Michael Bader; Attachment in human development
August 9, 2016
When I was a young child in the mid-1950s, I had a tonsillectomy. My parents were advised against visiting because of the belief — then widely held — that such attention would make me less able to tolerate the distress of being in the hospital. Today, we know better, and parents are not only encouraged to visit their hospitalized children, but are even given the option of spending the night in their rooms.
The evolution of our thinking about such situations reflects our increased awareness of the importance of attachment in human development. It is now axiomatic that the security of children's bonds with their caretakers provides a crucial building block of healthy development and later emotional maturity.
A healthy attachment is based on a caretaker's willingness and ability to remain emotionally available to the child, to feel empathy for that child, and to be dependable in attempting to comfort the child, especially through providing ready and frequent tactile contact. From such a secure base, the child is then free to explore and play without any inordinate worry about his or her safety or the reliability of the connection to the caretaker. Research has shown that children who grow up feeling secure in their attachments are then usually able to provide such security to their own children when they become parents, as well as form healthier romantic adult relationships. Those who grow up insecure about a caretaker's availability and empathy usually repeat this pathogenic form of attachment with their children as well as in their most intimate adult relationships.
It's surprising that such a common sense understanding about the importance of a secure attachment was once unknown to experts in the field of child development (although parents' common sense often anticipates later research by so-called "experts"). It took rigorous studies by psychological researchers like John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and Mary Main to convince the scientific community that the systems of attachment found in our brains and psyches explained a wide range of behavior in both children and the adults they later become. When a primary caretaker (in most of the post-WWII era, this was the mother) is unduly physically or psychologically absent, or emotionally inconsistent and unreliable, that caretaker's children developed some form of insecure attachment. This might manifest in either clinging or avoidant behavior, patterns that often continue into adult life. Anxious clinging is an attempt to control an unreliable parent or, later, partner. Avoidant behavior reflects an effort to be connected but armored against anticipated rejection.
Such findings were confirmed not only by studies in research settings, but also by studies of children in orphanages and those separated from their primary caretakers by war or other disasters. Without a physical intimacy with caretaking adults, young children developed insecure states that made them unable to comfort themselves or show initiative and pleasure in independently playing and exploring. In extreme forms of parental neglect or instability, researchers found a syndrome they called a failure to thrive, a severe state of psychological and physical underdevelopment which included, in some cases, inexplicable illnesses and even death.
A secure attachment, in other words, was and is necessary not only for health but for life itself.
Patterns of insecure attachment that so often continue into adult life are most evident in romantic relationships. Here we can see the wide range of behaviors and attitudes that trouble so many couples. One or both partners may be so needy of reassurance that the object of their desire feels suffocated or trapped. The insecure adult has trouble regulating feelings and impulses. Or for those afflicted with avoidant forms of insecure attachment, we often see an inability to depend on or open up to a partner, and a corresponding inability to offer comfort in return. Both the anxious-needy or the anxious-avoidant patterns reflect fundamental problems in basic attachment systems.
Research tells us that there is a high incidence of attachment disorders in our society. The chain of passing on to others what was done to us can be broken with help. It's important for new parents to be supported by high-quality childcare, economic support for long maternity and paternity leave (as opposed to its absence in the U.S., every European country gives women between 10 to 47 weeks of paid maternity leave per year), parent education, and psychotherapy if necessary. Secure attachment is the lifeblood of human development. We have to make it our collective as well as our personal priority.
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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