Why Attachment Theory is not Attachment Parenting…

Ok so you may be wondering what all the fuss is about Attachment Theory?

If you’ve heard anything about attachment, it may be the controversial arguments about attachment as a parenting practice. Well, the theory is much broader: There is really good clinical evidence to demonstrate how pivotal Attachment Theory is in explaining the neuropsychological development of social and emotional intelligence in our children.

Social and emotional intelligence is fundamentally what underpins our happiness. We live in a culture defined and understood by our relationships with other people. Our ability to trust and rely on these relationships, and have the emotional intelligence to understand other people’s feelings, impacts on our mood, self-esteem, and how we cope with challenges. Ask any business  leader and they will probably agree, our ability to communicate is also fundamental to the achievement of traditional success.

Now ask yourself: If you could choose anything for your child to experience, what would it be?

Health? wealth? happiness? all three? Well i would go so far as to say that Attachment Theory could explain how all three could be considered linked.

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Babies are born into the world completely dependent on their caregiver. They cannot independently find food or shelter. Their only chance of survival is to gain maximal care and proximity from their caregiver.

As a result babies’ brains are tuned into developing relationships with their caregivers: Research shows that babies demonstrate a preference for images of faces, over any other image.

As caregivers, our own neurotransmitter systems are also set up to release and receive chemical messages that promote feelings of affection and bonding behaviour with our babies. Together, the expectation is that a caregiver will feel love and affection for their baby and work hard to protect and nurture them in the best way.

Sometimes, environmental – and neurochemical – factors interrupt this process, and caregivers can find themselves struggling to feel an affectional bond developing between themselves and their baby. As a result, babies develop strategies (referred to as insecure attachment strategies) to either minimise their distress and communications, or intensify their distress and communication, to try and improve the opportunities for the caregiver to sensitively respond.

This is the important bit: ‘Insecure’ attachment strategies are not ‘wrong’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘pathological’: They are adaptive. They represent the communication style that exists between that parent-infant duo. It’s this ‘style’ that helps them to maintain a relationship with each other.

The pathways or ‘roads’ of experience that develop in our babies’ brains come to represent a kind of template or understanding and expectation of other relationships. In this sense, early sensitive caregiving is likely to lead a baby to expect that all relationships with adults can be trusted to be reliable and available when needed. As a result, these babies are more likely to develop into children who are more able to explore with confidence, and not need the physical closeness of their caregiver as much. This confident exploration gives children abundant opportunities for new experiences. New experiences lead to new pathways, and a wider network of cognitive connections.

Although insecure attachment is adaptive, the effort that goes into maintaining a relationship under difficult environmental and neurochemical circumstances, means that these infants can often develop into children who are either more concerned with the physical closeness of their caregiver, or who have dampened their outward need for connection and caregiving in order to maintain their relationship.  Both of these styles are likely to lead to less interested exploration in what the outside world has to offer, and therefore less value for new experiences, and ultimately less developed cognitive connections.

Without any change in environmental circumstances, our attachment style remains stable into our adult life, and also predicts what we come to expect from our relationship with a romantic partner. If you struggle to trust in the availability of this relationship, it is more likely that you will find it difficult to communicate your feelings in a way that can be easily responded to. It is also likely that your attachment style will continue to impact on your relationship with your baby. This is often how attachment styles can be continued across the generations.

The good news?

No matter what your attachment style (or PP badge), overwhelming research evidence has found that it is not the experiences that have happened in someone’s life that predicts their attachment style, but how they have made sense of them.

There is good evidence to believe that there are different types of secure attachment: Secure attachment that has resulted from sensitive and responsive caregiving; and ‘earned’ security, which has resulted from someone who has been able to create meaning in their experience: They can understand the impact that it has had on their development, and hold a balanced (good and bad) viewpoint about it. This understanding actually encourages the brain to hold greater connections across both brain hemispheres. It is thought that greater connections between the two sides, helps to aid the processing of new situations and relationships, and foster a greater sense of empathy and understanding for how others may be thinking and feeling. In turn we find greater emotional connection with others, including our own children.

Narrative research (research about how people story their lives) has been developing these ideas into many therapeutic techniques that focus on helping adults and children tell stories about their experiences. In turn, they are able to make sense of these experiences in their wider understanding of themselves and others.

If there was only one thing that you could do to try and safeguard your child’s future happiness, then i would suggest that you spend some time reflecting on how your own life experiences have impacted on who you are today – with both strengths and challenges – and how this impacts on your expression of feelings and needs, and your sense of connection with others around you.

If you’d like to find some extra support with this, come and explore here

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