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        From The Natural Child Project:  Fostering Healthy Attachment
             An Interview with Dr. Karen Walant 

             by The Nurturing Parent (TNP) staff
      TNP: Dr. Walant, tell us about your new book.
      KW: Creating the Capacity for Attachment looks at
      how we, as a society, have raised our children with the
      expectation that they become totally self-reliant and
      autonomous rather than with the hope that they have
      the capacity to form close, loving, intimate relationships
      with others. As a result of our social insistence upon
      self-reliance, we have witnessed an epidemic of
      addictions and what I call "the alienated self," meaning
      people who are disconnected from their internal
      thoughts and feelings - their inner selves - and are
      unable to form true intimacy with others. Addiction
      exemplifies how, by not allowing ourselves to deeply
      connect to other people, we have attached only to the
      other things. For example, a pacifier is often one of a
      childís first attachments. It is plastic - and not the same
      as having mother and her breast, to suck and to cuddle
      with. This unhealthy pattern of reliance on objects is
      encouraged in the detached parenting styles so
      common in Western society, and itís easy to see how,
      from this tendency, as adults we continue to seek
      comfort in other non-human objects, such as drugs,
      food, money, etc.
      Very early on, children are generally taught not to
      disclose to others when feeling "weak" or scared,
      "needy" or alone. Many of the emotions we felt in
      childhood - what people call the "negative" emotions -
      we were taught not to share. So, we sought comfort
      from blankets, pacifiers, and teddy bears, and we
      learned not to seek comfort from our mothers, our
      fathers, our family. As we got too old for blankets and
      teddy bears, we turned instead to other comforts -
      food, alcohol, money, etc. As adults, we struggle with
      holding our emotions within because we fear that by
      sharing our inner souls with others, we will - as in
      childhood - be discounted, dismissed, or denied. 

      TNP: In your book, you discuss the importance
      of "immersive" moments. When do these
      moments occur and why are they important?

      KW: There are special moments that occur as part
      of the deepening of intimacy, which I have termed
      "moments of oneness" - moments when a person feels
      totally connected and understood by an other. The
      immersive moment is an intensely spiritual, holy one
      that occurs when two people can let down their barriers
      to intimacy and truly experience their inner feelings.
      This kind of feeling is a transcendent one - meaning
      that it moves someone, or shifts someone, to feeling
      more connected to another person.

      The immersive moment occurs in feeling a sense of
      security in being held and comforted by an other - be
      that a spouse, friend, therapist, nature, or God. This
      kind of moment is first felt in baby-hood, when mother
      (we hope) picks up her child when he cries and holds
      him. She transcends his sense of pain and loneliness
      by holding and comforting him - something a pacifier
      just cannot do. Itís similar to the feeling we get when we
      know that we can totally disintegrate into the arms of
      another person - just totally fall apart. Our baby falls
      apart in our arms, and we hold him, comfort him, quiet
      him. He knows that we are there, and that we -
      mothers, fathers, etc. - will put him back together again.
      We will find some way to reach into his being and
      contain what is distressing him so. We will take care of
      him. But if mothers and fathers do not pick up their
      crying baby, or hold their sleeping baby, then the
      experience is quite different. The child learns that he
      will not be comforted if (and when) he falls apart, and
      so he learns to hold in, dismiss, and cut-off from his
      fears and anxieties. If as children we do not get
      practice in "falling apart" into the arms of an other, then
      as adults we will also have difficulty achieving this level
      of intimacy.

TNP: It seems when babies fall apart in our
      arms, they have no concern whatsoever that we
      figure out whatís wrong with them. They trust that
      weíre going to comfort them. But as adults, we are
      insecure about why we fall apart.

      KW: Right. It is our cultural belief that we should be
      so self-reliant and so self-assured that we shouldnít
      need anybody else. It seems to me that one of the
      goals of Western parenting has been to raise children
      to need no one - to be totally self-sufficient. That is not,
      in my eyes, the point of parenting or of having children.
      In fact, I disagree with the widely-held notion that we
      are born alone, and we die alone, so therefore teach
      your kids to be alone. None of us are born alone - after
      all, our mothers are there! And nobody should have to
      die alone, either, because ideally there are loved ones
      surrounding us as we leave this world.

      TNP: What happens when the parent reassigns
      a different motive to the childís cry and decides
      not to be responsive?

