Attachment – And how it affects relationships.
Attachment is in every part of our lives. How we connect with people, and how we thrive or struggle in relationships with others.
Full disclosure – I am no expert. I am only a student, and these are some of the things I have learned from my professors, and from the text books.
This is going to look a bit like a paper, you guys are lucky. I’m writing this (for no grades!) in hopes to help some of my readers possibly understand why their step children, husbands, or even themselves why they attach to people the way they do. There’s a link in this post that you can take to see what attachment style you are. There are also a few videos linked throughout this post.
What is attachment?
Let’s start out with the basics. Attachment is the connection and relationship that one person has with another. The way people connect and hold relationships with others stems from early life. Surprising right? Not really. However, attachment can change based on life events. Someone can have a secure attachment early on in life, but change to an anxious avoidant attachment (I’ll explain these later) when something significant happens – like a divorce (see the connection?).
In the years 0-2, are the most important for the development of attachment and self, because the brain grows rapidly in this stage. Babies who do not receive consistent care will not develop positive attachment.
By 18 months old, the attachment style is set.
The Circle of Courage
Inge Bolin created the Circle of Courage; it is a model that was based off of Indigenous (Native American) teachings. It’s based off of four needs children (and adults alike) have in order to thrive.
Belonging is the need to feel as if they fit and belong in a group. That group is home, their community, and school. It is where they fit into the world, what they are connected to, and let them feel like they have value.
Mastery is “the desire for competition [that is] inborn [that] cultures shape” (Bendtro & Michtell, 2015, p. 6). Children need to know that they are good at things, and can accomplish goals.
Independence teaches children to self regulate, indulge in responsibility, and practice in self discipline. It is also knowing when to ask for help and work with others.
Generosity is giving back to the community, without the intent to gain thanks and praise. It shows they have purpose, they are useful, and feel as if other people value them.
John Bowlby coined the term “Attachment Theory”, and it is the belief that healthy development is strongly dependent on the bond with at least one care giver. This is the need to belong (that’s why I went on a bit about the Circle of Courage).
Across all cultures, and all humans, there is a thirst for relationship and social support. “The desire for interpersonal attachment – the need to belong – is a fundamental human motivation” (Bendtro & Michtell, 2015, p. 29).
Mary Ainsworth did a study called “Strange Situations”. It was actually quite interesting. The study consists of putting a toddler in a room with their caregiver. The caregiver will be in the room with the child. Then, a strange person will enter the room. The parent will leave the child with the stranger in the room. The parent will enter back in the room. You can check out the video here. If you watch the video, I suggest watching it a few times to really get that the study is grasping at.
In different types of attachment, the baby would react differently to when the stranger came in, when the parent left, and when the parent came back to the baby. This study helped researchers identify four attachment styles.
Secure. “Following separation, children eagerly greet their caregivers, sook proximity until calmed, and then return to play. Caregivers pf securely-attached children are sensitive and responsive, particularly when the child is distressed” (Bendtro & Michtell, 2015, p. 33). Secure children and youth receive consistent and positive care whenever they need it. These securely attached children will become people with confidence, self esteem, curiosity, and empathetic. They feel good about themselves and feel good about others.
Anxious Resistant (The people pleaser). “These children may cling but are not easily comforted, showing anger and distress. Their caregivers are thought to erratic in response to infant distress and more concerned with their own needs than the child’s” (Bendtro & Michtell, 2015, p. 33). Anxious resistant children’s parents are inconsistent in parenting. For example, one day the parent will hug and kiss, the next day slap and hit. This is when a child feels good about other people, but not themselves. They are anxious about how other people perceive them, and try to predict and please the caregiver in order to receive the good care they need.
Anxious Avoidant. “These children ignore the caregiver upon reunion, looking or turning away instead of approaching. Their caregivers have been observed to express little emotion and avoid physical contact when their child is upset” (Bendtro & Michtell, 2015, p. 33). These children have good self esteem, and low value of others. This comes from having to self sooth in early development. For example, a baby will wet themselves, and nobody will change them. The baby does not get physical affection, and therefore wets themselves in order to feel a warmth, like that of a hug. These children have to figure their world out on their own, because nobody is there for them (or so they feel). They feel as if they can fend for themselves, and they don’t need anyone’s help. They often sabotage relationships on purpose with the “hurt you before you hurt me” logic.
