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Why Does Attachment Matter?

Over the past twenty years, developments in neuroscience have underscored the importance of healthy attachments between infants and supportive caregivers in early life. Neurological, physical, emotional, social, relational, cognitive and moral development are nurtured when a baby’s needs have been met in a sensitive and timely way by at least one parent/caregiver. The child is set on a positive developmental pathway, if early experience occurs in the context of supportive, responsive and emotionally attuned caregiving[i].

  • Children who are securely attached as babies have a sense of trust and confidence in themselves.
  • Securely attached children do better at school.
  • Secure attached children are likely to be good at making friends,
  • Secure attachment in their early attachment helps children to form close relationships later in life.

Attachment theory is now understood to be a key component in the capacity to emotionally regulate throughout the lifespan. The formation of attachment patterns is driven by early sensory and physiological regulatory interactions with caregivers[ii] (Hofer, 1995). However, an efficient regulatory system only evolves in a secure environment when the mother or primary caregiver responds to the emotional expression in her child to produce positive affect and to facilitate play states. The more attuned parents / caregivers are to the internal state of the child in their care, the greater the capacity for regulation. Failure to provide children with a sense of early security may have devastating consequences for the ability of individuals to lead successful, happy, and connected lives, especially in terms of the ability to manage emotional stress. Stress and maltreatment influence brain development because they cause emotional dysregulation[iii] (Schore, 2003). Early manifestations of stress are characterised by hyperarousal, openly displayed distress and comfort seeking. Prolonged exposure to stress without the comforting presence of a supportive adult can lead to emotional avoidance and dissociation, where the child disengages from the external world[iv] (Schore, 2014). Numerous studies, across various disciplines, have highlighted the association between early attachment insecurity and mental health difficulties in adulthood[v] (Hart, 2011).

A further aspect of attachment that has gained recognition is the concept of mentalisation and reflective capacity[vi] (Fonagy, 2001).  Human beings appear to be unique in trying to understand each other in terms of mental states, thoughts and feelings in order to anticipate and make sense of each other’s actions[vii] (Dennett, 1987). The development of a reflective capacity based on perception of the mental states of parents and caregivers helps to organize behavior and create a sense of self in relation to others[viii] (Fonagy, 2002). Exploring the meaning and actions of others is linked to a child’s ability to find meaning in his own experience. This contributes to both self-control and self-agency[ix] (Fonagy and Target 1997).

In the context of multiple parenting, such as foster care or adoption, attachment theory has particular relevance. Multiple attachments may be formed simultaneously (mothers, fathers, grandparents and other caregivers), or sequentially (foster-care and adoption). In order to move towards a new (sequential) primary attachment, previous primary attachments have to be relinquished. There has been some debate in attachment literature as to how children manage multiple models of attachment[x] (Howes, 1999). It is now accepted that children form and organise multiple attachments in a hierarchical fashion. However, the process is complex and difficult to assess. Attachment theory can provide a framework to assist in that process.

The Adult Attachment Interview, developed by George, Kaplan and Main (1985), enabled the attachment profiles of adults to be measured. The interview has become increasingly popular in clinical psychology and in the study of psychopathology, stemming from the theoretical roots of the instrument, which facilitate the analysis of normal developmental processes and psychopathology (Atkinson and Zucker, 1997). When the Adult Attachment Interview was used to study criminals in a prison setting they were found to be significantly more insecure than those studied in a control group and to have low ratings for reflective capacity (Fonagy, 2001).
Attachment theory can make an important contribution to understanding complex conditions in the field of mental health. Holmes (1993) suggests that early relationship difficulties may influence psychiatric disorders in three distinct but interrelated ways. Firstly, disruption of early bonds may be a cause of disturbance. Secondly, the internalization of disrupted early attachment patterns may create vulnerability in the individual to further stress. Finally, a person’s current perception and use of relationships may make them more prone to breakdown in the face of adversity.
Attachment is a lifelong process and in old age new challenges are created when the need for care and protection increases but original attachment figures are usually deceased or unavailable as cares. Attachment behavior may then be directed towards grown-up children, siblings or caregivers. Patterns of attachment may be discerned in the emotional orientation and behavior of older people. Those with resistant preoccupied patterns may cling to caregivers and have difficulties in maintaining exploratory and social activities, whereas avoidant individuals may display high levels of self-reliance and deny themselves access to a supportive figure (Colin, 1996).
The early physical and emotional experience of bonding forms the basis of the self and facilitates the ability to comprehend the emotional states of others. Humans have an innate template for interactions with parents, and the human brain has innate expectations of maternal and paternal parenting. Relationships early in life stimulate the growth of integrative parts of the brain that regulate emotion, attention and thought (Hart, 2006). The foundational significance of these processes make it imperative that families, professionals, service providers and legislators should be supported to gain an understanding of their importance.

[i] Ainsworth M D S (1979) Infant-mother attachment. American Psychologist Vol 34 pp 932-7.

[ii] Hofer, M. (1995) Hidden Regulators: Implications for a new understanding of attachment, separation and loss. In P. Goldberg, R. Muir, and J. Kerr (Eds), Attachment Theory: social, developmental and clinical perspectives. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Analytic Press.

[iii] Schore, A. (2003) Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self. New York: Norton.

[iv] Schore, A. (2014) Masterclass: The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy. Conference and Teaching Event. UCLA School of Medicine. Belfast.

[v] Hart, S. (2011) The Impact of Attachment. New York: Norton.

[vi] Fonagy, P. (2001). Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis. New York: Other Press.

[vii] Dennett, D. (1987). The Intentional Stance. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[viii] Fonagy, P. (2002).  Multiple voices versus meta-cognition. In V. Sinason (Ed), Attachment, Trauma and Multiplicity. Sussex: Brunner-Routledge.

[ix] Fonagy, P., & Target, M. ( 1995) Towards understanding violence: the use of the body and the role of the father. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 76: 487 -502.

[x] Howes, C.(1999) Attachment relationships in the context of multiple caregivers. In J. Cassidy & S. Shaver (Eds), Handbook of Attachment, Theory, research and clinical application. New York. Guilford Press.