Attachment theory highlights the importance of a strong, healthy attachment in childhood. This important attachment comes at the earliest stages of life to a parent or primary caregiver, usually a mother. This first, fundamental attachment, or relationship, sets the stage for all relationships going forward.
When this first, fundamental attachment or relationship is a secure one, the child has a stable platform, a safe base, from which to explore their world. However, if this relationship is not secure, the child must navigate life from an unstable platform, with no safe base to run to when life is tough. When the child attaches to a safe and healthy adult, emotional, physical, and relational stability are provided. But if the child attaches to an unsafe or unhealthy adult, emotional, physical, and relational instability become the norm. This norm may be replicated in future relationships.
A secure attachment also helps a person establish positive values and beliefs about self and others. An insecure attachment can cause a person to establish negative values and beliefs about self and others. Because relationships are connections between self and others, this initial attachment and the core values established, either positive or negative, have long-lasting implications.
When that first and foundational relationship is threatened — when separation on any level from the primary caregiver occurs — children act predictably. The predictable pattern is first protest, then despair, and finally detachment. Just go to any church nursery on a Sunday morning and you will see a vivid example of the first part of this pattern, protest. Watch what happens when an infant is dropped off for the first time or even the twenty-first time by a parent or caregiver. Does the child squeal with delight? Not usually. Instead, it is more normal for the infant to protest. They squirm when handed over. They reach back frantically for the parent.
Even though the nursery staff is able to care for the child, the child demands to remain attached to the parent. Safety is hardwired into the child as proximity to the parent. Proximity to the parent means security and comfort. Naturally, as the child grows, the safety perimeter, the proximity, expands. The child tolerates Mommy or Daddy going into the next room, out of sight, because the child has learned they will return.
A young child who has not yet learned that Mommy or Daddy returns feels distress upon separation and protests. On a typical Sunday, the child is soon reunited with the parent and security is reestablished. What happens, though, if Mommy and Daddy does not always return? What happens if the child believes Mommy and Daddy may not return?
When protests do not work and the parent leaves anyway, the child moves into the next stage. Feeling abandoned by the parent, the child lapses into despair. A child in the midst of despair may refuse to participate in activities. They may refuse to eat. They may refuse to interact with others.
If the separation is long enough, or the separation pattern is consistent, the child will eventually become detached. This detachment is not marked by detachment from eating or playing or interacting with others, as in the despair stage. It is marked by detachment from the parent. If or when that person enters back into the child’s life, the child can appear disinterested or even display signs of hostility toward the parent. The child may reject the reappearance of the parent and respond only to an object, such as a treat or toy, with delight. They have walled themselves off from being hurt through detachment. They have protected themselves from perceived abandonment through detachment.
Being abandoned hurts. At our youngest age, we experience pain when left and protest against it. When abandonment happens, against our best efforts to protest against it, we can lapse into a state of despair, listless and unengaged in a reality that is causing us so much pain. After a time, however, we begin to surface from that despair but determined to remove to remove ourselves from the possibility of being hurt further. We detach from the painful relationship. We detach from people who are unpredictable and do not respond to our needs. Instead, we may attach to things such as food or toys that seem more predictable.
Your attachment experiences are integral to your ability to form and maintain relationships, even your relationship with yourself. What you experienced as a child in your first and foundational relationship established your attachment style. Which attachment style a person has is based on their answers to four simple questions, and people answer them based on their childhood experiences with parents and caregivers.
The first two questions have to do with the self, and the next two questions have to do with others:
- Am I worthy of being loved?
- Am I able to do what I need to do to get the love I need?
- Are other people reliable and trustworthy?
- Are other people accessible and willing to respond to me when I need them?
Your answers to these questions lead to one of four attachment styles:
For more information on each of the four attachment styles, click on numbers 1-4 above.
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