This is a special edition article by our guest blogger, Robert W. McBride, LCSW. Thank you, Robert, for volunteering your time and expertise in the areas of adult attachment issues.
For over 30 years, Robert W. McBride, LCSW, MSW, has provided therapy for adults, primarily men, in regard to their childhood and adult trauma, depression, criminal behaviors, personality issues, maladaptive schemas, and attachment issues. He is the author of Change is The Third Path and Breaking the Cycle. He currently volunteers at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development and Futures Academy.
Most people don’t put much thought into how human beings attach. That’s often because they don’t understand how vital developing attachment is for a person’s lifetime. Many also don’t understand how those who struggle to attach impact the lives of everyone around them.
The children with whom I work struggle with attachment. They have dropped out of school, use alcohol and drugs, and are sexually active with multiple partners. Many of them belong to a gang. Most of the kids I work with suffer from depression. Some are suicidal. They may be diagnosed as bipolar, ADD or ADHD, oppositional-defiant, conduct disorder and so on. People label them as drop-outs, lazy, addicts, hoodlums, mental, crazy, and sex-addicts.
Our society doesn’t understand the kids I know. People don’t see what’s really happening with them. If we want to remedy societal problems—gangs, suicide, and the like—we need to understand from where these issues stem. At their core, most of these kids suffer the effects of neglect and abuse. Their early experiences have damaged their attachment processes—it is not something they “outgrow”. The ways in which children attach to others, in fact, only grow stronger roots into adulthood—whether in secure and helpful ways or in insecure and harmful ways.
Attachment—an innate need for survival
Attachment isn’t just something we do as humans—it’s something we need. Attachment behavior, in fact, is one of several survival functions common to many animals as well as humans. All humans, and most animals, survive from care giving, care seeking, procreation, feeding, environmental awareness, and attachment. Without these six vital functions, survival becomes much more difficult for both humans and animals.
How attachment happens
The way attachment happens is a beautiful marvel of life. The effects of broken attachment, however, are devastating.
The way a human attaches begins immediately. Even as infants, we direct attachment behaviors toward someone, usually our primary caregiver(s). This is a baby’s instinctual way to obtain safety and security. In turn, an infant’s caregiver provides the reciprocal behavior—bonding (or lack thereof)—toward the infant trying to attach.
In his 1982 book Attachment and Loss, John Bowlby describes the concepts of biological control, environment of adaptedness and working model. By doing so, Bowlby explains in-depth how attachment is created or, sadly, broken.
Just as the human body regulates itself physically based on surroundings, it does the same with attachment—this concept is considered a biological behavioral system. For example, the temperature of the air and the circumstances in our lives affect our body temperature and blood pressure. Similarly, a person’s surroundings influence how he or she attaches.
As humans, we biologically and instinctively scan our environments for potential danger. Babies and young children, likewise, watch the potential for danger of stress based on the availability of an attachment figure. The biological crisis humans experience without attachment is as important as our physical needs. When a person’s blood pressure is high, for example, he experience physiological damage and even death. Similarly, children without attachment figures endure great stress to the point of dysfunction and perhaps, eventually death.
Children constantly adjust their behaviors in order to control their external worlds—it is an instinctual and behavioral human survival system. These behaviors allow children to cope with their world—whether in a healthy way or in a destructive way long-term. When the child achieves a sense of safety, security, and gets his needs met, he learns useful and functional relationship patterns. If he does not, however, the child often learns constrained and distorted relationship patterns that lead to dysfunction throughout life. The process, in fact, leads to psychopathology.
Environment of adaptedness
Fortunately, most children in this country live in surroundings that allow them to grow with a sense of satisfaction and trust that their caregivers will meet their needs. For millions of other children, however, the need for eye contact, smile, touch, motion, and food is unfulfilled. Many are also harmed by their attachment figures. No matter the environment, all children rely upon their biological attachment behaviors to adapt.
A child adapts to get his needs met and to gain a sense of safety and security. When the child’s attachment figure is consistently available, responsive and safe, the child is more likely to develop a healthy attachment. In a neglectful and abusive situation, however, a child can develop ineffective attachment behaviors and an attachment-bonding process, therefore, is never formed. In this case, his behaviors are unfavorable to survival. At most severe, death is possible.
In the first few years of life, a child takes in every encounter he has with others. While doing so, he develops a working model based on his trust in and satisfaction with his early relationships. A person’s working model influences his abilities to form relationships with others and in society throughout life. By the time we are adults, we have formed a framework of beliefs about women, mothers, men, fathers, the relationship between men and women, the relationship among family members, our own value, and place in a family relationship.
A securely attached child develops a positive working model from a responsive, sensitive, supportive, loving, and reliable caregiver(s). This child has a sense of worth; a belief in the helpfulness of others; a feeling of competence and self-reliance; and the ability to be cooperative, sympathetic, and empathetic with other people. Also, the child has the foundation to believe he is worthy of love and attention, is confident, and is able to explore the environment. As the child grows, his positive working model and assumptions will continue into future relationships. When faced with adverse circumstances, he can handle them resiliently.
When a caregiver is inattentive and regards a child as annoying or rejects him, however, an insecure working model develops. The child has little sense of worth or confidence, sees others as less than helpful, is unwilling and anxiously obedient, demonstrates angry behavior, and is unconcerned about others. He often sees the world as a dangerous place and treats others with great caution. He may see himself as ineffective and unworthy. The child, therefore, will bring these assumption into an unfavorable model on which to build future relationships. No matter future experiences, his assumptions remain the same throughout life most of the time. Ultimately, these assumptions lead to a distorted knowledge and a defective personality.
The foundations of personality and beliefs
As adults, we have accumulated personalities and beliefs over the course of our lives—whether in a positive or in a negative way. The process of attachment of children to their caregivers has life-long impacts on their personalities as adults—how they think, feel, and behave. “Success in maintaining long-term attachment-bonding process between the child and caregiver brings satisfaction and contentment,” said Bowlby. “Failure brings frustration, anxiety, and sometimes despair.”
People who develop distorted beliefs stemming from childhood often maintain rigid patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior into adulthood. However, change is possible with a lot of hard work. People can better understand their belief systems, themselves, and personalities with knowledge of the attachment-bonding process. When confronted with a new and more constructive model of personal and social interactions, they can work to reveal the distorted thinking that has negatively affected their view of self and others. Furthermore, they can learn how their distorted beliefs affect the rules or filters they use for processing information and problem solving. A constructive model of interaction can help adults learn to block and replace destructive thinking and behaviors that lead to negative consequences and teach healthier ways of thinking and living.
The real hope, however, lies in community education rather than in remediation. Early in life, a child’s attachment process is flexible. That process, however, becomes less flexible as the child grows. The early attachment process is a vital part of a person’s entire lifetime—how he thinks, feels, and behaves. It is important to comprehend the attachment process so healthy adults can intervene while there is still opportunity. The more we learn, the better we can assist children in developing more secure attachment processes—a gift that spans their lifetimes.
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