We, along with all mammals, are born with the need to attach to others to survive. The attachment system is activated whenever we feel vulnerable (i.e. scared, sick, overwhelmed) and would ideally benefit from the comfort, support, and encouragement someone we perceive as stronger, wiser, and kind. Attachment behaviors show up at 6-9 months of age. When we are young, our primary attachment figure is the parent most active in our day to day care and to a lesser extent whoever else is substantially involved in our care (i.e. the other parent, older siblings, grandparents, regular babysitters.) Children typically rank their caregivers, e.g. choosing mom if she’s present, dad when mom is not around, and grandma when both parents are not there.
When an attachment figure is able to provide protection and comfort and genuinely delights in the child, children learn healthy ways to cope with their emotions and to relate to other children and adults. When this does not happen, children struggle with more intense and extreme emotions (especially fear and anger) and/or overly constricted emotions. Their relationships with peers and other adults are marked by highly oppositional behavior, overly submissive behavior, and/or caregiving behavior.
When we are teenagers and adults, attachment figures are our closest family members, but also may include older siblings, best friends, romantic partners, and even an admired teacher, boss, pastor, or therapist. Research has shown that healthy attachments with people outside of the family in childhood and young adulthood are especially effective in mitigating the impact of unhealthy attachment patterns at home. Moreover, healthy attachment figures through the lifespan can help someone with difficulties forming a healthy attachment to develop progressively healthier relationships and more effective ways of coping with difficult emotions.
In the next four blog spots, I will write about the 4 attachment styles that develop in response to how we are parented: secure, insecure-anxious, insecure-avoidant, and insecure-disorganized.