Infancy to Adulthood:
Attachment forms the foundation of our perception of ourselves, others, and the world. At the root of attachment are beliefs that have been shaped by our past experiences. Engagement in attachment-based therapy offers an opportunity to understand how past experiences relate to the challenges in our lives.
To focus on attachment-based therapy, I will begin with a description of the theory behind it. Psychiatrist John Bowlby developed Attachment Theory after studying the mental health of children during WWII. He discovered that children who had been separated from their parents for a prolonged period of time were more likely to face challenges with their mental health. He proposed that when infants perceived a threat, they needed comfort from an attachment figure to believe that their world was trustworthy. This would facilitate growth both physically and emotionally because an attachment figure functioned as a safe base for infants to understand their world. They were able to explore it with the knowledge that they would be protected if they felt unsafe.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth added to this theory with a study in 1965 called the Strange Situation Procedure. She and her team of researchers observed infants with their mothers and strangers at three intervals in the study: before, during, and after the infants were separated from their mothers.
Three attachment styles were proposed:
1. Secure attachment style: Infants with this style showed an interest in their environment, they seemed uncomfortable with the stranger, and they seemed comfortable after their mothers returned.
2. Insecure attachment style – anxious-avoidant type: Infants with this style did not show interest in their environment, they seemed comfortable with the stranger, and they did not seem comfortable after their mothers returned. A study that measured infants’ heart rates uncovered that these infants were the most uncomfortable, even though they did not show it.
3. Insecure attachment style – anxious-ambivalent type: Infants with this style seemed uncomfortable before separation from their mothers, they seemed more uncomfortable with the stranger, and they seemed conflicted when their mothers returned.
In 1990, psychologist Mary Main identified a fourth attachment style called disorganized or disoriented. Infants with this style seemed uncoordinated in their responses after their mothers returned. The effects of abuse, neglect, and loss were considered.
This brings me to parenting. I will use the term caregivers to be inclusive. Caregivers who are attuned to children’s needs – by identifying, validating, and responding to them – contribute to the development of a secure attachment style. Children learn how to navigate the world to meet their needs. In contrast, caregivers who are misattuned to children’s needs contribute to the development of an insecure attachment style. However, there may be factors that affect their capacity to be who they would like. These include their age, knowledge, skills, income, and resources. It is also possible that they have an insecure attachment style themselves.
Psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver applied Attachment Theory to adults in the 1980s. They proposed four attachment styles:
1. Secure attachment style – Adults with this style seem comfortable with both intimacy and independence.
2. Insecure attachment style – dismissive type – Adults with this style seem uncomfortable with intimacy and they seem to prefer independence. They may play the role of a rescuer in their relationships by being responsible for others’ needs.
3. Insecure attachment style – pre-occupied type – Adults with this style seem comfortable with intimacy and they seem to prefer dependence. They may play the role of a victim in their relationships by assigning responsibility to others to meet their needs.
4. Insecure attachment style – fearful type – Adults with this style seem conflicted about intimacy and independence.
As you may have understood, adult attachment styles correspond with infant attachment styles. How? Research has presented that attachment styles tend to be stable from infancy to adulthood and they also tend to be inter-generational. However, attachment styles may change with support.
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Hazan, C., & Shaver, P.R. (1994). Attachment as an organizing framework for research on close relationships. Psychological Inquiry, 5(1), 1-22.
Pearlman L.A., & Courtois, C.A. (2005). Clinical applications of the attachment framework: Relational treatment of complex trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18(5), 449-459.
Shaffer, D.R., Wood, E., & Willoughby, T. (2002). Developmental psychology: Childhood and adolescence, First Canadian Edition. Scarborough, ON: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Solomon, J., & George, C. (2008). The measurement of attachment security and related constructs in infancy and early childhood. In Cassidy, J. & Shaver, P. R. (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (2nd ed.) (pp. 383-416). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
Stalker, C. (2001). Attachment theory. In P. Lehmann & N. Coady (Eds.), Theoretical perspectives on direct social work practice: A generalist-eclectic approach (pp. 109-127). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
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