Entropy Rules

Mindfulness Parenting:

Practicing Non-Attachment Trauma Recovery

    Mindfulness enables a parent to offer presence to their child, and enhances reflective functioning and contingent responding (Stacks et al., 2014). Interacting with the child in these ways promotes similar capacities for mindfulness and self-awareness within the child (Wallin, 2007). Mindfulness supports presence via supporting the ability to tolerate and respond to (rather than react to) strong affect (Bialy, 2006). Several studies have found that a mother's mindfulness was linked to a reduction in problematic (e.g., aggressive) behaviors in their children in small samples of dyads involving children with a diagnosis of ADHD or autism-spectrum disorder (Singh et al, 2006; 2007; 2010). This suggests parent and child behavior are interconnected, and a parent might influence positive changes in their child's behavior by acting with more mindfulness while parenting.
    Another way in which mindfulness and attachment are related is that both serve to regulate emotion (e.g., Chambers et al., 2009). For example, Pepping, O'Donovan, & Davis (2013) found that difficulties in emotion regulation fully mediated the relationship between adult attachment anxiety/avoidance and mindfulness in a convenience sample of college undergraduates, providing preliminary evidence that emotion regulation is a key mechanism through which these two constructs are related. Another study of a large Australian community sample showed an inverse relationship between mindfulness and psychological distress that was mediated by reduced adult attachment anxiety and emotion regulation deficits (McDonald et al., 2016). Pickard, Caputi, and Grenyer (2016) identified mindfulness and emotion regulation as sequential mediators in the association between attachment security and depression. Mindfulness and emotion regulation fully mediated the associations between self-reported secure, avoidant, and anxious adult attachment and depression in a sample of college students. Secure attachment was shown to be associated with mindfulness and emotion regulation capacities, which in turn predicted less depressive symptomology (Pickard et al., 2016).
    Adult survivors of child maltreatment have been demonstrated to struggle with emotion regulation more so than their non-maltreated peers (e.g., Kobak & Madsen, 2008, Siegel & Hartzell, 2014), so a practice that could function to develop emotion regulation capacities would be helpful for this population. In fact, some evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation can lead to improvements in related constructs, such as perceived stress, in individuals reporting insecure adult attachment. Cordon, Brown, and Gibson (2009) looked at the differential impact of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (an 8-week mindfulness-based intervention developed by Kabat-Zinn (2013)) on samples of secure and insecurely attached individuals. The insecure group, while reporting significantly more perceived stress at the beginning of the MBSR course, reported marginally lower stress levels compared to secure individuals following the intervention (Cordon et al., 2009).
    Further evidence suggests that attachment and mindfulness are more strongly related in people who meditate compared to those that don't. Pepping, O'Donovan and Davis (2014) investigated the amount of variance in mindfulness explained by adult attachment anxiety and avoidance in a group of experienced meditators and a group of people without meditation experience. Adult attachment explained more than twice the variance in mindfulness in meditators compared to nonmeditators. Additionally, the size of the negative association between mindfulness and attachment anxiety was significantly greater in the meditating group and moderated by meditation experience (Pepping et al., 2014). These findings are suggestive that intensive meditation training may be related to attachment processes in beneficial ways, although causality cannot be deciphered with this cross-sectional study alone.
    To further explore whether mindfulness might relate to attachment in a causal way, Pepping, Davis, and O'Donovan (2015) experimentally investigated the bidirectional relationship between state mindfulness and state attachment security (see Appendices for construct clarifications). They induced a state of mindfulness in participants but did not find the hypothesized increase in state attachment security. Similarly, successfully priming a state of secure attachment did not lead to hypothesized increases in state mindfulness. They hypothesized that the reason they did not find the expected links is because they failed to engage the relevant common variable: emotion regulation, which is more salient in situations involving negative distress.
    In a follow-up study, Melen, Pepping and O'Donovan (2016) attempted to activate the need for emotion regulation by priming specific attachment related thoughts and feelings, while also looking for related changes in state mindfulness. Attachment was primed by asking participants to visualize and write about relationships in which they experienced thoughts and feelings indicative of anxious or avoidant adult attachment. State mindfulness was assessed via self-report. The results indicated that priming attachment anxiety did lead to reduced state mindfulness; this association was found to be mediated by reduced emotion regulation capacity. However, no such association was found when priming attachment avoidance. The authors speculated this could be due to some overlap between avoidant emotion regulation strategies (e.g., non elaborative cognitive style, inhibited threat processing) and mindful processing (Melen et al., 2016). It would be interesting to test the variables in the opposite order, inducing state mindfulness and observing whether or not anxious attachment representations shift in positive ways.
    Some cross-sectional research suggests this may be the case. Davis, Morris, and Drake (2016) found that adult attachment anxiety, but not avoidance, predicted lower well-being (in this study, a composite variable consisting of depression, anxiety, and stress). Mindfulness significantly moderated the association. Those high in both attachment anxiety and mindfulness enjoyed greater well-being compared to those anxiously attached individuals who were lower in mindfulness. For anxiously attached individuals, the capacity for mindfulness may buffer against negative outcomes related to well-being (Davis et al., 2016).
    To summarize, the constructs of mindfulness and secure attachment are both characterized by increased self-awareness, decreased schema-driven processing, better emotion regulation (e.g., Arch & Craske, 2006; Shaver & Mikulincer, 2009), and improved well-being (e.g., Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007b). Mindfulness and attachment have been shown to share associations with multiple indices of psychological adjustment including healthy interpersonal relationships (e.g., Pepping, O'Donovan, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Hanisch, 2014), better romantic relationships (e.g., Pepping & Halford, 2016), and lower rates of mental illness (e.g., Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012; Brown & Ryan, 2003). Although the mostly cross-sectional, self-report studies reviewed here support the notion that mindfulness and secure attachment are potentially related in beneficial ways, higher quality studies are needed to further understand the extent to which attachment related sequelae are malleable through mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs).

⇲ About The Author

Robin Hertz, MA is currently in the process of completing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon.