Dr. Deborah MacNamera: Addictions piggyback on our brain's love & attachment centres

Faculty Member of the Neufeld Institute, Registered Clinical Counsellor, and Author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One), Deborah MacNamera, Ph.D, discusses the importance of looking at people not through their actions or behaviour, but through the innate, physiological drivers that influence that behaviour.

Tracy: In a recent interview about your new book, Rest, Play, Grow, you stated that we need to “end our cold style of parenting”. This really stood out to me because we now know that parental affection significantly impacts brain development. In your own words could you expand on this comment further?


Dr. MacNamera: If you look at what the most essential human need is, you’ll always find you go back to relationship and attachment, which is especially true the younger you are. Everything we do in terms of raising a child, whether you're a teacher, a coach, a parent, or a grandparent, we always have to look through the lens of the relationship. Oftentimes we look at people through the lens of their actions and their behavior, also know as a “behavioral worldview”, but what we now know is that there are incredible innate drivers: instinct and emotion that drive those actions and behavior. The more immature [in the developmental sense of the word] you are, the less you understand and can control what those drivers are, and the more important it is for the adults in your life to help you understand and assist in the tempering of those emotions and instincts. Because our primary role as adults is to help children have a healthy relationship with things that drive behavior. Imposed ‘consequences’ or a strict focus on behavior misses the mark on the whole internal world of a child. We want to grow that child by understanding the emotions that lie behind that behaviour, because that's where true maturity comes from. When we talk about maturity, it’s [less about age and more] about a place of being able to relate to others as a social and emotional being. It's really that place, most of all, that is where you want to help a child grow.


You’ve noted that under the age of six, we need attachment: we need to be looked at, we need to be touched, we need to be held. I like the quote of yours saying that, “We need to be full of attachment in order to venture forth”. Explain how this works.


When you look at human development, you realize that there is a lot that goes into growing someone into maturity. We need to be tethered to someone who can protect, who can guide, who can orient, who can help us understand our emotional worlds a lot better so that we can turn them into language and communicate them. Humans are incredibly complex when you look at development and the amount of time that it takes for that development. So it would only stand to reason that attachment is an incredible bonding force that ties us to each other for the purpose of caretaking, and to assure healthy social connections going forward. But it's also more than that. It's also about our emotional systems. Attachment is meant to take care of the ‘heart’ [figurative emotion centre]. The ‘heart’ can get hurt: it faces rejection, betrayal, it gets overwhelmed, and all other sorts of things. That's the beauty of the heart; it feels both joy, but also sadness.

I don't think we're meant to experience despair alone. Greater despair happens when there is a lack of attachment. Hope is longing for connectedness in some way with your society or directly with partners. This is all why attachment is fundamentally wired into us as human beings. We seek to be with other people for a reason. That's how you build communities, that's how you build families, that's how you raise kids. It helps care for those strong or overwhelming emotions, or, heartbreak. The consequences of separation or rejection can be huge. The fact is that through attachment in childhood, from those early years and relationships that shaped your brain, you develop as a relational and emotional being and you have a secure foundation to grow from.

When you look at youth and addiction or suicide, the youth that are really struggling with these issues often don’t have secure attachments. Addiction will get in the way of having healthy relationships with others too. All the research bears out consistently that the biggest protective factor for a child is a reliable adult relationship. It buffers against those places that you're not invited; it is meant to provide some grounding when the world is overwhelming. Because everyone will face adversity at some point, but do those individuals have someone to turn to when they go through it? Or do those in their lives abandon them when things get tough. That's why attachment is important because it tethers you to a home, and helps care for the pain experienced by rejection.


So clearly during the infant years when our brains are developing so rapidly, attachment is critical, but it’s interesting that it also applies into and past the toddler years too.


In the first six years you unfold primarily as a relational being. A child isn't born fully developed. In an ideal development, kids need about six solid years of strong relationship, consistency and predictability in the adults who take the lead in that relationship. By the time a child is six, they should be more developed, meaning that they’ve become a little relational being that can separate from you and can venture forthfor example, becoming a student and going to school. If given these reliable conditions of attachment, they can face adversity on their own and they can often grow from adverse experiences, because they have that solid grounding and support from home. So once you get to that point, it’s just a matter of deepening relationship over the years. An adolescent should be able to then build relationships with friends, and later with partners. What we hope for a child is that they have enough relational means met where they can then unfold the dynamics that are going to spring that child into maturity. So of course you want to get it kick-started at an early age, and move on, but it’s necessary for a teenager and even adults to have secure attachment to loved ones as well.


