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. Click here to read part I of this topic series.
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.
Attachment is a human need—like eating and sleeping. We all do it. How we attach, however, varies from person to person. Your early childhood experiences impact how you attach to others today. You may thrive in relationships. Or, you may struggle. For kids who lived with unloving, neglectful, abusive, violent or chaotic people early on, their struggles are particularly hard. And those struggles don’t dissipate with time. Rather, they only evolve and solidify into adulthood. That is, without professional help.
Babies born into chaotic environments learn to adapt—but in maladaptive ways. Some kids withdraw from their families. Others attempt to control their environments because they don’t trust others to be in charge and care for them. Some kids make up fantasies to feel safe in their scary surroundings.
The problem with survival strategies
When young kids grow up solely focused on survival, they miss important childhood experiences and developmental milestones. Children with reactive attachment disorder—those who particularly struggle with attachment issues—grow up with brains “stuck” at much younger ages. Most children with attachment issues inhibit healthy relationships and grow up unprepared for the greater world.
Even if children move into healthier surroundings with loving, trusting, gentle, healthy people, their maladaptive survival skills follow them into adulthood. If you’re raising or working with a child with a maladaptive coping strategy, it’s helpful to understand that child’s particular attachment approach—as well as your own.
Here’s how 2 attachment strategies begin and develop throughout a person’s lifetime:
1. How a secure strategy grows into a secure-autonomous strategy—
Kids with secure attachment strategies—
Children with secure attachment strategies tend to have had consistently available, sensitive, and responsive caretakers. They learn to relate to and trust in their caregivers and desire contact, comfort, and approval. In turn, they can regulate feelings and successfully manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in activities and relationships beyond their families. They most likely grow into adults with secure-autonomous attachment strategies.
Adults with secure-autonomous attachment strategies—
Autonomous adults value attachment relationships and regard attachment-related experiences as meaningful. They manage relationships consistently, objectively, cooperatively, and coherently. Also, these people integrate new thoughts with flexibility. Autonomous adults tend to openly discuss their families, both the good and the bad. They also appear to know the story of their lives.
Jonathan is representative of people who demonstrate an autonomous strategy—
Jonathan feels as though his father was actively involved with he and his siblings, even though he felt as though his father worked too much. His mother didn’t work outside of the home. Jonathan speaks fondly of his siblings, parents, and extended family and describes them as supportive of each other.
Jonathan tends to realistically speak of his family relationships. He describes some difficulties the family had openly. However, he says he wasn’t abused as a child. Jonathan clearly understands the value of his relationships. He believes his mother and father were loving toward him, respected him as a family member, and were available to him most of the time as a child.
2. How an avoidant strategy grows into a dismissing strategy—
Children with avoidant strategies—
Children with avoidant strategies tend to have had consistently inaccessible, interfering, or rejecting caregivers who minimize and are insensitive toward their needs. Those with avoidant attachment strategies ignore or are indifferent toward their caregivers and show little signs of distress. Avoidant children tend to minimize the output of attachment behaviors, although they become angered and anxious when rejected. When alarmed by their parents, they’re in a paradox in which they impulsively desire to simultaneously approach the parent as a haven of safety and flee from the parent. They often grow into adults with dismissing strategies.
Adults with dismissing strategies—
Dismissing adults tend to minimize the importance of attachment strategies. They often describe attachment figures, past and present, in positive terms and then actively contradict these depictions during later discussions. They often insist upon a lack of childhood memories.
In their current relationships, people with dismissing strategies tend to spend a great deal of time actively controlling others to keep them at the “proper” distance—not too close and not too far away. They tend to distrust all relationships, especially intimate ones. They believe that if they let their guard down or allow people to get too close that they will be taken advantage of, humiliated, or emotionally hurt. They also tend to punish others who they perceive as getting too close or who have emotionally injured them in some way. When their relationships demand more than they can tolerate, they tend to distance themselves from the relationship and move on to something else.
Wendell is representative of the dismissing attachment strategy.
When referring to his parents, Wendell first speaks of their perfect lollipop world—not to be disturbed with anything unpleasant, including his feelings. Originally, Wendell described his family of origin as reasonable and extremely loving, nurturing, and understanding. He said his mother and father were loving and respected him as a family member as a child. He claimed to have been seldom abused as a child.
In later conversation, Wendell contradicts the original description of his family. He said his mother was emotionally unavailable because she was too busy with keeping things in order. He described his father as an alcoholic who, for reasons unknown to him, called him degrading names and slapped him at least once a week. He said his father is a good man with a few problems. Wendell claimed that he was a “bad kid”.
As he went on about his childhood, Wendall revealed a series of events starting when he was age 12. While on vacation with his family, Wendell tried to rescue two young children from drowning in a lake. However, he couldn’t manage to hold on to them and they both died. After the incident, no one talked with him about what he was feeling. Two years later, he was going to the store for some bread. While standing on a corner, he witnessed a large truck carrying a bulldozer crush a woman driving a convertible. He continued to the store, bought the bread, and returned home. Upon returning home, he told his father how upset he felt about the event. His father told Wendell that he saw lot of people die during World War II and that Wendell should get used to it. He told him to learn how to handle such events. When other disturbing events occurred, Wendell’s father also told him to just “handle it”. Wendell eventually stopped talking about events in his life altogether.
Wendell had spent his childhood in a family that would not tolerate the expression of feelings. He had learned to hold everything in for years until he finally began to come apart in many ways.
At age 22, Wendell became a father. His son was born prematurely and his wife lay in the hospital near death. For three days, Wendell made life and death decisions for his son and waited alone for hours while his son was in heart surgery. However, their son died. Wendell remembers watching, hopeless and helpless, not moving or saying anything while his wife grieved holding their dead child in her arms.
In the years that followed, Wendell and his wife had marital problems. At one point, he threatened to kill himself and his wife with a shotgun and a 9 mm pistol. The swat team arrived and arrested him. He and his wife divorced shortly thereafter.
*Please stay tuned for our follow-up article about how two more attachment strategies develop into adulthood to conclude this discussion in two weeks.*
When attachment grows up—for better or for worse
So, attachment behavior does not disappear with childhood. Rather, it persists throughout a lifetime. A child’s early experiences lend to his adult character. For the most part, that character remains stable and persistent.
Events throughout life can alter a person’s attachment pattern in subsequent years—for better or for worse. Therapy and other interventions can make a difference for the better. Over time, however, harmful attachment strategies become progressively more difficult to change.
Therapists, adoption agency professionals and other important adults in the lives of children have a responsibility to educate themselves and caretakers. It’s important to understand how kids attach, as well as how adults attach to them. The earlier and more effectively adults can intervene in a healthy way, the better chances children have to lead healthy and happy lives.
Learn how to join our mission to support & advocate for kids with reactive attachment disorder & their families.
Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and Loss, Vol. I, Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Book, Inc.
Main, Mary. (1996). Introduction to the Special Section on Attachment and Psychopathology: 2. Overview of the Field of Attachment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Vol. 64. No 2, 237-343.
McBride, R. (2001). Breaking the Cycle. Colorado: Gylantic Publishing.