Child and Caretaker Attachment

I just had the privilege of giving the keynote address, “Trauma and Attachment” to a large group of clinicians at a conference in Kentucky. Although these were seasoned and extremely dedicated mental health workers, I was struck by the extent to which they appreciated the information about insecure, ambivalent, or disorganized attachment patterns and the traumatic impact it can have on both intrapsychic functioning as well as subsequent interpersonal relationship dynamics. Attachment theory and the notion of attachment trauma is not new to our field, but there is definitely a renewed and important interest in understanding the necessity of assessing for early child-caretaker attachment styles.  When we can put our clients into this family-of-origin context, so much about their thoughts, feelings, and behavioral choices make sense.

Trauma and Attachment Classifications

When a child grows up with a dismissive or insecure attachment it means their caretaker is fundamentally unresponsive to their needs and feelings. This can manifest as neglect, or the ridiculing or minimizing of the child’s legitimate needs. As a result, children learn at very young ages to be “avoidant.” Rather than reaching out for connection, affection, validation, or attention, they withdraw and stop seeking it in their caretakers.  The powerful realization that it’s less painful and disappointing to not express those needs rather than to want them and have them ignored can lead to a lifetime of unnecessary self-reliance, distrust, or isolation.

Other children grow up in families with ambivalent attachment patterns. Sometimes, when they reach out there is an appropriate response, and other times, their efforts for connection are completely ignored or rejected.  This often occurs in families with a parent who has a substance abuse problem or undiagnosed, untreated anxiety or depression, or an unresolved trauma history.  The unpredictability of the caretaking response creates children who are anxious and ambivalent,  They want closeness but understandably don’t trust it will last. They step in and then just as quickly step back out, before rejection can happen.

Children who are raised with disorganized attachment patterns suffer greatly, too. In these scenarios, the caretaking response to a child’s request for comfort, closeness, or validation either evokes fear in the parent-manifested as flight or freeze- or it evokes rage- manifested as the fight response.  Tragically, in either case, the child’s fundamental needs go unmet and they are deeply shamed for having any needs at all.

Ideally, in secure attachments, parents are in attunement with their children. They understand  the need for connection and comfort is necessary and valid.  Most importantly, these requests are never met with parental shaming.  When our clients have not experienced secure attachment growing up, it impacts their ability to trust, regulate their emotions, and comfortably enjoy intimacy.  It adversely impacts self-worth and self-esteem, and creates distorted core beliefs of not being “good enough,” “loveable” or “worthy.”  Feelings of invisibility or shame about having legitimate needs robs them of assertiveness and the experience of being fully present in the world.  And of course, whatever attachment style our clients have been subjected to will be re-enacted in their relationships with us.  The good news is, a safe, trusting, appropriately boundaried therapeutic relationship can be extraordinarily reparative: offering clients the experience of secure attachment that can be the first step towards helping to heal lifelong wounds.

The Ferentz Institute is passionate about educating clinicians about the importance of addressing attachment patterns in both the assessment and treatment phases of therapy.  Therefore you may find our upcoming day-long workshop, “Building an Attachment Sensitive Practice for Children,” to add even more value to your skills as a therapist.  The training will be held on November 14 and  led by a terrific clinician, Kate Oliver. Kate has worked with issues of attachment and trauma for many years. Her workshop will educate and inspire you and we urge you to attend!  You can learn more about this insightful training here.>>

Want to learn more about attachment? Check out these previous posts:

A Quick Primer on Early Primary Relationships

Off to College- A Lesson in Attachment

2 thoughts on "4 Ways to Define Early Child-Caretaker Attachment Styles"

  1. Rebecca says:

    I appreciate all of these articles. I have been struggling for years going from this doctor to that doctor. I am now 34 and finally found a therapist thathas been able to not only understand what has been going on with me but is also able to help me to understand that I am not crazy and that these “flashbacks” happen because of things I went through in my life. I have children of my own and can see how different I want to be towards my kids verses how I was treated. NO CHILD should ever have to edure these issues and it is so sad that it happens every single day. Thank you again.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Rebecca, there is nothing more powerful than your commitment to breaking a generational cycle of trauma, and to learn to re-frame your “symptoms” as inevitable coping strategies. I applaud your courage and wish you and your family continued healing and growth!

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