Me-Food-Now – responding with relationship to ‘acting out’ from ambivalent-style attachment in children, teens, and presidents.

This month sees what we hope will be first of international contributions to our news bulletins. Robert Spottswood is the author of the ‘The Bean Seed’ and of ‘The Refrigerator List’ (on our website), also a DDP Therapist, Consultant Trainer. Robert lives in Vermont in USA and has been a friend and supporter of SAIA for many years.

As you will see from the article, Robert and I were ‘chatting’ on email, talking about the universality of attachment theory to all relationships – personal, community and political. I asked Robert if he would write an article for SAIA and he very generously has…… we hope you will find it thought provoking and enjoyable….read on…. Edwina Grant

Me-Food-Now – responding with relationship to ‘acting out’ from ambivalent-style attachment in children, teens, and presidents.

— by R. Spottswood, Vermont

Thinking about the families I have had the privilege to work with, while preparing this article, I was struck yet again: what a universal experience is attachment!

Thanks to each of us being born with an attachment system, as Bowlby pointed out, we seek connection with a caring adult as if our lives depended on it. And as we grow, the manner in which we relate to ourselves and the world suggests cues and clues as to how our early search for attachment was responded to. (How ‘The Refrigerator List’ was generated.)

“How universal!” I exclaimed over email to my Scottish colleague, Edwina Grant. When strangers meet, they routinely go back to preverbal attachment connection behaviours: eye contact, smiles, welcoming tone of voice, and comforting touch — a handshake.

Relevant here is the Guardian newspaper’s short clip showing the violent, controlling handshake developed by the new U.S. president. Here we see, in my view, a tradition rooted in emotional connection twisted to physically and emotionally dominate each friend from the moment of greeting. Must be seen to be believed:

Attachment also helps explain, as Sue Johnson points out with Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, how any wound to relationship trust can trigger irritation, ‘angry poking’, distancing and finally ‘abandonment protests’ (such as big fights) in desperation to hold onto attachment connection with an adult partner. Again, in the context of couples, I think our attachment system explains why ‘open marriage’ tends to prove so unstable — Am I special to him/her? Am I in his thoughts? With a third intimate person, the best I can do to feel secure is to constantly try not to think about it…

Finally, attachment helps me understand at last the riddle of violence in institutions and society. Growing up reading concurrent news from the horrific war on Vietnam, I find answers to the riddle of violence in the attachment-failure of social systems which give the wink to viewing our neighbors as objects – permitting a range of objectifying behaviors, from falsehoods to manipulation to hatred to harassment to stalking to bullying to military planning to torture. For my own personal awareness, every August 9 I stand downtown for an hour with my large homemade sign silently reminding Americans of the results of dropping 13 pounds of plutonium on a city of civilians; and that we have never apologized.

DDP (Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy) suggests to me an important way out of this closed loop of recurrent dysregulation: connected relationship. Dan Hughes once put it, “If we come to a (therapy) session with an agenda, the kid will quickly sense our agenda and run the other way. My only agenda is to have a relationship with the kid – and they don’t even have to talk. I can have a dialogue and I can be both sides of the dialogue”


A chronically angry parent – a great improvement over the brutal grandparents – once demanded of me “How would you respond to the school principal if he ambushed you like he did me, in front of everybody at a school meeting!”

I knew she would not like my vulnerable answer, but I gave it anyway:

“Being me, I would try to show a little of my sadness while saying, ‘I was feeling good about my child’s progress here, until I heard this sudden comment, which surprised and saddened me. I don’t understand why I wasn’t warned, and I’m just feeling so sad right now.’”

The angry parent stopped, handed me a piece of paper and said, “Would you write that down? I never learned to talk like that growing up – it would have been suicide. Thank you.” She was serious.

Perhaps the most surprising DDP session I can recall was back in 2003. A young teen came in with his divorcing father – an emotionally distant accountant – and began running around my small office, banging things just enough alarm the grown-ups and force father’s attention.

“Ha-ha, you can’t catch me!”

To us DDP clinicians surface behavior makes sense if we are holding in mind the person’s attachment history, life situation, and need for emotional safety under the surface. As Dan pointed out long ago, “Context determines the meanings we make.”

Prioritising physical safety (this was 2002), I scooped up my young client and carried him back to the couch and his father, while co-regulating (second priority) with my voice tone and empathic words – he of course screaming bloody murder the whole time. But I was responding without cognitive argument to his double message: Nobody can catch me – and – my folks are divorcing so I have to force someone safe to catch me and help me before I burst with sadness!

Unfortunately the father was not prepared to provide intimate affective co-regulation to his son on the couch, or I suspect anywhere else. We had not had time to prepare. After 30 seconds of helping me gently rock his noisy, dysregulated boy on the couch, the father turned to me and said, “I can’t do this.”

“Okay,” I replied, “let go.” There is no point going further in a session than parents are able.

I expected the angry boy would scamper out of the office to lick his wounds….but he did not. He calmly walked across the room, got a desk chair, brought it back and sat down facing his father. He began pleading in a sorrowful voice (I am not making this up) —

“Come on, Dad! Please! You can do it, Dad! I beg you, PLEASE! You can do it!!….”

As my jaw dropped to the floor I realized what it meant to this boy to have felt his father physically pay attention and care enough to finally co-regulate his son’s catastrophic feelings.

This is what comes to mind when I sit down to write about responding with relationship to ‘acting out’ from ambivalent-style attachment in children, teens, and presidents.

For my next article I will focus more on what it means to me to respond with relationship to dysregulating public officials.

Robert Spottswood (name began in town of Spottiswoode, Scotland)
Vermont, USA

First published in 2017 © 2017 Robert Spottswood
Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact

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