Attachment Theory: A Childhood Blueprint
The Attachment Theory argues that a strong emotional and physical bond to one primary caregiver in our first years of life, is critical to our development. If our bonding is strong and we are securely attached, then we feel safe to explore the world. We know there is always that safe base, to which we can return to anytime. If our bond is weak, we feel insecurely attached. We are afraid to leave or explore a rather scary-looking world. Because we are not sure if we can return. People who are securely attached are said to have greater trust, can connect to others and as a result are more successful in life. Insecurely attached people tend to mistrust others, lack social skills and have problems forming relationships. There is one type of secure attachment and there are three types of insecure attachments: Anxious/Ambivalent, Anxious/Avoidant and Anxious/Disorganized. In response to distress, the first type reacts organized, while the last three react in a disorganized manner.
To understand the theory better, let’s look at Mr. and Mrs Jones, who have 4 children. Leonard, Heather, Jose and Tina. The Jones are lovely parents, who cuddle, make frequent eye contact, speak warmly, and are always there for their kids. But one day Mr Jones falls very sick and dies. For Mrs Jones, life now becomes very difficult. She spends all day working, while at the same time trying to care for her children. An impossible task.
At 6 years of age, Leonard’s brain is for the most part developed, his character strong and his world view shaped. The new situation does not affect him much as he knows there still is always mom, his safe-haven. He feels securely attached. Later he turns into a trusting and optimistic young man. His self-image is positive.
Heather, who is three years old, has problems coping with the new lack of attention. To Heather, her mother now acts unpredictably. She is anxious about their relationship, and as a result becomes clingy. To get her mom’s attention, she must raise her emotional state and scream. When her mom finally reacts with a predictable response, she herself acts ambivalent and doesn’t show her true feelings. Later in life, others think Heather is unpredictable or moody. Her self-image is less positive. Her attachment style Anxious/Ambivalent.
Two-year-old Jose spends his days with his uncle, who loves him, but thinks that a good education means being strict. If little Jose shows too much emotion or is too loud, his Uncle gets angry and sometimes punitive. This scares Jose. He learns that to avoid fear, he must avoid showing his feelings in other situations. As an adult he continues this strategy and has problems to entering into relationships. His image of himself is rather negative. His attachment is Anxious/Avoidant.
Tina, who is just one year old, gets sent to a nursery. The staff there are poorly trained, overworked and often very stressed. Some are outright abusive. Tina therefore becomes anxious of the very people she seeks security from a conflict which totally disorganizes her ideas about love and safety. As she is experiencing fear without resolution, she tries to avoid all social situations. As an adult she thinks of herself as unworthy of love. Her self-image is very negative. Her attachment is Anxious/Disorganized.
Our attachment is formed in the very first years of our lives, a time when we are too young to communicate our anxiety and as a result can experience high levels of stress. Then our adrenal gland, an organ sitting on top of our kidneys, produces the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The heart rate increases, the blood pressure goes up and we become alert. If that happens frequently, it is called toxic stress. Toxic, because it impairs the development of a child’s brain, and weakens the immune system. In embryos, or at a very young age, toxic stress can even switch the expressions of genes, which can affect our health many decades later.
By simulating a strange situation, we can assess an attachment style, already by the age of one. To do this, we let the child play with their mothers for a few minutes inside a room. Then the child is left alone. The key moment is the child’s reaction when her mother returns. Securely attached children first usually hug their mother, then can calm down and eventually get back to playing. Insecurely attached children can be ambivalent and avoidant. Some can’t stop crying or refuse to continue playing.
The long-term effects of our attachment in the early years, are well documented. Using the theory, researchers were able to predict already at age three if a child would drop out of high school later in life with 77% accuracy. In another study, undergraduates at Harvard were asked to assess how close they felt to their parents. 35 years later, they were asked about their health. 91% of those who said they had a rather broken relationship with their mother, were also diagnosed with health issues, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, and alcoholism.
For those that had reported a warm relationship, the figure of poor health diagnosis was just 45%. However, there is another reason why the early years deserve special attention. They are the starting place for subsequent behaviors. A kid that feels securely attached at age 2, can make friends at kindergarten. Their world-view gets reinforced with every interaction and they develop optimism. As a result, they form good relationships at school, then at college and later in the workplace. Highly insecurely attached children can miss out on this opportunity. Psychologist John Bowlby, a pioneer in attachment theory, allegedly said: “What cannot be communicated to the mother, cannot be communicated to the self.” In other words: those who feel insecurely attached, might not quite understand themselves. To get to know who they are and what they feel, they might have to go way back in time.