We are mammals and attachment creatures. We are hard-wired for attachment. We are born into family and our young need our help and support for a long time before they can live independently. Connection makes us feel safe and soothes our nervous systems. We don’t do well alone and we gravitate to others. If we do learn to avoid others and withdraw it is often from painful connections and a safety response.
Attachment is necessary for our survival. A mother's stress hormones can pass to her baby in utero. So, calming the nervous system begins before we are even born.
I’ll use the parent child attachment to show how connection and the attunement of the parent in order to meet the child’s needs. How we attach and are soothed models what to do when a stress response is activated and signals how we manage big emotions as well as how we connect in our relationships all the way through our lives.
If a primary carer ideally forms a secure base for a child – where their needs are met in a fairly predictable and consistent way. The carer is physically there as well as emotionally attuned then the baby has the foundational implicit learning that their voice (cry) matters and that their needs matter. The other (parent or caregiver) or the world, is safe. We respond to our babies by heading their cry. We identify and meet the need - for example for food or changing nappies or cuddles, but most importantly we respond in a visceral way. We lift our babies, we rock them, we hold them close to our hearts where they can feel us breathe and be with our calm nervous system which helps calm theirs. We speak with soft voices, our tone and our faces show attunement. Even very young babies will search for these facial and vocal cues.
Think of how many thousands or millions of times a baby will need something. Their stress response fires - from the baby sensing the discomfort of being cold wet or hungry, to the toddler who gets dysregulated and overwhelmed in the shopping centre, unable to cope with the big emotions. Children can’t self soothe. They need our calm nervous systems to help them regulate. We call this co-regulation.
When we do this we teach trust. Babies are developing the roots of the idea that they matter in relation to the other person. Feeling like we matter is what we want in any relationship - whether family, friends, colleagues as workers etc.
Secure attachment forms when the child has a safe base, predictable and safe care. This helps the child form mutually respectful, healthy relationships with others. The young child can begin to explore the world from the safety of this safe base and feel reassured by the carer when they become anxious.
For many reasons - such as significant parental mental health, addiction, domestic abuse etc. the carer may be rendered unavailable to the child - the child’s needs don’t get met and the child - even very young babies - will adapt to this unpredictability.
If the child seeks reassurance that doesn’t come, so they remain seeking reassurance - with clingy or “ambivalent” attachment, they appear immature or needy.
Or a child may explore and become overly self-sufficient as a response to the unavailability of nurture and protection. They can appear older than their years with and “avoidant” attachment style. A child may seem controlling and untrusting. Inside they are scared, trying to dealing with things beyond their developmental age. (Source: Attachment in Common Sense and Doodles M Silver.)
It’s important to remember that responding in these ways is a normal response to the experience they have.
If caregiving is harmful - unsafe, abusive or neglectful and the child is in danger the child may develop an “insecure disorganised” attachment style. The child does whatever they need to do in order to get their needs met, perhaps appearing charming or “manipulative”. This is not foreplaned but reactive and survival. It’s essential to remember that children do well if they can, and these patterns develop as survival mechanisms that best help the child at that time and stage in their lives.
We carry our expectations of others from this working model of attachment. It influences how we meet the world and others and also how we develop thinking of ourselves.
Our foundations of self-worth are routed in the mirror of the other, from our earliest days. We can begin to develop theories of self as “not good enough” very early. A child doesn’t think “what’s wrong with them” about someone who treats them poorly they think “what’s wrong with me”. We can use our learning that “others can’t be trusted” keep safe, but also never get to know safety with another, to learn that there are safe people.
We can use the shield of “the world is a dangerous place”, to keep safe but not give ourselves a chance to learn that the world can be a wonderful place.
Attachment patterns are installed when we are very young and create the maps for our later interactions. All healthy relationships involve rupture and repair. Even much attuned parents or carers won’t get it right every time. We all can miscommunicate and misunderstand. We interpret and predict based on our past learnings. We can all say and do things we don’t consider our proudest moments. Communication can be a minefield! A healthy relationship can rupture and manage to repair. An example of rupture happens when a hungry baby cries. A repair happens then their need is met. It’s important to be able to repair, like when we fall out with our friend at school, fight with our siblings or family members, have a row with our boy/girlfriend, disagree with someone in work, argue with our partner etc.
My therapy is attachment informed.
I will use this lens to help you understand yourself and others - whether as a parent a friend or a child or partner or employee - whichever is useful. Understanding how we attach helps us notice and make changes to our communication styles – from aggressive or passive to assertive and build more strongly attached relationships and with it a stronger sense of self-worth. Communicating our needs with clarity and boundaries (assertively) can enhance our attachments.