Attachment Theory: Why You NEED to Know About Attachment (As a Parent or Not!) [Part 1 of 3]
I first learned about Attachment Theory in my undergrad, psych 101 class. At the time, it didn't really spark my interest... just another theory to help us understand child development. I wasn't a mom yet, so I wasn't about to spend any more time than necessary thinking about it.
It wasn't until years later, when completing my graduate program, that I began to explore Attachment Theory in more depth. And who would have thought, 10 years later, here I sit, using Attachment Theory as the theoretical basis for the conceptualization of my clients and their struggles. It's so much more than just a way to understand child development...
There is no way to encompass all of Attachment Theory in one post, so I'll be breaking it down into three:
In today's post, we'll explore the basis of Attachment Theory and the categorical types of child/parent attachments.
In Part 2, we'll explore the different adult attachment styles and how these impact our adult relationships, as well as why we might have certain adult attachment styles in the first place.
And finally, in Part 3, I'll introduce you to a concept called "attachment trauma," sometimes known as "developmental trauma," and the profound impact attachment trauma can have on our mental health and well-being. [Click here to read about what "trauma" means.]
Okay, so what is attachment, really?
Simply put, attachment is an emotional connection one person forms to another.
Notice how I didn't say attachment is an emotional connection between a child and their parent? That's because it isn't; well, it isn't just that...
We can form attachments to friends, caregivers, lovers, partners.... not just our parents. Of course, the attachment we form to our parents/caregivers is our first and most profound attachment, which is why it gets most of the attention in the research, as it can set the stage for the types of attachments we will form later in life (as I hinted above with "adult attachment styles").
Attachment Theory comes from the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth back in the 50's, 60's and 70's. Bowlby was interested in the effects of maternal deprivation on children's overall development, believed children have an innate need to attach to their caregivers, and in the absence of a caregiver (or a caregiver unable to offer safety and affection), the child's overall development would suffer negatively. Specifically, Bowlby believed a child would develop a negative "internal working model of self" (AKA, the beliefs a child has about their own self-worth, abilities, role in the world, etc...). He believed that a child's internal working model led children to respond to caregivers in certain ways, which led to the creation of the original 3 attachment styles: Secure, Insecure-Ambivalent, and Insecure-Avoidant. Many years later a 4th style, Disorganized, would be added to the list.
Mary Ainsworth, a student of John Bowlby's, later came up with the now infamous, and highly replicable, experiment called the "Strange Situation." (Check out the video for an example).
Mary was able to expand on Bowlby's work and identify specific behaviors attributed to each of the three original attachment styles. The following definitions were taken from here.
SECURE: Distressed when mother leaves, avoidant of stranger when alone, but friendly when the mother is present; positive and happy when mother returns, and uses the mother as a safe base to explore their environment.
INSECURE-RESISTANT/AMBIVALENT: Intense distress when the mother leaves, the infant avoids the stranger and shows fear of the stranger; the infant approaches the mother, but resists contact, may even push her away, and the infant cries more and explores less than the other two types.
INSECURE-AVOIDANT: No sign of distress when the the mother leaves, the infant is okay with the stranger and plays normally when the stranger is present; the infant shows little interest when the mother returns, and the mother and stranger are able to comfort the infant equally well.
(We will go over Disorganized in Part 3 of this blog series, when we look at attachment trauma).
So, that's the gist of it: how a child attaches to a parent, and that parent's ability to provide safety and affection to the child, molds a child's internal working model of themselves, which, in turn, lead to certain attachment styles.
In Part 2, we will look at how we carry our attachment styles and our internal working model's of self into our adult relationships—we'll explore why it's so important to understand your own attachment styles in order to create secure attachments to others (and if you so choose, your own kids some day).
P.S. Have you endured some kind of trauma, attachment or otherwise? EMDR is one evidence-based treatment for trauma offered by select providers with Abegglen Counseling. Click here or here to read more about EMDR.
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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]
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