The truth about Attachment Theory

The truth about attachment theory is that it’s widely misinterpreted, and often misunderstood.

I’m not claiming to be an expert by any means, but I do have a reasonably solid professional background in this area, as well as having taught developmental psychology at A level (in a qualified sort of way, not just in a rocking up and deciding to impart some wisdom, Jack-Black-in-School-of-Rock sort of way). I recently attended a course where they touched on attachment (fairly inaccurately), which got me thinking that although this is a fairly ‘hot topic’ as far as parenting is concerned, a lot of people don’t really understand the bare bones of it.

So, here’s my interpretation of attachment theory.

In the 1960s, the general belief about attachment was that it was an all-or-nothing process, but current thinking (backed up by a lot of research) supports the idea that it’s much more complicated than that. A child will almost certainly form an attachment to their primary caregiver, virtually regardless of whether they actually meet their needs or not; the type and quality of attachment that is formed however, can vary.

Attachment – in psychological terms – refers to the relationship that a child has with a caregiver, or significant adult. (The relationship that an adult has with a child is a separate thing and is often refered to in psychological terms as ‘bonding’.) Attachment describes a very basic relationship, where a vulnerable individual relies completely on another person to get their needs met (and in order to survive), and the expectations they have of that person actually being able to meet their needs.

Just to make a point here – we’re not talking about love. Attachment and love are two utterly separate things. It is possible, and in fact fairly common, to have a poor quality attachment with a significant adult and to love them enormously at the same time.

You might have heard people talking about different attachment styles, but in order to gain a proper understanding of their relevance I think it’s worth exploring how the idea was formed.

In the late 60s and early 70s a psychologist called Mary Ainsworth was doing a lot of work on attachment. She is most famous for a study known as the Strange Situation experiment. It’s important to note that this is an observational study – Ainsworth wasn’t trying to create particular behaviours, she was merely observing what she saw. She didn’t ‘invent’ attachment styles, she just gave a name to particular groups of behaviours that children were already exhibiting.

If you’re interested in the details of the study click here for an overview. Basically, Ainsworth observed children and their mother together, sometimes altering the environment slightly by having a stranger enter the room, or having the mother leave for a couple of minutes during the observation. She noticed quite distinct patterns of behaviour in the children as these changes occurred, and initially grouped these in to three categories, or styles of attachment (although a fourth was added after later experiments).

The most common type of attachment by far was a secure attachment. These children tended to use their mother as a secure base to explore the new environment, were wary of the stranger, but friendly enough when their mother was there to back them up. They were distressed when the mother left, and happy when she came back. When upset, they were easily consolable by their mothers.

Around 30% of the children in the initial study didn’t display the type of behaviour described above. These children were described as having an insecure attachment, and could be further split in to two groups; avoidant and ambivalent. Children who were classed as avoidant tended not to orient around their mothers at all, and were equally as happy being comforted by the stranger as their mother. They weren’t that bothered when their mother left the room, or that interested when she returned. Children who were classed as ambivalent tended to be varyingly clingy with their mothers, but not wanting to actually engage in anything with them. They were less likely to explore their surroundings, were fearful of the stranger, and much more likely to cry.

Ainsworth suggested that these attachment behaviours were influenced by the day-to-day behaviour of the primary carer, in this case the mother. Children whose mothers consistently responded to their needs were likely to develop a secure attachment; those whose mothers were generally hit-and-miss, or completely unresponsive, developed insecure attachments. (Be aware I’m just talking about mothers here because that was who Ainsworth studied. More on this later…) Ainsworth later found a fourth attachment style, which she called ‘disorganized’, to describe the behaviour of children who didn’t seem to have one consistent style of behaviour.

I want to reinforce here that 70% of the children in the initial study were categorized as having a secure attachment, so when we’re talking about consistently meeting needs, we’re talking in a realistic sense, recognising that no-one’s perfect – children certainly don’t need us to be in order to develop a healthy attachment.

So that’s the background, but here’s some things I’d like to pull out from all this and have a chew over.

It is perfectly possible to have a different type of attachment to different people in your life. An attachment refers to a specific relationship that one child has with one caregiver, and you shouldn’t assume that this child will always form this type of attachment. For example, when mulling all this over prior to teaching my A level class, I concluded that I had a secure attachment to my mum as a child, but an insecure one to my dad.

However, there is also evidence to show that we are likely to form attachments with other people based on the patterns we learnt in early childhood. Therefore, you can extrapolate that as I had an insecure attachment to my dad, I’m likely to seek out adult relationships with men which replicate that pattern. For me this turned out to be completely true – until I realised I was doing it! (From personal experience I can say it doesn’t always have to be that way, but it took a pretty big emotional committment to make the change.)

