Attachment Theory

Happy Mother's Day

Attachment theory was originally developed by psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, who hypothesized that we are each born with an innate drive to seek protection and care from primary caregivers by modulating physical proximity to these figures. Bowlby theorized that when an infant is separated from a parent, the child will demonstrate a number of adaptive behaviors, such as crying, clinging, or smiling, with the intent of re-establishing proximity and thereby, promoting survival. When such interactional exchanges are repeated, patterns emerge that form a foundational template known as an "internal working model." This conceptual model dictates how the child perceives his/her self, others, and the world, and persists into adulthood.


Bowlby posited that when a parent consistently and empathically responds to attachment-related bids (such as rocking an infant in reaction to his/her crying), the infant begins to relate to the caregiver as both a "safe haven" that provides protection in the face of a threat as well as a "secure base" that encourages exploration of the world. Embellished by developmental psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, such a relationship was later termed a "secure" attachment.


When a parent is seen by an infant as neither a "safe haven" or "secure base" due to a disproportionate degree of unresolved ruptures relative to co-regulatory or reparative interactions, the relationship is referred to as an "insecure" attachment. As empirically studied by Ainsworth, insecurely attached infants tend to demonstrate one of two relational patterns upon separation and reunification with their parents: anxious resistance/ambivalence/preoccupation or avoidant dismissiveness. Later collaborative research led by Main and psychologist, Judith Solomon, revealed a third "insecure" attachment pattern: disorganization. Disorganized children experience the simultaneous activation of incompatible nervous system responses: concurrent hyper- and hypoarousal (often described as 'hitting the gas and brake at the same time').   


The reason why attachment theory is so significant is because early caregiver-child relationships shape past, present, and future intra-and interpersonal well-being. As previously noted, a child's internal working model persists into adulthood. Longitudinal studies have repetitiously demonstrated that securely attached children typically grow up to be happier, friendlier, and more resilient adults than insecurely attached children. They tend to demonstrate higher self-confidence, stronger problem-solving skills, and greater flexibility across the lifespan. Basically, a secure attachment style can inoculate a number of risk factors throughout one's life, and lead to stronger mental health stability.


Hence, mindful awareness of this foundational relational template allows for change to occur at the source; what I mean by this is that the intentional prioritization of attachment considerations throughout the course of treatment naturally leads to updated alterations of a client's internal working model. Although the past can never be erased or forgotten, how one relates to the past is modifiable and as such, what is referred to as an "earned secure" attachment is possible. After all, Bowlby referred to his model as a "working" model, meaning that it is subject to change.

Quoted material was derived from the following sources:

Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss. New York, NY: Basic Books. 

Solomon, M., & Siegel, D. (2003). Healing trauma: Attachment, mind, body, and brain. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.