What is Attachment Theory and Why Do I Care?

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The standing joke when children act out is that ‘it’s always the mother’s fault’, right? Furthermore, often mothers inwardly feel guilt or shame if emotional or mental health problems develop in their child. I wonder why? Children have 2 biological parents.

Unthinking confidence in the unfailing accessibility and support of attachment figures is the bedrock on which stable and self-reliant personality is built.

John Bowlby
in: Attachments, Why You Love, Feel and Act the way you do by Dr. Tim Clinton & Dr. Gary Sibcy

We can probably first thank American psychologist Harry Harlow, (1905-1981). Between 1957-1963, Harlow did a series of controversial experiments on rhesus monkeys. He discovered the negative effects of separating mothers and baby monkeys. In addition, he experimented with isolating them completely. The effects were sometimes catastrophic.

When John Bowlby, a British psychologist, began his study of attachment behaviors in the 1940’s, he focused on mothers in the first weeks and months after giving birth. Attachment is an emotional bond formed with another person. Bowlby believed that a child’s earliest attachment bonds were formed with their caregivers. He also thought those bonds have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life.

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Attachment Behaviors

Bowlby was intrigued by the separation anxiety and distress that children experience when separated from their primary caregivers. He described attachment behavior as any behavior that results in getting mother and child physically closer, (Attachments, Clinton & Sibcy.) We have likely all heard or seen infants scream, cry, or even crawl to get closer to their mother or father. However, even children 6-10 years old like to know their caregivers are within earshot.

In addition, Bowlby made three key propositions about attachment theory.

  • First, he suggested that when children are raised with confidence that their primary caregiver will be available to them, they are less likely to experience fear than those who are raised without such conviction.
  • Secondly, he believed that this confidence is forged during a critical period of development, during the years of infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The expectations that are formed during that period tend to remain relatively unchanged for the rest of the person’s life.
  • Finally, he suggested that these expectations that are formed are directly tied to experience. In other words, children develop expectations that their caregivers will be responsive to their needs because, in their experience, their caregivers have been responsive in the past.

In the 1970’s, Mary Ainsworth added to Bowlby’s work with her own research. Ainsworth and her researchers conducted the Strange Situation with 12-18 month old children. I invite you to read about that here.

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Types of Attachment

For a very pared down description of attachment styles, I am quoting a Psychology Today article. However, if interested in more detail, the articles cited above provide that.

  • Children with a secure attachment may be distressed upon separation (from caregivers) but warmly welcome the caregiver back through eye contact and hug-seeking.
  • Anxious-resistant attachment describes a child who is frightened by separation and continues to display anxious behavior once the caregiver returns.
  • Avoidant attachment denotes a child who reacts fairly calmly to a parent’s separation and does not embrace upon their return.
  • Disorganized attachment is manifest in odd or ambivalent behavior toward a caregiver upon return—approaching then turning away from or even hitting the caregiver—and may be the result of childhood trauma.

Most children tend to display secure attachment behavior in research studies. While there is evidence that parenting can influence attachment security, it’s also clear that other factors—including genetics—play a formative role. As a result, in recent years, there has been some pushback by theorists to attachment theory.

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Attachment and Relationships

Interestingly, according to the American Psychological Association, our adult romantic partners can trigger our attachment system. You might wonder how that happens. Therapist and writer, Dr. Marni Feuerman, suggests when struggling with relationships, ask the following questions regarding your primary caregivers.

  • Were they neglectful, always there for you, or inconsistent?
  • Who did you go to when you had a problem?
  • Was there someone there you could really count on?

The first step is to learn which attachment style you are. You will likely be triggered often if you and your partner both have an insecure attachment style! Unfortunately, even if only one of you has an insecure attachment style, you will probably have relationship problems.

Bowlby believed attachment styles developed in early childhood remained with us our entire lives. Thankfully, however, neuroscience has taught us that we can change our brains. It is not an easy task, but it is doable. For example, a 2018 study shows that cognitive behavioral therapy may lead to significant changes. There is hope for all of us.

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One Reliable Secure Attachment

The scary thing is that it is very common for good and loving parents who do the best they can to unwittingly foster emotional insecurity in their children.

Bill Gaultiere

There are many families, many of whom are friends, who are ever-wondering where they failed their child. With heavy hearts they ask, how could our one child not feel secure in their love? Or God’s love, which they attempted to share.

I have discovered that there is only one eternally secure attachment, even with a family history like mine. Human love is fallible. Too often, our love can be selfish or have selfish motives. However, the love of the Father is none of those things.

Throughout Scripture, God’s love is evident. In addition, He promised never to leave, abandon or forsake us. These passages have been a deep comfort for me, as one who has struggled with abandonment issues for a lifetime.

One example is in Deuteronomy.

And the Lord, He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.”

Deuteronomy 31:8

There are numerous promises, my friends. See Psalms 73:23-26; 94:14; Joshua 1:5, 9.

Don’t think the New Testament is silent on the the matter. Check out Matthew 28:20 and Hebrews 13:5-6 for a couple of references.

One name for God is Jehovah Shammah. The name occurs only once, in Ezekial 48:35. Jehovah-Shammah is translated The Lord is There. He will never leave you or forsake you. He is there, wherever you are.

Hold onto that, brothers and sisters. Be at peace.

Attachment Tests


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