Attachment Foundations: Regulation Systems (1)

In my discussions you will frequently hear me use the term “regulation,” so let me take a moment to discuss the meaning of “regulation” relative to child development and the brain.

The brain has a variety of regulatory systems, with the attachment system being one of the primary systems for regulating emotions, behavior, and particularly relationships.

A useful analogy for understanding the concept of “regulation” is the thermostat.  When the temperature gets too warm in a room, the thermostat registers this and turns on the air conditioner to bring the temperature back down into a comfortable range.  Similarly, if the temperature in the room gets too cold, then the thermostat turns on the heater to return the temperature to a comfortable range.  The thermostat “regulates” the temperature of the room so that the temperature remains in a comfortable mid-range.

The brain works in the same way, acting to regulate emotions, behavior, and social relationships so that the person’s state remains organized and integrated with the environment and social field, a comfortable mid-range of emotions, behavior, and social cooperation.  Emotions that are too intense or conflicted, or demands that are too frustrating can lead to dysregulated emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal displays.  Meanwhile, the brain’s regulatory networks seek to maintain the organism in an organized and well-regulated mid-range comfort zone, and there are a variety of brain systems that act to maintain the integrated regulation of our emotions, behavior, and social relationships.

The Development of Regulatory Systems

We build what we use:  Brain cells and brain systems develop based on the principle of “we build what we use.”  Every time we use a brain cell or a particular brain network the connections within that network become stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient through “use-dependent” neural processes.  We build what we use.  If you want to learn to hit a baseball, you go to the batting cage and hit baseballs over-and-over again.  If you want to memorize a phone number, you repeat it back to yourself over and-over again.  We build what we use.  The renowned neuroscientist, Donald Hebb, referred to this use-dependent development as, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Based on the requirements of this use-dependent approach to neural development, the brain employs a dual-system of “experience expectant” and “experience dependent” maturation in which the brain expects certain categories and types of experience and is already “pre-wired” in certain brain areas to receive these experiences (i.e., brain development is “experience-expectant”), and meanwhile the exact nature of the specific patterns that are laid down in these “pre-wired” areas is dependent on the specific nature of the experiences the person has (i.e., brain development is “experience-dependent”).  This integrated dual-process of experience-expectant and experience-dependent brain development is most clearly illustrated in our acquisition of language.

The Example of Language Acquisition

One of the primary regulatory systems of the brain is language, and the development and functioning of the language system can shed light on how other regulatory systems develop and function.

The brain expects that it will be exposed to language and already has certain areas pre-wired to acquire the rich complexity of language (experience-expectant).  However, the specific language that is learned, Chinese, French, Russian, is dependent upon which specific language the child is exposed to during sensitive periods of development (experience-dependent).

Language is also a primary regulatory network, serving to regulate emotions, behavior, and social relationships in order to keep them in an organized and comfortable mid-range of effective functioning. When we use language to express our emotions there are inhibitory networks from language and communication channels back to the emotion system that help quiet the intensity of the emotion (Greenspan & Shanker, 2004).  Language also helps us regulate our emotions and behavior through internalized self-talk (thinking) in which we can organize and direct our actions in planning and execution.  One of the primary regulatory functions of language is with our social relationships, in which language allows us to cooperatively organize our interpersonal relationships.  Language is a primary regulatory system that develops through an integrated combination of experience-expectant and experience-dependent developmental processes.

The primary organizational patterns that are laid down in the language system by experience-dependent development occur during a sensitive period of early childhood development, primarily between the ages of one to five years old.  This is the period when the basic structure of grammar is acquired.  The brain expects that it will acquire grammar and already has dedicated brain systems and structures ready to acquire the grammar of language, but each specific language will have its own unique grammatical structure.  The grammatical structure of Chinese is vastly different from that of French, yet the developing brain is equally adept at acquiring the underlying grammatical structure of either language.  The exact patterns laid down in the language system are experience-dependent.

And while the specific underlying patterns of language are acquired during a time-limited sensitive period of early childhood, we nevertheless use these underlying patterns of language throughout our lifespans to regulate our emotions, behavior, and social interactions.  Language isn’t something that’s just relevant to early childhood because that’s the period when we acquire the patterns of language.  We use the patterns of language we developed in childhood throughout our lives, from childhood to old age.

The Attachment System

In the 1970s a seminal psychological theorist, John Bowlby, identified another primary regulatory system in the brain, the attachment system.  The attachment system likewise acts to regulate our emotions, behavior, and social relationships throughout our lifespans, with a particular focus on regulating our emotionally close and intimate relationship bonds.

The attachment system developed across millions of years of evolution, just like the language system did, because of the survival advantage that children’s attachment bonding to parents confers, and the attachment system likewise develops through a combination of experience-expectant and experience-dependent developmental processes.  The brain expects certain attachment-related experiences of close emotional bonding with the parental caregivers, and the brain has pre-dedicated networks already in place to acquire the “grammar” of these relationships, what are called the “internal working models” of attachment relationships (Bowlby, 1969; Bretherton & Munholland, 2008).  The actual specific patterns imprinted onto the attachment networks, however, depend on the specific features of the parent-child relationship.

The “grammar” of attachment, the “internal working models” of the attachment system, is primarily acquired during a sensitive period of early childhood based on the child’s relationship interactions with parental caregivers.  Yet these internal working models of attachment continue to change and develop throughout childhood and adolescence (just like we continue to modify and change our language development throughout childhood), and we use the internal patterns of the attachment system throughout our lifespan to regulate both the formation of emotionally close and bonded relationships, as well as the loss of these emotionally close relationships.

