Attachment theory - making sense of difficult relationships

Posted: 30/06/2014


The long-term consequences of early childhood ill treatment are horrifying. It is correlated with later depression, suicide attempts, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, sexual promiscuity, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases. Psychological harm is more lasting than physical harm. The more seriously abused a child is, the more likely they are to develop serious physical health problems later in life. Moreover, people with childhood histories of trauma, abuse and neglect make up almost the entirety of this country's prison population.

Attachment is the nature of a relationship with someone you love or rely on. Usually the primary attachment is between a baby and the parents; it begins before the baby is even born and continues throughout their life. People usually have more than one attachment relationship; these may include relationships with parents, carers, teachers and friends. But the first relationships we have set the template for how other relationships develop.

If a child's primary carer forms a secure base, the child learns to use that person as a base from which to explore the world. A 'secure base' is someone who cares about the child, is physically present, is interested in the messages the child is giving them, and is calm, predictable and responsive to the child's needs.

As noted, the child leaves the secure base to explore; but exploring makes the child anxious, so they seek reassurance by returning to the secure base, receive reassurance and go to explore again. This pattern is repeated again and again. The child forms a secure attachment pattern that helps them form healthy relationships with others throughout their life. They learn empathy, social skills and the ability to self-regulate.

Some parents don't offer a secure base; they are emotionally or physically unavailable. For whatever reason, even though they do nothing actively harmful to the child, they don't notice and respond to the signals a child is giving them often enough to provide a secure base. When this happens, children learn to cope in one of two ways. Either the child learns to explore and keep on exploring, denying that they feel any anxiety until they become overly self-sufficient for their age and seem fearless. Or they do the opposite and constantly seek reassurance but never feel reassured, becoming very clingy and dependent. Psychologists call both these patterns of attachment 'insecure but organised' and they are widespread in the general population. We will all have met people like this. We may even be like this ourselves. People in these groups have developed coping mechanisms and can live ostensibly 'normal' lives, but may need help to prevent the same attachment difficulties happening with their own children.

If a child has parents who are physically, sexually or emotionally abusive, or who chronically neglect the child, the child's need for secure attachment will not be met. Such children are known as 'insecure disorganised' because no single 'organised' strategy would help them feel safe in the way it can in the organised, coping, insecure attachment patterns.

Children who are 'insecure disorganised' treat each adult differently to try to get their needs met. They may be manipulative, untruthful, provocative or superficially charming. Such behaviour makes them vulnerable to exploitation and they have no real feeling of security, ever. They have not been taught to self-regulate so may react with completely disproportionate rage to frustration or fear. If they are not helped by being removed from their chaotic families and placed with people who can provide good care, these children grow up to repeat the same pattern again with their own children.

This article is part of a longer report published in Resolution’s 'Review' in May 2014.


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