Secure attachment is one of four different types of attachment theory, which was created by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s. Her research led to the discovery that babies develop their ability to have healthy, meaningful relationships based on the first year of life and how well they attach to their primary caregivers.
These caregivers can be their mother, father, grandparent, or adoptive parent. But there are four types of attachment, one of which is secure attachment. Secure attachment is the healthiest form of attachment. When a child feels secure in the presence of his primary caregiver, he is said to have formed a secure attachment.
Children who experience this safe, loving attachment within the first year of life are much freer to explore the world around them with confidence, develop sustained, healthy relationships, and become problem-solvers who can cope with complex issues as they get older. You may be wondering how a child who doesn’t experience secure attachment in her first year of life will fare.
She may (but not always) struggle with authority, be distrusting of parental figures, or find it difficult to seek out comfort from parents because of an insecure attachment that formed as an infant. Children whose primary caregiver couldn’t give them what they need may have received a better sense of care from a stranger than from their parent or grandparent, and this creates confusion and a sense of avoidance.
On the other hand, secure attachment bonds can be built and strengthened beyond just the first year of life.
What builds secure attachment?
The first year of life has a lot to do with the secure attachment bonding process. Parents, however, don’t need to worry about being perfect. They can communicate safety and a peaceful environment through nonverbal cues, such as calm body posture, steadfast eye contact, and using gentle touch to soothe and comfort a crying baby.
Secure attachment can also be added throughout childhood. If parents mess up once or twice in infancy the child is not doomed to insecure attachment throughout the remainder of his or her life. Secure attachment can also be strengthened by helping a child feel loved, safe, and accepted as he or she grows.
What are some obstacles?
Parenting is tough. Anyone who has a child will confirm that. But you are probably doing more than you think to build a secure attachment with your child. The tiniest parental illustrations of “you’ve got this” or “you’re going to be okay” help a child at any age understand that the scary things in life aren’t insurmountable.
For a toddler, it may be that he is fearful of getting on the swing. But an encouraging dad who holds him while he cries and waits for him to calm down before trying again is setting his child up for a secure attachment. The child knows that he will not be forced onto the swing against his will because his dad is patient, soothing, and kind.
An older child may be reading a poem she wrote aloud in front of her class for the first time. Seeing her mom waiting on the sidelines can be a reassuring presence. She gains security from knowing that, no matter what, her mom supports her and smiles, believing that her daughter will do well.
Simple facial cues and encouraging words go a long way toward building secure attachment.
Why does secure attachment matter?
Children who developed strong secure attachment bonds with their primary caregivers tend to form healthier relationships as adults. They may be better at trusting their significant others, find it easier to open up and be vulnerable to a friend, or have a healthy, accepting attitude toward a friend who needs encouragement or forgiveness.
When trust is built between a child and a parent or primary caregiver, the child can learn that the world around him is safe to explore. This child may grow into an adult who isn’t afraid to take calculated risks, who can commit to a sustained level of employment, and who seeks out a field of study that enlivens him.
Secure attachment may also help him recognize the patterns of unhealthy relationships more quickly in others, avoiding those friendships that are toxic or people who are narcissistic and won’t be good life partners. Research also shows that adults who struggle less with depression and mood disorders tended to have a secure attachment with their primary caregivers as children.
Can lack of an early childhood attachment be restored?
In short, yes. Attachment therapy is a practice around which secure attachment can be built even into adulthood.
Founded by psychologist John Bowlby, attachment therapy involves the inner work of exploring how your childhood experiences shaped your ability to bond in relationships later in life. By looking in-depth at your relationship with your primary caregivers, you and your counselor can find patterns or significant moments where your needs were unmet or met in ways that built insecurity and instability.
You need not have experienced what some might consider serious trauma events to find significant places in your child-parent relationship where a secure attachment wasn’t built.
For example, if your primary caregiver believed that not attending to your needs as a toddler would make you strong, he or she may not have picked you up after a fall or comforted you when you were afraid. Another illustration is if a parent or primary caregiver traveled frequently and missed out on important milestones in your childhood.
While these aren’t necessarily due to a lack of concern on the part of parents, they may just be that the primary caregiver misunderstood what was important at the time or couldn’t get away from a demanding job. To reconnect that trust that wasn’t built, a counselor will help you as an adult to name what you missed out on in those significant moments.
This awareness can help you reconnect with adult relationships such as with a spouse or even with an adult parent. Recognizing where your own needs weren’t met in secure attachment formation is also a great way to become self-aware of your parenting style.
As you meet with a trusted counselor who can help you identify those areas of insecure attachment, you begin to reframe your thoughts on being an available, engaged, undistracted parent. Or if you do not have children, it can help you recognize the ways that a lack of trust or a struggle with anxiety plagued your adult relationships.
Charting a new course in your relationships becomes more hopeful as you and your counselor work together to discover better ways for you to handle social situations and vulnerability in friendships.
How to know if your attachment needs rebuilding in your life.
If you find that you struggle with being codependent in relationships, you likely missed out on secure attachments somewhere along the way. Also, if you tend to overpromise in your relationships, giving more than is feasibly comfortable, you might find that secure attachment wasn’t something your parents or caregivers were able to provide.
Other symptoms and signs of not having a secure attachment include:
- Anxious thoughts
- Inability to be vulnerable
- Consistent struggle with jealousy in relationships
- Dating multiple partners without a long-term commitment
- Fear of being alone
- Poor self-esteem
- A preoccupation or worry about someone leaving you (a friend or a spouse) consumes your thought life
If you think that secure attachment issues are what’s causing you trouble in your relationships as an adult, our office has multiple counselors who can help. They are trained in trauma counseling and can help you uncover what you missed as a child, giving you hope for a new relational future.
Contact our office today so we can help you find the counselor that best fits your needs.
“Mother and Baby”, Courtesy of Omar Lopez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Prayer”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Old Photograph”, Courtesy of Anne Nygard, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Mother and Baby”, Courtesy of Ana Tablas, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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