Attachment is the deep connection established between a child and their primary caregiver, that profoundly affects the child’s development and their ability to express emotions and build meaningful relationships later in life.
Attachment becomes the engine of subsequent social, emotional, and cognitive development. This early experience of the infant stimulates growth of neuro-pathways that will sculpt enduring patterns of response in relationship.
The attachment experience affects personality development and a child’s sense of security. Research shows that it influences the ability to form stable relationships throughout life. Neuroscientists have found that attachment is such a primal need that there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to setting it in motion. The attachment development and experience provides the infant’s first coping system. Once established, attachment contains the platform for a child’s ability to survive independently.
Think about how incredible these facts are…. Science shows us that we were created for LOVE. From the moment we were formed in our mother’s womb, the attachment experience began. This need for love and attachment is a fundamental as well as crucial building block that we are hardwired for. Neuroscientist and attachment specialist Dr. Bruce Perry has been quoted to say that “Neurobiological research is clear that if children do not receive love, there is great insult on their development.”
Bowlby, a developmental psychologist, psychiatrist and the originator of attachment theory, came to the conclusion throughout his research that “the initial relationship between self and others serves as a blueprint for all future relationships.” Therefore, when our primary attachment experience is positive and we have an attentive, loving, protective caregiver we learn to trust, feel safe, and develop the ability to regulate and cope in our world. When there is great insult on our primary attachment relationship, and therefore to our development, we are left as adults without a healthy blueprint causing many painful experiences and greatly affecting the quality of relationships we may experience throughout our life span. We also may experience difficult situations or even trauma throughout our life. When this happens, we rely on our attachment system to recover or repair from such trauma. When an attachment system has been formed in an unhealthy way it impairs us greatly.
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.
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. So they live in a place where emotions are intolerable, desperately looking for relief from the emotional pain.
When an infant or child experiences their needs being met consistently, whether that be for comfort, to satisfy hunger or any other need, the child then internalizes the message of “I am safe,” “I am valuable,” “I belong” and “I can trust.” This happens at an early age and continues to develop over time through many interactions between the child and caregiver.
Attachment does not end in 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.
You may be wondering how your childhood experiences have shaped your attachment style. Let’s discuss Attachment Styles and how they develop…
Secure Attachment Style: We experience secure attachment when a caregiver is available, sensitive & responsive to emotional needs of the child. There is comfort in a warm, loving & emotionally close relationship. This relationship communicates emotions and needs honestly and openly.
This type of attachment experience allows children to grow into adults who can be close with a partner and also independent.
Anxious Attachment Style: We can develop this style when a caregiver is inconsistently responsive and unpredictable to the emotional needs of the child. The child then worries about rejection and abandonment and often stays in high alert.
This type of attachment experience leads to adults who have an ongoing need for reassurance from any partner and a struggle to trust that partner. This attachment style is highly emotional and struggles with personal boundaries.
Avoidant Attachment Style: When a caregiver is very emotionally unattuned, distant and rigid toward child it leads the child to learn how to be emotionally distant in order to the avoid the pain of rejection.
This type of attachment in an adult leads to distancing and rejecting behavior in intimate relationship, keeping his/her partner at arms length.
Disorganized Style of Attachment: This style may develop when a caregiver behaved inconsistently, was abusive, intrusive, and/or neglectful of child’s needs. The very one who was meant to protect and nurture the child harms the child. The one the child depends on and “needs” is also the one who hurts the child. This child struggles to learn how to regulate emotions, has difficulty with empathy and in turn can become aggressive.
This type of adult cannot tolerate emotional closeness in a relationship and can repeat patterns of abuse and dysfunctional relationship patterns.
As an adult we can work to heal our attachment wounds. Change begins with awareness. By having insight into our developmental trauma and seeking out a therapist who also understands, we can develop the skills and coping strategies needed to learn to regulate, as well as build and maintain meaningful relationships.