Updated: Aug 25, 2022
In discussions about child development you may hear the word "attachment" a lot. In recent years it has become even more significant in discussions related not only to child development, but trauma and relationships as well. But what is it, and why is it a big deal? Should we even care? Well, understanding what attachment is and the role it plays in shaping our experience may shed some light on our own temperament, outlook, and relationship patterns.
In the 1960s, psychoanalyst John Bowlby theorized that humans are born with the capacity to emotionally connect with others, and this connection starts at birth. This connection, known as attachment, was seen as essential to ensuring the survival of the individual. In that, it supports in the development of social relationships that can facilitate one's needs being met. Psychologist Mary Ainsworth further developed Bowlby's theory by identifying the significance of the quality of the attachment between a child and the caregiver.
Attachment in children is characterized by the child's behaviour in seeking proximity to the attachment figure or caregiver. In adults, attachment behaviour is identified by the attachment figure's/caregiver's response to the child's needs.
Side note: You may notice that I use "attachment figure" and "caregiver" interchangeably. This is because the caregiver is usually the attachment figure. More often than not, the attachment figure is a parent, but this is not always the case. Changing societal norms help us understand that attachment doesn't only happen between mother and child - there are attachment bonds between fathers and their children as well. Attachment bonds are established based on the child's exposure and proximity to that relationship with their attachment figure.
Why is this relevant?
As Ainsworth conceptualized, the quality of attachment helps to shape how one forms connections with others throughout the course of their life. To assess for this, Ainsworth developed the "Strange Situation" study.
From her research emerged what we now know as attachment styles. Our attachment styles have significance in the way we form and experience relationships - familial, social and intimate - and are manifested through behaviour patterns we have learned from our first connections with an attachment figure.
Secure attachment is characterized by a child's confidence in the capacity and ability of the attachment figure to take care of their needs. This evidenced by temporary distress when the attachment figure leaves the room and relief when s/he returns; checking the environment to make sure the attachment figure is in close proximity; and feeling safe to explore their environment.
Secure attachment is developed when the attachment figure is alert and appropriately responds to their child's physical and psychological needs.
Children with this attachment style are usually physically and emotionally independent of their attachment figure. They do not seek to be soothed by their attachment figure when they are distressed. This is because the nature of the attachment bond has taught them that they cannot rely on their attachment figure to meet their needs. The attachment figure is likely to be one who is unresponsive to their child's needs, or emotionally unavailable to soothe them.
The ambivalent/resistant attachment style is typified by a child being clingy and distressed when away from the attachment figure, but rejects her/him when interacting with them. They are also reluctant to explore their surroundings when in proximity to their attachment figure. They are also typically difficult to soothe. This behaviour often results from inconsistency in the caregiver's response to the child's needs, and leads to the child having challenges with emotional self-regulation and trust.
This attachment style was later conceptualized by psychologist Mary Main. It is often considered the most troubling of attachment styles, as it emerges from relationships that are chaotic, erratic, violent or abusive. Caregivers are identified as frightening or frightened. Therefore, the child's environment may cause them to feel frightened or distressed without any way to soothe or resolve it. The environment/circumstances, although not ideal, may be all that the child perceives that they have and should adapt to leading to unrelenting feelings of mistrust and insecurity.
Circumstances giving rise to disorganized attachment may include abuse (physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, etc), hardship, loss, or caregiver(s) distress (among others). Behaviours in children with disorganized attachment include emotional numbing, withdrawing, hypervigilance, apprehension, mistrust, or aggression (among others).
A greater understanding of your early relationships can help illuminate your current relational experiences, putting them into perspective within the context of what you may have learned (unknowingly, perhaps?) so long ago. It's a stepping stone to address problematic behaviour patterns and unhealthy relationship tendencies.
If you notice that these are recurring themes in your life, you may want to talk to a counsellor or other mental health professional to help you explore these issues in a safe and healthy way. You may contact me for a complimentary brief consultation by calling 416-688-5274, or by booking online here.