Attachment theory (not to be confused with attachment parenting, which sounds similar but is just one interpretation of the theory) is the biological principle that infants will instinctively form a bond with their primary caregiver in a means to increase their proximity to safety while decreasing their potential exposure to danger. But, what does that actually look like? And how can that inform the way we parent?
In this episode I’ll review the different patterns of attachment, the 4 behavior systems that are used to maintain attachment and how critical our early attachment figures are to the way that we grow up to view the world and develop our sense of self. I’ll give you the framework for how we as parents can support and encourage healthy attachment relationships with our children.
Introduction – Attachment Theory and why it’s important
- Our early attachment figures are essential to the formation of who we become – personality, self esteem, mental health, world view, etc.
What is attachment theory and why is it important
- John Bolwby states attachment is a primary biological process in which infants instinctively form a bond with the parent that serves to increase their proximity to safety and decreases the potential exposure to danger.
The attachment behavioral system
- Proximity maintenance (being close to our attachment figures)
- Secure Base (parent is a reliable source of comfort, safety, and love – their knowledge of this allows them to relax and explore their world)
- Safe haven (when we return to our secure base when we need to refuel, or seek comfort and safety when we experience a threat)
- Separation distress (the expected and natural anxiety that occurs when the attachment figure is not present)
The history and research behind this theory and how it has been operationalized and empirically studied
- Mary Ainsworth created the strange situation experiment in the 1970s to measure the quality of attachment relationships – showing qualitative differences in these attachment relationships
The four different styles of attachment become measurably identifiable
- Secure attachment
- in this study, when a parent is present the child is able to freely explore the environment as a secure base
- when separation occurs there is distress
- the child is weary of experimenter
- the child expresses relief upon the return of the parent and is able to be soothed and comforted by the parent
- Avoidant attachment
- indifference upon separation
- fine being alone with the stranger and doesn’t shift behavior much when alone with them
- may avoid parents or show little interest in them upon return
- extreme distress upon separation
- very wary or afraid of the experimenter
- hesitant upon return of parent
- difficulty being soothed
- often this child cries more and explores their environment less than in the other two types of attachment styles
- confusion, apprehension and unusual freeze-like behaviors both at separation and return
- this is most common in instances of trauma, where the child is frightened of their parent, as in the case of abuse or neglect
What is the secure base and why it is critical to attachment theory
- A reliable source of comfort, safety, and love
- Trust in the secure base allows for the child to relax and explore their world
- They know they can return to their safe and waiting caregiver whenever they need to refuel and regain a feeling of comfort and security
- Children can have secure attachment relationships with many different figures (parents, teachers, nanny, neighbors, family, etc.)
These attachment figures impact the way we perceive the rest of the world and view other relationships
- Initially the secure base is an external construct, eventually becoming internalized by the child, forming the foundation of their sense of self and their relation to the world
- Eventually becomes the ability to soothe one’s own self and this is the formation of identity
- These early attachment figures inform how we anticipate the rest of the world will receive us
- As we grow older, we assume other relationships will function in the same way of our early attachment style
How our attachment figures receive us and how we internalize that has a huge impact on our development
- Impacts personality development, sense of self, interpersonal relationships, our ability to have a robust emotional life
Bowlby referred to the process of internalizing the secure base as creating an “internal working model” of oneself and of others – I like to refer to it as a blueprint
- Child will refer back to this blueprint in order to anticipate how others might respond to them and whether or not they expect their needs to be met by others and to navigate new relationships
- As they learn new things about people they can edit the blueprint with new information
“This is all how we support secure attachment in our relationship with our children. By being known, by knowing them. By creating safety and allowing for mistakes without judgement – of ourselves or of our children.”
As parents, how can we support creating the most healthy version of this blueprint for our kids?
- I suggest there are 4 critical components for us to keep in mind in order to be this secure base through which secure attachment gets fostered:
- met needs
How do we create these 4 components? – authentic attunement
- Being a curious observer of your child
- Thinking of them as a fully whole individual from birth who can and will show you who they are and what they want/need
- It’s our job to trust in them
- If we do this, those 4 components will naturally come
The “good enough parent” is a term coined by Winnicott that states: misattunement in the relationship between the parent and child leads to the child developing a sense of self that is separate from the caregiver and this is where the relationship forms and that is where attachment happens.
- We do not need to get it “right” all the time to be a secure base
- We are human and must guess what our baby needs. We may get it wrong sometimes – this is our misattunement to them
- Our misattunements help the baby to realize they are a separate being from their caregiver. The awareness of this space between them and us is also the space in which the relationship develops
It is important for the quality of the attachment relationship a child has with their primary caregiver to be secure
- Secure attachment is a predictor of increased mental health, self esteem, self reliance, independence, lower reported instances of anxiety and depression, reduced stress response, better physical health, better achievement, the list goes on and on
Misconceptions of these concepts are often a huge source of guilt for parents
- Don’t need to get it right all the time – in fact it’s better not to
- Don’t want to be a helicopter parent or snowplow parent
- Allowing your child to struggle while being there for them in that struggle allows them to internalize that sense of being trusted, resilient and capable and build that into their blueprint
Perfection in parenthood is not a predictor of secure attachment
- Perfection can often result in anxiety, codependency, sometimes even narcissism
- We need to be real people that get it wrong sometimes
- We are all humans – give yourself grace and humility and apologize authentically without guilt
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