Our early years can impact how we learn to respond, imprinting behaviors that we enact throughout the rest of our life — all based on the bond we form (or fail to form) with our primary caregiver. The message we receive as infants about how our needs are met sets the stage for our adult relationships and influences how we handle conflict, how we communicate, our ability to understand needs and emotions, and emotional intimacy.
If someone has missed healthy reinforcement in early childhood (and many people have), there are effective therapeutic techniques to treat attachment trauma as adults. Let’s explore attachment theory and the available techniques for treating attachment trauma.
History of Attachment Theory
Attachment refers to the emotional bond formed between a child and caregiver. It’s the way the child gets their primary needs met, and it becomes an engine of emotional, social, and cognitive development. Early social experiences stimulate growth in an infant’s brain and can have a profound and enduring influence on their ability to form and maintain stable relationships with others throughout life. Attachment also provides the foundation for self-regulation.
Attachment theory is a framework for understanding interpersonal relationships. John Bowlby, a psychologist, described the concept as the initial bond with a mother or other caregiver and an infant child. The impact of this bond goes well beyond infancy into childhood, and it can impact a person throughout their life. When a caregiver competently and regularly responds to the child’s needs, that child can develop a healthy, secure attachment. However, when this isn’t the case, communication, behavioral, and emotional challenges can result.
Mary Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation Test as a way to measure attachment. Her categories represent different degrees of emotional securing. Learning about them can help clients better understand themselves and their relationships.
In the Strange Situation Test, a child is left with researchers who observe their reactions. Based on the responses, researchers determine the attachment category:
- Secure: The child interacts with others when the primary caregiver is present but becomes upset when they leave, and then avoids contact with strangers.
- Anxious-Resistant Insecure: The child displays anxiety with strangers and will not interact. When the caregiver leaves, the child gets upset and will not be receptive to her when she returns.
- Anxious-Avoidant Insecure: When a child has learned that their needs will be ignored, they show ambivalence towards the mother and strangers.
- Disorganized/Disoriented: The child shows inconsistent responses, like becoming upset when the caregiver leaves but refusing contact when they return.
According to a Princeton University study, 40% of people have attachment styles that are not secure. The result of any of these attachment styles other than secure attachment is trauma. However, proven treatments can help people to learn how to regulate their emotions. Let’s look at these techniques now.