      KW: A child cries for a reason - not to manipulate
      his mother, not to be mean, or nasty, or to be a "pain in
      the neck." When, instead of trying to discern what her
      child needs, a mother simply says - "oh, heís just tired,"
      or "he has to deal with sleeping by himself now" - she
      has given her baby the idea that expressing his inner
      self is wrong or bad. A baby is like someone who is
      quadriplegic. He canít do very much for himself - but
      that doesnít mean that he isnít thinking and feeling.
      When the baby cries and his mother responds, the
      child learns to have trust in the world around him and to
      have trust in himself. When the baby cries and his
      mother listens, the two join together in a moment of
      oneness that transcends the separateness, the
      aloneness, which the baby knows all too well.

      TNP: Describe the process that happens from

      KW: If the child has not been responded to, if he has
      not been attuned to or empathized with, he begins to
      feel more and more powerless, alienated, and
      detached. You know, sometimes the best you can do is
      simply empathize with your baby - "I know, you are
      angry because . . ." or "You want to get out of this car
      seat right away!" Saying something like that is much
      better than ignoring your child. The less empathy that is
      developed between parent and child, the less
      understood the child feels, and from there, the
      disconnection between the two just grows and grows.

      TNP: What happens when a child grows into
      adulthood with repeated patterns of relating like
      this with his parents?

      KW: Many people spend their lives feeling like
      nobody hears their cries - they feel alone, afraid, and
      powerless. When children are not responded to, in their
      earliest and most primary relationships, they learn that
      their thoughts and feelings are burdensome to others
      and that their needs are shameful. As adults, these
      same people often go underground with their feelings
      and seek comfort in substances. Or, alternately, these
      same people become so vocal in their neediness that,
      again, they are met with disdain from others and go on
      to find comfort, as well, in non-human substances.

      TNP: This pattern of parenting that you are
      describing falls under what you call "normative
      abuse." Can you describe this concept for our
      readers and talk about what part it plays in the
      process of detachment?

      KW: Society (at least in the Western World) has
      encouraged a number of parenting practices that I call
      "normative abuse." "Normative," because these are
      approaches that are sanctioned by society, therefore
      enacted without any moral discomfort. By normative, I
      mean practices which appear normal for our culture. A
      hundred years ago, for example, severe physical
      abuse was routine to parenting. The abuse we see
      today stems from our insistence on separation,
      self-soothing and detachment at the expense of
      attachment, intimacy, and connectedness.

      TNP: Describe these practices that you say fall
      under the "normative abuse" category.

      KW: First of all, normative abuse occurs when we
      avoid or ignore our parental instincts to be empathic
      and responsive to our childrenís needs. For example,
      parents are taught the best gift they can give their
      children is to encourage them to self-soothe at one,
      two, three months of age. Mothers frantically stick a
      pacifier in their babiesí mouths or try to get their child
      to suck on his thumb, all in a well-meaning effort to
      wean their child from "needing" mom. In the
      psychoanalytic literature, for example, one writer even
      criticizes a mother who "allows" her baby to become
      "addicted" to her - can you imagine that? A baby
      should be "addicted" to his real mother, not to a
      substitute, plastic pacifier or even to his own thumb!
      Again, normative abuse occurs when the childís needs
      for attachment and closeness with his parents are
      sacrificed for the cultural norms that insist on autonomy
      and individuation. Babies need to be held - as much as
      possible, as often as possible. Therefore, I consider
      the over-use of strollers, playpens, and even cribs to be
      normative abuse.

      TNP: Is this an all-inclusive statement - are you
      advocating that parents never use these items?

      KW: No, certainly not. As a mother of a 4
      1/2-year-old and 17-month-old twins, I know that
      nothing can be back and white! Certainly, a stroller
      comes in handy if you must take two babies together,
      by yourself. But I think that parents automatically put
      their baby into a stroller, without giving any thought to
      what is truly best and most natural. As well, parents
      worry that holding their baby will spoil him, that he will
      never accept a stroller later if he is held now. That is an
      unfortunate supposition and one that is not at all true.
      What a toddler enjoys is not the same as what a
      newborn baby needs. I sometimes cringe when I look
      at a newborn baby, lying all by himself, in his
      expensive, state-of-the-art stroller that his parents
      bought with such love and devotion. Almost without
      exception, that baby would prefer to be held, Iím sure.
      When my twins were infants, we always used slings to
      carry them wherever we went, and I was able to make
      sure that I never went out without another adult to help
      me carry the boys.

