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A Crash Course on Attachment Theory

A Crash Course on Attachment Theory

Christian Family Institute

Published: July 20, 2020

I want to share just a bit about the science behind relationships, using an abbreviated crash-course in attachment theory. That first sentence may sound a bit dull but bear with me because it is quite fascinating! I will admit, this is a topic that I can tend to geek out over. All human infants develop an attachment style through their relationship with their primary caregivers. An infant’s attachment style becomes either SECURE or INSECURE dependent upon the most consistent types of interactions the infant has with their caregiver.

SECURE attachment is formed when a child has a need, the child becomes distressed to express their need, a responsive caregiver comes to meet the need, and the responsive caregiver soothes the child’s distress. This secure attachment dance happens hundreds of times per day and communicates to the child that she has a voice, she can express her needs even with big emotions, she can seek comfort from her caregiver, and she can trust that someone in the world will help her get her needs met. Securely attached children generally grow up to become securely attached adults. The latter enjoy healthy relationships, healthy boundaries, a strong sense of self, the ability to trust, a sense of competence, and the ability to care well for others. Securely attached children also grow up to become adults who can regulate their emotional state, cope well with stressors, and perform well academically, professionally, and socially.

Secure Attachment

INSECURE attachment is formed when a child has a need, the child becomes distressed to express the need, and she does not consistently experience the soothing that securely attached children receive. Instead, when she is in distress, her caregiver is either inconsistently responsive, avoidant and detached, or scary in response to her big feelings. So she remains in a state of distress and has to figure out how to calm herself, soothe herself, and get her needs met. Children with insecure attachment generally grow up to become insecurely attached adults with poor relationships, poor boundaries, an insecure sense of self, lack of confidence, difficulty with intimacy, and difficulty trusting others.

Insecure Attachment

Often, people who enjoy self-reflection read this information and begin to ponder their histories or how they impacted their children. As you consider your childhood, do you think that you developed a more secure or insecure attachment style? As you consider your parenting style when your children were tiny, do you think you consistently responded to their needs or left them to figure things out on their own? These are hard questions. If you recognize that you have an insecure attachment in your history, please know that you are not alone!

Interestingly but maybe not surprisingly, several studies have been conducted in the United States that have revealed that American culture highly esteems autonomy. We tend to push our children toward autonomy very early, with a “brush it off and move on” mentality. We express pride in them when they are not overly emotional in response to needs, injuries, or hurt feelings. These studies also show that 55-60% of children in the US are securely attached, leaving a whopping 40-45% of children raised with insecure attachment. These statistics are staggering but should not cause despair. There IS Hope!

Interpersonal neuroscientists (like my favorite - Dr. Dan Seigel) have found that wounds created in the context of relationships CAN BE HEALED in the context of healthy relationships. If we will explore our histories and understand what messages we received about ourselves and others through the lens of attachment theory, we can move toward an “earned secure” attachment style (and so can our children)!

A person with secure attachment can freely give care (without obligation), freely receive care (without guilt), recognize their needs, negotiate with others to get their needs met, and be their autonomous wonderful created self (whether alone or in relationship with someone). These characteristics free us to be enjoyable connected relational beings AND live a life that more fully embraces who God created us to be.

At Christian Family Institute, we love to help individuals of all ages, couples, and families understand their attachment histories more fully and make changes to free them from attachment-related issues that may be holding them back. If you’re ready to begin this journey, please contact us! We’re excited to help!

Written by Jennifer Giles, M.S. LPC
TBRI Practitioner
Adoption Home Study Provider

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