Talking About Trauma

The causes, treatment, prevention, and implications of trauma

Early Attachment: Leaving its Mark Across the Lifespan

The ins and outs of insecure attachment

Attachments are the bonds that, early on in life, develop between a child and caregiver. The nature of these bonds depends on the caregiver’s response to the child’s need for closeness and protection. Responses that align with the child’s physical and psychological needs promote healthy development. Because of the negative effects an insecure attachment style can have on psychological development, a great deal of research has been dedicated to the study of such attachments. It is very possible that the person experiencing such problems will continue to have difficulties into adulthood should these difficulties not be addressed early on.

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Children hindered by insecure attachments are more likely to be anxious, fearful, withdrawn, or clingy instead of developing into secure, curious, and content individuals. Such children are at risk for functioning at lower levels than their peers because they feel less secure and less free to engage in healthy activities such as exploring their environment, or developing new friendships.

The disadvantages of insecure attachments do not discontinue after childhood. Children who display signs of insecure attachments are likely to exhibit similar characteristics later on. As adults, they are at risk of experiencing problems in important areas of their lives, such as quality and duration of relationships, as well as overall mental health.

The quality of adult interpersonal relationships is a significant domain affected by insecure attachments, with effects often seen in establishing intimacy, or in trusting others. Psychologists Nancy Collins and Lynne Cooper found that couples (in which at least one member was insecurely attached) were more likely to experience problems related to intimacy, communication, and trust. Similarly, studies have shown that individuals who exhibit secure attachment report higher relationship satisfaction and display more positive interpersonal interactions when observed.

Overall mental health is also strongly affected by attachment security. Psychologist Hipólito Merino and colleagues at the University of Santiago reported that individuals who suffered from insecure attachments yielded higher scores on measures of depression. Researcher Shelley Riggs at the University of North Texas reported similar results: Individuals with problems related to attachment were more likely to suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem, irrational beliefs, and depression.

Psychologists have long believed that our experiences as children have a profound effect on our ability to develop into healthy, productive adults. Not surprisingly, current research on early attachment supports this idea. Insecure attachment in childhood can affect functioning not only at a young age, but throughout our adult life.

 

-- Contributing Writer: Caitlin Moore, The Trauma & Mental Health Report

-- Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma & Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

 

Robert T. Muller, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at York University, and author of the therapy book, "Trauma and the Avoidant Client."

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