Babies attach to their parents or caregivers. Parents or caregivers attune to their babies forming mutual attachments. Infants require their needs for feeling safe, protected, loved, and nurtured to be met. Positive parental attention, engagement, and response allow a baby to develop physically, emotionally, and intellectually healthy. In contrast, parental lack of attunement affects the child’s behavioral, emotional, and learning development.
Attachment is an emotional connection that impacts and influences thought and behavior from the cradle to the grave. People need attachments, relationships to function well in life. How a child attaches to their parent or primary caregivers affects how they will manage their own emotions, relationships, and friendships throughout their life. Significant deprivation of parental presence or responsiveness to a child’s needs can cause more lasting harm than overt physical abuse, including functioning impairments, cognitive delays, and future relational problems.
Why is Attachment Theory Important?
If you are a parent or plan to become one and want to be a good parent to your children, you need to understand yourself. You must become aware of the type of attachments and interactions you had in your childhood with your family of origin and environment. This knowledge is critical to realize the kind of parent you are and the kind of parent you want to be, says Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine. For instance, if you received loving, consistent care as a child, you are more likely to raise children with a strong sense of self-love, trust, and adequate social skills. If your nurturing experiences were disrupted by significant parental absence or unresponsiveness to your needs, you probably have problems trusting others, battle feelings of inadequacy, and feel overwhelmed by stress and when emotions run high. If that’s the case, your children will likely grow with an insecure attachment style. A negative attachment style can form a lifelong emotional template, affecting the individual’s emotional, relational, and even functional life.
Understanding Attachment Theory
Attachment theory is a human development model that carries significant respect and influence in the counseling world. The importance of the continuum of early bonding experiences and adult psychological well-being is increasingly stressed by therapy models that seek to alleviate psychological distress symptoms beyond the cognitive modification of dysfunctional behaviors. Until the last two decades, clinical counseling primary focus was on helping clients make sense of their irrational thoughts, behaviors, and emotional impulses. Therapists are now considering the limits and short-lived accomplishments of cognitive-behavioral interventions. Thus, most therapeutic approaches acknowledge the crucial importance of the therapist-client dyad over any method or technique – a sort of reflection of a mother-child emotional relationship.
British psychologist John Bowlby believed that human development occurs in attachment patterns that interactions with the environment can modify. Otherwise, they will persist throughout the life of the individual. Bowlby argued that an infant’s separation or threat of separation from their mother or primary caregiver affects their internal working model – the positive knowledge of the child’s external world and their healthy interaction with it – causing emotional problems throughout the individual’s lifespan.
In his book Changes that Heal, Christian Psychologist Henry Cloud states that a child’s natural response to the separation from their mother or primary caregiver occurs in three phases: Protest, despair, and detachment. Cloud applies these three phases to adult life as follows:
Protest phase, the isolated individual complains about their lack of relationship, experiencing feelings of profound sadness and anger.
Despair phase, the individual falls into anguish and depression as hope for a meaningful relationship fades away.
Detachment phase, the individual has detached from their own need for relationships and the external world.
Cloud says that in the first two phases, the situation is still positive for an isolated individual since the act of protesting points to the individual’s need for relationships, and the emotional despairing shows that the individual is still in touch with what they want, even though they are pessimistic about getting it. The third phase is problematic since the individual has entered a pathological state.
Neuroscientists in the interdisciplinary field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, such as Dan Siegel and Allan Schore, argue that attachment theory is also a regulatory theory. During the first year, the infant seeks to establish an emotional bond with their mother or primary caregiver. This emotional bond develops the infant’s ability for self-regulation as they interact with the surrounding social environment. Failure to establish a secure attachment with the mother or primary caregiver will affect the infant’s regulatory functions, making the individual vulnerable to psychopathology.
Infants have an instinctual need to form a special, emotional bond with their attachment figure. Attachment styles are emotional and behavioral patterns that indicate how an infant adapts to the relationship with their mother or primary caregiver. Depending on their function, theorists have assigned a variety of names to these attachment patterns. However, most clinicians agreed on the following transition of attachment patterns from childhood to adulthood:
Secure Style – people with this attachment style have a positive view of themselves, others, and the world around them. They communicate well and attune effectively to other’s emotions and their own. They also tend to:
Honor their beliefs, values, and opinions
Assert who and what they are
Keep improving self-awareness
Have a flexible psychological structure (open-minded)
Trust others with their needs and expectations
Self-disclose when appropriate with safe others
Understand and accept others’ NO
Anxious Style – people with this attachment pattern worry in excess as they obsess over-analyzing situations, especially in relationships, due to their low self-esteem. They also have a sensitive nervous system and tend to:
Fear rejection and abandonment
Have a strong need to belong
Be clingy and needy in relationships
Act out as they struggle communicating their needs
Depend on others’ opinions
Struggle with saying NO to others’ requests
Have codependency traits
Overshare in self-disclosure
Avoidant Style – people with this attachment style avoid the intimacy of close friendships due to their discomfort with emotional closeness. They also appear to be self-confident and tend to:
Neglect friendships and intimate relationships
Avoid vulnerability and distrust others
Prevent rejection by keeping emotionally distant from others
Be uncomfortable with their own and others’ emotions
Prove to be self-sufficient and so dismissive of others
The avoidant attachment adaptation fearful side longs for intimate relationships but keeps them at a safe emotional distance. People with the fearful-avoidant style don’t appear as self-confident as the dismissive type. They also tend to behave as the anxious type in relationships.
Disorganized Style – people with this attachment pattern have suffered long-term abuse or neglect in childhood. Thus, they lack a coherent sense of love, trust, care, and safety. Their strongest emotional drive is fear, which permeates their functional and relational life. They tend to:
Develop chronic depression and anxiety
Self-medicate with alcohol and other substances
Lack the ability to contain negative emotions and self-regulate
Have a strong sense of hopelessness
Demonstrate poor self-agency and so a disorganized view of life
Clinicians don’t categorize attachment adaptations as healthy or unhealthy patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, except for the disorganized attachment style. These distinctive developmental patterns help children adapt to their parents’ or caregivers’ parenting styles and environments. In the case of insecure attachment styles, it is the way of surviving with the less possible pain for the emotional self. These attachment adaptations and their ensuing thinking and behaving patterns are defense mechanisms meant to prevent pain from potential rejection or abandonment. The only attachment adaptation considered pathological and requiring a holistic approach (medical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) is the disorganized style.
As is the case with personal boundaries, people attach to others in different ways. Settings, circumstances, and types of relationships determine the way one attaches to someone special and others. For instance, someone with an insecure attachment can learn to trust their intimate partner after a while to feel safe in that relationship. One can also attach in different ways to different family members. Someone with a secure attachment style tends to trust others, but a negative experience with a family member may result in the need to be cautious with that person.
Most people learn to attach securely, at least with a special someone, anxious with others, and avoidant with some others. That is because experience and environment can modify attachment patterns.