Early research theorized that attachment or bonding was largely determined by the biological needs of the infant and the caregiver’s ability to provide food and meet other physiological needs. However, psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1950’s conducted a famous experiment in which infant monkeys were given a choice between cuddling with a wire monkey who provided food or with a soft, warm, cloth monkey who did not have food. The overwhelming preference was to hang out with the cloth monkey who provided comfort.
Another psychologist, John Bowlby, had the view that attachment was primarily the child’s need for safety and security and was genetically influenced through the motivation to avoid predators. This took the theory to the epigenetic level in which the reciprocal relationship between the genes and the environment were at play. He also identified that secure attachment to a primary caregiver was critical in allowing the developing child to explore their world.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, Bowlby’s student, Mary Ainsworth, built on his theory through her own research by developing a technique to measure attachment. She created the Ainsworth Strange Situation which consisted of eight staged episodes involving a mother, a child, and a stranger. The various scenarios included (1) the mother and child entering a room in which (2) the mother sits down to let the child explore (3) an adult stranger enters the room and speaks with the mother and then the child (4) the mother then leaves the room and the child is left with the stranger (5) the mother then returns and greets the stranger and then comforts the child and the stranger leaves (6) the mother then leaves the room again and the child is alone (7) the stranger returns and (8) the mother returns and the stranger leaves.
What was discovered was that the child’s reactions to the various scenarios were quite different depending on the pattern of attachment the child had to the mother. Ainsworth identified three different patterns: the secure attached pattern, the avoidant attached pattern, and the ambivalent attached pattern. Later her work was expanded on by a colleague to include a fourth pattern, the disorganized-disoriented attached pattern.
The secure attached pattern was present when the child used the mother as a home base, seemed at ease in the Strange Situation as long as the mother was present, explored independently, may or may not have been upset when she left and immediately went to her when she returned. Children who demonstrated the avoidant attached pattern did not seek out close proximity to the mother, did not seem distressed when she left and avoided her when she returned. With the ambivalent attached pattern, children displayed positive and negative reactions to the mother and were usually in such close proximity to her that they didn’t explore their environment, became anxious before she left, distressed when she did leave and were ambivalent when she returned; seeking to be close but also hitting and kicking her in anger. The disorganized-disoriented attached pattern is the least securely attached pattern. These children demonstrate inconsistent and contradictory behavior by approaching the mother and avoiding contact with her. This pattern suggests tremendous confusion on the child’s part.
So how has Attachment Theory influenced our understanding of human development during the past forty-five years?
Academically speaking, there are many thoughts in response to this question. Piles and piles of research has accumulated in an attempt to tease apart the various styles of attachment that form in response to the various styles of parenting that are practiced; the perception being that the more we understand this subject the better we can educate prospective parents on the do’s and don’ts of parenting in order to ensure a more securely attached child.
Since attachment is understood to be the basic human need for a child to have a safe and close relationship with a parent or primary caregiver and we know that secure attachment patterns are established when the parent(s) are responsive to the child’s needs; securely attached children end up being curious, independent, ego-resilient and successful in forming healthy relationship patterns which then persist into adulthood. This is possible because the parents have provided a safe ‘home base’ from which the child is able to leave and explore their environment within a range that is developmentally appropriate. As long as the child has a safe place to come back to, they will feel more confident in their ability to explore their external world and more trusting of the people they meet along the way.
Attachment Theory models found in textbooks continue to identify that 80% of children in the United States are securely attached and yet it is also widely accepted that 90% of adult relationships in the United States are co-dependent. From my perspective the latter is more consistent with what I have experienced and observed in both my personal and professional life and would indicate to me that children who grow up to form adult co-dependent relationships could not have possibly met the criteria for being securely attached to their caregiver(s) as children.
In addition, current statistics indicate that one in four children in this country between the ages of 13 and 18 have now been identified as suffering from an anxiety disorder. In 1985, half a million children in the United States met the diagnostic criteria for ADHD and today it is estimated that 5 to 7 million children in this country now have this diagnosis. Three and a half million children have met the criteria for a diagnosis of depression and a recent study showed a 600 percent increase in the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder in children under the age of 13 in the last 10 years. Most of these children are receiving pharmacological interventions despite the absence of longitudinal studies that have not been funded by pharmaceutical companies excluding long-term, negative consequences on a brain still in its formative stages of development. This increasing need to chemically restrain our youth is a growing trend which is alarming many experts in the field of trauma and child development, including myself, and can, at best, be categorized as a massive social experiment.
It is also a great example of how, far too often, the interventions which are widely endorsed by the institutions within our society are completely incongruent with what we’ve discovered and proven to be true regarding human development. Despite what we know regarding the Secure Attached Pattern, ‘free-range’ kids have now become a rarity as the collective perception is that it is far too dangerous to let our children wander beyond our range of vision despite the fact that they are at a lower risk of violence since the death rate among young people under the age of 19 has decreased by 65% since I was growing up in the 1970s. These days, parents who encourage their children to explore their world outside of visual range and in a manner that is developmentally appropriate are now at risk of being arrested for child neglect and of having the state remove the children from their custody.
In my opinion, it is the collective perception and subsequent reactivity that has become dangerous. As a society, we have become extremely insecure, angry, fearful and full of distrust; easily meeting the criteria for a shared PTSD experience and resulting attachment disorder. And since our children our growing up in this environment, they are being strongly imprinted by these distorted and fearful messages, making it far more plausible that 80% of them are securely attached to a screen rather than another individual.
A large part of the work I facilitate for my clients is to help them ‘unhook’ from what I refer to as the ‘control drama’ by challenging inaccurate, collective, fear-based perceptions that are negatively influencing their beliefs, perceptions and experiences. Attachment Theory, Epigenetics, Pre and Perinatal Psychology and trauma research help to create a framework for understanding who we are and how we got here as well as provide a map to help guide us through and beyond the madness. The key to being successful in achieving this outcome is by finding the courage to swim against the collective current by choosing to let go of the need to control every aspect of the external world and the people who inhabit it, including our children and loved ones.