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The Case for Policies and Boundaries Through the Lens of Attachment Research and Neuroscience

GME Newsletter | October 2023

The Case for Policies and Boundaries Through the Lens of Attachment Research and Neuroscience

My son taught high school English during the pandemic.  In an effort to help students cope with the upheaval, the administration reduced policies and rules, removing deadlines, cutting back workload, and changing the boundaries of this known educational structure.  Students responded by turning work in late or not at all, disengaging from the educational process and acting out.  Academic performances tanked and behavioral issues spiked.  The cause was multifactorial but perhaps looking at this outcome through the lens of attachment and neuroscience can further our understanding.

The brain dislikes unknowns. It prioritizes efficiency and relies on assumptions formed from previous experiences to assess what it encounters. When it cannot find information in its data bank, it will "project to protect,” launching into "what ifs" and worst-case scenarios to project outcomes that we can assess so we feel “safe and prepared” in the face of these unknowns.  

Let’s say you’re running on the Pipeline Trail, and you encounter a giant rattler. You turn tail and head back the other way.  In nanoseconds your brain has noticed and assessed the situation. You have reacted and are safe.  Then the next time you are on Pipeline, it's a windy day. There is a giant stick in the trail. Your brain yells, "SNAKE!" and off you go, back from the direction you came. 

Unchecked "what ifs" and worst-case scenarios cause stress and anxiety and are not actually happening. No snake. Run interrupted. Being in the presence of stated "knowns" can interrupt the subcortical, reactive process.

The more we feel in potential or real peril, the greater chance we will "flip our lid”; our prefrontal cortex goes off line so we can engage fully in fight, flight, freeze or fawn for protection. We don’t want to stop and see how big the snake is, assess if it can hurt us.  We need to remove ourselves immediately.  When there is an actual threat, this is lifesaving. However, the assumptive brain can view a present, non-threatening situation as a previously experienced threat.  The smoke alarm goes off without an actual fire.

Back to our students.  They were dealing with a bounty of unknowns (the pandemic) coupled with a removal of many knowns (policies, boundaries, and rules).  They were reacting to the unknowns of the pandemic without the safety of rules and policies.  When structure is not present, children push for that structure with behaviors that demand it.  

Policies and boundaries provide structure, consistency, and transparency as they define what is expected. The message to the brain is, an experienced person is present and is setting the path so I trust this process and know I will be ok. This signals safety to the subcortical, survival structures of the brain. 

When a student feels trust and safety, they are more likely to engage in a calm, open, conscious and self-regulated way, acting from the prefrontal cortex - the seat of self-regulation -  as opposed to the displayed reactivity of the midline survival structures in the face of unknowns.

How we communicate when we enact policy matters, too.  If we deliver policy with a helping of punishment or aggression, this can cause the lid of the message receiver to flip.  Social engagement breaks down and connection and communication are severed. 

This lid-flipping can take place when we feel we are in trouble with an authority figure.  The brain values these relationships and prioritizes them.  If an authority figure is upset, moves away from us, or acts aggressively punitive, the brain perceives a survival threat.  Just like the snake on the trail, you are thrown into a subcortical survival response.

This is the age-old question. How can we consistently require and uphold boundaries in ways that foster positive relationships?  If you integrate a caring, calm approach to the enforcement of policies, you provide safety, trust, and a space to regulate and integrate self into the system, whether that is a family or an institution.

The word discipline is derived from the Latin, "disciplina", meaning "instruction and training".  A disciple is one who learns/is taught.  This can be a very helpful distinction to understand policy and its enactment.  It ties together what we have discussed above.  Discipline is not to punish or threaten, but to teach.  

Therefore, we uphold policies with a calm strength and consistency, using our own self-regulatory process to assist the "disciples" in their own learning and regulatory processes. 

As learners feel supported, cared for and safe in those consistent policies, they too, can respond in an open, receptive, accepting way.

Structure matters.  How we uphold that structure matters.  When we combine both in a conscious, consistent way, we increase our chances for positive outcomes, learning and growing safely in the face of broken rules, and in a connected, respectful community.


Lisa Menninger - LCMHC
Wellness and Psychotherapy
Neuro-Integrated Counseling

1174 Graystone Way
Suite 8
SLC, UT 84106