In the 1950's the foster care system was having difficulty understanding a very confusing phenomenon: children preferred being with abusive parents rather than in loving foster homes. It was John Bowlby, PhD who took on the challenge to study this problem. Dr. Bowlby discovered that all babies have an innate drive, which he named Attachment, which is similar to other, more well-known, innate drives we have, such as hunger, which motivates us to seek out food, or thirst, to seek water. Attachment, however, motivates us, when stressed, to seek physical closeness to our primary caretaker.
All infants are born with this drive, which, when activated by stressors, such as fear, discomfort, harm, loneliness, etc. causes an infant to seek physical closeness to, and establish communication with, their primary attachment figure, which is typically a parent. This closeness helps to ensure the infant’s survival. Later research has shown this seeking closeness and communication also allows the infant to unconsciously use the attachment figure to assist the infant to organize its own mind and learn to regulate its own emotions, skills necessary for an emotionally stable life.
How a child chooses their primary attachment figure is based on which person in their lives is the most emotionally available to them. The quantity of time this person spends with them is not as important as the emotional quality of the time spent. The primary attachment figure will be the person in the child’s life who best meets the child’s emotional – not physical needs. Thus a person who changes diapers and feeds the baby all day, but does not interact with the baby, will not be the attachment figure if there is another person who may spend less time, but engages in eye to eye contact, dialogue, shared moments, comfort, etc.
This attachment drive persists throughout life, although the primary attachment figure often shifts from a parent to a partner. Even as adults, though, the attachment system is more activated in times of stress. This is what activates the urge to hug a loved one when leaving them, for one example.
Attachment also explained the foster care phenomena: while under the stress of being removed from their parents, a child’s attachment system activates and their innate drive is to get closer to their primary attachment figure, regardless of whether or not this person is the one causing the stress. And that is why, when stressed, they did not prefer a foster parent, no matter how loving or wonderful the foster parent may be.
Mary Ainsworth followed up on Bowlby’s attachment theory, and studied infants in Africa, and later in Baltimore. She discovered that children needed a parent to convey, consistently, a sense of emotional presence and safety. The child would then see the parent as a secure base from which the child could go explore the world, and return for recharging. A child raised by a parent who provided this secure base would develop a secure attachment, and thus be confident to strike out and explore the world.
Secure attachment is the result of an emotionally available caregiver who is “attuned” to the baby: able to accurately and consistently interpret the baby’s signals, meet the baby’s emotional needs, and provide a safe environment for the baby to explore the world, and a secure place for the baby to consistently return to. If a parent had a secure attachment with their parent, this usually comes naturally. If the parent has an insecure attachment style, it can often negatively impact their ability to provide a secure base for the baby.
If the infant's need for a secure base was not met, the child developed an insecure attachment. Mary Ainsworth distinguished two forms of insecure attachment: anxious and avoidant. A child whose parent was available inconsistently would develop an anxious attachment, while a child whose parent was not emotionally available, or was rejecting, would develop an avoidant attachment. These categories were obvious in observing in the infant’s ability to soothe themselves once reunited with their parents after a brief separation: securely attached infants were able to use their parents to soothe themselves at reunion, while insecurely attached infants were not able to do so.
Later researchers Main and Solomon developed a fourth category, another insecure form of attachment called disorganized attachment which is the result of abuse and resulted in a child who really did not have a coherent and consistent form of attachment, thus their behaviors were unpredictable at reunion.
While it has taken time for Bowlby's concept of attachment to catch on, currently there is a great deal of research and studying of this drive. Studies have shown that if we had a secure attachment as infants it will have a positive impact on many important aspects of our adult lives, including our levels of emotional maturity, our adult relationships and even our academics in life. If, during our infancy, our parents suffered from any number of issues, e.g., divorce, mental illness, death of a loved one, drug abuse, or insecure attachment as infants themselves, or if we suffered in infancy from numerous issues, including loss of a parent, numerous separations, lack of a consistent caregiver, or physical or sexual abuse, etc., we then have a greater chance of having an insecure attachment style which we can carry throughout our lives.
More recent research has shown that attachment relationships in our lives play a more crucial role than ever imagined. They shape the development of the brain’s basic structures and functions; they influence how we mentally construct reality – how we make sense of the world -and they impact our ability to cope with stressful events and maintain relationships throughout our lives. In other words, insecure attachment early in lives can negatively affect our whole lives.
John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, Vol I, Basic Books, Inc., NY 1969
Daniel J. Siegel, MD, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape who we are, The Guilford Press, NY 1999