Dr. Brent Potter
Whether you are fostering a child or noticing that your own child is exhibiting some attachment issues, you want to provide her with a loving environment while also seeking professional treatment. But what are the types of attachment issues, and is your child really at risk?If your child is showing signs of attachment issues, a mental health care professional can diagnose and treat her. The goal is to help your child acclimate to a safe and secure environment while also securing her emotional attachments.
The Types of Attachment
The types of attachment are rooted in attachment theory. This theory explains the parent-child relationship in which a child, when separated in infancy from their mother, may have emotional issues during childhood, and that possibly into adulthood.
The theory was first introduced in the 1950s by psychiatrists John Bowlby and James Robertson after Bowlby made the correlation between a baby’s innate need for the mother and a mother’s love and attention – and not just because the mother breastfed her baby. This theory led Bowlby to attribute attachment to the human connectedness we feel towards one another.
When under a great deal of stress or in danger, a child will attach himself to the caregiver who has provided a safe and secure environment as well as met his emotional needs. However, the caregiver’s response to the child’s needs will set the tone for whether the child will display emotional strength and security later. A sensitive caregiver will try to meet the child’s basic needs and communicate appropriately.
When a child’s needs for security are not met, he may develop attachment issues. These issues are defined by four styles: secure attachment, avoidant attachment, ambivalent attachment, and disorganized attachment. The latter three styles describe insecure behavioral patterns. Severe attachment issues can further develop into attachment disorders that can last a lifetime.
Attachment in Early Development
Year 1: The Need to Be With
According to attachment parenting theory, the bond between parents and children is largely formed in the first six years of a child’s life. The strength of this bond determines the dynamic of the relationship, and plays a large part in how effective parents are in influencing their children later in life.
“The [first stage of attachment] is the beginning of a wonderful unfolding and development of the capacity for a relationship,” says Dr. Neufeld.
During the first year, the foundation of the parent-child bond is set through physical attachment. A baby attaches through physical touch, sight and smell, by being near to their parents. This may be achieved by wearing your baby, co-sleeping or sharing a room, or just by spending as much time physically bonding as possible.
Year 2: The Need to Be Like
According to Dr. Neufeld, “by the second year of life a new way of attaching should open up in which the child wants to be like [their parent].”
By being close to their child, and communicating with them constantly, parents learn to respond to their baby’s needs. Once a baby feels that their needs are being understood, they will develop the confidence and desire to communicate using the parents’ language.
Year 3: The Need to Belong
When parents listen and respond to the needs of their child, the child will learn to be attentive to the needs of their parents.
“By the third year, a child becomes preoccupied with belonging and loyalty and that’s when the obedience instincts begin,” explains Dr. Neufeld.
Although you cannot control your child’s temperament, you can control the depth of your parent-child connection. A child that is more connected to their mother or father trusts their parents and tries to please them. This is the root of obedience.
Year 4: The Need to Matter
When children feel safe and secure within their family and trust that their parents are always available to them, they gain the confidence to go out and explore the world.
Many critics of attachment parenting believe that it creates dependency, but the goal is actually the opposite:
“There’s this idea in our society that children can be too attached. It’s a dreadful idea. The short answer is: absolutely not.” says Dr. Neufeld. “If a child is deeply attached through a sense of belonging, loyalty, and emotional intimacy, they have many ways of holding on when physically apart. The more deeply attached a child is, the more they can separate physically.”
Year 5: The Need for Emotional Intimacy
“If everything unfolds properly, the fifth year is incredible. The limbic system, the amygdala of the command center, the emotional brain pulls out all of its stops and the child gives his heart to whomever he is attached to,” Dr. Neufeld says.
At this point a child’s capability for emotional intimacy is fulfilled and they are able to fully reciprocate the love they receive from their parents and caregivers.
Year 6: The Need for Psychological Intimacy
At age 6, if the parent-child attachment is secure, the child will open up their inner world and want to share everything with their parents. Once that level of psychological intimacy is achieved, the level of trust will stay with the child throughout their entire life. This is what sets the stage for the rest of parenting (Kids in the House, 2016).
Secure attachment is the healthier attachment style of the four listed. For example, when you drop your little one off to daycare and she fusses for a bit before calming down. Your child is upset that you are leaving, but she knows that you will come back for her. She can trust that you will return to her.Children with sensitive caregivers who respond with positive non-verbal communication will learn how to comfort themselves because they know the separation from you will not last.
