Mr. Rogers is Right: Secure Attachment Allows for Growth After Trauma

Childhood is a critical time for discovering and enhancing the secure attachment ideally built in the early years of a parental relationship with a child. Our earliest relationships do a great deal to establish our sense of self and wellbeing. Knowing, “I matter, my needs matter, and my loved ones will help keep me safe” affirms a child’s sense of self-worth.

Secure attachment helps formulate a person understanding about self-careself-compassion, and healthy relationships. These are essential for our wellbeing. The ability to form secure attachment as a child provides a foundation for mental health throughout life.

Secure Attachment Is a Human Need

Unfortunately some children do not grow up feeling seen, loved and accepted for who they are.

Many children experience insecure, anxious or disorganized attachment styles. These can contribute to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These are painful, and can lead to trauma. Children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers cared deeply about the distress children feel.

Even without formal training in psychotherapy, Mr. Rogers consistently helped viewers — especially children — learn the nature of secure attachment. His signature PBS series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, prescribed the elements for secure attachment day after day—even though he never used those words. His programming delivered and taught kindness, love, acceptance and respect. Each episode gave kids assurance that they’re loved for exactly who they are—while showing them how to affirm the same for others.

Fred Rogers consistently presented the essence of emotionally secure relationships for everyone’s benefit. It’s the kind of relationship we all need to grow and thrive as human beings. Anyone can learn to build secure attachment—and it can be established at any point in one’s life!

“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.” –Fred Rogers

Post-traumatic Growth is Possible!

The new documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows us a profound example of post-traumatic growth. It reveals Fred Rogers’ own history of trauma, alluding to his experience of being bullied during childhood, depression, and his own struggles with weight. He endured painful shame and loneliness, and spent time in bed, feeling isolated.

I wonder if Rogers’ messages of self-worth and the affirmations he shared with viewers came from his own healing. I wonder if he wanted to help more children find the acceptance he’d always longed for. It made me think of 12-step meetings in which part of the healing process is helping others through peer support. Each person gains something from being of service to others. My impression is that Mr. Rogers not only explained the basis for secure attachment to many children. His neighborhood also helped him continue to heal, thrive and grow as a person. It was his own act of service.

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” ― Fred Rogers

Secure Relationships Need Not be Perfect to Be Healthy

I especially appreciated how Won’t You Be My Neighbor? portrayed Rogers’ humanity. Even Mr. Rogers wasn’t awesome all of the time. The movie presented the very real perspectives from his sons that it wasn’t always easy growing up with the aura of their father’s sainthood, and that Rogers, as a father, wasn’t always a saint! No matter how far along someone is in their healing—or how much good they do for others—there is always room for self-compassion and growth.

“How sad it is that we give up on people who are just like us.” –Fred Rogers

A Trauma Survivor’s Deepened Sensitivity to Others

People who have experienced trauma may feel greater sensitivity for others because of what was missing in their own lives. They may see the gaps of unmet needs more clearly. When a trauma survivor has come out the other side of a healing journey, still surviving, and thriving, they may be the best equipped to offer secure attachment to others.

“Love and trust, in the space between what’s said and what’s heard in our life, can make all the difference in the world.” ― Fred Rogers

Does Affirming Everyone’s Value Create Selfish People?

One of the critiques of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is that it fostered a generation of people who are selfish because they heard: You’re unique, you’re special! I disagree. I believe that children (and adults!) need to hear and affirm self-worth.

I believe it is a parent’s job to help a child recognize what makes them special! Assuring one person’s value doesn’t happen at the expense of other people. Affirming a child’s abilities is essential to building inner strength, confidence and compassion. Mr. Rogers was teaching self-compassion before it was popular.

This also made me think immediately of Dr. Dan Siegel’s 4 S’s of secure attachment, in which children and adolescents need to feel: Seen, Safe, Soothed and Secure.

The truth is, it is difficult (maybe impossible!) to have love, kindness and acceptance for others if you don’t first have it for yourself!

“Mutual caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain.” –Fred Rogers

How Media Can Strengthen Secure Attachment—or Detract From it It

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in 1968 at a time when many other shows sought laughs at some other character’s expense. The documentary recalls cartoon characters running into things, or watching children getting slimed on Nickelodeon.

Rogers saw a need for something totally different: a show that brought kindness and love. Many years later, after 9/11, Mr. Rogers did a public service announcement as yet another way to unify us using broadcast media and attempting to ask people to respect and love each other.

While TV and technology can bring us together, technology can also isolate us. Family members who sit at the dinner table, eyes glued to their cell phones, can’t give each other secure attachment. A controversial show like 13 Reasons Why or a movement like #MeToo may either isolate us or bring us together. It depends on whether we use them to open up a dialogue.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a feel-good film. Yet it reminds us that media can connect or divide us. It’s important to be mindful of how we’re using media and technology. Ask: Is this bringing us closer—or further apart?

In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.” ― Fred Rogers

Why Everyone Should See Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I wish I could prescribe this movie to the whole world. I would make it required viewing for all people—especially politicians and lawmakers. These universal concepts were relevant in the 60s, they’re relevant today, and they’ll be relevant as long as we’re all human beings.

Mr. Rogers reminds us to “look for the helpers.” That’s a great example of one of my top 8 ways to feel safe right now, specifically number 5: Be a safe space.  

How can we be like Mr. Rogers? Perhaps we can all show more kindness, love, respect and acceptance to those around us.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” – Fred Rogers

143: I Love You

This video shows the special meaning Mr. Rogers found in the number 143. He reminded children: you’ll find many ways to say I love you.

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” –Fred Rogers

Who is Your Mr. Rogers?

You may find important examples of consistency, kindness, love, and respect from people in your life (even a TV show)! Sometimes just one person can help another build the resilience and hope they need. A resource may be a person, a puppet or a pet… something or someone that allows you to feel special and safe.

Here’s a sweet example from the movie, The Help, in which Aibileen tries to encourage the 4-year-old child she cares for everyday. Aibilieen offers a positive message the child wasn’t getting from her own mother.

Can you notice the Mr. Rogers in your life?

More Wisdom from Mr. Rogers

Here are a few quotes I’d like to end with:

“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
― Fred Rogers, from his Commencement Address at Dartmouth College June 9th, 2002

“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”
— A quote posted on the PBS Parents Twitter Account

Healing begins in secure, healthy relationships. I wish for you someone in your life who accepts you for who you are. May you feel accepted even for being different—even if that acceptance comes mainly from yourself. And if you need acceptance I urge you to seek out your Mr. Rogers, whether via therapy, a caring adult, mentor or friend.

Additional Resources:

About the Author

Robyn E. Brickel, M.A., LMFT Robyn E. Brickel, MA, LMFT is the director and lead therapist at Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which she founded in 1999. She specializes in the therapeutic treatment of individuals (adolescents and adults), couples, families and groups. Robyn E. Brickel offers treatment and psychoeducational services for many life issues and transitions, such as: A history of trauma and/or abuse, including Dissociation; Addictions, as well as Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) issues; Body Image issues and Eating Disorders; Self-Harming behaviors, including Emotional intensity and instability; Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders; Challenged family systems; Chronic illness; Co-dependency; Dysfunctional relationships; Life transitions; Loss and bereavement; Relationship distress; Self esteem; GLBTQ and sexual identity issues/struggles; Stress reduction. She is an LMFT, as well as a trained trauma & addictions therapist who has helped countless clients make and maintain positive changes in their lives. To learn more about Robyn E. Brickel, visit her website.

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