refused to come to school. When I visited the house, she rarely came downstairs to see me, but I kept visiting. I wanted her to get a clear message: You are not forgotten.
It must be incredibly hard to be a young person without that default way of thinking that the adults who care about you don’t forget you. It must be like living in a world where people fall off a precipice or somehow cease to exist.
Keeping a person in mind often works in an unplanned way. I know of a young person who is adopted, and when his older brother moved away from home to study, he refused to talk about or even acknowledge his brother. One day, quite by chance, while visiting his brother with his parents, he noticed his photograph sitting on his older brother’s desk. There was a look of surprise and joy on the younger boy’s face when he saw this visible, tangible proof of his brother’s affection. Another adoptive parent remarked, “Even as adults I send postcards when I’m away, especially if I am visiting somewhere we have been together in the past, like a favourite ice cream shop.”
At other times keeping in mind has to be more intentional. Some suggestions of how to do this may seem mundane and part of what most people do routinely in order to stay connected. However, the kind of children who need a clear message that they are not forgotten often seem most indifferent or even hostile to an adult’s interest. For other young people, circumstances like an unplanned move require adults to make an extra effort.
Sending a postcard during a period of absence or remembering and commenting on a small detail a young person talked about doing over a half-term break can make a difference. As a teacher, occasionally I might ask a young person, “Do you mind if I keep that piece of work on my desk? Every time I walk past my desk, it will remind me of what we talked about today.” Even a visit to a home or children’s unit is not wasted: “That’s okay if they are still in bed, but could you tell them I was asking for them?”
One of the key things I have noticed recently is how I need to know that I am being kept in mind. A phone call from a friend and an email from a loved one suddenly takes on special significance. Knowing that I am kept in mind also reminds me that in times of crisis, we all feel a need to seek a safe haven, but that refuge is not found in a place or an object, but primarily in a relationship with someone you know loves you. There are many metaphors we use to talk about refuge: shielding the vulnerable, standing on a rock, or a chick sheltering under the wings of its mother, but these metaphors stand for the qualities of a relationship with a person who is available and attentive, and whose love is faithful, committed, and protective.
1. Van IJzendoorn M. Adult attachment representations, parental responsiveness, and infant attachment:A meta-analysis on the predictive validity of the adult attachment interview. Psychological Bulletin. 1995; 117(3): 387-340.
2. E. Grossman K.E.Grossman. Essentials when studying child-father attachment: A fundamental view on safe haven and secure base phenomena. Attachment and Human Development. 2019:1-6.
© 2020 David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only.