From the moment they are born, babies are doing much more than we realize. They aren’t just growing and developing, they also are learning about relationships and forming an emotional connection to their caregivers. This is referred to by early childhood experts as attachment. When babies need attention from their caregivers, whether they’re tired, scared, hungry or in pain, they will try to get their caregiver’s attention, usually by crying or reaching for the caregiver. How the caregiver responds will help shape the rest of the baby’s life and affect him/her well into adulthood. These early relationships help lay the foundation for how we see and experience the world in which we live, and form the basis for how we attach to our partners and even to our own children. The ability to attach to a significant caregiver helps a child to become a trusting, confident, and capable adult.
Researchers have identified four models of attachment that develop in these critical, early years of life. They are typically categorized as either:
- ambivalent/anxious and
Models of Attachment
Secure attachment is the healthiest, and most positive form of attachment. Babies will form a secure attachment to their primary caregiver when they feel safe, cared for, soothed, and responded to. A caregiver who is consistent and responsive to their baby communicates, “You are important, and I will take care of you.” A baby cannot form a secure attachment to a caregiver who is only around occasionally or who is insensitive to his/her needs. Having a secure attachment allows a child to develop a sense of confidence and independence. As infants and toddlers begin to explore the world, the caregiver provides a secure base from which to explore. An example of secure attachment is when a toddler begins to explore a new area. He/she will look back to ensure the parent or caregiver is present and available. If the toddler becomes afraid or is hurt, the caregiver is close enough to soothe and provide comfort and security.
Dismissive/avoidant attachment occurs in babies when a parent/caregiver is insensitive to the baby’s needs or is dismissive when responding to those needs (e.g., “stop crying – you’re fine”). If the caregiver fails to respond appropriately when the baby is crying, reaching for the caregiver, or craving attention, the baby learns that he/she cannot rely or depend on the caregiver. “Often their children quickly develop into “little adults” who take care of themselves. These children pull away from needing anything from anyone else and are self-contained,” states an article on PsychAlive.
Ambivalent/anxious attachment occurs in infants when their caretaker has a foot in both previous styles of parenting. These parents/caregivers are inconsistent in their responsiveness, sometimes being sensitive and available, and other times being distant and aloof. Their infants can’t predict whether their caregiver will be responsive, and so they grow up unsure, insecure, distrustful and needy. They look for partners to fill the void inside them left by their unresponsive parent, and may react with coldness or possessiveness towards their partner.
Disorganized/fearful attachment is the final type of attachment according to psychologists. Disorganized attachment tends to occur in infants and toddlers when they have a cruel and abusive caregiver. Evolution has created in us the instinct to trust and rely on our caregivers from birth. The caregiver is supposed to be the source of safety and security. However, when a caregiver is abusive, it is in direct conflict with what infants expect. They learn to fear the caregiver, and then don’t know who or where to turn for comfort and safety.
Understanding Your Attachment
The type of attachment you developed as young child is not left behind when you become an adult. You carry it with you into all your adult friendships, intimate relationships, and into your own parenting. Whichever type of attachment you developed as a child will affect you for the rest of your life. But this doesn’t mean you are helpless to stay stuck in the same patterns. There is treatment for couples and individuals who struggle to break free from old attachment type hang-ups.
Psychologists believe that you can develop an “earned secure attachment” later as an adult, regardless of what type of attachment you developed in childhood. That is, we can change our model of attachment by beginning to understand and make sense of the way in which our early experiences have affected us. A seemingly simple way to begin this healing process is to write a coherent and clear narrative of your childhood and life. This can help you start to make sense of how your past attachment style is still affecting you to this day. “When you create a coherent narrative, you actually rewire your brain to cultivate more security within yourself and your relationships,” states the PsychAlive article.
Another way to help “rewire” our brain is to be in a relationship with someone who is truly attuned in our wants and needs – whether it be a partner or friend or therapist. This can help us learn to feel loved, valued, and important to others, and create a new sense of self.
One approach to working with couples who may be struggling with attachment issues is Emotion Focused Therapy. This approach involves a therapist encouraging partners to take a closer look at their attachment style in childhood, and the repercussions it may be creating in the relationship. With Emotion Focused Therapy, “The therapist and clients look at patterns in the relationship and take steps to create a more secure bond and develop more trust to move the relationship in a healthier, more positive direction,” explains a Psychology Today article.
Emotional Focused Therapy works to help you realize the negative aspects of your relationships, where the issues come from, and then re-direct these emotions to be positive, healthy, and constructive in the relationship with your partner or children.
If you believe that you have been affected by past experiences and relationships and would like to begin the process of understanding of those experiences and working through old pains, please reach to us at Family & Child Development. There are therapeutic options for people who struggle to break free of the influences of their childhood attachment.