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Childhood Attachment

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Attachment is a basic building block of all of our adult relationships.  It affects how we relate to our friends and romantic partners, can predict whether our relationships will succeed or fail, and even affects work relationships and job performance!  In this article, we’ll start at the beginning – attachment in childhood – and we’ll discuss more about adult attachment at a later date.

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment Theory (not to be confused with the dangerous and controversial Attachment Therapy, which is not a valid therapy in any sense of the word) was developed by John Bowlby throughout his careers, beginning in the 1950s, and was later expanded upon by research done by Mary Ainsworth in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Attachment Theory seeks to describe the dynamics of relationships among people.  Even before being born, babies grow attuned to their mother’s body, her movement, heartbeat, and her voice, and after birth, the attachment journey continues.  Before a child can love, or even knows what love is, there is an attachment.  Every interaction the child has with his mother, father, and other caregivers lay the foundation for his future relationships with others and with himself.  Is the infant picked up when he cries?  Is she fed when he is hungry?  Can she get adult attention by laughing, smiling, and crying?  The answers to these questions and others will determine the child’s attachment style.

Four Attachment Styles

Through Mary Ainsworth’s studies of the “Strange Situation” experiments, she identified four attachment styles, Secure, Anxious-Ambivalent, Anxious-Avoidant, and Disorganized attachment.  Briefly, in the Strange Situation experiment:

  1. A parent and child would enter the experiment room, and the child was allowed to explore the room, toys, activities in the room.
  2. A stranger/experimenter would enter the room, talk with the parent, and then the parent would leave the room, leaving the child alone with the stranger.
  3. Later the parent would return to the room, interact with the child, provide comfort, and then leave again with the experimenter, leaving the child alone for a brief period.
  4. The stranger would return,
  5. and shortly later the parent would return, providing comfort, and the stranger would leave.

Throughout the entire ordeal, the child’s behavior and responses would be monitored, leading to the four attachment styles.

  1. Secure Attachment – the child feels they can rely on the parent for emotional comfort and to get their physical needs met.  During the experiment, these children were upset when separated from the parent, but reasonably easy to soothe upon reunification.
  2. Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment – the child experiences anxiety when separated in strange situations, but does not feel reassured when the parent returns, being somewhat more difficult to calm down.
  3. Anxious-Avoidant Attachment – the child appears to not feel distressed (although studies of heart rate and stress hormones indicate high stress) when separated, and does not seek comfort when reunified with the parent.
  4. Disorganized Attachment – this is essentially the “other” category for children who do not fall into one of the three other attachment styles, or showing less common stress responses such as tense tic-like movements, inconsistent reactions to reunification (i.e. fearful response combined with clinging to the parent).

A Secure Attachment is the ideal, with children identified as having a Secure Attachment to their primary caregiver having improved social skills, intellectual development, and lower rates of mental illness as they grow, compared to their insecurely-attached peers.

What Causes Insecure Attachment?

Trauma, abuse, and neglect are the three main causes of insecure attachment, for obvious reasons.  As outlined above, the attachment stems from showing your child that you can be trusted to meet their needs.  That you will be able to anticipate his needs, and respond when she needs you.  Infants and children are 100% dependent on their caregivers, so their brains are hard-wired to form attachment bonds with the adults who care for them.   In the case of abused children, it’s easy to imagine a child-like version of Stockholm Syndrome with mixed and chaotic feelings – I love you, I hate you, I need you, I’m afraid of you – confusing the child’s attachment.

Alright, so you don’t abuse your kids, congratulations!  But you’re not out of the woods yet.  Studies show that 60% of children are securely attached.  So the next question is:

How Do I Help Develop a Secure Attachment?

It might come easily to some, but other parents and caregivers struggle with developing and maintaining positive attunement and attachment in their relationships with their children.  Even the best of us can’t get it right all the time.  Maybe it is partly due to the child’s temperament/personality, maybe your infant just won’t sleep, or they are in the up to 28% of babies that have colic.  Maybe you’re tired, distracted, and busy.  Maybe you are a foster parent or have adopted, and the child is recovering from untoward amounts of trauma – there are an infinite number of factors that can affect your ability to be as responsive as you might like to be.

So, here are some quick tips to help deal with these difficulties:

  • Manage your own feelings – Don’t take it personally if you are having difficulty with your baby. You’re not alone, and it doesn’t mean you are a bad parent. Take a five-minute break if you need to (with the baby in a safe place), take some deep breaths, and come back and try again.
  • Work on attunement by knowing how to read your child – Is she crying because she’s hungry? Tired? Angry? Lonely? Sad? Overstimulated? Bored?
  • Be predictable and consistent – children thrive in safe and secure environments where they know what to expect. By consistently providing for your child and meeting his needs, he learns that he can trust and rely on you.
  • Develop routines and rituals – while these may look different as your child grows, having consistent routines helps your child make sense of the world and organize their day. Morning and bedtime routines are particularly important.

And lastly, professional help is available if you need it.  If you need more information or need help in your family relationships, call now and schedule an appointment.  There is hope, and things can change for the better.

Written by Christopher Ewald


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