It is completely useless to describe a child as having ‘an insecure attachment style’ – they don’t have a ‘style’, they are behaving in a particular way because of how they expect adults to behave, based on their past experiences. However, it *is* useful to understand what those behaviour patterns suggest about their previous level of care, so that you can then work out what are the areas in which they are likely to need the most support. If I’m working with a child who is displaying avoidant-type behaviours, then I can make an educated guess that they aren’t used to having their needs met consistently, and are not going to want to get close to anyone in case they are let down. In this case, this knowledge prepares me for the fact that it may take a long time and a lot of consistency from me to persuade that child that our relationship can be different. Children are remarkably resilient, and will develop many ways of coping with whatever life throws at them – unfortunately their coping strategies are not always useful to them if they are then taken in to an environment that is supportive and nurturing. (But perhaps that’s another blog post…!)

In conclusion, attachment is a fascinating subject for anyone interested in relationships, parenting, or working with vulnerable children. However it’s really important to remember that we are all individuals, and although we can learn a lot through research and studying behaviour, when it comes down to it, the most important thing you can do is learn from the individual who you are trying to connect with.

This is a pet subject of mine, so I don’t expect this will be the last blog post I’ll ever write about it – any comments, suggestions, or requests please do let me know!

Cat x


Three steps to combat stress

There are lots and lots of good reasons to try to reduce the stress in your life. However, if you’re like me, and no matter how hard you try to find time for aromatherapy baths and meditation, sometimes it’s just not enough!

I found myself getting pretty stressed out today – it was one of those days I could literally feel it creeping in to my body; a sickly feeling in my stomach… a gradually spreading headache… I decided that today would be the day I would come up with my stress-busting routine(!) so that on days like this I could spring it in to action and return myself to a zen-like state of calm.

Here’s what I came up with…

1. Breathe

Sounds a bit obvious I know, but when we’re stressed we tense up without even realising it, and a good deep breath will start to relax your body as well as getting more oxygen pumping round it. Close your eyes if you need to; don’t worry if the niggling voices in your head are still going, this isn’t a meditation – just breathe.

One of the best things I learnt from attending a Tony Robbins seminar is how you can use your body to trick the mind into thinking something different: sometimes it’s known as ‘fake it til you make it’! If you don’t feel confident, but *act* as if you are, you will eventually start to feel it. Similarly, if you just take a few deep breaths – acting as though you are in a relaxed and calm state – your body will begin to physically relax, and you will begin to feel calmer.

2. Identify the root cause of the stress

Often when we’re stressed we get completely overwhelmed and it can be hard to pinpoint the root cause of it. I’ve lost count of the number of times my husband has asked me what’s wrong only to have me scream “EVERYTHING!” at him!

But let’s try and dig down a little deeper here – yes, you may be overworked, yes your kids may be demanding, and your dog has just been sick on the antique rug (I don’t have a dog or an antique rug, but I imagine this is the most likely way those two items would interact together), but I would bet any money that I could give you the exact same problem on a different day and you would take it in your stride. So what *exactly* is it that’s making you stressed today? Do you feel like you have no control over your workload? Are you trying to split your time between work and kids? Do you feel like other people are making so many demands on your time you don’t have any left for yourself? Are you feeling ill? Are you worried about something else entirely? Do you feel like you’re not coping?

Be really honest with yourself here, or this bit isn’t going to work. It is not the *thing* that is stressing you out, it is your reaction to the thing. For example – I have a huge pile of un-filed paperwork on my desk, which I merrily walk past every day without a care in the world. However, when I want to find the paper part of my driving license, that pile suddenly becomes a source of quite a lot of stress! It’s a silly little example, but it’s important to recognise that it’s your reaction to the situation that is important here, not the situation itself.

3. Decide on your response

You can choose your response to this situation.

This is going to be different for everyone, depending on your source of stress, so I’ll talk you through my example.

One of my particular triggers is having a lot of different demands on my time, and feeling overwhelmed by them. When I looked closely at this, I realised that intellectually I know that I can do everything that is being asked of me, so that isn’t actually what stresses me out – the deep down root cause is feeling like other people are controlling how I spend my time.

On the surface, I had assumed that I felt stressed because I didn’t think I was good enough, or couldn’t cope with all the things I had to do. However, digging down I realised that wasn’t the problem at all, and once I had found the root cause of the problem, it suddenly felt a lot easier to deal with.

