Secure Attachment—We’re All Wired For It [33]

In Neurobiology by Dr. Keith Witt

iStock_000001806047XSmall1World War II was a catastrophe not just for the soldiers killed and traumatized, but also for their families. Millions of children lost parents or were displaced for critical periods of their development. Some of these losses were only temporary, as desperate parents placed their children in homes away from the Nazi bombs. Thousands of English children were shipped off to strangers in the countryside, while parents worked in more densely populated areas or fought in Europe and Africa. Many of these displaced children were orphaned. All of them suffered from family separations. After the war, psychoanalyst John Bowlby, raised by upper class parents who could afford nannies and boarding schools (talk about separation anxiety!) studied orphaned boys. He became obsessed with social development, and was fascinated by the attachment relationships between children and parents. For instance, why did some of the kids become criminals and others model citizens? He found that the quality of relationships with important figures like parents—attachment relationships—had enormous impact on how children turned out. Bowlby’s groundbreaking work became the foundation of the science of human attachment styles, and he dedicated his life to exploring development and attachment styles to help children and families thrive. Bowlby has since become a patron saint of neurobiologists, psychoanalysts, parent educators, marriage counselors, and attachment researchers. According to Sue Johnson, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Ottawa and founder/director of the Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, whose purpose is to help couples become more securely attached, “John Bowlby gave us a theory of love.” When I lecture to therapists, the mere mention of Bowlby’s name can evoke a reverent hush. Scientists, therapists, and people who work with children and families adore him because his frameworks are practical, supported by vast research, and provide wonderful guidance for improving relationships and, especially, helping children grow well. Bowlby’s successors, attachment researchers, have developed precise definitions of four attachment styles:
  • Secure Attachment (55-60 percent of children): Children who mostly feel safe with their parents and comfortable in the world are secure in their relationships with caregivers, and they do better in most ways than children with the following insecure attachment styles.
  • Ambivalent Attachment (about 15 percent): These children feel anxious and insecure. They tend to cling to parents and be hard to soothe.
  • Avoidant Attachment (20 percent): These children are emotionally unaware (“How do you feel?” “Fine.” “You look angry.” “I’m not angry.”), and appear relatively stoic or independent. When others are upset, they’ll tend to ignore the drama around them and focus on their own pursuits.
  • Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment (10 percent): Children with this form of attachment usually are the most distressed, injured, and psychologically wounded, and are more likely to have been chronically abused, neglected, or raised by overwhelmed parents who are themselves disorganized and disoriented. Disorganized/disoriented kids often respond with confusion, collapse, or chaos when stressed, and will also exhibit avoidant or ambivalent traits.
You’d think genetics would have something to do with secure and insecure attachment, and, yes, genes do play a part, but in exactly the opposite ways that researchers thought. Scientists thought that some kids would be genetically programmed for secure attachment and others for insecure attachment, but that’s not what the data showed (I love how science can answer questions sometimes). Again and again, researchers could find no link between attachment style and genetics. They concluded that genetics had nothing to do with attachment style, which, in my opinion, was not seeing the forest for the trees. It seems obvious that the capacity to form secure attachments is so central to being human, that all of us are genetically programmed to cocreate secure attachments in safe, intimate relationships. Since we need an intimate relationship with a loving, competent parental figure to develop secure attachment (and forty to forty-five percent of children don’t), some of us don’t get there by adulthood. The good news is that people can develop secure attachment styles at any age if they share the right kind of love with another human being. Since secure attachment leads to good health, success, emotional growth, academic performance, and thriving relationships, it’s pretty wonderful we can help parents and children create it—and the key is caregivers. Caregivers with secure attachment styles themselves tend to cocreate secure attachment with children (as well as better relationships with other adults). Such people are usually primary attachment figures like parents, but can also be secondary attachment figures like grandparents, aunts, and uncles, or nannies who have a constant presence in kids’ lives. So, the best way to create securely attached children is to have them raised by securely attached adults—the subject of next week’s blog.