The Science of Attachment
The attachment system is an innate evolutionary system present in all mammals. It serves a protective function, designed to keep the dependent infant close to its mother until it’s mature enough to survive on its own. In humans, the attachment figure’s internal state also regulates the child’s internal state during most of the first three years of life. If the primary attachment figure is calm, the baby will be calm. If the attachment figure is depressed, the baby’s physiology will become depressed.
A child forms his/her primary attachment during times of distress, generally with the mother figure. A child may also form secondary attachment bonds with other caregivers that will support and complement this primary bond. Here’s how the system works: The baby experiences some distress. This distress turns on the attachment system, signaling a physiological red alert. This alert tells the child, “Find your attachment figure and seek comfort!” Ideally, an attachment figure will be available and attuned to the child’s distress. He or she will respond by soothing the child, turning the alert system off like a light switch. The quality of comfort the attachment figure provides dictates whether the child’s attachment style is secure, anxious, avoidant or disorganised.
Anxious Attachment Style
When the adult responds to the child’s distress in an inconsistent way (sometimes attuned, sometimes not), the child may form an anxious attachment style. The child becomes preoccupied with the caregiver and with negative emotions, particularly anger. This preoccupation inhibits exploration and thriving in the play environment. The child learns to cling, whine and demand attention, ultimately hoping to recapture the attuned moments that seem to appear and disappear with no predictable pattern. Imagine dating the most amazing person in the world, and then discovering that on some dates the closeness between you is wonderful beyond words and on other dates its as if you are on completely different pages. In the face of this inconsistency, we might start doubting ourselves and become determined to find ways to keep the person’s attention, even if it means behaving like someone we are not.
Avoidant Attachment Style
When the adult responds to the child’s distress in a way that is cold, distant or negative, the child learns quickly to avoid depending on their attachment figure for comfort. The child learns to avoid feelings and dismiss the parent’s mental state. From the outside, avoidant attachment looks like independence, especially in times of distress. On the inside, the child is just coping the best she can in a world without trust. Imagine marrying a person who has wonderful qualities, but withdraws or becomes ugly when you are distressed. Ultimately, you would distance yourself from the relationship as a way of managing the disappointment, rejection and additional pain that is heaped on top of your original upset. Trust is out of the question and control replaces closeness.
Disorganised Attachment Style
When the parent is both the source of fear and the protective attachment figure, the child may develop disorganised attachment. In this case, neither proximity-seeking nor avoiding is a sufficient coping strategy. This can leave the child vulnerable to personality disorders. Situations such as abuse, trauma, neglect and severe parent-child misattunement compromise the attachment system in the child’s brain.
Secure Attachment Style
When the adult responds to the child’s distress in an attuned way, the child forms a secure attachment style. The caregiver’s response brings the child’s physiology back into balance. This is the foundation of emotional regulation. The acronym R.O.A.D will lead you to success:
R Respond consistently to the child’s distress.
O Organise yourself first and the child second.
A Attune to the child’s internal state by offering empathy and understanding.
D Describe by “mind reading” intentions and desires for the child. This helps the child make sense of the experience and her world of relationships.
The way the primary attachment figure responds to the child’s distress determines whether the child’s attachment style will be secure, anxious, avoidant or disorganised.
So What Have We Learned?
Researchers have long observed that children have distinct attachment styles to caregivers, and that these attachment styles predict certain behaviours and life patterns. Let’s quickly review what research tells us about early attachment:
Attachment is a biological necessity
It is formed during times of distress
The most important attachment relationships begin in the family
When in distress, a baby’s alert system urges her to seek an attachment figure to help regulate her overwhelmed system
When the resulting care is responsive, the attachment system turns off and the exploration system turns on. A secure attachment wires the child’s brain for lifelong patterns.
The attachment style children form during the infant and toddler years becomes a blueprint for all future relationships.
The COS Parenting Program
If you would like to ensure you are creating a secure base for your child and are interested in the "Circle of Security Parenting" Program, we offer two ways to get involved in the program.