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  • Juli Juteau

Attachment 101: How To Raise a Resilient Child, Part 1: Infancy

It starts the same for everyone. You have a newborn baby in your arms, a completely vulnerable newborn baby who depends utterly and completely on you to live. For tiny babies, who cannot yet make sense of anything in their environment, depending on the caregiver is a matter of LIFE or DEATH. The baby understands the importance of the caregiver instinctively. It’s hard for us adults to remember the enormity of the dependence that we all once faced.


Babies don’t know how to talk and cannot move on their own in the beginning. What can they do to get their needs met? How can they communicate? They can make eye contact. They can coo. They can cry. They can smile reflexively at first and then, in one and a half to three months they can genuinely smile. Most importantly, they can learn to read their caregiver. They learn by trial and error. If smiling and cooing gets attention, that’s what they’ll do. If screaming and crying gets them what they need, that’s what they’ll do. What if being stoic and reacting very little gets them more attention? Guess what? That’s what they’ll do. Whatever behavior is rewarded with attention to their needs: food, warmth, contact, comfort, that is what they will do.


This process is called attachment. Attachment theory was developed in the 1940’s by a British psychiatrist named John Bowlby who studied children, among them, juvenile delinquents. Not surprisingly, Bowlby discovered that the young criminals had some similarities in their upbringing. Environments that included neglect, verbal, physical abuse and/or spousal violence cropped up over and over again. In many cases these children’s basic needs had not been met, and in some cases severely. So, while it makes sense, what is the exact equation here?


After lengthy observations in multiple countries and circumstances, Bowlby and his colleague psychologist Mary Ainsworth defined four broad kinds of attachment that commonly occur in childhood and then evolve and persist in very similar states in adulthood.

THE ATTACHMENT STYLES IN CHILDREN ARE: Secure attachment, Ambivalent attachment, Avoidant attachment and Disorganized attachment. Extensive research has shown that commonly, unless there is some kind of intervention, people will maintain their attachment style throughout life. Just to make it confusing, in some cases the name of the attachment style changes in adulthood.


Very few people fall into the fully secure attachment style- with the possible exception of Buddha, Professor Dumbledore, Yoda, Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, Miss Frizzle, Nany McPhee, Glenda the good witch --and a few others. You might have noticed that most of these securely attached individuals are idealized fictional characters. That should give you a sense of how rare it is. In fact, most of us are a combination of the different attachment styles, leaning more in one direction or the other on a spectrum. Let me describe the four different attachment styles for you.


SECURE ATTACHMENT

Children with a mostly secure attachment style recover fairly quickly from upset. With solid self-esteem, they face frustration and challenges with grit and have faith that they will succeed if they try hard. They neither over-blame themselves nor overly dodge responsibilities. As they mature, their relationships are mostly long term and stable. These children will usually grow up to be happy, resilient productive adults who can weather the challenges and disappointments of life without being thrown off track by the occasional and inevitable setbacks.


How does this attachment style come about?


Think back to the tiny newborn. If babies’ needs are met promptly- if they are fed when they are hungry, ideally with skin to skin contact (more on this later), if they are cuddled, and spoken to, if they are met with focused attention and eye contact, if they are kept warm and dry, they will learn that they are valuable and worthy. Here’s why: early on, babies do not separate themselves from their environment and caregivers. Newborns notice that every couple of hours a great big warm soft orb appears that delivers the most delicious, warm sweet drink. It fills their tummies and utterly satisfies their painful hunger. They are not able to realize the “orb”, the breast, is attached to another person’s body. They conceive of it as a wonderful part of themselves that comes in to soothe them when need be. This goes for all the ways the baby is attended to. It’s not hard to make the connection that healthy self-esteem is woven into tiny babies’ mental hardware when their early needs are promptly and lovingly met. Because babies don’t make a distinction between you and themselves, how you treat them in the early days inform them of how they think of themselves.


As babies mature, they extrapolate. The securely attached baby will come to expect that the world is mostly a good fair place, where they can expect their needs to be met. When the caregiver actually turns out to be a whole separate person, the baby experiences his or her first relationship. Securely attached children understand this relationship as good, fair and loving. They see themselves as worthy of love, affection, and respect, and they see their caregiver as worthy of receiving love affection and respect. This relationship sets the template for all future relationships.


In adults, this early attachment experience translates into having faith in the world, oneself and others. Further, when effort and hard work are needed, the securely attached adult will have the self-esteem to tough out challenges and difficulties, even failures. Adults with this attachment state, are more likely to succeed, because, ultimately, they believe the world is a mostly GOOD place where they are valued, and so they can persevere with optimism.

AMBIVALENT ATTACHMENT

In contrast to easy going children with a secure attachment, children with a more ambivalent attachment style cry, tantrum and persist until their needs are met. They cling to caregivers as if afraid to be alone, and become angry and are hard to calm when the caregiver comes back, if he or she does leave. These children struggle with lower self-esteem and tend to doubt themselves and trust others instead. In fact, they will blame themselves for not being worthy of your attention. In varying degrees, they tend to hold grudges, fear abandonment, suffer from jealousy and bounce back and forth between idealizing or demonizing people.

How does this attachment style come about?


Let’s think back to the tiny newborn. When prompt loving care is inconsistent, with intermittent and unpredictable neglect, delay or broken promises, babies will not trust that the world will reliably meet their needs. Remember that at first, babies do not distinguish between their caregivers and themselves. So, in the beginning, if they are met with enough neglectful or distracted treatment and are unable to soothe themselves promptly, they perceive that they, themselves, are flawed. It’s not hard to see how their own self-esteem and sense of value and worth can be damaged early on.

Not unlike gamblers who keep putting quarters in the slot machines because, every once in a while, they win, Children treated inconsistently will become persistent and clingy, because every once in a while, the caregiver comes through. Children learn that their persistence eventually pays off. This cycle of behavior strengthens their resolve to persist, demand, tantrum and cry. It fuels anger and it makes it hard for them to let go of the anger when the caregiver finally comes through. As the child matures, it becomes a complicated mix of anger at the self and the other. All the while, because the intermittent and unpredictable caregiver is “hard to get” such children doubt their own value, and blame themselves for not being good enough to be taken care of. This, in turn raises the value of the elusive and often disappointing caregiver, the other.


In the adult, this attachment style is called “preoccupied”, and shows up in an inability to adapt and roll with the inevitable difficulties and disappointments of life. The preoccupied adult, just like the child, is burdened by self-doubt, self-blame and has trouble making decisions. Often these adults value the opinions of others over their own opinions, and it’s easy to see how this tendency can lead to confusing and unsatisfactory choices in friends, mates, work and more. Often people with this attachment state will fear and avoid abandonment at all costs in friends and partners and even work environments. This fear can cause the sufferer to stay in relationships and situations that are not healthy. In its milder state, people that fall in this category tend to be very emotional, and talk at length, animatedly and tangentially, presumably to encourage the person listening to stay.


AVOIDANT ATTACHMENT

The children that fall into the category of avoidant attachment will tend to be stoic, independent, and somewhat uninterested in affection and attention. The do not get very upset when their caregiver leaves, nor do they get angry and tantrum when they return. In fact, they may not even look up. They tend to play and entertain themselves quietly and engage less with others.

How does this attachment style come about?


When newborns realize early on that their caregivers are largely insensitive to anything but their basic bodily needs, they cease to expect extra care or attention. These children do not trust others to meet their needs, especially emotional needs. Instead, they find ways to take care of themselves. As with Ambivalent attachment types, Avoidantly attached children also internalize a sense that they are not worthy of attention, so again, their self-esteem is damaged. But this time, since their caregivers essentially never meet their emotional needs, and they must take care of themselves, they do not value others over themselves, they value themselves over others.


In adults, Avoidant attachment is called “Dismissive” attachment style. These adults tend to have few early memories and generalize about their childhoods as “very good”. They often have brief unsupported explanations of their personal history that sometimes are actively contradicted by fact. Adults in this category tend to keep personal conversation to a minimum, avoid commitment and self-disclosure in relationships. Sometimes described as emotionally withholding or out of touch, People with Dismissive attachment styles tend to have superficial relationships, their partners often complaining that they are closed, unreachable, and not very empathetic. Depending on the severity of their early experiences, they can be emotionally withholding, have trouble delegating, be patronizing or dismissive and, in extreme can be self-aggrandizing.


DISORGANIZED ATTACHMENT

Finally, the last category is called Disorganized or Disoriented Attachment. Children with this attachment style seem to display both avoidant and ambivalent behaviors. They will both cry and cling, and also avoid their caregiver and avert their eyes. Sometimes children in this category will cower or freeze, both before the caregiver leaves and after he or she returns. These children can have trouble regulating their emotions and are confused about how others react to them. They may be very aggressive and behave without concern for the consequences or they may be very passive and fall victim to avoidable dilemmas. Depending on the severity of their early experiences, they may have difficulties creating and maintaining relationships with friends and family, and may face challenges focusing on tasks, and reaching goals. At its worst, this category will contain children who repetitively run away, get in trouble at school, destroy property, harm animals or other people without remorse. It is understandable that these children grapple with severely damaged self-esteem and often they are left with an uncertain sense of self.


How does this attachment style come about?


The first three attachment styles, secure, ambivalent, and avoidant, fall into a category called “organized,” which means that the child’s basic physical and mental needs are met: they are fed, clothed, kept warm and dry, safe from danger, interacted with and attended to without harm, even though, in some cases, it may be at the minimum. By contrast, the Disorganized attachment style is in a category all by itself. Children with disorganized styles of attachment are often taken care of by caregivers who are frightening, violent, verbally or physically abusive, extremely neglectful, or very frightened themselves. Frequently these children’s basic needs are not met. A child in this category usually would be considered a victim of abuse. It appears that children with disorganized attachment seek to be comforted and protected by a caregiver of whom they are also afraid. The net result is confusion, wariness, disconnect and distrust.


To the child with a Disorganized attachment, the world is not a good, just and safe place where needs can be met and hard work pays off. To these children, the world is a dangerous, unpredictable and frightening place where loneliness, despair, injustice, hunger, cold and pain may strike at any moment.


Sadly, the prevalence of this attachment style rises as income drops- it tends to occur more in impoverished conditions where parents are either not present for much of the time due to multiple jobs, or drugs and alcohol are used and children are neglected. Frequently parents with disorganized attachment styles themselves will inadvertently raise similar children, not knowing there is an alternative.


As we know, babies mesh their early feelings towards their caregivers with assumptions about themselves. So, what happens when they are not only unable to trust their caregivers, to meet their needs, but are also harmed by them?


The result is that they can neither trust themselves nor others. Their self-concept, and the world around them is a completely confusing and unsafe place. Such children may extrapolate this negative expectation onto themselves and almost everyone and every situation around them. You can see why sometimes, as these children get older, they fall into drug use, seeking relief and numbing from the confusion. They may seek a gang affiliation to find a sense belonging that they didn’t have in their family, but that may ironically mirror the violence with which they grew up. The self-esteem in these children is nearly absent, but also absent is a cohesive sense of self, and in the worst cases, a conscience. At times children with this type of attachment are diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder—which is exactly like it sounds.


To add to the mix, the constant diet of confusion, fear and doubt release a steady stream of stress hormones such as adrenalin. This is the same type of hormone that gets released when we have a close call on the road, or are scared by a loud noise. We are all familiar with how the sudden jolt of the hormone allows you to become alert. Your heart pounds, blood flows away from the immune and digestive systems and floods the extremities instead, to prepare the muscles in your arms and legs for action. The executive reasoning function of the brain goes offline and the immediate fight, flight or freeze reflexes kick in.


These hormones can help save your life in an emergency, but imagine what happens with a constant drip of them? The result of a sustained suppressed immune system, and a reduction in blood flow to the executive functions in the brain can cause these children be given to dangerous impulsive behavior as well as long term susceptibility to serious mental and physical illness. There are some studies that indicate this process may even begin in utero, if the pregnant mother experiences extensive long term stress, and the fetus is bathed in stress hormones as it develops.


