NP0008 The Great Attachment Debate

This blog focuses on discussion regarding the course NP0008 The Great Attachment Debate.

NP0008, Attachment, Session 2, Jerome Kagan


Are we too attached to attachment theory? In this session with leading child psychologist Jerome Kagan, you’ll get the opportunity to explore the methodology and evidence behind Attachment Theory. Then, you’ll be able to decide whether you think the research shows that temperament or attachment is more significant to human development.

After hearing Kagan talk about the research and theories, please take a few minutes to engage in the Comment Board. Let us know what you think. What did you learn from this session that was new? What was most striking about this session for you? What questions do you have? We invite you to include your name and hometown along with your comment. If you ever have any technical questions, contact support@psychotherapynetworker.org.

08.15.2011   Posted In: NP0008 The Great Attachment Debate   By Psychotherapy Networker
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  • 0 avatar Dr Alex Campbell 08.17.2011 13:14
    If Psychotherapy is all about helping people adapt to the current culture then we are just agents of powerful vested interests, and this is a lousy way to help people. Maybe the 1900 Boston housewife actually would be happier getting relief from an overbearing husband; and maybe the 2011 woman would be happier at home. Individual differences and needs should be weighted heavily against cultural norms
    • Not available avatar Susan Rosenthal 08.20.2011 14:36
      On the social role of the psychotherapist:

      On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure Erving Goffman. Psychiatry, 1952, 15 (4) pp.451-463

      “The psychotherapist is, in this sense, the society's cooler. His job is to pacify and reorient the disorganized person; his job is to send the patient back to an old world or a new one; and to send him back in a condition in which he can no longer cause trouble to others or can no longer make a fuss. In short, if one takes the society, and not the person as the unit, the psychotherapist has the basic task of cooling the mark out.”
  • 0 avatar Walter Mehring 08.17.2011 13:15
    Thank you Dr. Kagan! One of the ideas that appeals to me most that you offered is that we are not trapped by our early childhood experiences into disfunctional relationships. New theraputic experiences can alter client response those early experiences. I like the hopeful edge that offers.
    Yours, Walter Mehring
  • Not available avatar ALeung 08.17.2011 13:25
    Very interesting and thought provoking session that resonates with me. Just like belief in the therapeutic regimen and the therapist is helpful, belief in the medication treatment is helpful too, as we're finding. Even if the person knows they're taking a placebo pill, it still works! So I imagine that even if the person knows that this is the brand of therapy they believe in for some reason versus other brands, it will work. All the more reason for transparency and education of the patient and the therapist.
  • Not available avatar David J. Kest 08.17.2011 13:35
    A great discussion about the forces at play between temperament/nature and nurture/environment. Seems like much more research is needed. Interesting to note that in the early 20th century, the founder of Waldorf Education, Rudolf Steiner, was keenly aware of the importance of a child's temperament, with the unfolding distinct developmental phases, being stimulated interacting within an enriched/nurturing (school) environment. He understood that "it takes a village." Thank you Dr. Kagan for your contributions to this ongoing discussion!
  • 0 avatar Randi McAllister-Black 08.17.2011 14:55
    Could you kindly post the 3 elements that Dr. Kagan said are important when a therapist is helping a client.
    Thank you,
    Randi McAllister
    • 0 avatar Mary McGill 08.18.2011 00:50
      This is what I wrote. Please feel free to add anything I missed:
      1. Therapist and patient/client agree on problem, whether or not it is valid. It does not need to be the truth. Here the client feels understood by the therapist.
      2.The patient/client must perceive the therapist as wise and knowledgeable about their problem.
      3.The therapist and patient/client agree on what the therapeutic regimen is.
    • Not available avatar j kagan 09.01.2011 11:29
      The therapist and client agree on the cause of the problem and the best cure and the client respects and likes the therapist
  • Not available avatar Joan Merlo L.C.S.W. 08.17.2011 21:56
    Dr Kagan, Although the influences you mentioned are clearly important, aren't we still Talking about ATTUNEMENT & receptivity, mirroring & empathy as the tools or instruments needed to build successsful bonds between parent & child (at various stages) or between therapist and client? It seems to me these are still the essential qualities describing the supportive & healing dynamics of the "good enough" relational or attachment environment; a milieu which would by its very nature include awareness about the variables you mention as part of the secure attachment. Joan Merlo
    • Not available avatar J Kagan 09.01.2011 11:31
      In many cultures past and [present attunement was irrelevant Look at colonial Puritan parents or Kikyu parents in Kenya or 18th century Scandinavian parents
  • 0 avatar Jane Petit-Moore 08.19.2011 14:17
    Thank you for a thought provoking discussion. I have two main questions:
    1. How do we unpack the concept of class and identification. Indeed, if we know that class is the strongest predictor of mental illness, then what about class (is it poverty, stress, threats of violence, social insecurity, etc) that impacts development and to what extent? How do they impact each other in a causal model?
    2. As a recent graduate student, I am struck by how little class figures as a concern in therapists' education. I believe I was taught about how to recognize my biases in an effort not to alienate a diverse clientele, and also to recognize biases in treatment. However, I do not believe that I have been taught about how to work on class issues -- and to understand what nodes/ issues are important in class experience. In fact I would say that the training undervalues the role of class -- in an effort perhaps to counteract inherent class bias in our culture.
    Eliza Gomart, MA
    • Not available avatar Susan Rosenthal 08.20.2011 14:01
      Good question.

