Developmental Attachment v. Spiritual Detachment: raising children who are capable of letting go of the wrong things and embracing the right things

pope francis prayingAn acquaintance and I were recently chatting when the subject of parenting came up. I explained that I am an “attachment-minded parent”. He chuckled and said, “But we’re Christians. Aren’t we supposed to be detached from created things?” He was only joking (I think . . .), but he does raise an interesting question about the difference between the term “attachment” in developmental psychology and the term “detachment” in spiritual development.  I talked about this topic with Greg and Lisa Popcak recently on their Catholic radio program More2Life.

So, if Christians value spiritual detachment, can our children become too attached to us? Can their attachment to us prevent them from maturing spiritually? I think the contrary is true: a secure attachment in childhood makes it easier for our children to experience spiritual detachment in adulthood.

1. Attachment in Developmental Psychology = GOOD

The term “attachment” in developmental psychology refers to a process by children form (or fail to form) strong bonds and a sense of security with their parents. A child’s attachment style develops in response to repeated interactions with his parents. It’s like a dance between a child’s needs and the parent’s response that creates an internal working model for all of the child’s relationships; it shapes his expectations about other people and how they will treat him when he is vulnerable emotionally or physically.

Secure attachment unfolds when parents respond consistently and warmly to a child’s need for comfort and guidance. This attachment gives children a secure base from which to explore the larger world, and helps them learn to regulate their emotions in response to stress and disappointment.

Insecure attachment might occur because the parents are cold and distant or too harsh (this leads to avoidant attachment). Or the parents may meet the child’s need warmly one day, then disappear the next (this leads to anxious attachment). Children adjust their behaviors to deal with the pain or unpredictability of their relationship with the parent. The outcome is unfortunate. These kids don’t trust others, they struggle in friendships with other kids, they have poor self-esteem, they may be aggressive, or lack empathy.

As they move into adulthood, insecurely attached individuals are frequently crippled in their ability to sustain healthy relationships. Their unresolved emotional pain prevents them from experiencing or forming authentic, loving relationships in which both people are comfortable giving and receiving love. Some adults cope by shutting out people and convincing themselves they don’t need anybody (this behavior is termed “dismissive”). Others become preoccupied by their relationships because they are anxious about the other person’s love for them – they are clingy and needy (this behavior is termed “pre-occupied”). These attachment stances affect their relationships with their co-workers, spouses, children, and even God.

2. Detachment in Spiritual Development = GOOD

Christians strive for spiritual detachment from any inclinations, choices, or relationships that hinder their spiritual growth. We detach ourselves from any obstacle to human flourishing, so that we can in turn re-attach to healthy human relationships and the love of God.

Think of addictions, obsessions, or a tendency to particular sins – these are unhealthy attachments. Sometimes our attitudes toward material goods or status become the problem. More is never enough and before we know it we are imprisoned by our stuff or our “success.” We find it increasingly difficult to connect with the people we most love; our prayer becomes distant and dry. Sometimes detaching may mean getting a new job or purging our house of the objects that are weighing us down, but frequently we just need an adjustment in our attitude and priorities.

Dr. Greg made an interesting point about the difference between Buddhist and Christian views of detachment. For the Buddhist, detachment is about escaping the ego, letting go of the prison of our personalities, so that we can fall into the void of the universe.  This escape is the goal; it is an end in itself.  For the Christian, detachment is about weaning ourselves from unhealthy approaches to relationship so that God can teach us his plan for relationships.  The end goal for us is loving communion with God and each other.  Detachment for the Christian is a means to that end.

Maturing Christians even detach themselves from preferring one thing to another. Should my son go to this school or that one? Should I attend a baseball game or my brother’s piano recital? Should I take this new job or stay at my current one? Detachment leads us to a place where we don’t prefer one choice to another; we just want to do what God wants because we love him so much. Most of us struggle with this kind of detachment, but it’s a possible for us all!

3. Moral of the Story

Cooperating with God to form in our child a secure attachment and capacity for self-giving love will actually make it easier for her to experience spiritual detachment later. Because spiritual detachment requires a kind of inner balance in our hearts toward things and relationships. People with adult attachment disorders often claw at things or people out of a desperate unmet need. This desperation keeps them imprisoned in pain. If our children are emotionally whole, they will be more free to get about the business God has for them to do.

If you’d like to listen to my interview with the Popcaks, it starts about 20 minutes into the show.  Better yet, enjoy the whole show!  The Popcaks addressed problems with connection in our relationships:

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