Tag Archives: nonlinear systems theory

Growing the Attachment Strategies of Preschool Children

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

I am going to offer several ways of doing this, with the understanding that I will continue to think about it and add more later.

The first option is to intervene in the school setting with the help of teachers and other school professionals. The second is consultation to the parents, for example, video feedback. The third is dyadic or family psychotherapy. The fourth is individual psychotherapy for the child; this would necessarily include meetings with the parents. These options are offered in order of increasing intensity of intervention with the idea that if parents choose an intervention of lesser intensity that proves ineffective, they may then choose a more intensive alternative.

Intervention in the school setting is predicated on the assumption that school is a safe environment; that means that the child is adequately compliant with the teachers’ directives, follows the school routine, can access the school curriculum, and can relate to peers relatively well. If the school is safe for the child, the teacher and parent can prepare him or her for appropriate behavior at pickup by breaking up the transition into manageable steps, previewing the experience, and having a teacher available to coach the child and parent through the reunion.

The parent should follow up afterwards with behavior designed to consolidate the positive reunion by encouraging the child to talk about her day and giving the child comforting feedback for difficulties and positive recognition for achievements. This is the tricky part, because the pattern that gets established when the child makes a fuss about pickup generates stress in both parent and child, so that warm, responsive communication at pickup time is usually contaminated with anxiety. Even when the pickup is successful, both parent and child are anticipating some negative experience. Also, there is an unconscious pull back into the problem pattern. That is because it is a habit, well practiced and therefore “simpler”, taking less energy in the short run, though more in the long run.

The parent can try to make declarative statements instead of direct questions that put the child on the spot – starting the comment with “I’ll bet” or “I wonder if” or “I’m thinking that”, for example, “I’ll bet that you liked the cooking activity today,” or “I wonder if it was sad for you that Martha was absent from school today.” If the child gives monosyllabic responses, just tell her that you guess she needs to rest after a long day and maybe you can talk about it later.

The thinking behind this plan is not strictly behavioral. It draws on Attachment Theory and nonlinear systems theory (odd bedfellows, actually) in that it seeks to practice more adaptive interpersonal patterns – reunion – over and over again, with the input of support (“energy”) from the teachers. If a new strategy for reunion after a separation is more successful and is practiced enough to become a stable part of the parent-child relational repertoire, it can facilitate the child’s development in a more general sense.

I will discuss the other options in subsequent posts.




The second subject that my mothers’ group asked that we discuss is that of “habits”. When I use the word “habit”, I mean a pattern of behavior that is hard to break even when you try very hard. We usually refer to the patterns we want to break as “bad habits”, but of course there are good habits, too. I like to use the principles of nonlinear systems theory to understand the establishment and maintenance of habits. That is not as complicated as it might sound.

Nonlinear systems theory says that “organization”, or patterns, emerge from the interactions of the component parts of a system (von Bertalanffy, 1968). In a family system, this would mean that when family members (parents, children) interact with one another, they create particular ways of behaving (patterns of behavior) that include characteristics of the individuals involved, their home environment, and the time (of day, month, and year). For example, what Sander calls the infant’s first organization, the diurnal sleep cycle, is established through the repetition of small caregiving acts – nursing, burping, bathing, and changing – that the caregiver and infant experience together, as they are repeated in the same order each day over and over again (Sander, 2008). When the baby grows older, the family establishes bedtime routines that parents and children tend to follow every night. Of course these rituals change with the age of the child and the time of the year, so that during school vacations the patterns usually loosen. Whereas families can typically describe to you their bedtime routines, they are usually not aware of the powerful significance of routines in their lives until something happens – houseguests, illness, a family trip – that disrupts the routine. It is then that the family recognizes the role of these patterns in the coherence of family life.

There are two other dominant characteristics of habits. The first has to do with motivation, or intention. Why would anyone intend to establish a bad habit or be motivated to maintain it, you might ask. Well, there are actually many reasons, and not surprisingly, most of them are out of awareness. Some of them are “non-conscious” in that they were never represented in language or other symbols in the brain and most of the time never will be. They usually have to do with efforts to escape perceived threat and are generated by the central nervous system in parts of the brain below the cortex (thinking part of the brain), such as what we refer to as “fight or flight”. You may wonder how fight or flight could qualify as a habit since it doesn’t happen all the time. I would respond that in highly stressed families, individuals feel threatened much of the time, and they develop a “habit” of reacting with aggression or running away (the flight may be a form of withdrawing or tuning out). People make up reasons to explain to themselves why they are behaving that way. For example, “I have to get him to school!” or “I am too tired to deal with this right now.” Even more insidious, they make up stories to explain why the other person (these “habits” originate in relationships) is causing them to behave that way, for example, “He is a little monster!” (Fonagy et al, 2005). Continue reading