      Mental illness is defined in relation to class. The behavior of the elite is presumed to be normal and the behavior of the oppressed is presumed to be deviant or sick, unless it serves the interests of the elite in which case it is also presumed to be normal.

    • Not available avatar JKagan 09.01.2011 11:36
      Each society has a set of tasks to master for adaptation. Every society has one group who have power and privilege and one group with far less power. That fact means that each will adopt different strategies to cope and will socialize their children in different ways.But those with less privilege will be under greater stress because they do not possess the needed traits and so more symptoms. Being poor in modern societies is a serious source of stress.
  • Not available avatar Sarah Roehrich 08.19.2011 14:32
    Dr. Kagan and Rich,
    Thank you for providing such an illuminating discussion on the history of attachment theory, temperament, and the influences of historical context, social class, and culture, on the development of children and societies. I highly recommend "The King's Speech," a movie about King George VI who learns with the help of Lionel Logue to overcome his stutter, and captures many of these elements Dr. Kagan describes extremely well. As a mother and a speech therapist, I also very much appreciated Dr. Kagan's comments that when you are the parent of a child with a cheerful disposition, it is easy to be kind to that child. But, when you have a child who is difficult, it is much harder to be consistently kind in your response. Thank you again for making this discussion freely available to everyone. It was greatly appreciated!

  • Not available avatar Ronit Gross 08.21.2011 09:45
    This discussion left me wanting to see the results of a study showing the development of babies of similar temperaments but completely different caregiver reactions to those temperaments. The mother who is incredibly anxious about her child's shyness and let's them know in some way that their inner temperament is wrong or weak. The father who, in his own insecurity and vulnerability, lashes out the toddler who directly challenges him with the confidence born of her inate temperament. I agree that temperament is an important factor independent of caregiver reaction but also believe that the reaction of the caregiver to the specific temperament is of great importance in development. Race, culture, religion are also huge factors in how society "parents" the individual--in what ways do they accept this person based on who they are (same as temperament) or reject them? I wasn't as convinced by Kagan's arguments for the respected professor and professionals who still doubted themselves only because of society prejudice. Clearly society prejucide is an important factor but what about the way that society prejudice influenced the parents of these professionals and they ways they were able to intimately connect with their children? Trauma survivors who still live to some degree in the trauma (for example, a racist or antisemitic society) may have barriers in abilities to connect with their children based on thier own sense of unworthiness and basic fear. And to add, someone being the President of a University with career success does not remove them from emotional dysfunction. How are we defining success?
    Additionally, I as a therapist am not going to tell a client that, because this is the year 2011 she should be working and then she'll be more fulfilled. I believe that one of my roles as a therapist is to explore with a client the ways that customs and beliefs of current culture are affecting them in order to, as Kagan promotes, help them and myself to understand and come to an agreement around where the distress lies and how to address it. This is, of course, in addition to the issue of temperament and ways client was parented as well as experiences outside the family of origin.
    I was also wondering if Kagan was defining class as financial, education or a combination of both. Do people feel they have more in common with someone who has a similar education but not similar wealth or someone who is financially as secure but differently educated? Do they feel more valued by society due to wealth or education which do not always go hand in hand? My experience is that education appears a stronger factor due in part to a mastery component and as more and more people are going to college and loans to do so are becoming wider known and easier to recieve, I wonder how this will influence these arguments. Great discussion, thank you.
    • 0 avatar Sarah Roehrich 08.22.2011 20:28
      Dear Ronit,
      I just wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I, too would love to read about such a study looking at babies with similar temperaments and completely different caregiver responses. Your questions and input on this discussion are invaluable, thank you again for sharing them.
      Best wishes, Sarah Roehrich
      • Not available avatar Ronit Gross 08.24.2011 18:23
        Thank you Sarah- all so incredibly fascinating!

