Attachment and Relational Difficulties

What is Attachment?

Psychologist John Bowlby was the first attachment theorist, describing attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings“.  Bowlby believed that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact throughout life.  He also thought attachment was not the only component but part of a system.

The Attachment system is a:

  • Predisposed motivational and behavioural system from birth
  • Survival and protective function
  • Where your child is an active player too

When caring is good enoughAttachment and Relational Diffiuculties

  • When something happens, my parent knows what to do and soothes me, I am safe, and I know how to relieve myself,
  • My parent understands me, and I am worthwhile/wanted; I am capable and lovable.

Your child will sense you are available and responsive, leading to a sense of trust and security. They will view the world as safe and develop a “good internal working model”. This is what we call a secure attachment style, and thankfully 55% of the population develop this style.

When caring is not good enough.

  • When things happen, my parent shouts and does not know what to do. I don’t feel better, and I can’t help myself feel better.
  • They don’t understand, and I am not lovable.
  • My parent is frightened, and I am frightened too. Is it my fault, or am I bad?

Most parents do not have this intention; sometimes, they suffer from postnatal depression, a physical illness or trauma; however, If young children feel repeatedly abandoned, isolated, powerless, or uncared for—for whatever reason—they will learn that they can’t depend on others. As a result, they’ll develop a working model that is dangerous, frightening and unsafe and creates an attachment Style such as:

1. Ambivalent insecure attachment style.

They may believe that adults are unpredictable. I have to draw attention to myself to get you to notice me and make sure I get my needs met, even if it’s just some of them. I can’t rely on you to work out what I need and when. Sometimes you’ll feel I’m in your face, but I can’t bear being ignored, which terrifies me.

You may notice behaviours like this:

  • Tend to make their presence known
  • Preoccupied with relationships, alert to the availability of others
  • Overly focused on adult relationships at the expense of play
  • Difficulty in settling by themselves or in groups
  • Sometimes talk excessively, or act like the class clown to maintain the adults’ focus of attention
  • Difficulty in concentrating on the play, hypervigilant about what adults are doing, easily distracted

2. Insecure avoidant attachment style 

Your child may believe that adults are rejecting or intrusive. When I meet you, I will avoid and ignore you and look after myself. I won’t be asking you for help no matter what I face. Love? Care? Why would I trust you? You have no idea what I need.”

You may notice behaviour like this:

  • Withdrawn and quiet
  • Rely on the knowledge and ignore feelings to guide behaviours
  • Appear more self-reliant and independent than expected for age
  • Reluctant to turn to adults when they need help
  • Distress is denied or not communicated
  • May try to take care of the adult
  • Can appear happy or settled much of the time
  • If stressed, may show a sudden and inexplicable tantrum which is quickly over

3. Disorganised attachment style

Your child may believe adults are either frightening by being abusive towards you or frightened because they seem so scared or helpless most of the time. I don’t know whether to approach you or run away from you. I feel confused by you and others. I’m bad. What is going on? Why should I trust you?  I need to stay in control- ready. My eight tips on helping children navigate through divorce

You may notice them:

  • Are either quiet or withdrawn/loud and aggressive
  • Controlling within peer relationships (unable to make or keep wanted friends due to emotional immaturity)
  • Express anxiety as Controlling, omnipotent, knowing everything
  • Demonstrate a  limited range of emotion, lack of contentment/joy in child activity
  • Mask anxiety with aggression/assertive behaviour.

All clinicians like me who are immersed in the therapy world understand attachment styles, and I know that your child behaves in this way simply as a response to danger and threat; they are not being naughty and do not have ADHD. Please note that:

  • All infants make use of defensive behavioural strategies
  • Insecure infants have to rely on these to avoid/relieve distress habitually
  • Insecure attachment is, by itself, not necessarily a disorder, but it is a risk factor

For more reassurance, I like Dr Patrica Crittenden’s work. She believes that children do not have just one attachment style; it is more fluid than that. Indeed they may have a default pattern in different contexts such as school or home. Essentially though, their main preoccupation is surviving in their environment at that moment. This is why it is so difficult for teachers and parents to understand them and why it is essential to work with everyone in the system to offer meaningful understanding and consistency. It would also explain why the relational aspect of parenting is so complex and exhaustive and you don’t enjoy being with your child sometimes.

Please contact me for a consultation if you are a parent/ professional and notice your child displaying these behaviours or have been diagnosed with an Attachment Disorder; there are many ways of helping your child.

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