It is common knowledge that our childhood interactions with our parents/caregivers have a significant effect on our development. Until relatively recently (the mid 1900s), children were commonly seen as small adults and were not treated with the same care we give them nowadays. It was typically believed that infants needed little more than physical safety and nourishment to thrive in life. The baby’s attachment to its mother was seen as one of biological necessity: the baby needs the mother for nourishment, she supplies it, and so the baby loves her. We now know that babies have deep social needs and that the relationship between the mother and the child is about much more than food.
As human beings, we are born into this world as exeptionally frail and vulnerable creatures. And we remain that way for more years than most animals live in a lifetime. This is part of why we are such social creatures. Human beings are not meant to be alone. From birth on, we need the affection and support of our loved ones. Being so frail and new to the world, the only way babies are able to sooth themselves and meet their needs is through their caretakers. As such, the infant is completely dependent on its caretakers. This creates a relationship between the baby and the caretakers that has a significant impact on the way the baby views and interacts with the world.
If the baby’s needs are met by its caretakers and they are warm and available to him/her, then the baby will develop what we refer to as a healthy attachment style. The baby will be secure in knowing that when he/she has a need, he/she will have it met by the caretakers. This creates in the baby, a real sense that the world is a safe place. Dangers and difficulties may arise from time to time, but there is always a safe place to return to for support. In contrast, if the baby’s caregivers are cold and unavailable, the baby may develop what we call an avoidant attachment style, where he/she finds little comfort in their caretakers and no longer goes to them as a source of safety and comfort. If the baby’s caretakers are intermittently available and unreliably able to soothe the baby’s needs, the baby can develop an anxious/ambivalent attachment style. Anxious/ambivalent babies feel need and desire to be soothed by their caregivers but no longer are able to trust in the caregivers’ ability to do that. The result is a baby that cries for its mother but then pushes her away when held.
Attachment style can be tested for in infants using what is known as “The Strange Situation”
In The Strange Situation, the securely attached baby will reach out for mom, be soothed by her, and then return to play. The anxious/ambivalent baby will reach out for mom while simultaneously pushing her away, and will not be able to be soothed by her. The avoidant baby will show little interest in the mother returning and in many cases will not appear bothered by her departure.
I talk about attachment a lot with my clients because attachment styles carry through into adulthood and affect the ways we interact with others, especially our partners. If your parents were cold and unavailable in your childhood, you may find it difficult to be intimate and close with another person. The underlying belief being, “I am all alone, no one can help me, so why bother.” If your parents were unable to meet your needs for some reason or another, you may have an anxious/ambivalent attachment style. In relationships you may find yourself in a horrible push and pull “Love me! But not too close!”, “I love you! I hate you!”, or “I can’t get too close to anyone because I know they will hurt me.” A primary goal of attachment based therapies is to help clients get to a place within themselves and with their partners where they can have a healthy attachment style and ultimately to feel more secure and safe in the world.