There are no guarantees in life. But the best thing parents can do to set children on the right path toward resilience and mental well-being is ensure they’re securely attached.
To get a better idea of what secure attachment is and how to foster it, I focus on what I call the four S’s of attachment. These relationship experiences include being “seen” – sensing the inner feelings, thoughts and meanings of a child beneath externally visible behaviors. Next, a child is made to feel “safe” – a parent protects a child from harm, and is not the source of terror for the child. The child is “soothed” – the parent helps the child regulate emotions in times of distress; and “secure,” developing a clear, resilient sense of self.
No parent is perfect. When ruptures in this general pattern of being seen, safe and soothed arise, as they inevitably do, a repair can be made, reinforcing the child’s sense of security that her internal world will be respected and cared for.
However, about a third of children are not so fortunate to have this security of attachment and, instead, develop various forms of insecure attachment. For about one-fifth of children in the United States, for example, the interaction of a parent with a child is not emotionally close. In this relationship, the child doesn’t experience being seen or soothed on a regular, reliable basis. That child develops what’s called an avoidant attachment with that parent, one in which the child has precocious autonomy and has learned not to rely on the parent for having their emotional needs met. Studies reveal that he will be seen as controlling by his peers, have a tendency to not ask for help from his teachers when needed, and be limited in understanding his own inner emotional world and distant in his emotional communication with others. This kind of disconnected sense of self is an internal pattern similar to the disconnection he experienced with his own parent.
About a sixth of children have another kind of insecure attachment called ambivalent attachment. These children have mixed feelings toward the parent, who is inconsistent in parenting and sometimes intrusive with his or her own emotional state. For example, if my child is hungry and I am filled with anxiety about whether I can feed her well, I may project my nervousness onto my child. Instead of simply being hungry, now my child feels the anxiety from my own internal state, which had nothing to do directly with hers. In this way, I can sometimes not be seeing my child accurately. I will have difficulty soothing her, and these ruptures in our connection will not be reliably repaired; sometimes I am there for her, and sometimes not. She comes to have a confused sense of self around me. This fills her with a sense of uncertainty as to whether she can rely on others, or herself. Her peers in school will perceive this insecurity, studies show, and her teachers will find her somewhat needy of assistance, even when she can do schoolwork on her own. As she grows older, she may find herself prone to anxiety, uncertain of the reliability of relationships to meet her needs, and yet longing for closeness with others.
About 5 to 15 percent of children in the U.S. exhibit a fourth type of attachment, called disorganized attachment. This is seen as a way of adapting to the unusual experience in which a parent is the source of terror. A deep, older part of the child’s brain’s survival reaction drives the child to move away from the source of terror: the parent. But a newer, mammalian part of the brain that mediates attachment drives the child toward the parent to be safe and soothed. Because of this paradox, the child’s mind fragments and their behavior freezes. With a parent being the source of terror and confusion, fear without solution is created, and there is no organized strategy the child can employ to address it. The child’s sense of self is fragmented due to this disorganized attachment relationship.
And so you may be asking, “If each of these children have parents who love them, why is the attachment relationship so different in each case?” Let’s begin with this great news: Researchers found it was not what many people originally thought – that what you go through as a child yourself is simply recreated with your child. Instead, what they found was this: How you make sense of your own childhood experiences – not what happened to you, but how you’ve reflected on those events and come to understand how those things influenced your own development – is the best predictor of how your child will be attached to you.
Given this, I invite you to simply reflect on these four categories or patterns of attachment. Which one, or ones, feel familiar to you? Did you, for the most part, feel secure in your relationships as a child? Were there distant relationships without emotional closeness that may have led to avoidance as an understandable way you adapted? Do you now find it difficult to recall your childhood and consider relationships unimportant in your development then, or dismiss their significance in your life now? Were there inconsistencies or intrusiveness, so that you came to feel ambivalent about relying on others? Do you now feel like you have many issues from your past that continue to preoccupy you in the present? Were there times you felt terrified of your own parents or experienced ruptures that were not repaired to reconnect with that parent? Or perhaps you lost someone important in your life and the grief of that loss still remains quite alive in your life now. Such unresolved loss or trauma can create an internal state in which you may be unintentionally creating disorganizing experiences for your child.
Take some time to reflect on these descriptions of the four forms of attachment, realizing you may have a little of each. You may discover that with the insights you derive from such reflections, you can now do some integrative work to enhance your own self-understanding and create more security for your child and yourself.