Understanding Attachment

Published on 1st August, 2021

Understanding Attachment

Attachment: is it just bonding?

Being a parent means playing a variety of roles in their children’s lives. A parent could also fill the shoes of a playmate, a teacher, a disciplinarian, a caregiver and most importantly an attachment figure. Juggling these roles effectively is not an easy feat. Abundance of information online and offline means parents being overwhelmed and at times misinformed.

What is attachment?

If the first images that come to your mind are that of a child playing happily with her father or that of an infant being breastfed by his mother, you are thinking of bonding or building a relationship by spending time together. Solely spending time with your child is not considered as attachment. Attachment was defined as a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings by psychologist Bowlby. More recently, it has been acknowledged as a bio-behavioural system between child and parent.

The examples mentioned earlier could be part of the process to build attachment. To establish a secure attachment means to create a shared emotional experience through which the child learns that all of us have feelings, and each of our experience with those feelings may differ. It means being with your child by sensing their needs and prioritising these needs. This can look like you holding your child while s/he cries or dysregulates when upset. It is not about a child’s suppression of emotions. Rather it is about the child having the safety and comfort of expressing their negative emotions and knowing that their parents would be there for them consistently. In a secure attachment, the child uses the primary caregiver/parent as a secure base from which to explore. This caregiver is a haven of safety and a source of comfort.

An infant who has been consistently attended to and comforted when in distress, learns how to self-soothe and develops strategies to manage their emotions as they grow older. When unable to do so, they approach their caregivers to provide them warmth and security.

Understanding Attachment

What are attachment styles?

Attachment styles define the quality of attachment an infant develops with their primary caregiver. This is determined by the caregiver’s response to the infant when their attachment system is activated. Regardless of the environment or the type of interaction the child has with his/her caregiver, they would form an attachment with their caregivers. The quality of the attachment differs based on the responses of the caregivers. A child can develop different styles of attachment with each of his/her caregivers.

The strategy to deal with distress in the first three styles are known as “organized”. This means that the way the caregiver responds to child’s distress is fixed and consistent.

1) Secure attachment style

In secure attachment, caregivers consistently respond to infant’s distress in sensitive and loving ways. For example, when an infant is crying, he is picked up promptly, reassured and comforted by his caregiver. He knows that he is safe to express even his negative emotions and that he will be comforted by his caregiver. When in distress, he seeks proximity to and maintains contact with his caregiver till he feels safe. Infants in this group are confident to explore a novel environment in the presence of their caregivers, and are easily comforted after a period of separation from their caregivers.

2) Insecure-Avoidant attachment style

In this attachment style, caregivers are more likely to respond to distress in insensitive and rejecting ways consistently. The infant’s cries could be ignored, ridiculed or result in the caregiver being annoyed. Due to this consistent rejection, the child learns to avoid their caregiver when upset, and minimizes their display of negative emotions when with the caregiver. Infants in this group ignore or remain oblivious to the presence or return of their caregivers. They do not seek out their caregivers or other adults for comfort or security. This type of insecure attachment increases the risk of the child developing adjustment problems.

3) Insecure-Resistant attachment style

Infants who develop this attachment style had caregivers who respond in unpredictable and/or involving ways. Caregivers would have been expecting the infant to be aware of their own needs, or may have amplified the infant’s distress and felt overwhelmed. To gain the attention of their inconsistently responsive caregiver, the infant may have exaggerated displays of negative emotions, and resistant responses. These magnified displays of emotions were probably in hopes of eliciting some response from their caregivers. Infants in this group exhibit extreme signs of distress when separated from their caregivers. When reunited they show angry resistance and difficulty to be soothed by their caregivers. This type of insecure attachment increases the risk of the child developing social and emotional maladjustment.

4) Insecure-Disorganized attachment style

When caregivers become a source of distress to the infant or respond to the infant in a frightening or helpless way, the infant develops a disorganized attachment style. These children may also have been abused by their caregivers. These caregivers may have a history of abuse and trauma which have not been addressed or treated resulting in them displaying atypical behaviors towards their infants. Infants in this group may display contradictory behaviors, freezing for long periods of time and apprehension/fear of their caregivers. They do not develop an ability to find ways to manage their fear and stress, and may be in a prolonged state of insecurity and distress.

Individuals with disorganized attachment with their caregivers have been found to have problems with maintaining meaningful relationships with peers and significant others from preschool age to adulthood. They may develop mental health issues, face difficulties with emotion regulation and may be more vulnerable to stress. They may also be involved in abuse or neglect of their children, perpetuating an intergenerational transmission of attachment styles.

The following are outcomes of the attachment styles:

Understanding Attachment