Secure and insecure attachment styles in babies produce different life styles in adults. Researchers have found that the relationship between babies and their parents (mainly moms) has a direct impact on their self-esteem and relationships as they grow older. Children who have a secure attachment will be more independent, have healthy connections with others, show higher emotional intelligence, perform better at school and have strong, steady relationships as adults.
If the world we live in is full of stress (which it is), then children with secure attachment will experience less depression and anxiety as adults, because they can manage their feelings better.
Through verbal and non-verbal communication, the relationship between parents and their babies in that first year of life gives the child a map with which to navigate the world and their experiences. This bond between parent and child during this critical time will shape their future relationship, teach them ways to calm themselves, manage stress, build their resilience and teach them how to find happiness and success in life.
I have often heard that babies only need to be fed, put to sleep, and changed in order to grow healthy. In fact, it is how we feed them and the way we put them to sleep or change and bath them that shapes the formation of attachment. It teaches them how life works and how they should behave.
Secure and Insecure Attachment-Producing Statements
Here are thoughts or rules babies may develop as a result of their experiences in their relationship with a main caregiver. Some of them foster the development of secure attachment and others produce insecure attachment. Can you spot which ones are which?
- If I am hungry/cold/wet/itchy, I can express it and you will help me manage it.
- If I am hungry/cold/wet/itchy, I will express it but you won’t help me manage it.
- When I am lonely, I can express it and you will come and stay with me.
- When I am lonely and I express it, you will punish me.
- When I am scared, I can count on you to protect me and make the fear go away.
- You scare me when you are angry.
- When I am scared, you protect me.
- When I am hurt, I can come to you to take care of me.
- When I am hurt, you say it is nothing.
- When you come to help me, you love me.
- You help me because you have to.
- If I wake you up at night, you are not mad at me
- You are not disgusted by changing my diaper.
- When I am not clean, this is bad and makes you feel angry and disgusted.
- You are happy to have me in your life.
- I am an obstacle in your life and you express it often.
- You don’t hug/kiss or touch me and I can’t comfort myself.
- You hug/kiss/touch me and it makes me happy
- I make you happy.
- I make you upset.
- You love me unconditionally.
- You show me love and happiness only when I sleep through the night/don’t cry/eat well.
- You treat my cries as communication.
- You treat my cries with anger/frustration.
The belief or attitudes that are formed for life are strongly impacted by this early communication between parent and child. The rules and self talk a child will develop depends highly on the parents ability to manage their personal stress, calm themselves and their babies, express emotions and treat their child with empathy. The attachment style that is formed and the thoughts and rules that a baby learns during this time will be forever imprinted in their system and will become the blueprint for their confidence, their ability to trust, their level of optimism and their resilience.
Many parents who learn about attachment feel they don’t stand a chance for developing a secure attachment with their baby. It is practically impossible to manage their own feelings and be attuned to their babies’ feelings all the time.
In fact, they are right. It is impossible. But (and this is a big ‘but’), we don’t have to be able to manage our feeling and be attuned to our babies all the time. We just have to do it more often than not.
A tired mother may not be able to pretend she is happy and joyous but she won’t scream with anger when her baby is crying for a feed. A worried dad, may not be able to play with his baby after a very stressful day at work but he won’t reject the baby or tell his wife, “will you please make him shut up, I can’t stand him crying”. It is not about being the perfect parent. No one is perfect and we are human. It is about doing your best and making sure to portray positive feelings towards your baby as much as you can.
One misconception that parents can have about babies is that they don’t understand the dynamics of what is happening at home. In fact, babies use a natural mechanism called “mirror neurons” where their brains react to their caregivers feelings and emotions. If mom or dad are sad, baby will experience a form of sadness to. When mom is happy, they experience happiness too. If dad is upset, baby will feel upset too. This reaction is completely involuntary and automatic. Therefore, mom and dad need to be able to manage their emotions well. They cannot hide their real emotions and when they feel out of control, their baby can feel insecure.
To understand why this first parent-child relationship is so critical, think of it as a map that your child uses to manage his/her relationships in the future. This map is based on the experiences your child had with you, the parents. It is based on the messages you passed on to your child, which he/her will take with them into their teen and adult relationships.
Secure attachment will lead to a teen and an adult with empathy, with appropriate boundaries and meaningful relationships.
Avoidant attachment will lead to a teen and an adult who is critical, rigid and distant. This person will be inflexible and avoid close relationships. This person will trust no one.
Ambivalent attachment will lead to an anxious and insecure teen and adult. They are often unpredictable and controlling. In conflict, he/she may use blaming and will be considered by others to be unreliable.
Disorganized attachment will lead to a teen and an adult who is highly anxious, insensitive, chaotic and explosive. His/her relationships will be abusive and they are usually very needy but don’t trust anyone.
In adolescence, between the ages of 11 and 25, teenagers and emerging adults get a second chance at attachment and writing the “map of relationships”. Both secure and insecure attachment styles can be changed then. At this stage, their attachment security refers to their ability to seek comfort from a meaningful figure when in distress and, once comforted, to be available to explore the environment and acquire new learning experiences.
Join me in the next chapter on attachment theory, covering how secure and insecure attachment impacts teenagers and how you, as a parent, can make sure their second attempt at designing the map of relationships will be successful.
Until next time, sharpen your parenting skills and promote secure attachment,
This post is part of the series Attachment Theory:
- Attachment Theory: Main Characteristics of Attachment
- Attachment Theory: Four Attachment Styles
- Attachment Theory: Insecure Attachment Style
- Attachment Theory: Secure and Insecure Attachment in Adult Life
- Attachment Theory: Secure and Insecure Attachment in Teenagers
- Attachment Theory: Attachment Styles in Relationships and Marriages