I’ve also heard the saying that, “The more dependent you are allowed to be on your relationships, the more independent you become. ” Yet it sounds counter-intuitive: parents often think if they push the child away and just tell them, “Go be independent”, that somehow this will make them independent, but that’s not the case?


No it’s not. It does seems counter-intuitive because it’s much easier to just tell someone to act in a way you want them to, but that’s not how humans work. The purpose of attachment is to render a child dependent upon you, which is healthy, not unhealthy, because then that child can rest in your care with ease. When this happens, they don't have to be consumed about their relational needs not being met. If the parent is responsive, if the parent invites the child to be open with their needs, and if the parent reads the child's needs and provides, then the child’s relational brain can sit back and go, "Okay. Attachment base, covered."

We see that in adult relationships as well. Once your relational needs are met, in that moment, you’re at rest - you’re not in fight-or-flight [stress] mode. All of this pushes us forward to maturation which means we can tend to novel and new things; we’re engaging with the world, there is a sense of vitality, there is a sense of venturing forth. So our biggest job as parents is to fill our children’s relational needs which will inherently provide a restful environment, in which they can venture forth. If dependency leads to independence, you don't work at independence, you work at dependency, and then nature takes care of the rest.


This can understandably become difficult because we live in a world structured for adults. If a parent has a 9am meeting, but the child gets intrigued by a stick on the sidewalk, how do parents deal with those challenges? How would you let that child explore that curiosity, when you need them to kick up the pace so you can get to your meeting?


Yes, so there's nothing wrong with having schedules. Structure and routine are part of life and parents will always have adult things to do, whether it is in the house or out of the house. That has always been true when we have raised our children. In the early years, our children need to have the time and space to play, so that they can develop the self. They do need to play within a structured boundary; it is not just a free-for-all. We’re always weighing the demands of reality and knowing what our children need. Parents have had to do this in every different culture around the world. There is this hum in nature that pushes development along, when we A) take care of relationships, and B) give space and time to play. Then it gets down to the nitty-gritty of life where you have to make food, or you have to get them to bed, or off to an event.

What my message is, and what our focus is at the Neufeld Institute, is really in helping parents get in the driver's seat. So when we are faced with all of these competing demands, how do they find a way to steer through it all? What's most important for their child? We try to assure that they are being empowered to make those decisions. We all have friends who parent very reactively, and people are always saying, "Don't just react to your child every time they cry, because then they’ll associate crying with your attention", which won’t allow the parent to be in the driver's seat. Rather, you have to read their needs. Why is your child upset? Is it something that you can help with? Again, how does that parent understand that child? How did they use their intuition? How did they use their knowledge as a parent to help that child with their particular need? The more a child feels cared for, the more they rest; the more they rest, the more they grow; the more they grow, and become their own separate, social, and adaptive being.


In your book Rest, Play, Grow, you of course discuss the importance of play. I have a fond memory of taking our dolls into the backyard and making new clothing for them out of leaves. You talk a lot about imagination in play; of taking something that is not necessarily a toy and turning it into one. Why is that important?


Play is all about expression of the self. It is where the self really comes to the forefront. It's all about how you make sense of your internal world in the external world. You want a child to be able to have some space and freedom, and enough rest, so they can play because they're really making sense of their world through these interactions. What's more important is the engagement in play and what comes out of them, and not what goes into them. This whole element of creation is great. Those clothes you made for your dolls, it doesn't matter if you could turn around and sell them, or even whether or not they would work again after you took them off. The whole point is that this came from a child’s own imagining.

