Attachment-Based Therapy in Chester County, PA

Baby being held. Parental therapy in Pennsylvania.

What is attachment?

At Edward Jenny & Associates in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, we often discuss attachment in our assessments and therapy work. This post is based on a YouTube video I made with slides. You can see my YouTube video about this topic here.

Attachment is about Survival

Simply put, attachment is all about survival. It is a biological system designed by evolution to ensure the survival of our children. Attachment is built into our relationships, who we are, and how we view relationships as adults and children. Humans are born highly vulnerable; they require significant care from attachment figures to survive. This extended dependence period gives time for relational development. And that’s what attachment is all about.

Attachment Provides a Secure Base

John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, wrote that “life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base.” The secure base that he’s talking about is the child’s relationship with the caregiver. An infant is entirely dependent upon the caregiver for all their essential needs; for their very survival. And as they grow, they learn to venture into the world and explore the environment. But they can always return to that secure base relationship with the caregiver. Bowlby recognized that, as humans, we are wired for relationships. And the attachment system is one of the primary reasons why that’s true.

Attachment is in our Biology

Attachment is a biological system. It’s designed to ensure the survival of these very dependent offspring. And in a simple way of looking at it, it is all about regulating the physical distance between the child and the attachment figure or caregiver. Two different systems are balanced with each other; one is the exploratory system. So if you picture a toddler with their mother, the toddler will venture out into the world and explore, but if something startles them, they return to that caregiver; maybe they hug the caregiver or grab their leg, or they look for soothing, and the caregiver, if they’re paying attention, and if they’re available, provides just the right amount of soothing so that that child can regulate their feelings, and can go back to exploring.  That is the secure base that we’re talking about.

When the child’s attachment system is activated, when they get scared, nervous, or hungry, the child signals to the attachment figure that they need something, and the attachment figure responds in an appropriate and timely way; that is secure attachment.

Secure Attachment

So what do we mean when we talk about secure attachment? This is one of the classifications we use to determine someone’s attachment status. About 60% of the population falls into the secure attachment classification. In general, securely attached people have had the experience of an attachment figure or caregiver who has been reasonably responsive over long periods. When a signal was given, the attachment figure was available to provide the child with what they needed. The child learns to soothe, they learn to manage their emotions, they tend not to get flooded by emotions, they can be flexible in relationships, and they have a positive sense of who they are.

What if I Don’t Have a Secure Attachment Status?

People who are not classified secure can be in one of two organized insecure classifications, or they can be unresolved. The dismissing adult has learned to cope with attachment figures who are consistently unavailable by diminishing their reliance on the attachment system altogether. They turn the volume down, cool down their attachment needs, and learn to be independent. They learn to disconnect from their attachment needs.

The preoccupied adult turns the volume up. If the attachment figure is inconsistently available or rejecting, the child learns that they must make a lot of noise and a lot of signaling to get the attention of the attachment figure. They’re always watching for when the attachment figure is available and trying to take advantage when they are.

If people are not secure and not in one of the organized insecure classifications, we classify them as disorganized or unresolved. That means they are not secure in their attachment classification, but they don’t have a consistent way of managing that stress. Sometimes they use the dismissing defenses, and other times they use the preoccupied defenses. Sometimes they turn the volume down, and sometimes they turn the volume up. People who are unresolved get overwhelmed easily, and they get flooded by emotion because they haven’t had the experience of an attachment figure who was able to help them when they were dysregulated or overwhelmed.

Earned Security

The good news is that these classifications are not fixed. It doesn’t mean you will never be secure if you are not secure. There is the possibility of what we call earned security, and that’s what we work on in psychotherapy. In a stable relationship with a good therapist, one can recreate the secure attachment experience and work towards earned security.

Internal Working Models

What is happening in the minds of the child and the caregiver in each of these classifications? This is what Bowlby called the internal working model, a sort of map of relationships that we use to predict what will happen in a relationship based on our prior experiences. In the case of a secure classification, the child has experienced the caregiver as available and nurturing but not overwhelming. The child gets the idea that they’re worthy of care, and the attachment figure actively communicates the idea that the child is, in fact, worthy of care. The child can directly signal to the attachment figure, who feels confident in what to do when the signals are received. The attachment figure is confident in their ability to parent and care for the child. The child experiences the relationship as nurturing and safe. They experience the caregiver as available but not overwhelming. They learn to adjust their signals; sometimes, they can be more persistent, and other times less persistent. And the parent similarly learns to adjust their responses.

The Goal-Corrected Partnership

The goal-corrected partnership is like a dance between the attachment figure and child in which they learn to respond to each other reciprocally. It’s a two-way street. The child learns how to communicate with the parent, and the parent knows how to communicate with the child. They establish an ongoing interpersonal dialogue that helps inform future relationships. You can see how this would be valuable in later relationships to have this foundation of communicating and getting one’s needs met. The parent and the child enjoy being together, and the connection is mutually satisfying.

The dismissing adult has learned to diminish their attachment needs because the attachment figure hasn’t been consistently available. The attachment figure could be absent or rejecting. In this situation, the child thinks their emotional self is unworthy of care. And the attachment figure is confused and may not know how to meet those needs. They rely on self-help books and technical information rather than following their gut and relying on their intuition in parenting their child. The child learns that they can’t get too close because they can’t depend on the reaction of the attachment figure. The attachment figure sends the message that they think the child can handle everything independently; they don’t need much care from the attachment figure. This makes the child anxious because children need their attachment figures. They need help learning to soothe and understand their emotions. They need the wiser, stronger attachment figure to rely on when they feel insecure. So, they feel like they’ve been pushed into this independent role too soon. And they get angry about it but don’t know what to do with it. And the anger makes the attachment figure uncomfortable because emotions are not something they’re comfortable dealing with. The child learns to rely more on their peers and affiliative system, and the attachment figure teaches them that they are better off being independent and self-reliant.

Preoccupied adults have learned to turn the volume up. They’ve learned to demand attention and recognize that emotions are central to who they are, but they’re not sure what to do with them. The attachment figure doesn’t know how to manage feelings either. They get overwhelmed. And when they’re overwhelmed, they can’t provide the support that the child needs. So, the child wants to be close, but they can’t entirely regulate how to get close enough. And the attachment figure sends mixed messages: stay close, stay away. They’re not helping the child figure out and manage their own emotions. The child doesn’t explore and venture into the world and becomes overly dependent on the attachment figure.

The unresolved adult is dysregulated. As a child, they got the feeling that they were rejected because they were unworthy. The attachment figure is supposed to be a source of safety and regulation, the secure base that gives a feeling of embodied safety. But if the attachment figure is a source of terror or dysregulation, then the opposite happens; the child feels afraid and alone. The child fails to develop a consistent strategy for managing attachment distress. They vacillate between turning the volume up and turning the volume down. They don’t have a consistent way of managing their emotions or distress. The attachment figure in these situations is overwhelmed. It’s not that they want to reject the child; they can’t manage it for whatever reason. These could be situations in which the parent’s attachment history is dysregulated, or there is substance abuse or trauma interfering with the parent’s ability to connect with their child at that profound and fundamental level. Parenting is overwhelming for the parent. They experience the parenting relationship as overwhelming and awful.

Sometimes the relationship gets reversed, and the child, instead of being cared for by the attachment figure, begins to take care of the attachment figure. It’s a role reversal that can be highly confusing to the child and cause many problems.

That’s why we spend so much time with attachment. I know that’s a lot of information. I invite you to schedule a consultation with one of us, and we will be happy to talk to you more about it. The video includes graphics that may make some of this material more understandable, so check it out using the link below.

You can see my YouTube video about this topic here.

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