      TNP: We tend to treat babies like they want to
      be away from us - "Donít you want this toy?" or
      "Donít you want to be in this his neat bouncy
      seat?" - when what they really want is to be in our
      arms or on our lap.

      KW: Thatís right. Donít forget, we ourselves were
      parented in a detached manner, with normative abuse
      as well. So often, despite what we may intellectually
      know is best, we may still worry when our young
      children demand a closeness we never experienced in
      our own childhood. Despite what we know, we worry
      that he is "too clingy, too needy," and we become
      afraid that he will never want to become more
      independent. So, in spite of ourselves, we may push
      our children away, giving subtle messages that our
      children should learn to be independent of us. This is a
      Western worry - in other cultures, children are raised
      with the expectation that they will always remain near
      their parents, building a close-knit community rooted in
      the extended family.

      TNP: It seems that weíve lost the sense of
      family connectedness in our society that should
      sustain us throughout our lives.

      KW: Yes. In our world, a family that "still" has a
      20-year-old living at home, for example, is considered
      suspect. "What went wrong?" people wonder. "Why is
      that young adult still at home?"

      TNP: What are some other practices that fall
      under the term normative abuse?

      KW: The concept of normative abuse implies that
      intimacy and connectedness are devalued and
      replaced with social expectations of a self-sufficiency
      way beyond the baby and young childís ability. When
      we are not empathic to our children, we create a rift or
      a separation inside this loving relationship. For
      example, using nicknames that are in reality hurtful or
      mean, creates a barrier inside the relationship.
      Jokingly calling your child a "stinker," or
      "troublemaker," or "rebel," can have long-lasting effects
      on your childís self-perception. I knew a mother, who,
      for example, continually labeled her 3-year-old
      daughterís opposition behavior "ugly."

      TNP: What challenges do parents face (in their
      own parenting) when they grew up in situations
      that were laden with "normative abuse"

      KW: Well, the likelihood is that we will repeat, in
      some form or another, that which was done to us.
      Parenting is constant interaction, meaning we are
      always being challenged by our children in the moment.
      I like to hope that, at our best, we can parent in an
      introspective way. By that I mean, that we continue an
      ongoing conscious dialogue within ourselves, with our
      spouses, and with others so as to question and
      process how we are handling the everyday moments
      with our children. We need to "check in" with others
      who are also taking a more empathic approach to
      parenting, so as to make sure that our actions are
      intersecting with our intellect. For example, one mother
      I know needed ongoing reassurance after the birth of
      her young daughter, that her 4-year-oldís wish to return
      to nursing was not "wrong" and that it did not indicate
      that her preschooler would always insist on being
      "babied" again. This is uncharted territory for most of
      us, and it helps to have others - like AA has sponsors -
      to guide us along the way. Thatís one of the wonderful
      aspects of magazines like TNP. People can feel
      reassured as they parent in a more attached way and
      can ask for help and guidance in navigating the waters
      of empathic parenting.

      Another aspect of "doing unto our children what was
      done to us" is that we may, by attempting to become
      the opposite of our parents, still stimulate some of the
      same dynamics with our children. For example, some
      parents have the tendency to "overattach." By that I
      mean that they do not allow enough separateness
      inside the connectedness of their relationship with their
      children. In so doing, these parents are not attuning to
      the very important needs of their children to also have
      "separate time," or even "separate adventures" away
      from home. What causes this misattunement? In every
      relationship, we find characteristics in others which
      resemble our own parents and siblings. We essentially
      recreate, in our current relationships, the family
      scenario from which we came. In this, we then respond
      as we have always responded, feeling the same
      emotional dynamics that we have always felt, and
      therefore feeling a stability in our own core self. For
      example, a mother may have felt particularly
      traumatized by her own childhood experiences of
      abandonment. As an adult, she is exquisitely sensitive
      to feeling that others will leave her. With her own child,
      then, she may experience what is his healthy
      separateness, with dismay and fear. She experiences
      his natural growing independence and individuation as
      an abandonment of their relationship and then, as she
      did in her own childhood, she becomes anxious,
      insecure, and protests what is essentially his right to

      TNP: How do we understand healthy

      KW: Healthy attachment allows for separateness as
      well as connectedness. Freud spoke of an
      "indissoluble bond," a bond in which we know that "we
      cannot fall out of this world." In a sense, we have an
      invisible, life-long umbilical cord which is attached to
      those we love most dear. And, as in the womb, we are
      free to move around, somersault, and rotate while still
      being fed and cared for through the umbilical cord.

