By now, many of you have probably seen Pixar’s movie, “Inside Out”. If you haven’t – what are you waiting for? Also – spoiler alert. First, go watch the movie, and then come back and read this post.

“Inside Out” is a beautiful story about a young girl named Riley who is generally happy and well-adjusted – until her father gets a new job and moves the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions, which in the movie are portrayed as cartoon characters representing Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. These emotions live in “Headquarters,” the control center in Riley’s mind and they advise her through everyday life.

What I love about this movie is that it gives a pretty accurate portrayal of emotional development and expression in kids. It is a great way for both kids and parents to start talking about emotions and normalizing the emotions that can sometimes feel like a rollercoaster.

But I want to take it a step further. I also think “Inside Out” paints a great picture of attachment and attunement. We’ve been covering attachment on the blog for the past few weeks, and you can click here to see all of the posts if you need to catch up. So let’s talk about attachment in Riley’s case.

Riley was born to loving parents. They held her and adored her and she felt a sense of connectedness to them since infancy. Through repeated interactions with her parents—feeding, cooing, changing, snuggling, rocking – Riley leans to recognize that her needs will be met and learns to feel secure in the world. This is attachment!

So, attachment can be defined in both behavioral and emotional terms. From a behavioral perspective, all of those instinctive childhood behaviors (reaching, clinging, sucking) help create an attachment bond, help protect a child from fear and harm, and help a child safely explore the world. In the movie, when Riley goes ice skating with her parents, we can see that she has a secure attachment because she feels safe to try the intimidating adventure of ice skating.

Attachment also can be seen from an emotional perspective. When a caretaker rocks, hugs, comforts, and laughs with a child, the child’s brain is being transformed in a positive way. This dependent relationship is as important for human development as the umbilical cord is in utero. Through secure attachments, a child like Riley starts to learn the basis for coping, negotiation of relationships and personality development.

There’s another word that goes hand-in-hand with attachment, and it is attunement. We can’t really talk about attachment without mentioning attunement. What do I mean? Attunement is the reactiveness we have to another person. If you’re a parent, surely you know that moment when you finally figure out your baby’s cry and you can tell the difference between the hungry cry, the tired cry, and the dirty diaper cry. That’s attunement!

Attunement is the process by which a healthy attachment is formed. It can include showing physical connection, providing undivided attention, working to understand a child, reflecting a child’s feelings, etc. Of course we are born with the genetic programming to organize our brain, but it is our experiences that determine which neural pathways are activated. And in our early years, we are dependent on our caretakers to provide us with the experiences that organize those pathways – good and bad.

We see attunement in “Inside Out” and we also see times when Riley’s parents are mis-attuned. Riley’s parents are loving and caring and generally in touch with how their daughter is feeling. And occasionally they have minor mis-attunements, like when Joy and Sadness briefly go “offline” and Riley doesn’t find the family’s goofball jokes funny anymore. But in Riley’s case, her parents get it right more often than not, and the mis-attunements are easy to recover from.

If a child has an insecure attachment, those mis-attunements are much more dangerous. I’m talking about caretakers who don’t attune consistently – sometimes they’re there for the child and other times they’re absent. Or when a caretaker is the source of stress, such as in the case of abuse or neglect. The impact of this is toxic to the developing brain. The brain organizes around fear and that makes it difficult to manage emotions and stress responses.

The movie doesn’t show a second child who has the disadvantage of insecure attachment, but we can all think of one. This is the child who may get completely dysregulated when she has a substitute teacher, or who has a hard time connecting to her peers or teachers, or is anxious or unfocused. In Riley’s case, a cross-country move was a big enough disruption that her emotions starting going offline and her “islands of personality” started falling apart. Imagine the damage that a change like this would do to a child who didn’t have the secure attachment that Riley had.

A great deal of my work involves helping clients who never had a secure attachment with a caretaker. Many of them are parents now themselves, and struggling to form attachments in the absence of any positive model for it. The good news is that the research is clear – an early attachment is critical and important, but later in life, there is always room to develop and grow the brain. Attachment begins on the inside – the brain – and works out – in our relationships with others.

So if you’re a parent, you know the importance of connecting with your child, comforting her when she’s crying, and being attuned to her feelings and experiences. But if you’re a teacher, a coach, a therapist, a mentor, or someone who works with a child of any age, there’s still a role for positive, secure attachment. Think back to the headquarters of Riley’s brain and imagine those islands of personality. Think about those solid lines that connect her brain to her personality. That’s what makes Riley who she is. And the more we can create secure attachments for children, the more we can develop those solid lines and firm up a child’s positive relationships and personality. 

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