Feeling like you ‘can’t cope’ or are ‘overwhelmed’ are fairly abstract things, and there isn’t any easy solution that will help – you must get down to the root cause of why you are feeling overwhelmed.

Once I realised what the problem was, dealing with it became fairly straightforward. I was feeling overwhelmed because I felt like other people were deciding how I spent my time, so I decided to take back control in the following ways:

– Writing a list of things I needed to do, and deciding which one thing on that list was the most important for me to do right now. The list could include eating, sleeping, taking a break as well as any work obligations or housework. Once I had decided on the one thing I was going to do next, I gave myself permission to completely ignore the rest of it, knowing that I was dealing with the most important thing.

– Deciding that I was going to take control over how people interacted with me. I disabled voicemail on my mobile and landline, so that I wouldn’t feel obliged to return calls if someone left a message. If it’s important enough they will ring back or send me an email. (I also set an out of office for my emails, so people would know not to expect a response straight away.)

– I started using a programme to manage tasks in the different projects I was working on; I use Asana, but there are lots of them out there. This lets me decide in advance when I’m going to do a particular task – it’s kind of like a long-term version of the to do list step above.

Now I’m quite lucky in that I have a fair amount of control over my working life, and I’m able to make decisions like removing voicemail from my phone – you may not be able to do that. However I am confident that you will be able to find some ways that work for you, if this is a problem that you’re facing. Perhaps you can decide to only answer emails once a day? Or go for a walk during your lunch break, so that you can’t be interrupted and asked to do something else?

The last big important thing that I would like to say is this – be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for becoming stressed, as we all do it. Recognise that your mind is probably getting a bit carried away, and you need to calm it down (breathe) and address what is really at the root of the problem. You do have the ability to deal with it.

Cat x

Dear Husband…

I’m very lucky; my husband is a loving, kind, intelligent man.  On the whole we get on very well, and generally if we’ve got a difference of opinion we can talk it out. However, there are odd moments where he does things that baffle me, and he himself is often equally baffled by my reactions to him. Why don’t I find it funny when he pretends that I smell? Where is the line between offering help and insulting my independence? Why will I not accept “nothing” as a valid answer to the question “What are you thinking about?”, and why am I asking in the first place?!

So, dear Husband, here is my QuickStart Guide to Understanding Your Wife:

1. Your Wife likes to be cared for.

You may think I’ve gone a bit old fashioned, but hear me out.  Caring for someone can be noticing when they are tired and offering to give them a foot rub; emptying the bins when they are full and not just on bin day; remembering the thing they asked you to do without having to be reminded. Your Wife may not need someone to tie her shoelaces for her, but a little bit of TLC here and there makes her feel loved.

2. But not too much.

Your Wife is a capable, independent woman, who managed to keep herself alive perfectly well before you came along. Respect her ability to do what needs doing. Help around the house, offer to cook dinner, fix the computer – that’s all great, but if Your Wife is in the middle of doing something don’t barge in and take over just because you want to be helpful. There’s pride and satisfaction in seeing something through from start to finish; even if you think she needs your help at least ask before you dive in.

3. Always treat Your Wife with respect.

This does not mean you have to doff your cap every time she enters the room. This means letting her know she is a special and important person, and understanding that even if your mates at work think it’s hilarious to exchange insults about bodily odour or varying types of swear words, Your Wife may not feel the same way. You would not flip your middle finger up to your Grandmother – so afford Your Wife the same respect.

4. But don’t put her on a pedestal.

Although it’s wonderful that you are completely devoted to Your Wife, it does neither of you any good to worship her to oblivion. She is human. You are human. If she pisses you off, you need to tell her. Don’t let it fester and build up resentment, and don’t let her get away with it! Let her own her behaviour and apologise for it. If you piss her off, you apologise, but don’t be a martyr. Your relationship will be stronger and happier if you can both let each other screw up, apologise, and move on.

5. Think of her.

Probably the easiest way to make Your Wife feel loved and cared for is to let her know you are thinking of her when she is not there. It doesn’t matter how you do it – you could send her a little text from work just to say hi, or when you get home kiss her and tell her you’ve been thinking about her all day. (Even if you have to set a phone alarm to remind you to think about her, that’s probably OK, but I wouldn’t advise putting too much emphasis on that bit.)

I hope that clears things up a bit.

Love, Your Wife x

(P.S. I do realise this is all one-sided, but I can only write from my own point of view. Perhaps later I’ll try a follow up post on ‘What I have learned from My Husband’!)