      TNP: Explain healthy separateness.

      KW: It varies from child to child, but generally
      speaking, we need to help our children develop what
      Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst, called the capacity
      to be alone. We need to be non-intrusive and respectful
      of times when our children want to play alone or color
      alone or to simply be alone. We donít need to force
      alone time on our children by shutting them away from
      us, but rather we can help them create the capacity for
      self-enjoyment by giving them time to entertain
      themselves while we are unobtrusively nearby. Even a
      baby has this experience, while being held on his
      motherís lap or snuggling inside a baby wrap. Itís really
      a misnomer to think that a baby must be put down in
      order to experience his own separate body and mind.
      Even while being held, he is having his own thoughts,
      feelings, and sensations. Research has shown that, for
      example, a 3-month-old pair of conjoined twins already
      knew the difference between sucking their own thumb
      and sucking the thumb of their sibling.

      Part of our job, as parents, is to help our baby feel
      comforted in negotiating the feelings that come from
      his sense of littleness and powerlessness. I often think
      of myself as a "human pacifier" because I can provide
      immersive moments through comfort, nurturance, and
      soothing to my children when they ask for, and need,
      my help.

      TNP: After addressing the disease of
      detachment in the first half of Creating the
      Capacity for Attachment, you present
      breakthrough ideas concerning an approach to
      psychotherapy that facilitate the healing process
      for persons suffering it. Why did you choose to
      focus on this?

      KW: Psychotherapy is a wonderful place for people
      to discover the joy of intimacy through putting their
      thoughts and feelings into words. But all too often,
      psychotherapists have fallen short of encouraging the
      attachment process - of encouraging just what it takes
      to heal someone from their wounds of detachment. The
      12-Step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous,
      have done a much better job of helping people
      re-attach to the loving bonds of humanity than,
      traditionally, has psychotherapy. These programs teach
      people how to redirect their very normal need for love
      and attachment to other members of the group, rather
      than to continue seeking comfort from substances. A
      therapist can, similarly, be someone who is willing to
      help create the kind of attachment, love and security
      that was missing in his or her patientís childhood. I
      believe this element has been left out of psychotherapy
      for too long. The level of intimacy that the therapist
      encourages inside the setting of the psychotherapy
      process can be very powerful and healing.

      TNP: In your book, you discuss how you
      enable immersive moments to be part of the
      psychotherapy process in your practice. Can you
      describe this process?

      KW: I look at psychotherapy as a process of
      immersion, of always deepening my knowledge and
      understanding of the person I am sitting with. As he
      puts all his feelings and thoughts into words, he feels
      relief in being understood, in releasing himself from his
      inner demons, and he relaxes in our developing
      relationship. In this empathic process, there is usually a
      deepening of affection and trust. The development of a
      secure base, a secure attachment between us, is
      crucial to the process. Therefore, as with a baby or
      young child, I believe that as the therapist, I must be
      accessible, even between sessions. This is usually of
      great comfort to people, who are used to detachment
      and distance in most of their other relationships.

      TNP: In your book, you comment that youíve
      often been questioned about making yourself so
      accessible to your patients because it might
      create an unhealthy dependency, which might
      even mean that your clients would be calling you
      all of the time, not allowing you the space that you

      KW: It doesnít happen that way. Just knowing that
      Iím accessible is what seems to have been the most
      important part of my accessibility to my patients. I have
      provided the protective wall in which they can operate.
      This is such a direct parallel to the parent-child
      relationship. Attachment parents have been criticized
      for the same reasons. But, in truth, the children, like my
      patients, operate within the protective wall, and they do
      not form an unhealthy dependency. Instead, they do
      their own thing and grow to reach their own potential.
      Just like our children, my patients seem to thrive in the
      knowledge that I am present for them whenever they
      have a need.

      John Bowlby has said that no matter how adult we are,
      as grownups we also do our best when we feel thereís
      someone behind us or underneath us who is holding us
      up. Itís as though we are all acrobats, walking on our
      own tightropes, feeling confident because there is a
      security net beneath us that we can see and believe in.
      This security net gives us the courage to continue
      walking along on our own highwire. This concept is as
      necessary to psychotherapy as it is in childrearing.

      Dr. Karen Walant, author of Creating the Capacity for Attachment:
      Treating Addictions and the Alienated Self, is a psychotherapist in
      Connecticut. She has three children.