Disorganized. “These children exhibit chaotic behaviours and have no stable attachment strategy. Caregivers are likely to be transmitting their own prior trauma experience with unpredictable feelings of helplessness, hostility, or withdrawal” (Bendtro & Michtell, 2015).
Adult Attachment Styles
The attachment styles you form as a child can follow you into your adult life. However, these styles can change over time and vary from person to person. For example, I am an “anxious avoidant” person, yet my parents were consistent in their parenting. I was never abused, and I always got what I needed. There was an event (more-so multiple events that stemmed from one problem) in my life that changed how I now attach to people. This can happen to children, too. If you’re reading this, there is a possibility that you’re a Step Parent, which means your step children don’t have biological parents that are still together. This separation between parents could have effected the way they attach to people.
If you’re interested to see what your attachment style is, you can check out this link. There is a link to the quiz at the end of the page.
Just like the child attachment styles, there are 4 adult attachment styles.
Secure. Just like the childhood attachment, adults with this attachment have a high value of others and a high value of self. “Their lives are balanced: they are both secure in their independence and in their close relationships” (What is your Attachment Style?, n.d.).
Dismissive. Children who have avoidant attachments will most likely have a dismissive adult attachment. “These people tend o be loners; they regard relationships and emotions as being relatively unimportant” (What is your Attachment Style?, n.d.).
Preoccupied. Children who have had an an anxious resistant attachment style will often grow to be preoccupied attached adults. These adults are insecure, and self critical. They’re constantly looking for reassurance and approval from others to relieve their self doubt, though rarely works. In relationships, they are worried that they are going to be rejected and abandoned, so they are often not trusting and clingy (What is your Attachment Style?, n.d).
Fearful Avoidant. For those who grew up in a disorganized attachment style develop a fearful avoidant adult attachment style. Because they detached from their feelings during traumatic events as children, as adults they continue to detach from themselves in self preservation. They want to have emotionally close relationships, however when they reach that state they do not know how to connect to others on an emotional level. They tend to relive past traumatic experiences and cannot separate their current relationship from the traumatic and abusive relationship they had as children (What is Your Attachment Style?, n.d).
Attachment disorders come from childhood abuse and neglect. I can’t stress this enough – in order to diagnose an individual with an attachment disorder, it must be done by a psychiatrist.
Reactive Attachment Disorder. Children with RAD often children filled with rage. They do not respond to affection, and often repress their emotions. It would be noticed that these children lie, steal, hurt their siblings, and hurt animals. They lack empathy and do not “care” when someone else is hurt.
This is rare, and stems from severe childhood abuse and neglect.
This video, is a true story of a little girl who suffers from RAD, and her development. *Trigger warning* This video may be hard to watch for some individuals, so please take care when watching. Beth, the little girl in this video, is now a registered nurse and a child advocate.
Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder. Children with DSED are children that do not have a bond with any one adult. They do not see danger in strangers, and are willing to huge, cuddle and communicate with adults they do not know. It would be noticed that a child with DSED could walk up and leave with a complete stranger, and not feel a sense of danger.
These children are children who have been neglected as babies. Babies who have been left alone for long periods of time, or children found in foster systems who have not experienced consistent care.
This is an obvious challenge because a child exhibiting DSED is in danger of abduction.
Children who have had neglectful or abusive parents have learned that adults cannot be trusted or relied on. In order to overcome this, the child must be shown what good attachment is. Modelling a stable relationship to the child, like Step Mom and Bio Dad (or Bio Mom and Step Dad), and also showing them that same respect and trust to them as well. But, children and youth need to feel as if their opinions are valued and heard. They are more likely to co-operate when they feel as if they have a voice.
If an individual has an attachment style that is not ideal, it’s okay. It is not an end-all-be-all. There is hope, and attachment can change. With help from Therapists, Psychiatrists, and Child and Youth Workers, children can develop a secure attachment and be a secure adult.
Please do not rely on Google to asses and diagnose yourself, your significant other, bio mom, or your step children. If you are concerned for current attachment style, or possible attachment disorders, please consult a professional.
Bendtro, L. K., & Michtell, M. L. (2015). Deep Brain Learning. Michigan: Starr Commonwealth.
What is your Attachment Style? (n.d.). Retrieved from PsychAlive: Psychology for Everyday Life: http://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style