As a therapist specializing in the treatment of trauma and PTSD, one concept I became acutely familiar with in my training and in my work with patients is the idea of attachment. I remember having a mentor who shared with me once that the most important aspect of therapy is the relationship. Often when a patient comes to therapy for trauma, there is more often than not some sense of insecure attachment and often that will show up in the room. Often patients will find that being able to have a safe space to connect and share can assist them with learning healthy attachment and having a corrective experience. While attachment may have several definitions, attachment is essentially the emotional connection between a child and their caregiver(s). It is through this early relationship that we learn about the world and learn to connect to others. While there is no perfect parent, nor is perfect parenting something we should necessarily strive for, there are patterns that we see that can lead to different attachment styles. There are four main attachment styles that I want to discuss today.
Some behavior patterns that we see with secure attachment include a caregiver consistently responding to the childs needs, comforting a child when he/she is nervous or afraid, and sharing in that child’s excitement. Children with secure attachment will feel that they can depend on their parent or caregiver. They may cry when their parent leaves but will be happy to see their parent when they return. Overall, the message the child learns is that they can trust and rely on their caregiver. Adults with secure attachment often have trusting, lasting friendships and have high self esteem and self reliance.
Behavior patterns we see in avoidant attachment include making a child deal with their fear alone and usually responding to a child’s needs but often not in a timely fashion. Children with avoidant attachment have learned that depending on their parents will not provide them with a secure feeling so they learn to care for themselves. Often these children have a difficult time building strong relationships with their peers and often will not ask for help when they need it. Adults with avoidant attachment may struggle with intimacy and may have a difficult time sharing their feelings with others.
Behavior patterns that occur in ambivalent attachment include parents sometimes responding to their infants needs and sometimes not. Caregivers may also overly comfort a scared child or will sometimes ignore them. This can create an ambivalent feeling in the child because they are never sure if they’ll be taken care of or not. Children with ambivalent attachment are often looking for a feeling of security and may misbehave in order to get their parents to pay attention. Children with ambivalent attachment may be clingy and have a difficult time letting parents go but also may not feel comforted upon their return. In adulthood, ambivalent attachment can show up as fear that their partners will not love them enough and becoming highly distraught when relationships end.
In disorganized attachment, it is rare that a parent or caregiver meets the child’s needs. Often the parents responses do not match the child’s needs. Sometimes there is neglect, maltreatment, and abuse in disorganized attachment. Children with disorganized attachment don’t know what to expect from their parents so they don’t learn any consistency in getting their needs met. These children can sometimes struggle with empathy and may exhibit behaviors that don’t make sense. As adults, people with disorganized attachment will often be detached from themselves and others and may have minimal connections with others. Often there is no sense of self, which can sometimes lead to abusive behavior toward others.
Why is Attachment Important?
Early relationships set the stage for future relationships. It is through relationships with our caregivers that we learn about the world and about ourselves. If we are given the space to take risks while knowing someone is there to catch us when we fall, we are better able to explore in a meaningful way. It is through early attachment that we learn what we can expect in relationships. Early attachment and mirroring are also essential in the development of social skills and our ability to self soothe. In relation to trauma, secure attachment increases our resiliency and allows us a greater capacity to heal.
While not everyone will grow up with a secure attachment, the process of therapy and trauma recovery can be essential in developing secure attachments later in life and allowing us to create and maintain deeper and more meaningful relationships. It is through understanding ourselves more and being able to identify our triggers that we can begin to understand others better and practice greater intimacy.
Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors.