If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk,
if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do,
you have to keep moving forward.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Back in 1970, a psychologist named Mary Ainsworth wanted to study how infants attach to their mothers. This attachment idea is one that goes back to the beginning of psychology with Sigmund Freud. It describes the importance of infant to caregiver bonding. Attachment templates happen when we are babies. Yet, they are vital to understand adults as they become the model for which we operate in all relationship for the rest of our lives. They quietly run our lives without us knowing it as adults! It is so important for us to understand what our attachment patterns are and how they impact us, so we can make healthier life and relationship choices as adults.
Dr. Ainsworth conducted a “Strange Situation” study whereby she evaluated how infants reacted to being with a stranger once their mother left the room and how the infant acted once mom returned. Let me explain the experiment - over the course of three minutes, this scene played out. Mom and baby sit in a room with toys. Less than a minute passes and a stranger joins the two in the room. After some time, mother leaves the room, leaving stranger alone with baby. Then, mom returns and stranger leaves. Soon after mom leaves again, leaving baby alone. Again, the stranger returns, followed by mom. Throughout the three minute experiment, the experimenters are evaluating how the baby reacts to people’s comings and goings.
Out of these evaluations, Ainsworth deciphers three attachment types: secure attachment, insecure avoidant, and insecure ambivalence. Secure attachment looks like this. These children are confident in their caregiver. They know they are a safe base, so they can explore their world without fear of harm. They know that in times of distress or danger, parents will be available to meet their needs and keep them safe. Securely attached children are easily comforted by parent. Infants develop a secure attachment when the caregiver is sensitive to their signals, and responds appropriately to their needs at least 50% of the time. (Yes, it only takes 50% match rate – thank you Lord for Your grace!) Unfortunately, not all families are able to provide such attunement. Some family difficulties, such as adult illness, drug use, neglectful parenting, etc, can create a gap in meeting the infant’s basic needs, which leads to two different insecure attachment types. Avoidant attachment looks like this. These children operate very independently, both physically and emotionally, from their caregiver. They do not seek contact with their parent when distressed, nor look to them for safety while they explore their world. They know their parent is unavailable so they learn to live without them. It is believed this occurs because the caregiver is unattuned and rejecting of child’s needs. The parent, for whatever reason, does not help during difficult times and is usually unavailable during child’s moments of distress.
The second insecure attachment is called Ambivalent. Ambivalent attachment looks like this. The child will commonly be clingy and asking for parent, but once the parent responds, rejects them. They find it very difficult to be comforted by their loved one, because they have failed to securely attach and trust them. Accordingly, they have a hard time exploring new environments, being comforted or learning how to self-soothe. It is believed that this behavior results from an inconsistent level of parent response to their needs – sometimes adult is there, sometimes not – so the child learns that help cannot be trusted nor is it dependable.
Obviously, as parents and humans, we all wish and hope that people can securely attach to their caregiver. This bonding is so critical because the human adult’s sense of safety, identity, and how they make relationship choices comes from that infant attachment. Studies have shown that those that have secure attachments in their lives have more fulfilling and secure relationships, a greater sense of self and better general mental health.
But unfortunately, about 25-30% of infants do not have the blessing of secure attachment bases. So what happens to them? They grow into adults. These adults tend to have more difficulty keeping trusting relationships, they tend to find it difficult to self-regulate their emotions, and they tend to have a less stable sense of self. Thankfully, more recent studies show that this damage can be repaired in adulthood! New adult, good relationships can substitute the hurtful, unavailable past ones.
If you have a spouse, friend or loved one who is hurting today from insecure attachment as a child, please stay tuned. I will explain more ways that insecure infant attachment can be redeemed in adults in the Part 2 (Repair) of this Attachment and Bonding Series…
ATTACHMENT STUDY RESOURCES
1- Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love (1998). By Robert Karen.
Hi! I'm Dr. Linda Abdelsayed. These are just some articles I've created on various life topics. Hope you find them helpful! Check me out on the About and Contact tabs above!