Finding my tribe - the ups and downs of social referencing.

Having recently “come out” as a bullying survivor, ( I’ve been doing some thinking about how my experience links to the knowledge base which forms the bedrock of the message that KCA delivers, and how awareness of this could help in my role as trainer/consultant. The most obvious element is the experience of trauma - but I’m going to park that right now, and move on to the area which grabbed me, which was about what we call “Social Referencing”.

What we mean by that is who we turn to, to find safety, guidance, support and connection in the world. It’s natural for infants and young children to seek these comforts from parents or caregivers, if they are available and able to meet these needs. Human babies are not born able to regulate stress, and our immature brains need to connect with adults who are able to regulate their own stress. If this process of co-regulation takes place frequently enough, babies' brains are patterned to develop self-regulation over time.

As we grow, our brains are more complex and can hold more people in mind. This enables a wider social network which is good for our growth and development, and we can get emotional nurture from people other than our parents. At this stage, we tend to look towards our peers to meet these needs. As Psychotherapist Phillipa Perry puts it:

“Teenagers biologically know they need to find a new tribe, because they know you are going to die first. In order for them to find their new tribe they are going to have to make you horrible, as they can’t leave their first tribe if they think their parent(s) are gorgeous and amazing. So they start picking fights with you… don’t take them hating you personally, they have to hate you to find their new tribe”

For children and young people who have never had parents who they see as, “gorgeous and amazing,” because the parent was either absent or unable to meet this need, there is a tendency to develop what can be called, “maladaptive behaviours”. The search for connection, meaning and support becomes focussed on peers who have also often experienced trauma. Some degree of acceptance is found in this sort of group, and expectations of nurturing are low. Co-regulation is unlikely in these relationships, which can be volatile, behaviour anti-social and characterised by collective, emotional and behavioural dysregulation.

Reflecting on my own experience, I’m not sure how well my parents met my needs for co-regulation. My mum was warm and affectionate but also anxious. My father was unable to regulate his own stress. Either way - when I experienced the trauma of frequent bullying all through my school career, for some reason I didn't turn to them. The peer group was everything for me, and even though they were the source of the problem - it remained them to whom I looked for all my social cues.

Even though the connection I felt with the group was regularly interspersed with cruelty, humiliation and racism, not once did I consider breaking the trust of the group and seeking out a safe adult to make it stop. The risk of being isolated was too high and in any case - I thought the problem was in me.

Knowing what I know now, I realise that although I felt loved by my parents, something about the attachment process had left me lacking the self esteem to seek their protection when I needed it. I spent a lot of time in my friendship group in a “freeze” state, dissociating from what was happening to me, and the peers I looked to were unable to help me to regulate the stress I was experiencing.

I am left with the thought that if a relatively comfortable boy like me, from a secure enough background was unable to look for safe, adult social referencing, it is little surprise that young people from much more chaotic environments, and a scarcity of safe adults, can spend much of their life in transient relationships, with others who are equally overwhelmed, and not equipped to provide support and nurture.

How do we make “turning to the light” of safe nurture and containment, a less risky and more attractive prospect, or is it always for the safe adult to seek out those in need and remain available for when the time is right? I’m guessing that many of us end up finding the communities we need in time, but still experience pain and regret, that this was not sooner.