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Attachment theory: The key to understanding all relationships

You may have heard about the Circle of Security program which I am running, and wondered what is attachment theory, and why learn about it. Attachment theory was first described by John Bowlby in the 1950s as a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another. Since this time, a plethora of research has been conducted on the topic.  This research shows time and time again that a secure relationship between parent/caregiver and child is predictive of just about all elements of mental and physical health and well being into adulthood. In fact, the relationship between parent and child is as important as food and physical safety.  

Human babies are born significantly more premature than other mammals and therefore are dependent on their caregivers for significantly longer than other animals.  This anomaly means that we developed an intricate social engagement system to ensure that our infants can stay safe and thrive.  Humans engage in a complex array of behaviours to support infants and young children.  We also have a special hormone, oxytocin, that is secreted in our brains to help us bond with each other and produces pleasurable feelings when we connect with other humans.  This reinforces these attachment behaviours in parents and children, as well as in other close relationships.

John Bowlby writes about four main types of attachment style, which describe the relationships between parent and child.  One is a secure attachment, in which the child feels secure to explore their environment and learn, but also seeks comfort and safety from their primary caregiver.  The second type is anxious/ambivalent, in which the comfort provided by the parents is inconsistent, and the parent may be over-protective of the child at the expense of them developing independence.  The third type is avoidant (dismissing) attachment, which develops in cases where the caregiver is not available for emotional support and the child learns to only rely on themselves. Disorganized (fearful) attachment occurs in cases of neglect, significant abuse or trauma, in which the caregiver only provides limited and insufficient emotional support.  Results from studies over the years have varied, but most indicate that approximately 50-70% of children have a secure relationship with at least one parent and 30-50% of children have one of the other three types of patterns with their parent(s), with disorganized attachment style being the least common.

Parenting is the most natural thing in the world and our biology is wired to want to care for children.  However, many day to day stressors can get in the way of us meeting our children’s needs. This does not mean that every time we have to focus on something else we are neglecting our children.  However if we have a pattern of missing specific needs our children have, they will learn these patterns. In fact, by the age of 11 months, children learn to anticipate which of their needs elicit anxiety in their parents, and learn to avoid these needs.  The Circle of Security program teaches the basic needs that children have and how to meet these.  These converge in the need for a secure base to be able to explore the world safely and confidently, and to return to that security for comfort and protection.

The most significant way that we learn about all of our relationships, including how to parent is through the way we were parented.  We know that our parents did the best with the resources that they had, but we can all remember the times that we had a need that wasn’t met by our parents.  When we craved independence and our parents didn’t allow us to take that step, or when we needed a comforting word and our parents weren’t available. If we can understand the way that our parents cared for us and the things that they struggled with, then we can understand the parts of parenting and relationships that will be easier or more difficult for us.  We learned about relationships before we were even old enough to remember we were learning. And most of us know which parenting behaviours we want to carry on from our parents and which we want to avoid. Unfortunately, sometimes just wanting to have a secure relationship with our child isn’t sufficient to make our relationship secure.  

There are other ways to strengthen your relationship with your child.  The first step is to remember that you only have to be a “good enough” parent 30% of the time.  There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Secondly, talking to someone about your parenting struggles and being honest with yourself is the first step.  Understand that there is no shame in struggling and find someone you feel that you can talk and be open with who will not judge you. The third and most important thing is to remember that your well being and self-care is the most important part of parenting. You need to give yourself time to take a break, and look after your mental health in order to be able to meet your child’s needs. Taking a time-out, even for a few minutes will give you the space to remember how to meet your child’s needs.

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