What is secure attachment?

Why secure attachment is an essential component of mental fitness.

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What is a secure attachment style? Why is it important for caregivers to establish secure attachment bonds with children? How does secure attachment impact children’s psycho-emotional development? What are some signs of attachment security in a partner? Insights on how we can develop it, and how we can teach it to our children?

What is the most simple definition of a healthy or secure attachment style?

Attachment security is a set of deeply held expectations that the world is a mostly safe place to explore, and when it’s not safe, people can be counted on for support and help to cope.

Why is it so important for caregivers to establish secure attachment with their children?

The longer we feel safe when we’re young, the more time we have to develop.  As human beings, our greatest strength and our greatest vulnerability is our extraordinarily powerful brains.  Our brains are so big and powerful that we need years, if not decades, after being born to fully develop our minds. While there are some caveats and exceptions, it is generally true that with more time, freedom, and safety allotted to us, we are more likely to develop more flexible, resourceful, and lovable versions of ourselves. 

How does secure attachment impact children’s psycho-emotional development?

Attachment security at the age of one year, has been associated with so many positive outcomes later in life that it would be impossible to summarize them in a brief answer.  But there is a fascinating aspect of socio-emotional development that I’d like to emphasize here.

Our brains are amazingly adaptive, and this presents some confusion when thinking about attachment security.  The earlier a vulnerable child is exposed to real danger, the quicker that child will develop extraordinary adaptations to survive — typically a hypervigilant, self-reliant relationship to the environment.  

Some of the toughest and most rugged achievers in life come from early experiences of hardship.  The problem is that early disruptions come at the cost of flexibility. Early disruptions, especially abuse and neglect, tend to result in adaptations that are more fixed and more desperately held on to.

Environments where emotion-regulation in parents creates a tense, intrusive, or less responsive environment, early adaptations are similarly rigid, but more focused on adapting to the parent than to the external environment.  This type of adaptation typically leads to unhealthy codependency later in life.

Secure attachment allows for a more flexible shift between figuring out the parent, figuring out the environment, and the amazing benefits of completely self-absorbed play and exploration.

What are the most common signs that caregivers are securely attached with their children?

The most reliable marker of a secure attachment between parent and child is the overall ease and flow in the way the parent and child relate to each other.  Does the child explore freely? Does the parent tense up, or watch vigilantly when the child explores? Does the parent trust the child? Does the child appear to trust the parent?  Is the parent negligent, then punitive when the child finds trouble? If the parent is either anxious or overwhelmed, the relationship is less likely secure. If there is mutual trust, with the parent offering just the support the child needs — no more, no less — then the relationship is more likely to be secure.

A brief contrast of secure attachment with avoidant, anxious, and disorganized attachment styles

The hallmark of attachment is flexibility in attention.  It’s natural for kids to get upset and cry when they get hurt, disappointed, or feel alone.  A securely-attached child shows the full range of emotions — fear, anger, sadness, joy, etc. — but returns to a baseline emotional state once the child gets comfort from a parent.  

The avoidant attachment pattern can be confusing because the child can seem well-adjusted and stoic, seemingly unaffected by a harsh environment.  Internal physiology tells a different story — namely that the child is under tremendous stress. The defining characteristics of avoidance in children is a detached, impassive response to environmental stress along with no attempt to seek comfort from a caregiver.  In adulthood, this correlates with a dismissive attitude, a devaluation of relationships, and an attitude of not needing to rely on others.

An anxious-resistant, or anxious-preoccupied attachment pattern, is one in which the child is hyper-emotional under stress, seeks proximity to the caregiver, yet is neither soothed by the parent’s efforts to comfort the child, nor welcoming of the parent’s attempts to reassure the child.  In adults this attachment pattern maps onto pathological dependency, where the person can’t get over an angry preoccupation with the parent, or remains in a defiantly passive state.

Disorganized behavior is harder to describe, because it’s defined by the lack of a clear strategy of regulating attachment-related distress.  Insecure-avoidant and insecure ambivalent-patterns may not be optimal, but they are still coherent patterns. Disorganization can take many forms, like an uncoordinated crashing into a parent, or falling into a dissociated, sleep-like trance.  Theoretically, the disorganized attachment pattern, identified and described by Mary Main, as being an individualized response to “fright without a solution.” That is, the caregiver is the cause of the distress and thus inaccessible as a source of comfort.

What are some of the main consequences for children who are not securely attached with their caregivers?

I often think of development being like research — it’s exploratory, built upon curiosity, and requiring tightly controlled conditions.  Attachment insecurity is like trying to do this research in highly inhospitable conditions, like reading a textbook in a nightclub, or trying to conduct a rigorous chemical experiment in the back of a moving garbage truck.  Can it be done well? Sure–especially with abundant innate intelligence. Is it likely to turn out well? Probably not.

The negative consequences of distracted development could be just about anything throughout the lifespan, including addiction, cancer, broken bones, depression, chronic mental illness, anxiety, diabetes, attention-deficit disorder, and any other physical or psychosocial impairment.   Of course, I am speaking in terms of probability. A child who is insecurely attached could have many or none of these issues.

What are some signs that an adult partner has a secure attachment style in a relationship?

The way attachment patterns are assessed, whether by the Strange Situation Paradigm in childhood, or by the Adult Attachment Interview in adulthood, is by stressing the attachment system.  So in relationships, signs of security and insecurity are most apparent in times of conflict. One sign of insecurity is extreme anxiety and rage that’s not easily soothed, particularly around abandonment fears.  On the other side of the spectrum, insecurity can take the form of a cold, detached, distance that is likely to evoke uncharacteristically strong abandonment fears in you, the partner.  

Security can be thought of as the “Goldilocks” zone in between these extremes.  A secure individual has moments of intense emotions and/or emotional remoteness.  However, security is marked by an ability to move out of these states without too much time and destructiveness when attempts are made to repair a rupture in the relationship.  Most of the time, the secure individual is better able to modulate emotions, meaning the hot emotionality is not scalding hot, and the cool withdrawals are not sub-zero chills.

The most common among dysfunctional dynamics are when an individual pursues redemption from childhood emotional damage by trying to thaw an icy, dismissive partner, or when one member of a couple attempts to heal early wounds by trying to cool down a partner who frequently boils over.  

Extremely hot-tempered (usually, borderline personality organization) and the reciprocal cold-blooded personality types (often narcissistic) love to find each other for precisely these reasons.  

What is the best way to develop secure attachment if you didn’t receive it as a child?

Finding the right therapist is the best way I know.  The therapeutic alliance is one of the most robust predictors of change in psychotherapy research.  While it’s probably reductionistic to consider a therapist simply a more reliable attachment figure, forming an open, trusting, and meaningful relationship with a benevolent expert certainly can help promote a secure internal working model.

However, finding healthier relationships than the ones that are familiar, can help move a person in the direction of security.  One key marker of resilience is the capacity to find mentors, friends, teachers, clergy members, etc. who can help a person have corrective emotional experiences.  Anyone, whether classified as secure or insecure, can become more secure with relationships that provide support while increasing/maintaining feelings of autonomy and self-reliance, can help increase our feelings of wellbeing, reduce anxiety, and promote personal growth in a multiplicity of domains of life.

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