Healthy relationships require us to rest in connection. In resting we come home to ourselves and into the arms of another. We soften enough to open our hearts and trust and receive the love we long for.
This resting state is experienced to the extent that our nervous system allows for it. Our parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for calming) must be engaged and our sympathetic system (responsible for arousal and mobility) must be disengaged enough to allow for what Peter Levine calls “homeostasis” or “relaxed alertness”. In other words, resting in connection depends on there being a “smooth back-and-forth shifting between moderate levels … of (nervous system) activity”, or a “flexible seesawing” between parasympathetic and sympathetic systems, which enables us to be balanced, centered and grounded in the body, not extreme in any one direction.
This self-regulation is largely dependent upon how well we connect with and tend to our forgotten wounds. Our trauma exists as “spikes” in our nervous system expressed as fight/flight in the case of an over-active sympathetic system and shut down within the dorsal branch of an over-active parasympathetic system. The greater the degree of trauma (causing fight-flight or shut down), the less embodied we are. We live disassociated, unable to feel, which impacts how able we are to rest internally and in relationship.
Feeling and healing our past traumas stored in the body is thus necessary for us to rest in connection. We must be embodied! Yet, this is challenging for most. It can be frightening and overwhelming to rest into—tolerate and feel—our uncomfortable body sensations. This is especially true for those who were taught or came to the conclusion that their body is dangerous. Resting in intimacy with others can then also feel dangerous.
While it’s nice to say that love is all wonderful and beautiful, it’s also incredibly threatening to those who continue to protect themselves; who learned that love, including loving oneself, is unsafe; who concluded that women (often for men) and men (often for women) are a threat. For, love shines light onto and is so often associated with tremendous pain. As we get closer to love, we can also get closer to pain protecting the heart.
Resting in connection can therefore be very complex and difficult.
Resting in connection requires safety inside the body and in the attuned arms of someone else. From here it’s easier to relax into and explore the world.
Ideally children grow up with this experience—they rest in their parent’s arms, and after some comfort and nurturing they go out and play. They, as Moser states, are “able to balance needs for bonding with the urge to explore.” Just like the seesawing between parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, there is a healthy balance between connection and exploration, coming home and going away from home. When returning from adventuring, their mother or father is there for them.
This is one of the landmarks of the “secure” attachment style in Attachment Theory. With this security there exists, as Moser goes on to write, “an internal sense and trust that we exist in the heart and mind of the other; and that we are free to be ourselves and explore.” And when things go wrong, there is repair—primary caregivers are there to take ownership of mistakes and set things right. All this promotes well-being and resilience in the growing child.
So many of us grew up without a secure attachment. There might have been neglect or physical/sexual abuse received not only from our parents, but also from relatives, teachers, neighbours and friends. Moreover, developmental trauma-informed insecure attachment styles can root in the psyche if a child is regularly or harshly told to sit still or to stop being angry/silly/etc. They can also develop if children move from one community to another a number of times—children, over time, become disheartened from having to forgo friendships and, after a number of moves, and to self-preserve, decide to shut down the part of themselves wanting to form secure attachments.
It’s pretty safe to say that most, if not all of us, and more than we know, carry a great deal of pain because of our imperfect upbringing, the pressures put upon us, the expectations to be other than we are. And without a secure attachment to at least one primary caregiver, we are prone to attachment adaptations.
The three common ones are: “Avoidant” – exploring is more important than connecting; connecting is associated with pain; “Ambivalent or Preoccupied” – exploring is ignored in favour of over-focusing on the caregiver; “Disorganized” – the child is conflicted between exploring and connecting; the core biological needs of survival and attachment are at cross purposes often because the primary caregiver is the one abusing or neglecting the child.
It’s important to state that these attachment styles are not who we are, but rather, as Moser states, “unconscious attempts to minimize hurt and disappointment in relationships.” The adaptive intelligence of our psychobiology creates what is needed in order to cope and survive.
Further understanding of what influences how well we rest in connection can be found in the research of marriage and family therapist, Bonnie Badenoch. In “The brain-wise therapist series (2011)”, she states that there exists a “70 – 85% correlation between the attachment style of parent and child.” In other words, there is a high likelihood that if our parents were insecure in their attachment style, unconsciously we would adopt the same style.
Business breeds disconnect
Badenoch, also in “The brain-wise therapist series (2011)”, states, “Secure attachment in North America has dropped from 67% to 45% in the last 10 years.” This is understandable given the rise of dual income households, the over-use of technology (particularly in the context of “babysitting”), the normalization of rushing kids to scheduled-structured activities, the increased size of classrooms, the need to push kids beyond what is developmentally appropriate, and the growing amount of stress in family and school systems.
Indeed resting in connection at home, school and after school is becoming an increasingly extinct experience. Kids spend less time connecting to nature, with friends in unstructured play, with imagination and heart-knowing, with the body’s wishes to move; they spend far less time than ever following the impulses of what they in their hearts want for themselves. And I can assure you, being plugged in for hours a day in front of a screen is not the connection their heart yearns for!
Jay Griffiths writes in her book beautiful book, Kith, that, “Today’s children are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and enclosed in rigid schedules of time.”
And George Monbiot of The Guardian notes that, “Since the 1970s the area in which children roam without adults has decreased by almost 90%.”
When we compound this with the all-too-pervasive fact that children so often do not have their emotional needs met in hectic households and classrooms, and with dysregulated friends, we then have a societal system where self-regulation, co- or interactive-regulation, and resting in connection are becoming alarmingly rare. As busyness increases and secure attachment wanes, it’s no wonder there is a rise of mental health issues facing kids and adults.
“Twelve percent of U.S. children and teens had a diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in 2011, a number that has jumped by 43 percent since 2003, according to a large national study based on parental reports of an ADHD diagnosis. This analysis suggests that 5.8 million U.S. children ages 5 to 17 now have this diagnosis…” Read more here.
Perhaps “Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder” is more about a deficit of attention given to kids than anything else! How often do we prioritize rushing and readying over meeting kids where they are, following their whims and wishes—resting in connection with them?
Connection needs to be prioritized
Urgency is needed in prioritizing relationship building and specifically secure attachments. In my work with teachers and parents there is a growing understanding that we need to slow down, “connect before we correct / direct”, listen and show more empathy, and follow the child’s lead. And there is increasing recognition that this is more easily done when we take care of ourselves as adults, as well as take whatever steps necessary to change systems, like education, such that relationship building is the foundation for learning.
As Jasper Fox, Sr. states, “Putting your students’ emotional needs first is important because without feeling safe and understood, no instructional strategy will be effective.” And James Comer reminds us that, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” ~ James ComerClick To Tweet
Supporting children to rest in connection—with their bodies’ needs, with their family, friends and schoolteachers—is one of the most important gifts we can give them. It is vital if we are to raise kids able to rest in connection when older. Indigenous peoples understand this. Mothers carry their child in a sling throughout the day for the first few years of their life while tending to the fields and preparing meals. Fathers do this as well, often for 40% of the day. Combine this with the community focus in tribal societies, where elders play an important role in mentoring and kids of all ages play with one another, and we have a system where connection is deeply embedded.
Therefore take a moment to consider where you can slow down and connect more with yourself and those you love. Consider what matters at the end of the day. And consider where you can start a healing journey into your body to feel and befriend the wounds of yesterday still impeding your capacity to rest in connection today.
* * *
Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults