“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”
Over the last several months I have written about how the relationship we have with our children affects their nervous systems. This includes momentary changes in their state of consciousness as well as how our interactions shape the development of their brains over time. Thus far I have tried to make more general comments and not be too scientific about things, but now it is time to lay out some of this science so we have a common understanding as we move forward into deeper waters. In this post I will outline some of the basic attachment research.
Attachment is a word used by psychologists to describe the relationship between children and their caretakers. When we watch the behavioral patterns that characterize this relationship, four types of attachment are seen: secure, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized. Avoidant and ambivalent attachment are organized forms of insecure attachment, meaning that these children are observed to be insecure in their attachment to the mother, but have modified themselves and their interactions with their mother in an organized way. Children who are disorganized — also an insecure attachment — have not developed an organized way to respond to their caregiver for reasons we will see in a moment.
These categories of relationship were developed by Mary Ainsworth — a student of the father of attachment theory John Bowlby — after watching these children in what became known as the “Strange Situation.” After weeks of spending time with these mom-baby pairs in their home environment and carefully documenting many aspects of their communication, she would then bring these one year-old infants and their mothers into a little play room with a one-way mirror for observation. The mom and the baby would be given a period of time to get used to the new space and then another person would enter the room and interact with both mom and baby in a friendly way. After a brief period with the stranger in the room, mom would then get up and leave the child with the stranger. A short while later the mom would return to the room and reunite with the infant. All the while the observers behind the mirror would carefully document the behaviors of the infant. Over time and the observation of thousands of these interactions, the four attachment types emerged:
Secure attachment (55-65% in non-clinical populations)
In the Strange Situation (SS), the infants used the mom as a secure base from which to explore. The infants noticed when mom left the room and protested. When mother returned, the infant went straight to the mother to be held, was easily reassured, and quickly returned to play.
In the home, these parents were emotionally available, perceptive, and responsive to infant’s needs and mental states.
The internal working model of these infants is likely to be one that expects that their needs will be known and met, that they will be attuned to and emotionally regulated, and that they can freely explore their environment in safety.
Avoidant attachment (20-30% in low risk samples)
In the SS, the infants did not use the mom much as a secure base from which to explore. When the mother began to leave the room, the infant might move toward her, but often did not. When the mother returned, the infant acted like she was not even there and just continued playing.
In the home, these parents were seen to be emotionally unavailable, imperceptive, unresponsive, and rejecting. Some were responsive in many non-emotional interactions, but were very dismissive and non-responsive when the infant was emotionally needy, frustrated, or angry. These infants often expressed random aggression, and were more clingy and demanding in the home then securely attached infants.
The internal working model is likely, “mom does not respond to my emotions, especially when I am needy or angry, so I will shut down my needs and try to become independent.” The infants then protect themselves from this difficult situation by dissociating from contact with their normal need for connection, and repress their emotions more generally. This is a “deactivating” strategy with respect to attachment.
Ambivalent attachment (5-15% of low risk samples)
In the SS, these infants were more alert of the whereabouts of mother while playing. They were very upset when she left the room, immediately went to her upon return and got very clingy. Their behavior upon reunion alternated between outbursts of anger and going limp, and in either case the infant was not soothed by the presence of the caregiver even if the mother was seen to be caring and emotionally available.
In these homes, the mother was inconsistently available for the infant, and when she was available she was often pre-occupied and un-attuned to the infant in her responses. These infants were the most anxious, clingy, and demanding at home.
The likely internal working model here is “even if mom is available physically, she will likely not be able to soothe me.” These infants respond by “over-activating” their attachment system.
Disorganized attachment (20-40% in non-clinical populations?? And up to 80% in situations of abuse. This is not used as a primary classification, but rather an additional descriptor.)
This was not an original classification in the SS, but later studies showed some infants who got disorganized when their mothers left the room, and also expressed disorganized patterns of behavior on return (move towards mother, then away; freeze; go into a corner). They were not soothed if they made contact with the mother.
The homes of these infants often had physical or sexual abuse histories, psychologically disturbed parents, and/or parents with substance abuse.
Their inner working model of this relationship is not functional, and is one where the “supposed” source of soothing is also the source of danger — a situation of “fright without solution” — leaving their mind state and behavior very disorganized.
So there you have it: an incredibly brief and oversimplified account of the four attachment categories. It is important to emphasize a couple of points about this research. First, these categories are a description of the relationship between a particular caregiver and the infant. It is not simply a classification of the infant. Later research showed that infants can have an entirely different attachment relationship with the father (or other primary caregiver).
Why would this be?
Because there is an intelligent mind inside the child that can shift its mode of operation depending on the circumstances at hand. “If mommy does not give me comfort and contact when I cry or get angry, then I will move into a mode of suppression (avoidant attachment) when she is around in order to maintain some connection with her.” If, on the other hand, the father responds consistently to the infant’s cries by picking the child up, the child will feel safe to cry when the father is around. The infant does this by shifting it’s mode of operation (grounded in the internal working model of her relationship with her father) to one in which feelings can be felt and expressed because experience has shown this infant that this relationship is one of safety, responsiveness, and support; in other words, secure.
Why is this important?
1. What this shows is exactly what we all know and what the Behaviorists will not acknowledge: that there is a mind, a psyche, that underlies and organizes all observable behaviors.
2. It also shows that our minds are structured — in large part — by the kinds of interactions we have with our primary attachment figures. To repeat a key point from an earlier post: The relationship with the caregiver(s) is the single most powerful and modifiable influence on the developing mind and brain of a child.
3. We typically have multiple modes of operation in our psyche when it comes to relationship because we usually have had more than one attachment relationship in our lives. These modes have their own characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, behaving, and interacting. As we will see in a later post, these different modes get activated by certain kinds of people and certain types of interactions, “setting us off” in ways that are often undesirable and frustrating.
Take Home: Patterns of interaction with our children shape their developing minds and brains, leading to internal working models of relationship. These internal working models — mostly unconscious — are “the glasses” which color all of our relationships throughout our life. Insecure attachments, when activated, lead to states of reactivity which cause further difficulty and dis-satisfation in our lives. The optimal environment for our children is one of attuned responsiveness to their needs that will in turn minimize the need for defensive patterns in the mind.
Next week we will look more closely at the processes in the mind that underlie these attachment types.
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Much of this information can be found in Dr. Dan Siegel’s very dense, but incredibly insightful book The Developing Mind.
A more parent-friendly rundown can be found in Parenting from the Inside Out.
Click here to read about the attachment system.
Click here to read about the purpose of attachment.