Attachment refers to the early bonds children form with their parents/caregivers. The style of attachment that is established in childhood affects bonding in adult relationships. The adult relationship that is most influenced by early attachment patterns is (arguably) that of a significant other or spouse.
John Bowlby’s Four Attachment Styles
|Attachment Style||Caregiver’s Role||Child’s Experience|
|Secure Attachment: This is the ideal attachment style||The caregiver provides a warm, loving, consistent, and safe environment while also encouraging the child’s autonomy. The caregiver implements a structure of engagement that the child can trust and depend on. The caregiver is tuned into and responds effectively/attends to the child’s internal world and needs.||The child feels loved and cared for without fear of abandonment. The child feels confident that his/her needs will be met in a timely manner. The child can confidently develop healthy relationships. Conflict does not threaten feelings of security in their relationships.|
|Avoidant Attachment||The caregiver is neglectful and dismissive. Physical and/or emotional needs of the child frequently go unmet.||The child learns to expect that his/her needs will consistently go unmet and, therefore, learns to cease expressing their needs/emotions and avoids intimacy. (with no intervention) As adults these children will still desire belonging and connection because we are all innately created for relationship, but they may sabotage or flee when intimacy begins to develop. They may struggle with rigid, impenetrable boundaries.|
|Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment||The caregiver’s engagement is really inconsistent and unpredictable. For instance: on one occasion the caregiver may see and respond to a need of the child and at another time when a similar need shows up the caregiver may ignore the need or even lash out at the child for having the need.||The child does not know what to trust and frequently fears abandonment. (with no intervention) As adults these children may struggle with indecision and a severe lack of trust in themselves due to internalizing their inconsistent upbringing. They will likely have a hard time setting boundaries and wrestle with guilty feelings when they do because sometimes their needs were met.|
|Disorganized Attachment, aka Fearful-Avoidant: believed to be the most difficult type of insecure attachment||The caregiver’s engagement is a combination of both Avoidant and Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment. The caregiver is likely abusive and is simultaneously a source of safety and a source of fear.||The child will likely express erratic and aggressive behaviors and experience bouts of anger and rage. The child will have great difficulty adapting to the caregiver’s rapidly changing engagement. This may be demonstrated by excessive clinginess and dependency quickly followed by rejection. These children are at an increased risk of experiencing dissociation (see later post on dissociation) to cope. (with no intervention) As adults these children are more likely to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In their relationships they will have intense levels of distrust, with those that they do trust-they believe that they will inevitably be harmed by those they trust, and they will experience constant fear of abandonment.|
John Bowlby (psychologist, psychoanalyst, and founder of Attachment Theory) maintained that attachment is a BIOLOGICAL process. In other words, in infancy and childhood we do not choose who we attach to. We form attachments because it is necessary for survival. The attachment style established speaks about the caregiver NOT the child.
So, where is hope when insecure attachment is present?
“Another important implication of attachment research is that it’s possible to develop a secure state of mind as an adult, even in the face of a difficult childhood. Early experience influences later development, but it isn’t fate: therapeutic experiences can profoundly alter an individual’s life course. Further, therapists can learn from attachment researchers’ hard-earned insights into human development which features of relational experience are the most effective at optimizing well-being. When parents are sensitive to a child—when they pay attention to and tune in to the signals sent by the child, make sense of these signals and get a glimpse of the child’s inner experience, and then respond in a timely and effective manner—children are likelier to thrive. The essential features of a therapeutic relationship mirror this process in many ways.This direct quote was taken from an article titled “The Verdict Is In: The case for attachment theory” from Neuroscientist and attachment researcher, Dr. Dan Siegel’s blog. The full article can be found here: https://drdansiegel.com/the-verdict-is-in-the-case-for-attachment-theory/ (if the above link is not working, try the following link to lead you to the full article) https://pdf4pro.com/fullscreen/the-verdict-is-in-dr-dan-siegel-31c50f.html
The brain continues to remodel itself in response to experience throughout our lives, and our emerging understanding of neuroplasticity is showing us how relationships can stimulate neuronal activation and even remove the synaptic legacy of early social experience. Developmental trajectories are complex, often having “islands” of positive relational experience, even within largely negative histories. Through therapeutic relationships and reflective practice, one can make contact with these islands—the “angels” in the nursery, to quote developmental psychologist Alicia Lieberman—and cultivate their growth to the benefit of parents, children, and adults alike. In this way, clinical practice can use the power of our attachment relationships to cultivate deep and lasting change throughout the lifespan and even stop the transmission of disabling early experiences across the generations.”
Lets break this down…
“Early experience influences later development, but it isn’t fate: therapeutic experiences can profoundly alter an individual’s life course.” This means that just because one may identify with one of the three insecure attachment types- it does not mean that they are doomed to forever have insecure attachments. Research supports this fact!
“The essential features of a therapeutic relationship mirror this process in many ways.” This demonstrates a critical piece of why therapy works and produces change= the therapeutic relationship. The relationship established between counselor and client is a major conduit of healing. In the therapeutic relationship attachment misses and wounds can be reclaimed (through attunement, empathetic understanding, validation, warm presence, and especially through repair attempts when misses occur in session). The client can understand and experience what secure attachment looks and feels like and expand on this outside of sessions. (As a counselor I have to step back and say WHOA! What a powerful gift I get to participate in!!!)
“relationships can stimulate neuronal activation and even remove the synaptic legacy of early social experience.” THIS. IS. HUUUUUGGGGEEEEEEE! This is neuroplasticity! In layman’s terms: our brains are plastic, moldable, capable of change and growth. Our brains can un-learn old ineffective, dysfunctional patterns and pathways and re-learn and replace this with healthy, effective patterns and pathways. Healthy and secure relationships in adulthood hold the power to change old defaults. In really layman’s terms: you can absolutely teach an old dog new tricks!
“clinical practice can use the power of our attachment relationships to cultivate deep and lasting change throughout the lifespan and even stop the transmission of disabling early experiences across the generations.” THIS. IS. MEGA. HHUUUUUUGGGEEEE! Not only is there hope in how can we develop secure attachments in adulthood even when beginning from insecure attachment, we can learn and grow healthy bonding patterns within the therapeutic relationship, we can remove neuronal synaptic imprints of old relational learning and replace it with learning that promotes safe connections and intimacy—we can also make a positive impact on future generations!
A song of ascents.
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
3 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.
Scientific research is catching up to what we know in Jesus: Redemption (from our sins and the sins of others against us) is possible and we can be active agents in cultivating a life of abundance even when the starting line of life was fraught with adversity.