The attachment system is a neuro-biologically embedded primary motivational system analogous to other primary motivational systems for food and reproduction (unlike the language system, which is not a motivational system).  Because we all live in a brain, we are all familiar with the experience of the attachment system.  When we love our mother, our father, our siblings, our grandparents, that’s the attachment system glowing warm within us.  Who we choose for a spouse, why we choose this person, and how we relate to this person, that’s the attachment system operating within us (Feeney & Noller, 1990; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Roisman, et al., 2001; Simpson, 1990)  When we argue and fight with our spouse, trying to improve our relationship and restore our affectional bonding, that’s the attachment system motivating us.  When we grieve the death of our parent, the divorce from our spouse, or the loss of our child leaving home for college, that’s the attachment system.  How we do each of these things, our style of love and loss, represents the manifestation of the internal working models of our attachment system, the “grammar” of our attachment networks (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980).

One of the primary experts in attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth, describes the functioning of the attachment system,

I define an “affectional bond” as a relatively long-enduring tie in which the partner is important as a unique individual and is interchangeable with none other. In an affectional bond, there is a desire to maintain closeness to the partner. In older children and adults, that closeness may to some extent be sustained over time and distance and during absences, but nevertheless there is at least an intermittent desire to reestablish proximity and interaction, and pleasure – often joy – upon reunion. Inexplicable separation tends to cause distress, and permanent loss would cause grief… An ”attachment” is an affectional bond, and hence an attachment figure is never wholly interchangeable with or replaceable by another, even though there may be others to whom one is also attached. In attachments, as in other affectional bonds, there is a need to maintain proximity, distress upon inexplicable separation, pleasure and joy upon reunion, and grief at loss. (Ainsworth, 1989, p. 711, emphasis added)

Transmission of Attachment Patterns

Just like we acquired the patterns of the language system from the language our parents spoke, i.e., the patterns in their language system were transferred to our language system, we acquire much of our attachment patterns, the internal working models of our own attachment networks, from the patterns contained in our parents’ attachment systems (Benoit & Parker, 1994; Bretherton, 1990; Fonagy, Steele, & Steele, 1991; Fonagy & Target 2005; Fraiberg, Adelson, & Shapiro, 1975; Jacobvitz, Morgan, Kretchmar & Morgan, 1991; van Ijzendoorn, 1992).  Just like we acquire the grammar of language from the grammar “files” in the language networks of our parents, we similarly acquire the “grammar” of the attachment system, our internal working models of attachment expectations, from the “files” of our parents’ attachment networks.

The patterns of attachment contained within the parents’ attachment networks are transferred to the children’s attachment networks. This is called the “trans-generational transmission of attachment patterns.”  And here is what is important for understanding the distortions to the child’s attachment bonding motivations in “parental alienation” — any corrupt “files” in the attachment system of the parent will be transferred to the child’s attachment system, just like a regional dialect or accent is transferred in the language system, so that the child’s attachment networks will contain the same corrupt “files” as the parent’s.

The child-initiated cut-off in the child’s relationship with a normal-range, affectionate and available parent represents the manifestation of a set of corrupt “files” in the attachment system of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that are being transferred to the child’s attachment networks, and these corrupt “files” are crashing the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system relative to the child’s attachment bonding motivations toward the targeted parent.

What will be interesting is when, in later blog posts, I open these corrupt files and we read the actual source code that is contained in these files.  We will find that it is a very specific and characteristic code that speaks to the trans-generational origins of the “parental alienation” process.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, CA PSY 18857


Regulatory Function of Language

Greenspan, S.I. and Shanker, S.G. (2004) The first idea: How symbols, language and intelligence evolved from our primate ancestors to modern humans. New York: Da Capo Press.

Internal Working Models

Bretherton, I., & Munholland, K. (2008). Internal working models in attachment relationships:  Elaborating a central construct in attachment theory.  In J. Cassidy & P. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment (pp. 102-130). New York: Guilford Press.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Attachment, vol. 1. (pp. )NY: Basic Books.

Attachment System and Spousal Relationships

Feeney, J.A. & Noller, P. (1990). Attachment style as a predictor of adult romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 281-291.

Hazan, C, & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

Roisman, G.I., Madsen, K.H., Hennighousen, L. Sroufe, L.A., and Collins, W.A. (2001). The coherence of dyadic behavior across parent-child and romantic relationships as mediated by the internalized representation of experience. Attachment and Human Behavior, 3, 156-172.

Simpson, J.A. (1990). Influence of attachment styles on romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 971-980.

Trans-Generational Transmission of Attachment Patterns

Benoit, D. and Parker, K.C.H. (1994). Stability and transmission of attachment across three generations. Child Development, 65, 1444-1456

Bretherton, I. (1990). Communication patterns, internal working models, and the intergenerational transmission of attachment relationships. Infant Mental Health Journal, 11, 237-252.

Fonagy, P., Steele, M. & Steele, H. (1991). Intergenerational patterns of attachment: Maternal representations during pregnancy and subsequent infant-mother attachments. Child Development, 62, 891-905.

Fonagy P. & Target M. (2005). Bridging the transmission gap: An end to an important mystery in attachment research? Attachment and Human Development, 7, 333-343.

Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. (1975). Ghosts in the nursery. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 14, 387–421.

Jacobvitz, D.B., Morgan, E., Kretchmar, M.D., and Morgan, Y. (1991). The transmission of mother-child boundary disturbances across three generations. Development and Psychopathology, 3, 513-527.

van Ijzendoorn, M.H. (1992) Intergenerational transmission of parenting: A review of studies in nonclinical populations. Developmental Review, 12, 76-99

The Attachment System

Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44, 709-716.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Attachment, vol. 1. (pp. )NY: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol. 2. Separation: Anxiety and anger. NY: Basic.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Loss: Sadness and depression. NY: Basic.

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