World 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.