This is the first of a series of posts on attachment styles, starting with secure attachment. Other posts will outline insecure attachment styles, how they develop, and what can be done to help.
As a clinical psychologist I talk about attachment a lot. Attachment builds the foundations for future relationships and serves as a template for how we see and value ourselves. Of course it’s not all about attachment, it remains one of the main cornerstones of psychological thinking continues to inform my practice.
What is a secure attachment?
A secure attachment is a safe relationship that develops between a baby and the main parent/carer. It continues through childhood, into adulthood. For a secure attachment to develop, a baby learns that their parent(s) will come to them at times of stress/distress. If the child seeks them out, they know they will be responded to and taken care of. Through such responses, the baby/child understands their parent(s) will attend to them and fulfill their needs. This means the parent(s) come to be seen as reliable and safe. People are consequently seen as reliable and trustworthy, with the baby developing into a child, and an adult, who sees themselves as valued and worthwhile. The world is generally seen as a safe place.
Sounds easy doesn’t it? But aside from the above, what actually underpins a secure attachment? Here are some pointers:
John Bowlby (the pioneer of attachment theory) talked about the “secure base.” For any baby or child this should be the parent(s) or main caregiver. It refers to the child seeking closeness to their secure base during times of need, such as when they are anxious or unwell.
For a child to feel safe, they need to know the adults around them can keep them safe. I’m not just talking about being exposed to an actual threat but knowing their emotions will be taken care of too. The child knows they can seek comfort and it will be given. It is predictable and reliable rather than erratic and uncertain. If a child is in the presence of a frightened or frightening adult, they will inevitably be frightened too. Through safe responses, the baby or child knows they can turn to their parents in times of need, and whatever is needed, is sorted. They feel protected. As the child grows, he/she will internalise this sense of safety, enabling them to explore and form healthy relationships with others.
Safety ties in nicely with the concept of acceptance. Through consistent and safe care, the child experiences their parent(s) as accepting of their behaviors, emotions, and challenges. This isn’t easy and is not the same as agreeing with, or putting up with, difficult behaviours. It does mean there will be times when the child’s view is accepted whether you think it is right or not. The child will experience this as having their views and feelings validated. By taking this stance and trying to understand what your child is showing you, safe limits, boundaries, and sensible consequences can be implemented. In turn, emotional understanding will grow.
Attunement is so important. With attunement comes an understanding and a reciprocity between a parent and child, leading to relationships that are in sync and emotionally connected.
So what does attunement look like? I always think a good example is a baby babbling and the parent responds by talking back and putting the sounds into words. By doing this, the parent is making their best guess at what their baby is trying to convey. The quality of feedback is significant. A parent who is well attuned to their child will recognise their emotional state and will put it into words. It is a direct connection between ourselves and our child. The ability to attune to our children comes from being sensitive and responsive, and knowing how we feel. It’s about being able to grasp each child’s unique needs and mirror it in some way to show we “get it.” Therefore, having an understanding of our own emotions is a must if we are to understand those of another (see Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).
Such an unhelpful word but a wonderful concept! I always picture intersubjectivity as the dance between baby and parent. It’s the moments when they are completely focused on each other, both gaining something (a connection) from the interaction. As it is a shared experience, it comes with attunement and reciprocity, where the emotions experienced are shared.
It doesn’t have to be an all engaging, heavy moment either. Intersubjectivity can come from laughing at the same thing and messing around. It’s about experiencing the same thing together, at the same time. You both get something out of it, and in that moment, you feel connected.
Empathy is more than sympathy. It’s more than giving condolences or saying “I’m sorry” when we hear bad news. When we empathise, we really grasp, sense, and feel what a certain situation is like for the child. To empathise, we put ourselves in their shoes, see things through their eyes, and feel what they may be feeling. It’s also our ability to respond with the appropriate emotion (Baron-Cohen, 2011). For a baby and child this is incredibly important. Imagine for a moment a baby who receives little, none, or sporadic empathy and this remains the tone of their parenting. Being in the care of someone who struggles to offer empathy will lead to problems with empathy development. Being nurtured and parented by someone who is empathic means all emotions have been accepted and taken care of rather than ignored, criticised or overlooked. By being empathic, we are not pandering. Instead we are building the blocks to help a child connect with others both socially and emotionally.
Can any of this happen without love? I doubt it. Not unconditionally anyway. All of the above have a genuineness to them.
Just like love.
Baron-Cohen, S., (2011). Zero degrees of empathy: A new theory of human cruelty. London: Allen Lane.
Siegel, D. J. Hartzell, M., (2003). Parenting from the Inside Out. London: Penguin.