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Attachment… Is it important or just another buzz word?

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

I’ve recently seen quite a few articles regarding attachment… attachment styles, attachment parenting etc. It’s all a bit confusing! Attachment parenting, for example, expects you to be a baby-wearing, co-sleeping machine. These standards can leave us feeling overwhelmed, so don’t worry if it's not your cup of tea, it’s not for many women, and the good news is that you will still have a securely attached child without wearing them for 23 hours of the day!

So what is ‘attachment’ and where does the idea come from?

Attachment Theory all started with Geese.

Lorenz discovered evolutionary ‘Imprinting’ after studying the behaviour of two groups of goslings (Lorenz, 1935). He separated two groups of eggs, leaving one group with their mother and incubating the other. Upon hatching, the natural group attached to the mother while the incubated group attached and ‘imprinted’ on Lorenz, however, a critical period of thirty-six hours to imprint was noted and without an attachment, they would not survive. Even after the incubated group were reunited with their biological mother, this group continued to prefer and follow Lorenz, suggesting an innate evolutionary attachment system to ensure survival.

John Bowlby, applied the concept to humans, stating that at birth, or very soon after, “every sensory system is working” (Bowlby, 1969, p. 269). He describes this evolutionary behaviour as a system required for survival, observed in infantile cues called ‘social releases’, like crying and ‘babbling’, which encourage caregiver proximity, thereby reducing any risk of harm (Bretherton, 1992). According to Bowlby, attachment begins at birth and develops over the first six months, at which point infants typically show discomfort with strangers and a preference to one caregiver.

The bias for a singular attachment figure, also witnessed in Lorenz's goslings, was termed Monotropic theory (Bowlby, 1988) and deemed vital for safety and development. Monotropy presents early in life which is indicative of innate survival needs. During the sensitive period of attachment, considered to be approximately six months (although newer studies suggest that the first few weeks are actually the most important), the infant forms an attachment but also constructs an inner working model representing how they see themselves and based on the responsitivity of the attachment figure. Should a primary attachment not be formed or there is separation from the primary caregiver, the infant experiences maternal deprivation and creates a distorted working model, potentially leading to permanent emotional damage (Bowlby, 1944). So, if your little one won't let you go to the toilet on your own, now you know why! It's Evolution baby!

Mary Ainsworth, a colleague of Bowlby, was already studying security theory (Ainsworth, 2010) and observed attachment behaviour in Ugandan and American infants. She determined that maternal sensitivity was responsible for secure attachments (Ainsworth, 1979) and believed mothers became a “secure base from which an infant could explore the world”. The ‘Strange Situation Procedure’ (Ainsworth, et al., 1971), a laboratory experiment, documented infant responses upon reunion with their attachment figure, following a brief separation (and is available on Youtube if you are interested!).

Infants displayed three recurring responses, showing one 'secure' and two 'insecure' attachment styles, confirming differences between mother and infant relationships (Ainsworth, 1979). Infants, who were responded to without sensitivity by their caregiver, showed avoidant or ambivalent behaviour upon reunion and were difficult to comfort or avoided comfort totally, suggesting that their previous attempts at comfort had failed. Secure attachments are shown when infants cry at their mother's departure but can be comforted easily upon her return. Bowlby attributed poor maternal attachment to previous trauma or loss in their own lives, proposing that quality of attachment is intergenerational (Bretherton, 1992), however, it’s important to note that not all mothers neglect their children, even if they have experienced neglect themselves, showing that people are not entirely determined, biologically or environmentally.

A later attachment category of ‘insecure disorganised’ (Main & Solomon, 1990) is described as ‘fear without solution’ because, despite fear activation of attachment behaviour, a natural response, their caregiver is another source of fear, revealing the need for nurture. Infants with insecure attachments, especially those that are institutionalised, tend to display disinhibited attachment behaviour (Hodges & Tizard, 1989) and will approach any adult without inhibition, which supports the evolutionary need for monotropy.

So, what does this mean?

It means that children need a primary caregiver, and that relationship should be secure to give the child the best start in life. That first attachment will help them form others with family members and even siblings! Everything you say to your child and every action you take as a parent helps shape your child’s ‘conscious mind’ too. The way you speak to them and treat them may become the way they speak and treat themselves in future. Our actions do matter.

That doesn’t mean you have to be Mary Poppins! Far from it. It means that if you do have a bad day and are a bit ‘shouty’, then apologise after and explain why. Let them see that you can process your emotions and it’ll help them understand their own. Disorganised attachments imply that there is disorganisation in the child’s interpretation of thoughts and feelings, there is no stable role model that they can base themselves on. When that is the case, children try to make sense of things themselves and sometimes, that can lead to behavioural difficulties.

The way we form attachments in childhood can have a lasting impact on how we make relationships as adults. This is also very relevant in my birth trauma work, PN-PTSD can affect how mothers interact with their babies, so make sure you seek help if you have had a difficult or traumatic birth. Adult attachments are catagorised as secure, avoidant and anxious (which represents the ambivalent category) and you might even notice signs of these in people around you, for example, if you notice some people avoid eye contact this could be a sign of an avoidant attachment style. Anxious attachment might be apparent if you reject those who are needy but you yourself become needy when someone rejects you. There is a lot to attachment patterns and researching these areas might really help you understand yourself and help you with parent-child relationships.

Children don't get angry to upset you, they don't have a tantrum to wind you up, they don't understand what being late for an appointment means. We have to teach our children to empathise with others by empathising with them! Young children don't have the cognitive capacity to manipulate you in that way, even if it sometimes feels like they are! We have to teach them emotional intelligence by showing them how to process emotions, so they know that it's normal to feel BIG emotions and how to express them in the right way without losing control. Being able to imagine walking in their shoes is called mentalisation and those that emotionally neglect their children tend not to have this skill.

Love your children, listen to them and imagine life through their eyes.

You don’t have to be perfect, just be consistent.

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