Attachment Theory

“Relationships are central to who we are as human beings.”

Attachment Theory

Attachment refers to the relationship between infants and their caregivers that develops over time and includes a pattern/type of interactions. The quality of our attachment relationships in infancy and early childhood are essential to our well-being in the future. When an infant is born they are completely dependent upon their primary caregiver. In the optimal situation, this primary caregiver will meet the infant’s needs. These needs may include answering their cues to hunger or cries for comfort as well as sharing experiences and enjoying each other.

Over time, the brain develops trust that when there is a cry for help, the need is met. When the need is satisfied, it builds trust between the child and the caregiver. The child then develops trust in one self as well as becomes able to trust others. Bowlby, a development psychologist, psychiatrist and the originator of attachment theory, described “The initial relationship between self and others serves as a blueprint for all future relationships.”

Early childhood experiences can deeply affect the attachment formed between the infant or child and caregiver. Things such as trauma, foster care, adoption, postpartum depression, drug abuse, a stay in the NICU, neglect or abuse have a significant and profound effect on the attachment cycle and can impair one’s ability to trust.

As you can see a healthy attachment or an impaired attachment can greatly affect the future of the individual. As we go through life, difficult times and situations may occur or one may experience trauma. When this happens, we rely on our attachment system so to recover or repair from such trauma. When an attachment system has been formed in an unhealthy way it impairs us greatly.

Attachment is also the way that children learn how to regulate themselves emotionally and physically. For example when a baby cries, the caregiver, usually without even thinking, will hold the baby and comfort them by co-regulating (holding, singing, bouncing, breathing calmly, talking to). We do not expect this baby to come into the world knowing how to regulate themselves. By co-regulating with the child or infant over many, many times, neural pathways are formed that teach the child how to self-regulate later. When this is not accomplished, we may see children, teens or even adults that don’t have the skill to regulate emotions and therefore will turn to other things to help regulate. These things could include self-harm, drugs, alcohol, unhealthy relationships or any other way to escape and manage the overwhelming emotions as they did not have the opportunity to master the skill of being able to self-regulate.

When an infant or child experiences their needs being met consistently, whether that be for comfort hunger or any other needs, the child then internalizes the message of “I am safe,” “I am valuable,” “I belong” and “I can trust.” This happens at such an early age and develops over much time and many interactions between the child and caregiver.

Attachment does not end at childhood, we carry those skills and experiences from early childhood into all of our relationships. It forms our view of our self-worth, our ability to trust, as well as our ability to feel safe in all relationships especially close relationships and intimate partnerships. When there is a disconnect in relationship or a cycle of miscommunication or hurt, we can look at the attachment style and system of each person and help to establish healthy coping mechanisms as well as healthy relationships by looking at the attachment patterns. Whether we are working with a child and parent system to help prepare and build healthy attachment or we are working with an adult that needs help building a healthy attachment system to overcome a current life situation, we use the lens of attachment and trauma to understand ways to help regulate and establish healthy coping skills.