Attachment is just about as simple as breathing, yet as complex as the cosmos. Really, it’s true! A while ago I was asked to write about attachment and I thought, “Great! Easy topic. I eat, sleep and breathe this stuff.” But a month later, I still had only one sentence on paper and I was nowhere closer to describing attachment, what it means to me and why I feel it is so important.
We can start with the definition of attachment. John Bowlby was the first attachment theorist and he defined it as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” After working in the field of attachment for the last 10 years and being a human being who has experienced attachment, both by being a child and a parent, I know that this is just the tip of the iceberg in regards to what attachment is really all about.
Intermountain uses a model called “Circle of Security” to understand and teach parenting and relationships and that security is the foundation of a healthy relationship. The originators of Circle of Security, Bert Powell, Glen Cooper and Kent Hoffman, describe attachment as the “co-pilot” of life. It is the irresistible urge to BE in relationship with someone. Primarily and for a large part – if not all – of our lives, we are drawn to the parent/child relationship and later to romantic partners. We are led back to these relationships time and again.*
As infants our need is to make sure that an adult human is taking care of us and keeping us alive. We are imprinted with the urge to seek connection, and we elicit caregiving responses; it’s why babies are so cute and irresistible. Conversely, as adults we find infants loveable, and we are drawn to protect and care for them. We don’t really have a choice because we need these relationships to survive, quite literally, in this world. Someone once told me that humans are the most helpless mammals at birth. No wonder we are drawn to care for our young! In doing so, we create a relationship that lasts a lifetime and the template of which we pass on in the relationships we have with others. So in some ways, attachment is the lens through which we gauge all relationships we have, especially the ones that are closest to us, including those with our own children.
Most of what we all do, day in and day out, is communicate in some form with other humans. Hopefully we are able to rely on the “template” we were given to help us navigate these interactions. For instance, if you learned that humans are safe and that they provide for you when you need support, then you are more apt to be secure, self-confident and able to ask for help when necessary. But if you felt insecure in your earliest relationships, you may see the world as a scary place where others do not help, they hurt, and you may feel you must provide for yourself. That can lead to many difficulties navigating our world. It might make it hard to listen to teachers, bosses and colleagues. Confiding in or trusting others may be very hard too, and becoming vulnerable with a loved one may be almost impossible.
This poses a huge dilemma because, remember, we are drawn to relationships. Even if we are hurt, betrayed and angry, we are still “co-piloted” by the need to be IN relationship. Everyone experiences life somewhere on the scale from perfectly secure to very insecure. But in many ways, attachment provides us with the means to be successful through the ability to be healthy in relationships.
This is an important reminder as children head out into new adventures like summer camp, a visit with relatives or even a summer vacation away from home. Often children who have not engaged in these new experiences have a lot of anxiety about leaving their “secure base” – their parents. This is a natural, normal part of life, but different children react in a variety of ways dependent on what their particular “template” is. They may experience anxiety and worry – even fear – as they journey further away from their parents, and they may show these feelings in ways that are not always direct.
Even the most verbal and secure of children may have a hard time saying, “I’m really afraid to leave you, Mommy.” It is important to understand that some acting out behaviors like angry outbursts, tantrums, tears, and responses that do not appear to make sense for your child could be a way to let you know they are worried or fearful about going far away and not sure how you will be when they return.
Supporting your children, even as they go out into the world to explore, is always an important part of your parenting job. Understanding, validating and supporting them through these feelings helps to make these new transitions and adventures much more successful, and ones they will want to continue in the future.
*For more information on Circle of Security Parenting© and Circle of Security® Project please go to circleofsecurity.net. To learn more about training opportunities using the Circle of Security model, please visit www.intermountain.org.
Steffani Turner is a Clinical Supervisor for Family Based Services as well as a Circle of Security registered Parent Educator at Intermountain. She was born and raised in Montana, calling Helena her home town. She graduated from the University of Montana with a Bachelors in Psychology and later a Masters in Social Work. Currently she lives in Helena and likes to spend time with her husband and two sons skiing, camping, rafting, kayaking as well as larger family gatherings.