© Steve Rotman

There is much talk in adoption and foster groups about the importance of attachment. But what exactly is it and why should it be on a caregiver’s radar?

According to the father of attachment theory, John Bowlby (1969), infants are born with a biological drive to seek proximity to a protective adult for survival. Their relationships with key adults are crucial to their trust of other people, their understanding of relationships generally and their feelings about themselves. The drive for closeness promotes attachment behaviour, which helps children feel safe.

Attachment, as Dr. Gabor Mate (2019) writes, does it’s work invisibly. “We are creatures of attachment. […]We ought to be able to take its forces for granted: like gravity keeping our feet on the ground, like the planets staying in orbit, like our compasses pointing to the magnetic North Pole.”

But, for some infants, adverse caregiving environments disrupt or fail to support the development of attachment, which can be detrimental to family dynamics and how they handle close relationships later. In these situations, Dr. Mate stresses “a consciousness of attachment is probably the most important knowledge a parent could possess.”

Attachment styles range from being secure and trusting to avoiding intimacy, or to experiencing mind-boggling ambivalence. And then there is the paradoxical (some may say, destructive) adaptation. The model has been tweaked and altered in recent years, but looks something like this:

Secure Attachment:

When the environment is safe and parents are present and consistent, attachment theory says, a child will develop a secure attachment style: He trusts others and feels comfortable relying on the people he is close to. This, in turn, supports mental processes that enable the child to regulate emotions, reduce fear, attune to others, have self-understanding and insight, empathy for others, and appropriate moral reasoning. In other words, he can go out into the world and be successful.

Insecure Attachment:

Insecure attachments, on the other hand, can have serious consequences.  If a child lacks a consistent safe haven or secure base (an adult to respond to his needs in times of stress), he is unable to learn how to soothe himself, manage his emotions and engage in reciprocal relationships. Insecure attachment can be organized into three parts:

  • Anxious/Ambivalent: Uncertainty dictates the ambivalent style. There is a simultaneous hunger for closeness and debilitating fear of losing the closeness. A child feels unworthy of love, so as he grows feel the need to prove himself worthy.
  • Dismissive/Avoidant: The avoidant child tends to be relatively disconnected from his body and / or emotions. This is often because he did not receive the mirroring for attunement and the development of the prefrontal cortex around emotional connectedness is truncated. While a child may feel worthy of love, he believes others are incapable of loving him so he will care of himself and not rely on others.
  • Disorganised/Disoriented: A child’s attachment is interrupted, the break in the trust alters his ability to form appropriate attachments. He may display chaotic or disoriented behaviour. This is because two major biological drives are in constant conflict: the innate drive to attach and the instinctual drive to survive (that is, flight-fight-freeze-submit).

Professor Chantal Cyr of Cambridge University writes: “Disorganized children are caught in an unsolvable paradox: their attachment figure and potential source of comfort is at the same time a source of unpredictable [fear].” Dr. Giovanni Liotti (1983), the first to write about this attachment style 30 years ago, states that when a child has experienced the paradoxical situation of having a mother/caregiver that induces these conflicting emotions, the child will look for a solution that will a) maximize the attention available in the attachment relationship (eking out every crumb); or b) minimize the danger by inhibiting the attachment drive (restricting vulnerability).

As part of his research he found that, beginning around the age of two, children with disorganized attachment develop two different strategies: –

  • Controlling-Punitive:  These are the children that are often diagnosed as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and more likely to be male. When the attachment drive is aroused, the child responds with attempts to take control of the relationship via hostile, coercive, or shaming behaviours toward the mother/caregiver.
  • Controlling-Caregiving: These are the children who are often diagnosed with Dissociative disorders, and more likely to be female. When the attachment drive is aroused, the child responds with attempts to control parental responses by entertaining, charming, helping (directing) or offering approval to the mother/caregiver.

According to Dr. Liotti, both strategies inhibit the attachment drive. So, if you think about…the controlling-caregiving strategy allows children to substitute the safer caregiving system as a way of staying connected to the mother/caregiver. Meanwhile the controlling-punitive strategy allows the child to turn the tables, whereby the child is in control while the mother/caregiver is submissive. Both strategies deftly side-step engaging the vulnerable attachment-seeking system, which would open the child up for rejection.

Further, Dr. Liotti says in adolescence “some disorganized children resort, at times, to activation of the sexual system to defensively deal with attachment motivations…” In his view, promiscuous behaviour means that child perceives the sexual system as being the safer option when compared to the attachment system. Dr. Janina Fisher adds that children shouldn’t be judged as victimizing themselves (when seeking out sex rather than love), because there is greater power in this for them.

Dr. Janina Fisher (2017) adds that other addictive or self-destructive behaviours should also be seen as a response to the threat of rejection or loss. In childhood, the threat of loss is tantamount to the threat of danger (“will anyone be here to take care of me?”). Fisher says: “If we reframe self-destructive behavior as a form of controlling-punitive disorganized attachment, we have a model that makes sense of addiction, eating disorders, suicidality, and self-harm. All pull caregivers in while pushing them away or disempowering their efforts.”

Dr. Fisher tells us that the ‘going on with normal life’ (left brain) self may go offline when the attachment drive is activated and the ‘emotional or trauma parts’ (right brain) step in. This is how it may play out…

  • Attach/Needy: Attachment is both dangerous and necessary —-> triggers flight/distance
  • Flight/Distance: Substance abuse and eating disorders offer connection to others (being in the gang) and speedy release without dependence —-> if that doesn’t work, move to fight/self-harm
  • Fight/Self-harm: Self-harm and porn Induces relief, increases feelings of power and control (through adrenalin) and draws attention from those more responsible —-> if that doesn’t work, move to fight/devaluing
  • Fight/Devaluing: Pushes people away with anger or devaluing (pushing caregiver’s buttons) —-> if that doesn’t work, more to fight/violence
  • Fight/Violence: Suicide or homicide provide a way to get back control if all else fails, while also mobilizing help.

In closing, early trauma leaves such a contradictory view of the world (via internal working models) that it takes a great deal of intentional/therapeutic parenting to unravel beliefs and assumptions so that children feel comfortable enough to lean into attachment. If you are a caregiver, do keep in mind that you will be confronted with many conflicts along the way. Is it better to cling or control? To intimidate or please? Which is safer?

© Felicia Stewart, 2019