I was watching my daughter set up her doll's house the other day, and she’s created a costume shop, and it's just beautiful. She's got her costumes and she's got them all up for sale. This whole thing has come out of her own imagination, and it's tidy and organized. But I'm sitting there looking at her thinking, "Your room looks nothing like this." Having her room clean is about work, it's not play, so there’s no imagination in it. It only is my expectation, it’s my agenda. It's not play for her. But here in play she's organizing things and she has her own ideas about operating a business; she is creative, and she is imaginative. But if I tried to turn that same principle into her bedroom, it would absolutely kill that energy inside of her. So in play she is getting her hand on the steering wheel of all the things that are going to help her down the road. So sometimes that doesn’t need to be applied in the ways that us parents want them to be applied.


Absolutely. She is learning about it on her own accord, and she understands something because it’s not being forced upon her.


Exactly. She is experimenting with it and seeing what works and what doesn't. She realizes different errors she has made in terms of how she wants her store to work. Children must have a place to play that is free of consequences. It's like the warm-up act for life and what’s to come. That's why play is so important. So much of what we do with our kids today is based around the work mode, or making them into miniature adults. But we’ve got to ask: How is this going to help them? Is it just to suit us? Are they missing out if they don't do it? Children should be spending their time exploring with their imaginations, making a tree into a pirate ship, or a couch into a castle. It is an expression of who they are and how they are coming to be their own separate person.


Absolutely. We want to think of them in terms of the way our brains work but it's not how theirs do. We expect them to sit on the couch, not play on it.


We are stuck in work. Our biggest problem ourselves is that we don't get to play enough!


There are a lot of stories in the media of companies--and even countries--reducing the work hour from 8 to 6, citing that we need to spend more time with friends and family, enjoying longer dinners and walks outside, and even that play is important for adults as well. Why is that?


To put this into context, what underlies the ‘play agenda’ here, is a culture of connection. When you have a culture of connection, you can have a culture of play. Some of the ways we enjoy our time with each other is through play. But it's also through eating, or through music; it can be through sharing, through nature, through storytelling. All of these things are incredibly restorative and many of these things connect us to Mother Earth. When we’re connected to the earth, we’re connected to each other, to our food, to sustenance, and to nourishment. What this is really saying is that we need waystations in our lives to be connected to something else that either we take care of, or that takes care of us. When you have cultures and places that get this right, you're going to see how that impacts social and emotional health and well-being. This goes for adults, children, the elderly, and infants, because we all benefit from that connection, which is the fabric of life.


What's cool is you can actually see the hard evidence of this: how connection reduces blood pressure in adults, how chatting with friends reduces cortisol levels in teenagers, etcetera. It’s not just this flighty "we need to love each other" notion, which some people have a harder time with. There’s an actual science behind our social connections and their impact on our health.


Which proves what our intuition knows: it feels good and we feel rested. We return to life feeling rejuvenated and ready to get back to the things that we do. The chemical that is oftentimes used to study attachment is called oxytocin. We have receptors all over our body that are activated by touch, which is very productive for oxytocin. We know that the limbic centers of the brain--the emotional centers of the brain--are the attachment centers, where the feelings of caring, of being nurtured, of being satiated in terms of connection exist. So those emotional receptors of the brain are responsible for this attachment response. We have different chemicals that mediate this: oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins, to name a few. It is interesting when you're looking at the science coming out now around addictions and technology: these [afflictions] are all piggybacking on those attachment centers of the brain. This really opens up a new understanding of addictions beyond just a chemical dependency coming from the drugs themselves. I think that's very exciting. The field of addiction research is beginning to open the door to some of the psychological understandings as to why it is that we pursue things. These things (drugs) can't actually satiate the hunger that we have for human connection, which is what an addiction is. It’s the constant search for these things, but the drugs only soothe, they don't satiate that need.


It’s not a long term solution, because it’s acting only temporarily on those attachment centres.


It's like the superficial encounter: the smile, the quick hug, the little connections that we have. They feel great, and for good reason; they may soothe someone for a short period of time, but they don't actually answer the bigger hunger, which is a deep, consistent, meaningful, connection with another person that leaves room to allow us to be vulnerable and connected unconditionally. Many people struggling with addictions don’t have that, so if they reach to drugs that act on those attachment centres like the quick smile does, they’ll still have that constant hunger.


Wonderfully put. I’ve taken just about all of your time Deborah, so thank you for speaking with me today, it was an absolute honour.


You’re welcome, thanks for this too Tracy!