Updated: May 17, 2019
I am writing this to share a little insight into how attachment comes about and affects our relationships with our children, parents, friends, peers and later on, romantic partners… you see this thing called attachment, it’s the connection initially between caregiver and infant and how they attach (or didn’t in my case) becomes their attachment style. We can be securely attached or insecurely attached according to our experiences in the womb through childhood into adulthood. Our attachment style can also change through life experiences.
What is attachment?
We (as humans) become securely attached when in the mother/child relationship the infant’s emotional regulation and exploration are attended to, the infant senses a deep, enduring confidence in its caregiver provide availability and responsiveness to its needs. A secure attachment has at least three roles: to offer a sense of safety and security, to regulate emotions, to soothe distress, create joy, and calm and by offering a secure base from which to explore the world around it. Around 55-65% of us are securely attached.
That means around 35-45% of us can become insecurely attached which means all of our needs as an infant were not met, there may have been separation between caregiver and infant, illness of the caregiver or the infant, dysfunction in the home like domestic abuse, drug/alcohol abuse, mental illness, and caregivers who had never themselves experienced being cared for to name a few; these all compromise the feelings of safety and security for an infant, and may limit the experiences of joy and calm; these disruptions to attachment may evoke feelings of distress and anxiety.
We also have to consider pre-birth, if mum experiences calm, joy and well-being during pregnancy it is likely the foetus will feel the same, if however there is sadness, depression, drug/alcohol/smoking, domestic abuse, illness or anything that makes mum anxious or unwell the foetus experiences it all too. Attachment begins from soon after conception, after all mum and foetus are connected, they share food, drink and feelings, the foetus experiences everything the mother does although it does not have the capacity to understand it; therefore it is possible for an infant to be born with negative feelings like anxiety which then affects how it presents to the world.
Then there is the birth, if is a natural fairly standard birth then the chances are the bonding begins immediately, the attachment formed in pregnancy continues and the infant experiences safety and security. If however the birth is complicated, premature, overly medicated, or carried out by C-section to name a few the bonding process and attachment may be interrupted. If mother is unwell following childbirth, and/or if the infant is unwell they may be separated for a period of time, these complications can cause the attachment to become insecure. A foetus is already attached to mum during pregnancy (it is thought that the infant is able to recognise the smell of their mother) so, when born the infant automatically seeks that attachment, if it is severed in any way it leads to feelings of insecurity.
There are many things that may happen in the younger years and through life experiences to affect attachment, for example separation from, break up or death of the original (or subsequent) caregiver/s or significant relationships, bullying, abuse and/or neglect. If the individual is securely attached initially they may be more resilient to changes although that may depend on other factors too; someone who initially has a secure attachment can also develop insecure attachment through negative experiences later in childhood or even in adulthood. If someone already has an insecure attachment any further changes to their circumstances which compromise their feelings of safety and security will further impact their view of the world and their relationships with others, their insecure attachment style can also change, for example, an anxiously attached person can become dismissive, and a dismissive person can become fearful. Of course on the positive side an insecure person can become secure over time with the right interactions and support. Examples of attachment styles and an insight into their impact follows at the end.
Now my story….
I was the result of an unplanned pregnancy to a young lady who was not ready or wanting to be a mother, my father had suffered many adverse childhood experiences so was not able to be a supportive partner. I imagine my struggles began in the womb; mother was unhappy, stressed, anxious, unsupported perhaps depressed, I would have experienced all of that. When I was born I was (as was common then) looked after partly by hospital staff which would have been confusing and may have interrupted the bonding/attachment process.
I was taken to an environment where father was a drinker, gambler, a man who hadn’t experienced love or care in his childhood, someone who lacked the skills to be a responsible partner and father.
I had a mother who was experiencing domestic abuse which meant a lack of support and certainty, a young mother who was likely to be anxious, emotionally struggling and unable to consistently attend to the needs of a new-born. Where did this leave me? I imagine, confused and insecure.
I have learnt that my coping mechanism was to shut down, to disassociate from feelings, to not show emotion, I was a very sleepy baby, sleeping 12 hours a day in fact growing up sleep has always been my escape. I guess I learnt early on that I was not important, there was chaos around me, my basic survival needs were met but my emotional and esteem needs were more often not; crying, showing emotion was not welcomed, it was inconvenient, embarrassing, perhaps to a young mother she felt l inadequate, that she wasn’t good enough or perhaps it was what she had experienced herself. I grew up feeling nervous, shy, and clingy, I cried a lot and because I was inconsistently soothed or supported my coping mechanisms formed; my attachment style became avoidant (see below) because the care I was given was unpredictable and I learned not to trust others or expect anything from them. I struggled to form friendships, to feel wanted, I never had a best friend, nobody I felt special to, I was always the weird child lurking in the background not joining in, I grew up feeling there was something wrong with me because I was different to other children and I never knew why.
I was lonely, I never spoke to anyone about how I felt, how could I? I never learned how, I never felt anyone would be interested in what I had to say so I hardly spoke at all especially, to strangers. I was the quiet one in class that went unnoticed, the one that never put their hand up, and that hated P.E. because I felt self-conscious, scared of failure and being laughed at. My Step-dad (really my only Dad) was the only positive person in my life, he tried to encourage me, he believed in me but his efforts were in vain because the damage was done, in fact I believed (because it was the only thing I could see as being different) that it was his fault, that if I’d had a ‘real’ dad like everyone else I would be like them too. Sadly, it was only after my Dad’s passing that I began to really begin analysing my life and realised it was never his fault. I now realise nobody is really to blame, I am a product of my circumstances, the misfortune is that I never received any help.
Unfortunately, my attachment remained insecure right through to adulthood it is only through personal therapy and the journey to being a therapist and learning about attachment that I can be aware of my protective behaviours and try to change them; although I now consciously feel secure there will always be underlying insecurities at times of stress and uncertainty to keep check on”
I wanted to share my journey to give insight into the impacts of attachment and highlight that there is hope. My journey is the reason I feel so passionate about offering others the opportunity to express, explore and heal from their life experiences; often my clients benefit from experiencing a secure attachment in the therapeutic relationship which in time increases their self-worth and benefits their relationships outside of therapy and hopefully into the future.
Parents can also learn to form an attachment with their child through learning to interact through play and reading with them (see previous blogs)
Young people and adults can also benefit from the experience of a secure therapeutic relationship.
If you feel you or your child may be struggling with attachment issues you can get help in the form of Therapeutic Counselling, Play and Creative Arts Therapy, Parent-Child Attachment Play and Thera-play informed practice all of which are available through us at Snakes and Ladders Children’s Counselling,
It is important to point out the different attachment styles these are as follows;
Attachment Styles and how they look
Secure Attachment (low avoidance, low anxiety)
They are positive to others and themselves.
Mostly they can say they are happy in their relationships, they feel loved, accepted and competent.
Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment (low avoidance, high anxiety)
Are always too worried about what other people think about them,
They don't have their own opinion,
They NEED to be close to somebody,
They think other people don't value them enough,
They need lots of approval,
They often worry about their relationships.
Dismissive-Avoidant (high avoidance, low anxiety)
They are very independent,
They think they don't need relationships, find it difficult to trust others
They hide their feelings,
They think more of themselves than others (because they have become self-reliant),
When rejected, they cope by being alone.
Fearful-Avoidant (high avoidance, high anxiety)
They think they are dependent and helpless,
They are very negative,
They think they are not worthy of anybody,
Even though they want to have connection with somebody, they fear it,
They often avoid intimacy and hide feelings.