There is a difference between the loving bond between a parent and their child, and a secure attachment. Unlike the love you simply feel for your child, secure attachment has more to do with those nonverbal communication skills that pass between two people. You allow your child to initiate and end the time with you playing or reading. When your child is feeling sad, you may mimic her expression and then offer her a hug or your lap to cuddle.
Eventually, your child begins to rely on you as she realizes that you “get” her. This can be a crucial element during your child’s teenage years when she needs to feel that connection.
When children are raised with caregivers who remain emotionally distant, they can develop avoidant attachment. This style protects the child from rejection. They may have been told not to cry or show emotion when they were smaller.
The caregiver may have rejected the child if he showed any emotion at all. To remain in his caregiver’s good graces, the child would avoid displaying emotion. Unfortunately, as these children grow, they have trouble asking others for help.
Whether the child is pushed by a caregiver to be more independent, or pursue independence on his own, the avoidant attachment child will try to do everything by himself and not ask for assistance by a parent or guardian.
He will completely avoid any feelings of distress, especially when the caregiver leaves him at daycare or with a sitter. The child may busy himself with a toy or crayons – anything to distract him from the feelings of emptiness.
Not only will the child avoid emotionally charged situations, but he may also withdrawal from physical touch. The urge to hug an avoidant child may lead to resentment and bitterness as the child rejects physical touching from more than just the primary caregiver.
A child may exhibit signs of ambivalent attachment or anxious-ambivalent behavior when a caregiver is an unstable presence in her life. Sometimes you will see this type of behavior in homes where the mother (father or another primary caregiver) is often out of the picture. It may be a scenario where the grandparents are raising the child and the parent only stops in to “visit.”
Whether or not this person brings chaos into the home or not, the child may not know how to act around this person. She may want desperately to be accepted, but in an attempt to protect herself from rejection may completely ignore the person while simultaneously keeping the parent within proximity.Many times, the child is outwardly angry towards this person and may react physically or verbally. This subtype of the ambivalent attachment style is known as ambivalent resistant.
Another subtype in this style is the ambivalent passive child. This child doesn’t necessarily seek out attention but would like to have the attention of the caregiver. She rarely pulls away from the caregiver if the person does show interest, but the child will not initiate it.
In another example, the parent may show attentiveness part of the time, but then become unresponsive and cold at other times due to the parent’s own upbringing or mental health condition. This unreliable behavior leaves the child in a precarious state, not knowing who to rely on or how to gain acceptance.
The insecure disorganized attachment style can cause a great number of problems for a child, as well as adults since this type can move into adulthood and influence the child’s decisions and behavior.
Sometimes a child will develop disorganized attachment when the caregiver is loving one moment and abusive or fearful the next. The child doesn’t know what to expect from his caregiver, and therefore can’t figure out how to please them.
When left in the care of another person, the child may begin to cry. However, when the parent returns, the child may completely ignore them, or greet them only to run away or even hit the parent. Although the child wants the parent’s comfort and approval, he feels fear and reacts to that emotion.
Unfortunately, the disorganized attachment issue can become a generational condition. Parents who experienced traumatic childhoods may lash out at their children or react fearfully when their child demonstrates his emotions. The parent may not realize why they feel disconnected from their child if they’ve never confronted what happened to them when they were smaller.
Adults who feel they have disorganized attachment issues should seek counseling treatment to help resolve those hurtful memories and emotions. Disorganized attachment can cause issues in other relationships including romantic partners and coworkers. A therapist can help the person move through those emotions and find ways to healthy behaviors.
How You Can Help Your Child
The good news is that it’s not too late to help your child with healthy attachments. Provide the basic needs on a consistent basis, but also show your child that you are willing to listen to her. Her emotional needs are just as important as her basic needs. Find ways to bond with her emotionally, reflect her facial expressions and offer to listen. Let her know it’s okay if she needs a hug or a good cry.
Christian Counseling for Attachment Issues
If you suspect your child has attachment issues, consider speaking with a mental health care professional to create a plan, not only to help your child but to give you insight on how you can best help her emotionally.
A good therapist will find ways to reach your child that include nonverbal games and activities. This “playtime” allows the child to display the trauma in a safe space under the supervision of a professional. All therapy should help reinforce a healthy relationship between the child and the parent (or caregiver).
Kids in the House. (2016). What is attachment parenting? It may be different than you think. Available: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-is-attachment-parent_b_9774988
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