Adults who are products of disorganized attachment styles sometimes suffer from severe mental illnesses, such as Anti-Social Personality Disorder, which usually follows a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant disorder. In the worst-case scenario, adults may have superficial charm, but be insincere. Other symptoms include a lack of nervousness, lack of remorse or shame, and an inability to follow a life plan. They may cause harm to others with no motivation, and may have pathological egocentricity.


Just as Dr. Bowlby discovered in the 1940’s among juvenile delinquents- prisons are full of people with disorganized attachment styles. It is very hard to turn around this attachment style, but the earlier the intervention, the better.

While a disorganized attachment is a frightening prospect, it is also fairly rare. Talking about it serves to show how extremely important you are to your growing children.


The goal for every parent is to create as a secure an attachment as possible with their children. The truth is that life doesn’t always allow for a perfect situation and all children will experience some difficulties, frustrations and inconsistencies. There is no such thing as a perfectly attentive parent. Some parents must work long hours and depend on external childcare. Others have multiple children or are taking care of a special needs child or an elderly parent, and are stretched thin. So, how can you provide a new baby with enough attention to create a secure attachment? I have good news.


In 1953, pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott developed the concept of the “good enough mother”. Winnicott explained that after being very attentive to the initial newborn period, a mother or caregiver who is MOSTLY available and attentive, is actually better than being a perfect mother. His point was that as babies mature, it is acceptable for them to face a small amount of frustration before their needs are met. This will teach them that they can tolerate waiting, that they will survive and are still loved and valued.

To create a secure attachment in your child you should meet their needs consistently, promptly and lovingly most of the time. Newborns must be attended to very promptly because they are so helpless and vulnerable. After about six or eight months, a “good enough mother” is good enough.


Be as prompt and attentive as possible, which means about 85%-90% of the time. Make eye contact, talk to them, sing to them, interact with them. Bring them into the kitchen while you prepare food and tell them what you are doing. Explain what you are doing when you give them a bath or change their diaper. Read stories and listen to music. Walk in the park and tell them about the squirrels and birds. Give them interesting things to hold and touch. Stop to watch a baseball game in the park and explain. Stop and watch a construction site. Stop to look at a firetruck. Hold them close to your body, skin to skin whenever possible. If your baby cries and you don’t know what’s wrong, you can tell them that you are sad they are unhappy and that you are trying to figure out what the trouble is.


If you are not able to attend to them as promptly as they would like, explain, reflect and validate their frustration and disappointment. Avoid being defensive- you do not have to be perfect, just good enough. Consistency is very important. Dependability is very important. Quite possibly, the hardest challenge of all is to prioritize your child over your phone or screen. Break the habit early, and consciously make eye contact as often as possible with your child.


If you have to hire a nanny or other child care, look for one that has the most one-on-one care. Avoid changing once you find a good one. It may happen that children become very attached to a hired caregiver, and call for her before calling for the mother. Naturally the mother might feel hurt and jealous. That is normal. Of course, a parent would feel jealous, it would be strange if they didn’t. But, it is a good sign if your child has attached to their primary caregiver. Understand that children are hardwired to become attached- their life depends on it. And then be grateful that your child has a consistent loving relationship. It is likely you will create ambivalent attachment state if you tear children away from beloved caregivers, especially if you do it repeatedly. Such disruptions early in life will possibly lead to an ambivalent attachment style. Remember, the long-term goal is to raise resilient children who become resilient adults who can form healthy loving relationships of their own with their future partners and children. All parents know that this sometimes means putting the child before themselves.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you will put therapists out of business! What if you recognize your own childhood in one of the above less than perfect categories? Most of us do. Dr. Dan Siegel, a well renowned neuropsychiatrist at UCLA, states that if you can make sense of your own past circumstances, you are not beholden to repeat them with your own children. Often, a therapist’s job is to help people make sense of their life story, how and why their needs were not met, and how that continues to affect them today. With patience, we can essentially re-parent ourselves. It is hard to disconnect the low self-esteem and self-blame from inconsistent or disengaged care in infancy, but it can be done.


The most wonderful news of all is that you have two opportunities to experience the parent child relationship- one as a child, and one as the parent. As the parent, you get to make it turn out the way you want. And you don’t have to be perfect, just good enough.

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