  • 0 avatar Paula reeves 08.21.2011 11:09
    The richest part of this attachment debate series is the point-counterpoint. Like most therapists I do have a bias acquired via experience, patient profile (IE class, etc.,) and of course context--always context. I smiled as I listened to the examples of historical differences. Most of us treat multicultural, diverse economic strata clients and since I am located in the south we here have to be regionally astute-aware of urban vs rural-old south vs newbies-and on and on. Internet therapy may disappear when the novelty wears off but for now I applaud internet education. Thanks Rich and all.
  • Not available avatar Richard Hill 08.21.2011 18:26
    Perhaps the fact that there is a debate indicates the degree to which ideas have become static and, in becoming static, face the natural process of entropy and decay. What I particularly notice about this presentation is that Attachment Theory is not being discarded, but placed back into a wider mix of ideas, theories and practices. It is the interplay between the different elements that gets lost when we get stuck in a single idea. These elements are extracted from the whole and they certainly give us greater insight. It is not, however, the separateness of the theory that makes it powerful, but how we are better able to understand the collective interplay because we have separated the elements. At the bottom line of therapy Kagan reminds us that it is the interpersonal process of mutual engagement that seems to open the door to making beneficial change. So simple, but then again so difficult.
  • Not available avatar Dorothy Lifka 08.21.2011 23:32
    One thing left out of the discussion thus far is the importance of adverse childhood experiences. I wonder what the correlation is between number of ACEs and social class.
  • Not available avatar David Flohr 08.22.2011 21:12
    Thank-you Dr. Kagan for sharing your time and wisdoms with us and thanks Rich for your activist role in "getting Jerry". I found myself listening and often nodding, sometimes up and down and other times side to side.... realizing yet again that just as the "attachment debate" heats up..what emerges is similarity. Dr. Kagan notes at the end that it is through the connection between us humans that we can again feel restored and hopeful.

    Conceptually I have two comments; firstly in working with parents for 30 years I finally realized that most are far more focused on self improvement and improving felt relationships with their kids then in wondering if their child's attachment pattern will persist into adulthood. I also am particularly interested in others learnings and ideas regarding how we can mentor and guide parents to utilise their attachment relationship with their child to bring forth the positive expression of the child's basic temperamental proclivities. How does one engender "gene expression" in a pro-social manner which also includes a child's vitality and uniqueness. Could a refined/expanded/updated attachment model be one of these methods? Can we find a pathway which begins to integrate psychoanalytic, attachment, genetic and social learning models of human behavior and development???
    I look forward to this conversations unfolding over the next several months.
  • 0 avatar Clyde Tigner 08.22.2011 22:53
    I thoroughly enjoyed this session of the debate. I am amazed that Dr Kagan has found no evidence to support attachment theory! Thank you very much for this important discussion!!
  • Not available avatar anon 08.23.2011 00:51
    Dr. Kagan talked about class being first, then wiring, then the first year. I am an upper middle class woman, wiring- sensitive, emotional, and grew up with an ambivalent, not so nurturing mother. I got all the things I (and my mom I think) thought I needed- good education, never worried about food or money, lots of activities, etc. I'm 37 and finally recovering (through therapy) from borderline personality disorder. Everything I had was "picture perfect"- unless you look a little closer. As a sample of one, which of course is meaningless, I fall on the side of attachment being the biggest factor...I guess because I'd rather not think there's something inherently "wrong" with me. And if I thought that, I don't think I'd have worked so hard to correct all the things I've worked so hard to correct.
  • Not available avatar Kathy Hardie-Williams 08.23.2011 02:09
    I enjoyed Dr. Kagan's session with Rich on attachment theory. One question...he mentioned that the therapist needs to 'agree with the client' on what the problem is in terms of how the client perceives the problem. What if the client is not willing to take responsibility for their therapy in terms of confronting the issues that keep them stuck? At what point do we, as therapists, challenge our clients so that change can occur?

    Thank you in advance for a wonderful and informative session.


    Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT
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